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

Mausoleum of al-Sawabi

A small square space abutting the bigger mausoleum of Sudun. Its brick walls are topped by a stuccoed brick dome with exquisite stucco carving around the neck. It is currently inaccessible because the interior full of garbage and debris.

Meinecke, based on the reference in Ibn al-Dawadari to Jami’ al-Tawashi Sawab al-Rukni, zahir Bab al-Qarafa, Taht al-Qal’a, and also stylistically and due to the similarity in name (al-Sawabi), identifies this dome as belonging to Sawab al-Din al-Rukni.

Alternative identifications: Qasim identifies the building as that of Sawab al-Sa‘di who took Kafur’s position after he died. Rizq says Sawabi might have been Shams al-Din Sawab al-Suhayli al-Zahiri Lala tutor of al-Mas’ud Khidr son of al-Zahir Baybars and consequently dates it to 648/1285.

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The Dome of al-Sawabi (c. 684/1285)

Monument no. 296

Identification and Dating:

Alternative names: Sawab al-Din al-Rukni; Shams al-Din Sawab al-Suhayli al-Zahiri.

The founder of this mausoleum is anonymous. Creswell, the first scholar to date it, dates it on stylistic grounds to c. 684/1285. He likens the system of the internal pendentives carrying the dome to those of al-Khanqah al-Bunduqdariyya (1st mausoleum) (683/1283-4), the mausoleum of Safiyy al-Din Jawhar (714/1315) and the mausoleum of Mughlutai al-Jamali (730/1329-130). However only the earliest, al-Khanqah al-Bunduqdariyya has a 16-sided drum, as opposed to the circular drums of the later two domes. According to Creswell, the design of the external stucco frieze which consists of round ended panels with circular medallions between is limited to a short period in the history of Islamic architecture in Cairo. He identifies 8 buildings with the oldest being the mausoleum of Mustafa Pasha (667/1269 – 672/1273), passing through al-Khanqah al-Bunduqdariyya and ending with the madrasa of Salar and Sanjar al-Jawli (703/1303) with similar friezes. Again, he sees the most similarity to that of al-Khanqah al-Bunduqdariyya and as such argues for the earlier date of al-Khanqah al-Bunduqdariyya.

Patricolo, in his report on the monument in the bulletins of the Comite, also dates it to c. 684/1285.

Rizq refers to similarities to the dome of al-Khanqah al-Bunduqdariyya (683/1284) and of Husam al-Din Turan Tay (684/1285).

Meinecke, on the other hand, identifies it as part of the Sawab al-Rukni jami’ mentioned by Ibn al-Dawadari in his list of jami’s built during the reign of al-Nasir. He gives it a terminus ante quem dating of 735/1334-5. The fact that there are signs the building extending further in the southern and western direction (see below) may indicate that it was part of a larger complex. One part of Creswell’s stylistic argument may also support Meinecke’s dating. Creswell notes that the crenelations are trefoil not stepped which is a style that belongs more to the 730s/1330s, the earliest known case being that of the mosque of Ulams al-Hajib (730/1329-30). Creswell himself believes that this, along with the mihrab decoration (see below), may be a later embellishment.

Foundation History:

According to Rizq, Sawabi might have been Shams al-Din Sawab al-Suhayli al-Zahiri Lala (d. 706/1306) tutor of al-Mas’ud Khidr son of al-Zahir Baybars. He does not present supporting evidence for his argument. Meinecke believes the founder was Sawab al-Rukni who was a muqadim al-mamalik before 735/1334-5 and who al-Dawadari states built a mosque in this area during the reign of al-Nasir. Williams attributes the qubba to a retainer of Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad b. Qalawun.


All that remains of this structure is a domed mausoleum. It consists of a square chamber located on the south-western side of al-Qarafa al-Kubra Street. Abutting it on the north-western side is the Burji Mamluk dome of Sudun. In its current state as seen from outside, its entrance in the middle of the southwestern façade, it has one window overlooking the street, and the south-eastern qibla wall has one window on the side of the street corner. The north-western façade is completely blocked by the dome of Sudun. There are a number of surprising features;

  1. The southwestern side (the southwestern façade and half of the southeastern façade) is built with small talatat rubble blocks while the northeastern side is bult with dressed ashlar of standard size (c. 30 cm in height).
  2. While the crenellations on the street and qibla façade are almost intact, the southwestern entrance facade has no crenellations nor does it show signs of having had them.
  3. While the street window grille is framed within a shallow recess with an elaborate four tier stalactite head, the entrance door is a simple undecorated rectangular opening with a plain structural relieving arch.
  4. There is only one window in the qibla wall in a surprisingly unsymmetrical arrangement.

While the interior of the dome is currently inaccessible, the description and analysis of Creswell, Patricolo and Rizq renders the building more understandable. The interior clearly shows a number of alterations that were introduced when the dome of Sudun was built.

  1. The dome blocked the original entrance which was located in the middle of the nort-western wall opposite the mihrab.
  2. According to Creswell, the street window was converted to a door, then restored to its original form as a window by the Comite who then opened a new door on th ehawsh side in the southwestern wall.
  3. The southwestern half of both the qibla wall and the northwestern wall has niches not windows which along with the talatat exterior finish may indicate that the dome was originally wedged between two buildings and that it had only two facades, the street façade and the northwestern façade. This is Creswell’s argument; another explanation could be that the dome was part of a larger structure and that the sections of the wall with talatat finish were interior walls. This could be more in line with Meinecke’s argument that the dome was part of a mosque. The plaster remains that can be seen on some of the blocks could support that argument, although it is not possible to tell whether they are original or a later addition.

The exterior of the brick transitional zone is a standard stepped configuration with the distinctive tripartite windows of the Mamluk period. A sixteen-sided drum with eight keel-arched windows alternating with eight blind arches of the same shape carries the fluted brick dome. Along the top tier of the drum run remains of an elegant thuluth inscription in stucco with a finely carved arabesque background. It is a Quranic inscription; the throne verse, Quran 2:255.

The interior of the dome is currently inaccessible due to the mounds of garbage and rubble that had accumulated in it. One can however make out the existence of three cenotaphs although it was impossible to tell whose graves they marked. According to O’Kane, a second inscription; the basmala then the shahada followed by Quran 3:19; is placed internally at the apex of the dome which is smooth from inside and rests on a transitional zone of two tiers of stalactite pendentives each consisting of 3 niches.

As mentioned above, the qibla wall contains a central mihrab flanked by a window and a rectangular niche. Creswell states that the mihrab was stuccoed with a plain recess and futed hood and dates this to a later period to which he also dates the trefoil crenellations (see above).

The fact that the original door does not open directly onto al-Qarafa al-Kubra Street (which we know was the main street in the area during the Mamluk period) is again proof that this dome was part of a larger structure within which was the main street entrance.

Later History:

Creswell argues that certain decorative features, such as the trefoil crenellations and the stucc mihrab were added around the third decade of 7th/14th century. Meinecke, however, claims that the whole building was built at the time. Both arguments have their merits and without accessibility to the interior it is not been possible to support one or the other. A stronger case can be made for the remodeling at the end of the Mamluk period when Amir Sudun min Zada built his mausoleum to the north thus blocking the original entrance. It is not clear why Sudun chose to construct his dome in such a tight location, especially that he had to slant the windows of the qibla wall in order to let in light through the section of the wall protruding from the line of al-Sawabi’s façade while maintaining the symmetry of the window arrangement in the interior. It may be an indication of how crowded this section of the cemetery had become after sustained construction in it by the Mamluk amirs starting from the reign of al-Nasir. The new entrance was probably installed then.

Not much is known of its later history although the distinctively asymmetrical profile of the now double domes of Sawabi and Sudun can be seen in many of the photographs of the 19th century cemetery. Although there is not much proof of this, one may assume that Sudun and Sawabi were joined in one enclosure that probably also included the structure that was later modified to become Iwan Rayhan. The fabric of this area as drawn in the Description d’Egypte map and the later images from the Western side showing this as one enclosure could support this argument.

In 1893 the Comité de Conservation took note of it for the first time. It identified it as the tomb of al-Sawabi and stated that what was required was repairs to the stone walls and crenellations, three iron grills, to the ornamental stucco and the plain plaster simple stucco in addition to completing the stone crenellations. It was included in the list of monuments with no waqf and no owner and as such was one of the buildings for which funding for restoration was requested from the government. The cost of restoration was estimated at LE 60.

In Patricolo’s report, which is included in the 1915-16 bulletin of the Comité, he states that the mausoleum had virtually become the property of the turabi. He attributes its bad condition to its poor construction citing the poor mortar used to fix talatat blocks in the lower walls as an example. The qibla façade was hidden by funerary structures and the window overlooking al-Qarafa al-Kubra Street was blocked. He also speaks of unfortunate modifications to the interior introduced by the turabiyya. He does not describe them in detail but attributes to them the deterioration of the square stone base. He proposes the following conservation works:

-          The removal of the encroachments on the qibla side.

-          Lowering the ground level and the removal of the debris that had accumulated within and around the monument then encircling it with an iron fence.

-          Masonry repair and restoring the dome to its original appearance by unblocking the windows.

-          Replacement of missing wooden beams with concrete beams.

It is not clear when these recommendations were carried out although this must have happened before Creswell wrote his description of the building in the Muslim Architecture of Egypt which was first published in 1940. The Mahfuzat folders for this monument only start in the 1930s. During the 1930s and 40s, the Comité continued to carry out minor works on this building and it is noteworthy how many times it needed to clear the trench around it from garbage and debris. The current function of the building as a garbage dump is not a recent phenomenon. 

A curious reference to an explosion in the Citadel in September 1949, states that the door (which also seems to have been restored very often) had been affected by the blast and had to be restored. It was repaired before the end of the year.

Detailed account of restoration works in the Comité Bulletins and the Mahfuzat Records (SCA, Mahfuzat, Qubbat al-Sawabi bi’l-Sahra’, file no. 296





Comite XI, 1894, p. 69

Under list of monuments of “Environs du Caire” in Karafa el-Kobra (sic.) known under Tombeaux des Mameloukes.

Tomb al-Sawabi: repairs to stone & crenellations, three iron grills, ornamental stucco on the exterior of the dome & a simple stucco, complete the stone crenellations.


XI, 1894, p. 78-9. 133

Due to the urgency of the works to be executed in the “monuments aux environs de la ville”, it is vital that Awqaf investigate who their owners are. The list of monuments with no owners and  their turabiyya include:

Abu Sibha & Sawabi: turabi: Mohammed Sa’doun


XII, 1895, p. 10-13

In request for funding from Khedive to restore ownerless monuments estimate for repairs in al-Sawabi is LE 60.


1915-9, p. 312

The building is in serious need of restoration. A budget is being prepared for a study for freeing it from encroachments ( degagement).


1915-9, p. 347

Patricolo reports that in keeping with the decisions of report 491 & 494 the Comite has successfully removed the tombs encroaching on Sawabi.  A financial account was presented and it included the cost of necessary reconstruction and repair works after the demolition. It came up to a total of LE 20 that will be added to the LE 60 originally approved for the restoration of the monument (tombeau).

26 Jun; 5 & 18 Jul 1931


18.53 M3 of debris and garbage removed from Sawabi trench. New door fixed. Total cost LE 3.173.

15 & 23 Dec 1931


Tin and bricks thrown in trench to be removed by area overseer Sayyid Muhammad.


1936-40, p. 107-9

Protective Zones around the Classified Monuments in the Cemeteries.

Cemeteries to the south of the Citadel

1)  The Zone of al-Suyuti includes these monuments:

The tomb of al-Sultaniyya, the North Minaret, the tomb of al-Suyuti, the Khanqah of Qusun, the Central Minaret, the tomb of Ali Badr ad-Din al-Qarafi, the South Minaret, the tomb of Jaliq, the tomb of al-Sawabi, the tomb of Sudun Amir Majlis (Abu Sibha), the iwan of Fayruz.

27 Mar 1937


Estimate of works at cost of LE 22 including debris removal (7.72 M3); Concrete (30.22 M2); rubble masonry (1.10 M3); stone tiles (31.91 M2); plaster (118.5 M2); plaster removal (97.92 M2); plaster of ceilings with gypsum, lime and sand mix (6.21 M2).

10 Jan 1938


Preliminary estimate for conservation project. No indication that it was implemented. Includes the following: plaster (14.26 M2); stone tiles (40 M2); rubble masonry (3 M3); Concrete floor slab 15 cm thickness (40 M2); debris removal (7 M3); plaster removal (100 M2); wire for windows (18 M2).

17 Mar 1938


1 month minor project. Not detailed.

27 Sep 1941


Domes of Sawabi and Sudun to be placed in the charge of ‘Ali Abu Sibha the guard. New keys and locks should be issued so that they are not opened and buried in.

2  & 27 Nov 1941


Locks and bars fixed. Final accounts for restoration works in Sawabi and Sudun checked onsite. Invoice should be paid.

12 & 14 Dec  1943


Final accounts for removal of debris from trench of al-Sawabi. Carried out in 3 days.

6 Oct 1946


c. 8 M3 of debris and garbage in the trench around al-Sawabi. Annual contractor should be instructed to remove it.

? Sep 1949

Mahfuzat Qusun

An explosion in the Citadel results in the door falling off. It was repaired before the end of the year.




Creswell, K. A. C. The Muslim Architecture of Egypt (Oxford, 1952-9) vol.2 pp. 213-4

Creswell, K. A. C., “A brief chronology of the Muhammadan monuments of Egypt to A.D. 1517”, BIFAO Vol. XVI (1919), p. 83

Meinecke, Mikael. Die mamlukische Architektur in Ägypten und Syrien (648/1250 bis 923/1517) (Glückstadt, 1992) pp. 164-5

O’Kane, Bernard. Islamic Inscriptions Project, The American University in Cairo.

Rizq, Asim.  Aṭlas al-‘imara al-islamiyya wa-al-qibtiyya bil-qahira (Cairo, 2003), vol. 2/1, pp. 169-75

SCA, Mahfuzat files, Qubbat al-Sawabi (no. 296).

SCA, Mahfuzat files, Qubbat Qusun (no. 291), file 2.

Williams, Caroline. Islamic Monuments in Cairo: A Practical Guide (Cairo, 1999) pp. 128-30