"The Qartawiyya is certainly the largest and most handsome madrasa in Tripoli and its most important building in this category. As its name indicates, it was founded by Qaratay ("the Black Colt"), whose full name, Amir Shahab al-Din Qaratay ibn Abdallah al-Nasiri al-Ashrafi al-Jukundar al-Hajib, was established by Sobernheim. Qaratay was governor of Tripoli twice: first from A.H. 716 to 726 (A.D. 1316 - 26) and then from A.H. 733 to 734 (A.D. 1332-33). During his first term of office he endowed the Great Mosque with its beautiful minbar dated A.H. 726 (A.D. 1326). Although the building does not carry a founding inscription, the literature tells us that Qaratay ordered the building of a madrasa in which he was later buried, the one of famous repute, known as the Qartawiyyah and thus establishes him as its founder. As to the date of its construction, we know that Qaratay died at the end of the first year of his second term and was buried in his madrasa; so we at least know that the building was erected before 1333.
The only inscription which clearly pertains to the time of its construction is a simple Qur'anic text (Surat al-Hijr, 45-47), which unfortunately adds nothing to our understanding of the building. It is set in the center of the lintel above the main entrance and consists of five lines of clear carving:
"The God-fearing shall be amidst gardens and fountains. Enter you thee, in peace and security. We shall strip away all rancour that is in their breast; as brothers they shall be upon couches set face to face."
In addition to this inscription, the Qartawiyya has a veritable bulletin board of Mamluk decrees from various times on the outside of its southern wall, but these inscriptions all date from after its construction and bear no relation to the building to which they are attached.
The Qartawiyya has an elaborate, organized facade that runs the entire length of its northern wall and is built of alternating courses of well-cut and carefully dressed black and white stone. The white stones are wider than the black, and the whole is framed by a simple stone molding running all around the facade. The portal is in the center of a symmetrical composition consisting of a large rectangular window on either side, topped by a course of beautiful ablaq at the lower level and two small rectangular windows at the upper level. The two upper windows on the western side of the facade are covered with a carved stone grill of a complex radiating pattern and are framed by a band of small fan-like motifs. While this type of stone window grill was common in Syria from the time of the Umayyads, the two windows are the only examples of it to be found in Tripoli. The portal rises above the madrasa. It provides a fine example of Mamluk craftsmanship, including two reused white marble columns whose capitals are set on either side of the doorway.
The inner wall is opened by a simple rectangular door topped by a flat lintel containing the Quranic inscription in its center and an elaborately decorated joggled relieving arch of red, white, and black stone. The narrow tympanum between the lintel and the arch contains a carved "Bismillah" in white stone on a black background. We have already encountered this kind of arrangement above an opening in Taynal's mosque, and we shall see it again on the outside of the southern wall of the Qartawiyya.
Above the door and below the crowning muqarnas is a square plaque of polychrome marble. The design, a rotating swastika motif, consists of four loops around a central large circle formed by woven bands and ending in four sets of corner knots, square on the outer corners and triangular inside. The technique and materials used are typically Mamluk, but the simple motif itself is much older. It is of Christian origin (Byzantine examples abound) but was taken over by the Muslims, is who integrated it into their decorative vocabulary and adapted it to all kinds of uses and with varying degrees of complexity. At times it reached a level of intricacy and busyness, for example, in the Mosque of Qadi Yahya in Cairo (1444), that borders on the absurd; rarely is it found in as pure, bold, and dynamic a form as on the Qartawiyya.
The upper third of the gate is dominated by an arch of a three dimensional dogtooth or chevron motif surrounding an empty half-dome above three rows of muqarnas. This heavy, well-defined, three dimensional zigzag pattern with protruding triangular units is of Crusader origin. The Normans used it extensively" and seem to have taken it with them wherever they went. In addition to Normandy itself, numerous examples can be found in England, for instance, on the twelfth century Church of St. Mary at Iffley near Oxford, and in Sicily where it was introduced during the reign of Roger II (1101-54), for instance on the Cathedral of Cefalu. is In the Holy Land, Norman influence came with the Crusaders in the twelfth century and was quickly taken up by the Arabs. By Mamluk times it had become a fairly common decorative motif. In its Christian version it can still be seen on the Baptistry of the Church of St. John in Giblet (present-day Jubayl or Byblos).
Examples of its Muslim version can be found in Jerusalem on the public fountains of al-Silsilah, Birkat al-Sultan and Qaytbay, and in Aleppo on the mosques of al-Sahib, al-Sarawl, al-Bayyadah, and the fountain known as Qastal al-Sakakini. In Mardin, arches with the same motif are found in older monuments like the 1385 Madrasah of Sultan Qasim, and remained in the architectural vocabulary of the city in a flatter version still used to decorate the doors and windows of houses today. In Tripoli, the dogtooth motif is found in its purest Norman form on the Qartawiyya and on the façade of Khan al-Manzil built in 1309 on the right bank of the Qadisha River.
The interior of the Qartawiyya is spacious and clearly defined. It is essentially a covered three-iwan madrasa plan with a central court, an eastern and a western iwan for teaching and gatherings, and a southern iwan extended horizontally and used for prayer. The central courtyard is sunk about 50 centimeters lower than the iwans around it. Its main feature is a very large oblong fountain, built of four slabs of white marble-one to a side-with four corner colonnettes, set in the middle of the court and used for ablutions. The fountain itself is impressive only for its size (4 by 4.5 meters), but the marble floor around it, whose square patterns of various geometric red, black, and white marble motifs alternate with plain white marble squares, displays the harmonious color and good organization of a masterfully applied technique.
The eastern and western iwans are plain oblong rooms, more functional than decorative, but the southern one, a horizontal prayer room running the width of the building, displays a whole collection of fourteenth-century decorative marble panels. The qibla wall includes an entirely paneled mihrab in its center with two windows and two wall segments on either side. Both are lined with decorative panels of red, white, and black marble. The mihrab has vertical panels on its main body and horizontal bands in its half-dome ending in a joggled pattern on the arch. The wall segments are covered by large square plaques, each containing a different motif. The general effect is very rich, and bold and pleasing to the modern taste. The patterns are large, the color scheme limited, the lines are simple, and the technique is impeccable.
Two massive domes of the Qartawiyya's superstructure stand out; the rest are covered by simple vaulting or cross-vaulting. The dome over the central court area is a large cupola, with an octagonal opening in its center and four small windows on its sides, touching the walls on an octagonal zone resting on four plain pendentives with a single decorative squinch at the lower corner of the triangle. Over the mihrab is a large oval dome with sixteen arched windows resting on four plain pendentives. The domes are massive but otherwise of no particular interest. They merely cover the areas under them, and certainly do not match the quality and technique of the rest of the structure.
Behind the Madrasah Qartawiyya runs a passageway with decorated vaulting leading from the Suq al-Attarm to the eastern side of the Great Mosque. It is the only public way that is so decorated. The decoration consists of bands of stucco running on either side of the lines of the vaulting and interlacing in circles or x's; circular medallions are applied on the arches between the vaulting.
The southern wall of the Qartawiyya which gives onto this passageway is as organized, composed, and as carefully executed as the rest of the building. The wall is framed on three sides by a simple fish-scale motif, and is pierced by four identical windows set equidistantly at floor level. The windows are tied together at the lintel level by a long band of white marble. Within each window this band is decorated by two rectangular plaques on either side of an octagonal motif; the three elements displaying Mamluk geometrical star patterns repeated on alternate windows. All four windows have elaborately decorated joggled relieving arches, identical with those seen on the main entrance of the Mosque of Taynal and the facade of the Qartawiyya, and include a short Qur'anic inscription (sections from the Surat al-Tawbah) on the tympanum.
On two of the windows the central decorative unit includes a blazon, which is also seen on a corner of the vaulting (upper left side). The blazon is undoubtedly that of Qaratay, so we can assume that the vaulting is contemporary with the madrasa. Qaratay must have had the madrasa built with a facade on the street and another with windows, on the passage leading to the mosque. He took care to decorate the passage like the structure itself so that the blazon on the windows and on the stucco decoration on the vaulting acts as a signature linking the two together.
In the fifteenth century the lower part of the qibla wall of the Qartawiyya was used to display official decrees promulgating some taxes and abolishing others, discouraging abuses, and protecting the people of Tripoli from infractions of the law. What would today appear in the official paper of the municipality was then carefully inscribed on marble slabs on the wall of the alley leading to the mosque for passers-by to see. Although a side entrance, the eastern door of the Great Mosque was still the door closest to the active life of the city and probably the one by which the heaviest traffic passed. The Qartawiyya wall was therefore a convenient place to display decrees (Salam 1983: 107-118)."
Salam-Liebich, Hayat. 1983. The Architecture of the Mamluk City of Tripoli. Cambridge: The Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture.
Meinecke, Michael. 1992. Die Mamlukische Architektur in Ägypten und Syrien (648/1250 bis 923/1517). Glückstadt: Verlag J. J. Augustin, I/75, II/163.