El Sultan Qalawun Complex is one of the largest and architecturally most beautiful buildings in Cairo’s Muizz Street. Now, Muizz Street is a very historic area and it is lined with exquisite buildings. To stand out amidst such architectural jewels is a great feat and it is one that the Qalawun Complex achieves easily. It was built by Sultan Al Mansur Qalawun in 1284 and the complex houses a mosque, a madrasa, a mausoleum, and a hospital. Considered as one of the finest Mamluks sites in Cairo, the Qalawun Complex was built at a place known as Bayn Al-Qasreen, or ‘Between the Two Palaces’. It is believed that two Fatimid Palaces originally stood here. Like most of the Fatimid buildings in the city, these palaces were built by subsequent rulers who sought to erase the influence of the Shi’a dynasty and if the contemporary local rumours are to be believed, Qalawun actually built his complex on the foundation of one of these palaces.

Located in the magnificent Muizz Street

This is what Ibn Batuta said

The main structure of this site passed through the hands of many individuals until it was bought by Sultan Qalawun in 1823. The energetic Mamluk sultan commissioned the building of this massive project to emir ‘Alam al-Din Sanjar al-Shuja‘i al-Mansuri, who hired Mongol war prisoners and workers from Cairo and Fustat to assist. The entire project took 13 months to complete and it became the talk of the town. Even the great Arab traveller and historian Ibn Battuta, who visited Cairo in 1325, was impressed. He wrote volumes about the Qalawun hospital and how it contained ‘an innumerable quantity of appliances and medicaments’. He also described how the mausoleum was flanked by Quran reciters day and night chanting requiems for the dead within.

Lies the stunning Sultan Qalawun Complex

The hospital of Qalawun Complex

There is no doubt that the hospital of the Qalawun Complex was the talk of the town. In fact, the hospital was one of the reasons for which the Complex was built. It is said that when Qalawun was travelling, he became severely ill and was treated with medicines at a hospital in Damascus. Upon recovering, he vowed to construct a similar maristan (hospital) in Cairo. Sultan Qalawun’s hospital offered both treatment and shelter for the poor and ill and it provided a place for learning and research for doctors. The sick, the infirm, and the suffering received food, clothing, and medicinal drugs while the medical professionals practised teaching and research within its halls. The complex’s madrasa was also splendid and many topics were taught there. It included the four primary schools of Islamic jurisprudence along with medicine.

The magnificent mausoleum

The mausoleum of the Qalawun Complex is one of the largest and most ornate in Cairo. The most striking aspects of this mausoleum are its size and the profusion of embellishments lavished upon it. There are stunning stone inlay works, beautiful stained glass windows, breathtaking carved stucco around the arches, and a painted, coffered ceiling. A broad strip of inlaid marble panels, like a ceremonial carpet, leads in a direct path from the entrance of the mausoleum through to the mihrab. This niche, which is the visual indicator of the direction of Mecca is also spectacular. Entirely decorated with polychrome marble, its niche is divided into registers of mosaic inlay and blind arcading.

The flashy exterior of Qalawun Complex

The exteriors of the Qalawun Complex are as magnificent as its interiors. They are, in fact, flashy in an ‘on your face’ manner. The complex was built to impress and it never fails to do so. It has a striking Gothic influence and is divided into arched bays with triple double-tiered windows. It is believed that Sultan Qalawun was very impressed with the crusader churches in Syria. Luckily for him, at that time, many artisans of that region were displaced by war and they took refuge in Cairo. The Sultan immediately took up their cause and they received the patronage of the ruler and the new ruling elite. Thus the facade of the complex bears startling similarities to gothic structures in Syria and elsewhere. The minarets of the Qalawun complex are unique too and they speak volumes of the patron ruler’s perchance for foreign architectural tastes. A mix of Syrian architectural shapes along with Andalusian and Moroccan embellishments of carved stucco work make these minarets one of the most beautiful in Cairo.

cairo muizz street

The magnificent exterior of Qalawun Complex

The mind of the man who built the Qalawun Complex

What struck me the most was how the sultan’s character was reflected in the monument. The sultan came from a background that was humble despite being sumptuous. He was one of the Tatars or Mongols who were enslaved by El-Saleh Ayyub to be his retainers or Mamluks. This community of enslaved warriors often lived in great spendour, had a lot of privileges, and were known as the Bahri Mamluks since they were living on the Roda Island on the Nile in the river citadel of El-Saleh. From that background of being a slave, Al Mansur Qalawun became a sultan and he ruled Egypt from 1279 till 1290. He was a well-travelled man with a mind that soaked up beauty, knowledge, and functionality like a sponge. Probably he also had a very sound head on his shoulders because his complex was conceived as a multi-functional complex from the beginning. He understood the value of a good hospital from his personal experience and he acknowledged the importance of learning and research. He also had a keen eye for beauty in nearly every place he visited and he captured all these elements in the Qalawun Complex. Thus, it was a hospital, a madrassa, and a mausoleum rolled into one. His smartest move was perhaps the idea of using the prisoners of war as labourers. He understood the position of these slaves and their limitations, and by having a pragmatic, economical turn of mind he simply used them to finish his jaw-dropping complex in a record time of 13 months. Till today, this is an astonishing feat and even now the visitors of Qalawun Complex agree with the medieval historian al-Maqrizi’s comment made in the fifteenth century, ‘When a spectator contemplates this huge edifice and hears it was built in such a short span of time, he often will not believe it.’ It is indeed true.

The entrance of the Qalawun Complex

Qalawun Complex Travel Tips

  • Location: Sharia Al Muizz Li Din Allah, Islamic Cairo
  • Opening Hours: 9 am – 5 pm
  • Price: Multisite ticket adult/student LE 100/50

    The gorgeous ceiling inside the Qalawun Complex

    Details of the ceiling

    A Malqaf or wind scoop that helps in allowing the fresh air to get into the building

P.S – This blog post is part of the weekly series called the Cairo Chronicles. Every week, Maverickbird will try to focus on a new theme, emotion, and beauty of expat life in the exciting, maddening city of Cairo.

Follow the rest of the Egypt series here