Dispatches from the Field: Fatih Han’s Search for Mamluk Mosque Lamps in Cairo

Written by
Fatih Han
Jan. 26, 2023

For some time now, I have been engaging with the sense-scapes of art objects from the Islamic Middle East, trying to understand them within their architectural context. Despite ongoing skepticism, the study of the sensorium of art objects has definitely become a hot topic within Islamic art—and within this sensorial conundrum, what really excites me are Mamluk mosque lamps.  They are characterized by a very peculiar shape that doesn’t seem to follow any function and by elaborate inscriptions, especially the Light Verse from the Qur’an which describes God as the light of the heaven and the earth—befitting a mosque lamp. But what is the meaning of all this? What does the lamp actually do beyond lighting a space? As fate wills, this question was perfectly suited as my final paper topic for Professor Blessing’s Spring 2022 class ART403: “Sensory Spaces, Tactile Objects.” In this paper, I explored the ways in which the mosque lamp engages with Islamic concepts of vision to enact God and His divine light within the mosque space, especially before sunrise and at night when it shines down on people during times of prayer.

Fatih Tarhan at podium beside screen in white room.
Fatih Han presenting a paper titled “The Divine through Glass – ‘Seeing’ God in the Medieval Mosques of Egypt” at the UEAI conference, Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands. (Photo/Marta Wozniak-Bobinska)

I presented a section of this paper at the Union Européenne des Arabisants et Islamisants (UEAI) conference “Body and Identity” hosted by Professor Christian Lange at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands this past summer and another at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado at the end of 2022. I am thankful for the feedback and many questions that made a research trip to Cairo to see the mosque lamps on-site inevitable. It is one thing to speak about the objects in theory and another to have the theory confirmed by seeing them in life. I had known the mosque lamps mostly from western museums where they are presented on pedestals in display cases, their function hidden on tiny museum labels, left to invisibility in a museum corner. It’s ironic, I think, that these objects supposedly enacted the invisible, the Divine. There are just a handful of mosques that still use Mamluk style mosque lamps and I was most curious to see them, to get a sense of their visuality in the mosque while people are praying, and the imam is reciting from the Qur’an. Of course, a key objective was also to take some fancy night shots to support my observations.

“The study of the sensorium of art objects has definitely become a hot-topic within Islamic art—and within this sensorial conundrum, what really excites me are Mamluk mosque lamps...”

Pale glass hanging lamp with intricate blue and red designs.

Remake of a Mamluk style mosque lamp in the Mosque of Sultan Mu’ayyad. (Photo/Fatih Han)

My chance to see these lamps for myself came in December when I spent 6 days in Cairo investigating Mamluk mosque lamps, Mamluk mosques and the Museum of Islamic art in Cairo. I am grateful for the generous support of PIIRS, which made this research trip possible, and the A&A community, Professors Rachael DeLue, Carolyn Yerkes, and Patricia Blessing for their encouragement and trust.  I began my expedition in a state of delirium brought on by the (non-COVID) cold that devolved into a sinus catastrophe over the course of the 8-hour flight.  That made setting foot in Cairo all the more overwhelming—after all Cairo was my ilk göz ağrım (my first eye pain), as we would say in Turkish, describing a first big love that immortalizes itself in the heart and memory. After finishing a degree in western art history with a focus on 18th-century portraiture painting in England, and a few unsatisfying jobs in the western art sphere, I visited Cairo in 2018.  The cultural heritage, the art scene, and the vibrancy of the city inspired my pledge to live there for some time—and to shift my studies to the art history of the Islamic Middle East. 

Illustration of man in Islamic art context
A manuscript painting by Luis Barragan depicting Professor Bernard O’Kane teaching Persian Architecture to his students. (Photo/Fatih Han)

My research auspiciously began with dinner in Ma’adi in the company of Professor Bernard O’Kane and his two young children. A second-generation pillar of Islamic art, O’Kane has been teaching in this field at the American University of Cairo for 42(!) years (and, considering his seemingly never-ending energy, he is not going to stop anytime soon). I met him at the MESA conference, where we shared the same panel.  I found him to be a gentle, generous, and supportive gentleman whom I liked from the get-go. At his home after dinner, O'Kane and I talked about the field, shared stories, old and new, went through his personal, huge library, and discussed our methods and approaches to our work. Call me star-struck, but he even made it into a manuscript! Maybe Zadie Smith is wrong and actually, it’s not that we really want Nike sneakers from “A Short Catalogue of Things You Think You Want,” but rather being depicted in a manuscript.

The next day, I couldn’t wait to visit my favorite Mamluk Mosque of Sultan Ḥasan which was built between 1356 and 1363, just at the bottom of the citadel hill. It is the largest of all Mamluk mosques which preserved most of its original structure and decoration. Here, remakes of Mamluk mosque lamps hang down from the roof of the four īwān, a huge arched room to all four sides of a square courtyard that has an ablution fountain in the center. Walking down the path next to the mosque, towards the massive gate, I was mesmerized by all the intricacies, almost breaking my neck from staring at every detail from the bottom to the top. Once at the gate, I took off my shoes, walked in, turned left, and, immediately, the world went dark—in the most beautiful sense!

Dark hallway with red carpet leading to bright courtyard

The final stretch of the hallway leading to the mosque courtyard of Sultan Ḥasan. (Photo/Fatih Han)

The hallway leading to the inside of the mosque has barely any lighting and as I walked up the steps, which are almost as high as my knee, I not only transitioned into a different time, but the darkness also calmed the hectic world outside, and me. After another, final turn to the left, I was blinded by light falling in from a gateway. It’s almost like the light at the end of the tunnel which, once you reach it, you transcend—at least in my sense perception and my mind—into a heavenly realm that is the mosque space. Clearly, somebody carefully thought through the sensual process of transitioning from outside to inside.

Once in, romanticizing gave way to work mode. I took a first set of images from the mausoleum and the mosque in daylight which was followed by the Friday prayer, led by a high-ranking scholar or imam, judging by the clothing (and the number of bodyguards). After a quick kusharī (a carb-full dish made of rice, pasta, chickpeas, tomato sauce and fried onions), I rushed back to capture images of the mosque space during afternoon prayer and some more detailed photos of the massive ablution fountain.

Courtyard seen through archway
The ablution fountain. (Photo/Fatih Han)

After a detour through the Khān al-Khalīlī, the famous bazaar of Cairo (which is—I admit—a very touristy thing to do, but, as a passionate lover of Egyptian scarves, I needed to visit), I was walking once again back to the Sultan Ḥasan Mosque. Once night had fallen, my steps were considerably slower and shorter, and it was the first time that I felt every breath of Cairo’s persistently dusty, smoggy air. It was 6pm and the night prayer would begin in 30 mins. At the gate opening to the path down to the mosque, soldiers blocked my passage. I told them I wanted to go to the mosque for the night prayer but they insisted that I go to the Al-Rifā’ī Mosque which is in some ways a copy of the Sultan Ḥasan Mosque from the outside built right next to it in 1912 where—fun fact—the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is buried. To my dismay, soldiers explained that the mosque was closed for a celebration. That explained the preparations during the day in front of the gates.

Courtyard in front of building decorated for a celebration

View from the mosque gate, with party preparations underway.

How frustrating this was! One of the most famous mosques of Cairo closed daily at 5 pm sharp, so that the “schickeria” could have their party in front of the gate. It was a very bizarre moment: the party in the distance in front of the mosque gate, the mosque in party lights, the soldiers pointing towards the 1912 copy which had no lighting on the outside and was left in complete darkness, with people streaming in, not from the main, but the side entrance, while the call for the night prayer started and blended with the party tunes. Don’t get me wrong. Good for them to have a fabulous celebration, I’m all up for it, and I’m sure it will remain an unforgettable memory for each of the guests—but how was I supposed to take night shots now—the very purpose of my trip? 

Opening and visiting hours in the Middle East are tricky. Sometimes posted visiting hours are actually for non-Muslim visitors who only want to see the mosque, while the Muslim community is still allowed to visit the mosque for prayers and to linger, which would be applicable to me. Sometimes general opening hours are given, even though the mosque might not close at all or even earlier than indicated. There is no rule one can prepare for, unfortunately. Some information is not available until one is actually on site. In this case, the soldiers revealed to me that Sultan Ḥasan is open for night prayers during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar. While I now knew where I'd be during Ramadan in 2024 inshāAllah (God permitting), I needed a plan to salvage this research trip.

“While I now knew where I'd be during Ramadan in 2024 inshāAllah (God permitting), I needed a plan to salvage this research trip.”

Bāb Zuweila city gate, sand-colored stone with two tall spires.
The southern Fatimid city gate, Bāb Zuweila. (Photo/Fatih Han)

Okay. Deep breath.

I knew that the main Mamluk mosques such as the Mosque of Sultan Barqūq or the Mosque of Sultan Qala’ūn were only operating as museums and that they don’t hold any prayers at any given time during the day and are closed sometime in the afternoon. I still needed to visit these mosques but I figured that it would make sense to, first, find a Mamluk mosque that is open for all five prayers during the day and uses mosque lamps, similar to the ones in Sultan Ḥasan. As I was standing next to the Rifā'ī Mosque, confused, disappointed, angry, not knowing what to do next, I shot an email to my adviser, Professor Blessing, who immediately came to my aid. With her, I made a new list of Mamluk mosques, most of which were located at and around Bāb Zuweila, one of the three remaining main city gates of Old Cairo.

I started with the late Mamluk Mosque Qijmas al-Isḥāqī which dates back to ca. 1480 but it was shut and the lady whom I asked whether the mosque is ever open confirmed that it would be but when: Allahu ‘ālim (God knows best). After quickly visiting the Mosque of al-Ṣāliḥ Ṭalā'ī, a Fatimid era mosque from 1160, I stumbled upon the Zāwiya and Sabīl of Faraj ibn Barqūq dated to ca. 1408. It was shut as well but the gentleman at the door was so generous to let this Islamic art student see it regardless. As a sign of charity, high officials and sultans would build such a monument to serve the public with water from the fountain inside. The fountain is not being used as such today, but remains in superb condition and even the wooden muqarnas (stalactite) vaulting survives to this day. The stalactites of the dome were reaching so low that I almost expected a drop of wood to fall into my hands. I was especially struck by the marble ramp, carved with geometric and vegetal motifs. This pattern on the marble must have emphasized the sound of water that ran down the ramp, stimulating not only one’s thirst but also the eyes and, especially, the ears. Ha! Maybe we have found a new project following the mosque lamps?

Stone structure, fountain.

The fountain of the Zāwiya and Sabīl of Faraj ibn Barqūq. (Photo/Fatih Han)

Next, I walked through Bāb Zuweila and arrived at the Mosque of Sultan Mu’ayyad which is dated to 1421. Once inside, I almost fell over my own feet: the mosque still used what seemed to be original Mamluk mosque lamps. However, what I thought were original Mamluk mosque lamps turned out to be remakes as well, but it was still exciting to see lamps that were at least very close to the original which might give an impression as to how the elaborate inscriptions and patterns looked and shined in the mosque when lit. The Mosque of Sultan Mu’ayyad is a unique example of a Mamluk mosque that has a hypostyle prayer hall on the side of the qibla wall and a gallery running around a courtyard which is not typical of Mamluk but of Fatimid mosques of the preceding era. I don’t believe in dynastical orders and this is a proof that there is not a consistent rule but I was still hoping to find a mosque with the four īwān, similar to Sultan Hassan. Additionally, as I was waiting for the night prayer, I realized that the mosque with a few exceptions now uses LED light bulbs for the mosque lamps which emit white, sterile light in place of the yellow, warm light of a burning wick as it was used in the past. Some additional LED tubes attached to the wooden beams of the mosque further reduced the effect of the mosque lamps and—more importantly—distorted the appearance of the mosque space. Even if it provides an idea of how these lamps functioned, it didn’t meet my objective.

Ornamental wood carving.

The muqarnas vaults of the Zāwiya. (Photo/Fatih Han)

The first mosque on my list the next day was the one of Sultan Al-Ghūrī, the last of the Mamluk sultans who built his complex between 1503 and 1505. It is in many ways not only the finest example of Mamluk architecture but also marks the peak and, ultimately, the end thereof. All four īwān open via a pointed horseshoe arch, each decorated with intricate and elaborate carvings and inscriptions to the square courtyard that is topped by an open, wooden muqarnas roof. And this mosque still has its massive metal chandelier hanging in the arches which is unfortunately not the case in Sultan Ḥasan anymore. The chandeliers of Sultan Ḥasan are now in the Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo (which I also visited but I spare you from reading about my very unexciting visit which just consisted of filling two 64GB SD cards worth of images).

Ornate mosque ceiling and lamp.

Interior of the Mosque of Sultan Barqūq. (Photo/Fatih Han)

After the midday prayer, and a quick adventure to the roof of the Al-Ghūrī mosque (thanks again to another mosque keeper for this special access!), I crossed the road and walked further north of Al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah street which connects Bāb Zuweila with the Bāb al-Futūḥ in the north, and arrived at the Al-Ashraf Mosque from 1424 for the afternoon prayer. Al-Ashraf has also replicas of mosque lamps hanging in the mosque, as well as metal chandeliers in the arches of the īwān. Unfortunately, though, it went a step further in the light concept: they only use LED tubes and additional ~stadium~ lights which shoot with brute force light beams into each corner of the mosque, giving the mosque a clinical feeling. Or, simply, as if the soul left the body.

Islamic interior with people at afternoon prayer.

Al-Ashraf Mosque during the afternoon prayer. (Photo/Fatih Han)

Before the night prayer, I was determined to visit each Mamluk mosque on Al-Mu’izz street: Mosque of Sultan Qala’ūn, Al-Nāṣir Muḥammad, Al-Zāhir Barqūq and Al-Aqmar Mosque (the latter was closed for “restoration,” but another kind gentleman let me step inside). The first three mosques now operate as museums and close during the late afternoon, making night shots impossible.

The Mosque of Sultan Mu’ayyad seen from the inner courtyard
The Mosque of Sultan Mu’ayyad. (Photo/Fatih Han)
Interior of the Mosque Al-Ghūrī
View of Mosque Al-Ghūrī interior. (Photo/Fatih Han)

As I was perusing Mamluk mosques, I followed my curiosity along the way and ended up in the complex of Sulayman Agha al-Silaḥdar from 1839 which consists of a mosque, sabīl (fountain), and a kuttāb (a sort of elementary school for (Non-)Islamic education). The exterior revealed that the complex dates to the late-Ottoman era but for some reason, I couldn’t see anyone inside through the open windows. Without further ado, I stepped in and found myself in a completely abandoned complex, devoid of a single human soul.

“Compared to the hustle and bustle on the street, it was so quiet inside the mosque, that one could almost hear the floating dust.”

Interior of simple architecture with ornate candelabra
The kuttāb of Sulayman Agha al-Silaḥdar. (Photo/Fatih Han)

The empty rooms I saw from the outside belonged to the former kuttāb, where only the grand chandelier is now watching over the otherwise empty room. The mosque was neglected. It was intact but the colors darkened and a brown patina was masking the former glory of the structure. Compared to the hustle and bustle on the street, it was so quiet inside the mosque, that one could almost hear the floating dust. Together with the late afternoon light falling in from small round windows, it created a truly magical atmosphere, a perfect spot to linger and smell “The Scent of Time,” to quote philosopher Bjung-Chul Han.

Interior of empty Mosque of Al-Ghūrī
The mosque of Al-Ghūrī just before the night prayer. (Photo/Fatih Han)

On my way back to the Mosque of Al-Ghūrī for the night prayer, knowing that I would find a place cursed by white LED lights again (and I was not wrong), I recapitulated my journey, with its unexpected change of course. I could have fallen into frustration or resignation at the night closure of the Mosque of Sultan Ḥasan, but I realized that I gained so much more than I missed. Had everything gone to plan, I wouldn’t have visited so many other Mamluk mosques important to my research, wouldn’t have encountered mosque lamps within different architectural concepts, wouldn’t have found all these special places and moments that in/formed me, my thinking, perception, and my research as a whole. The trip left me with more work—along with an abundance of new fuel to see it through. 

“I could have fallen into frustration or resignation at the night closure of the Mosque of Sultan Ḥasan, but I realized that I gained so much more than I missed.”

Mosque interior with archways and pillars.
The mosque of Sulayman Agha al-Silaḥdar. (Photo/Fatih Han)