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Cairo's Historic Cemetery of al-Suyuti Conflicting Claims.

Mamluk Period

While the Fatimids were responsible for the shift in state policy from sporadic interest in the cemetery to the conscious manipulation of it into a setting for political and religious propaganda, it was under the Mamluks that full-scale patronage from the ruling elite and the upper-middle classes, coupled with a surge of popular interest in the esoteric resulted in an urbanized built-up multi-functional zone.

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The strip of cemetery in the vicinity of the wall section east of Bab al-Qarafa acquired one more royal burial close to the Tulun grave. The Mamluk sultan al-Muzaffar Qutuz (r. 657/1259-658/1260) was buried in a small hawsh close to Tulun. Another sultan, ‘Izz al-Din Aybak, is said to have built an imposing turba halfway down the road from Bab al-Qarafa to al-Imam al-Shafi’i. Yet until this moment, it can be argued that an area existed immediately south-east of Bab al-Qarafa, with almost no burials. It is not clear why this zone, which constitutes the southern section of our study area, was left untouched, but the fact that it was possible for Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad (r. 693/1294-741/1340 int.) to establish a racetrack and a sports field (Maydan al-Qabaq) there around the turn of the 8th/14th century, shows that it was fairly unoccupied. This maydan must have been surrounded by burials from all sides. In fact, its southern border was marked by the turba of the Mamluk amir Baydara al-Mansuri (d. 1293). Consequently, it soon succumbed to cemetery sprawl, especially after al-Nasir’s obsession with building spread like a contagion to his amirs.

Al-Nasir Muhammad was first placed on the throne at the age of nine for only one year. Deposed, then returned to power, then forced to flee to Karak in fear for his life, he finally returned victorious in 709/1309 to maintain a tenacious hold on the throne till his death. Al-Nasir Muhammad was known for his passion for building and for his ambitious urban projects. The repairs and reconstruction projects that were necessitated by the earthquake of 702/1303 started a building frenzy that would continue unabated until his death in 741/1341. Not all of his projects were successful and some of them were unrealistic. Two of these, had they succeeded, would have brought about radical topographic changes to our study area. The first was a plan, in 728/1328, to divert part of the water of the Nile into a canal that would flow from Hulwan northwards to the Citadel through the cemetery of al-Jabal. Then in 740/1340, the last year of al-Nasir’s long reign, he ordered 10 wells to be dug to feed water via an aqueduct from Birkat al-Habash to the Citadel. As mentioned above, both plans were abandoned, but they are indicative of the kind of large-scale construction projects he favoured.

His development of the area south and south-east of the Citadel was a less ambitious and more realistic idea. Al-Mu’izz Aybak, one of the husbands of Shajar al-Durr had had Maydan Taht al-Qal’a demolished. In 712/1313, al-Nasir re-instated the maydan as a public space of political importance. He also repaired the city wall running south of the maydan and the new construction carried an aqueduct that fed the Citadel with water from the Nile. This, with the continued adoption of the Citadel as a centre of rule and the development of al-Darb al-Ahmar, led to the increasing popularity of two zones in the vicinity of the maydan, for two very different purposes. The zone north of the maydan became popular as a residential zone with top ranking Mamluks, and the zone to the south of the maydan which had used as a racetrack and sports arena was soon converted into a showcase for the funerary architecture of Mamluk amirs called Kharij Bab al-Qarafa.

“In his day, the section between Qubbat al-Imam al-Shafi`i and Bab al-Qarafa also became urbanised/built-up (`amarat), after it had been an empty plot used for horse-racing by the amirs, soldiers and khadims and crowds used to gather to watch them. Then the sultan built the turba of Amir Baybugha al-Turkumani, and the whole area became built up with turbas and khanqahs, not a single space was left empty. The amirs competed amongst themselves to build there, till they reached, in its development (`imaratih) great heights (Al-Maqrizi, Suluk II, p. 540).

“They were followed by the soldiers and the rest of the populace. They built turbas, khanqahs, suqs, tahuns and hammams until all the area from Birkat al-Habash to Bab al-Qarafa and from the houses of Misr to the hill al-Jabal became built-up. Thoroughfares increased and roads became numerous. Many people wanted to live in it due to the loftiness of the qasrs built in it (which they called turbas) and due to the care the owners of the qasrs took of it, the abundance of the alms and charity offered to the people of al-Qarafa” (Al-Maqrizi, Khitat II, pp. 444-5).

The first turba there was built by the sultan for Amir Yalbugha (or Baybugha) al-Turkumani. The amirs Taqtamur al-Dimashqi and Sayf al-Din Qusun - among others - followed suit.

 Buildings built during the reign of al-Nasir outside Bab al-Qarafa included:

-          The turbas of  Baybugha (or Yalbugha) al-Turkumani, the first of al-Nasir’s amirs to build there, and Taqtamur al-Dimashqi. Their exact site is not clear from the sources.

-          The complex of Sayf al-Din Qusun, built in the 730s/1330s, was probably this zone’s most ambitious project. Qusun was one of the most powerful mamluks under al-Nasir and de facto ruler after his death until he in turn was killed by the Nasiri mamluks in 742/1342. His complex consisted of a khanqah, jami` and hammam, remains of which are still extant. According to Abu’l-`Amayim, the mosque lay opposite the khanqah (mn. 290, 291) (southwest of it) and the southern minaret (mn. 293) constituted the mosque’s western corner while the hammam was situated south-east of the mosque.  It was built on the site of another jami`, which though recently constructed in 723/1323 by a group of `ajam, was torn down to make room for Qusun’s mosque. (Abu’l-‘Amayim 2000).  LINK TO QUSUN

-          The qubba known today as Badr al-Din al-Qarafi (mn.292) can be dated stylistically to the Nasiri period. It has been identified by Meinecke and Abu’l-`Amayim as that of Aydughmish, amir akhur under al-Nasir, built before 723/1323. (Abu’l-‘Amayim 2000; Meinecke 1992) LINK TO QARAFI

-          A jami` built by Sawab al-Rukni, muqaddam al-mamalik. Located south of the Qusun ensemble, part of it still stands today (mn. 296). LINK TO SAWABI

-          The turba of al-Tawashi Sa’d al-Din Bashir al-Baktamuri (d. 741/1341) bi-jiwar Jami` Qusun.

-          Turbat al-Sitt, or the turba of Ardutkin b. Nukay (d. 724/1324),  wife of al-Ashraf Khalil, then al-Nasir Muhammad, who endowed a number of buildings on it. Ibn Hajar al-`Asqalani describes its location as bi’l-sakhr” or on the rock. Al-Harithy (2000) has identified the building known today as Iwan al-Manufi (mn. 300) as Turbat al-Sitt and dated it to 693/1293-717/1317. This building lies south of our study zone.

-          The khanqah and mausoleum of Aqbugha min `Abd al-Wahid (d. 1340-1) has been identified by Meinecke as the dome now known as Qubba Bahri Tankizbugha (mn. 299). This building lies south of our study zone (Meinecke 1992).

Construction would continue in the following years but the popularity of this zone under al-Nasir soon receded as other areas, also in the vicinity of the Citadel were claimed as burial ground and became prime locations for the extravagant turbas of the Mamluks period. The cemetery of Bab al-Wazir north of the Citadel was especially popular in the period between 1340 and 1420 when it acquired ten funerary complexes, two sabils, two zawiyas and a mosque, but the cemetery most associated with the Mamluks was the new cemetery east of the Citadel which would gradually spread from north to south from outside Bab al-Nasr to connect with the Bab al-Wazir cemetery. This would become the royal cemetery in the Burji Mamluk period with six sultans establishing their funerary turbas there, the most extravagant of which was the turba of another connoisseur of architecture and avid urban developer, Sultan al-Ashraf Qaytbay.


The Bahri Mamluk turbas that were built after the reign of al-Nasir in our study area and in the zone south of it included the following:

-          Al-Turba al-Sultaniyya (mn. 288, 289) is still extant and Makar has identified it as the turba of the mother of Sultan al-Nasir Hasan. (Makar 1972). (LINK SULTANIYYA)

-          The mausoleum of Khwand Samra, wife of al-Ashraf al-Sha’ban lay outside Bab al-Qarafa towards (tijah) the entrance of Jami’ Qusun. Its remains were recorded in the turn of the 20th century photographs of the area.

-          The qubba of Tankizbugha al-Maridani (mn. 298) further south bears no foundation inscription identifying Tankizbugha as its founder, but is popularly known by this name. Creswell has rightly argued that the stylistic similarities between this qubba, and the mausoleum Tankizbugha also built in al-Sahra’ (mn. 85), support the dating of this dome to the mid 8th/14th century (Creswell 1919).

-          The mausoleum and khanqah of Aqbugha al-Shaykhuni (pre. 795/1393).

-           The khanqah of Mankutamur `Abd al-Ghani  (d. 772/1370) close to that of Aqbugha and to Jami’ Qusun.

There is also mention of a restoration of the aqueduct carried by the wall flanking Bab al-Qarafa, in 783/1381-2.

The year 806/1403 is described by al-Maqrizi as the year of hardships (mihan) that was the culmination of a series of catastrophic events including plague, famine, political unrest and mismanagement. While the drastic portrait drawn by al-Maqrizi is questionable, it remains the case that many of the city’s peripheral or nascent urban zones were affected. Many of the buildings on the southern and western outskirts of al-Qarafa fell into disrepair. In Kharij Bab al-Qarafa, the complex of Qusun is said to have been deserted at the time, yet the damage was short-lived. Its jami’ continued to function without interruption and even the khanqah, which had survived earlier pillage and arson by the rabble during riots against its founder in 742/1341-2, was repopulated as can be seen by later reference to it.

The list of turbas built Kharij Bab al-Qarafa in the Burji Mamluk period is much shorter and includes the following buildings:

-          The mausoleum of Qardam al-Hasani, amir alf and khazindar under al-Zahir Barquq.

-          The mausoleum of Sudun al-`Ajami, amir majlis under al-Ghuri, as he is described in the inscription in the interior of the dome. He held this post between 908/1502 and 917/1511. The mausoleum has been stylistically dated to c. 910/1504-5 by Van Berchem and Meinecke (Creswell 1919; Meinecke 1992).  LINK TO SUDUN

-          There is mention in the sources of another turbabi-Bab al-Qarafa” but its exact location is not known; the mausoleum and khanqah built by Barquq al-Zahiri, Na'ib al-Sham, in which he was buried in 877/1470.

Furthermore, the city wall and the zone overlooking Maydan Taht al-Qal’a, which by then had come to be called Qaramaydan, continued to be developed. It has been stated that the city wall and aqueduct were restored at the end of the 14th century. They were restored again in 812/1409-10. Then in 899/1494, a new Bab al-Qarafa was built north of the existing one, as part of an ambitious urban renewal project conceived by Qaytbay. It comprised a small jami`, a sabil and a number of rab’s which were rather short-lived as they were probably the ones burnt down during Aqbirdi min `Ali Bay’s attempt to overthrow Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad b. Qaytbay in 902/1497. He also restored the aqueduct on the city wall flanking the bab which provided the Citadel with water, introducing a new bab, called Bab al-Zughla, in the location where the aqueduct changes direction to head towards the Citadel in the north-east. This bab may have been built in the location of an earlier bab that is mentioned, but not named by Ibn al-Zayyat. It is still extant and bears the name of Qaytbay.

The developments of Qaytbay cannot be considered part of Kharij Bab al-Qarafa because they lay inside the city wall in the zone south of the Citadel and Qaramaydan. This zone is not very well described in the sources but in the Mamluk period it had acquired the name it is currently known by, ‘Arab Yasar. This is the name of a Bedouin tribe that seems to have settled in this area. According to Raymond, during al-Mu’ayyad Shaykh’s reign, it was a relatively squalid settlement that the sultan tried to remove to make room for new developments, but to no avail, as it was still there close to 100 years later. The fact that it had been used to house this tribe to start with, could support the argument that it had been a funerary area as settling tribes or refugees in the cemetery was standard practice (Raymond 2000). The sources mention another building of note there, the khanqah of `Ishiqtamur al-Maridani, which lay in Hawsh al-`Arab, taht al-Qal`a.

This area also had a building type that tended to be located at the cemetery gates; Musalla al-Mu’mini. This building, which was built by Amir Akhur Baktamur al-Mu’mini (d. 771/1369-70),  figures frequently in the sources in accounts of troubles such as plagues and famines, with historians including a daily count of bodies prayed for there, as an indication of the severity of the problem. It is described in the Mamluk sources as a musalla and a sabil.  It must have functioned in tandem with another funerary structure further north, the maghsal of Yashbak min Mahdi (873/1469) which lay in Maydan al-Rumayla close to Sultan Hasan and was attached to a rab’, hawd and maktab.

Musalla al-Mu’mini was burnt down with the rab`s in 902/1427, its restoration was ordered in 903/1498 only to be rebuilt by al-Ghuri again in 912/1506. The latter construction work was part of another ambitious project in the square north of Bab al-Qarafa and south of the Citadel, this time master-minded by al-Ghuri.

Musalla  al-Mu’mini was restored and a hawd , saqiya, maghsal and mayda’a were attached to it. Three years later, al-Ghuri built a mosque in its vicinity. Currently called after al-Ghuri, it is called Jami’ al-Mu’minin in Mubarak’s account of the city in the late 19th century. Mubarak also describes the maghsal still used for washing the dead, but also for other less orthodox purposes. The waters of the maghsal were believed to have curative powers and there were two extra hawds in which the sick bathed (Mubarak Khitat).


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