The Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hasan is one of the most popular buildings in Cairo. It is named for a ruler who may have given his life for it.
In 640 A.D., Muslim forces overwhelmed Christians holding out in the Babylon Fortress, built by the Romans along the Nile River in about 30 B.C. The conquerors established their capital near the fortress. In 969, the Fatimids conquered Egypt and built a new city north of the fortress, now known as Cairo, to be their capital. When the Mamluks took control of Egypt in 1250, they maintained Cairo as their capital. By 1340, Cairo, with a population estimated at 500,000, was the center of Islamic learning and trade and the world’s largest city outside of China.
In 1347, 12-year-old Al-Nasir Hasan, a Mamluk, became Sultan of Egypt. He was deposed in a coup in 1351 and held under house arrest, providing him an opportunity to study Islamic theology. When Hasan regained the throne in 1355, he demolished two palaces built by his father near the Cairo Citadel and began building a monumental mosque and madrassa (Islamic school) on the two-acre site. Daily construction costs were reportedly 20,000 silver dirhams, equal to about $50,000 today. Much of the money came from wealthy Egyptians, who had died without heirs during the Black Plaque ravishing Egypt at the time. Because of his perceived prolificacy, Al-Nasir Hasan was assassinated by confidants in 1361 and the project was carried on by his aides. When completed in 1363, the mosque-madrassa was more than 1600 feet long, with an entry portal almost 125 feet high. Contemporary reports labeled it one of the world’s most impressive buildings, even rivaling the pyramids of Giza. The madrassa, which is open to the public, is one of the most colorful examples of Islamic architecture anywhere.