The cultural and historical heritage of Egypt centres around Cairo, because of the incomparable accumulation of Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic treasures located there.
Following the Muslim conquest of the Byzantine city in 641 AD, and the establishment of the military encampment Al-Fustat, the governmental seat of the province of Egypt, Cairo, as a critical part of the rapidly expanding Islamic Empire, was enlarged by a succession of powerful ruling dynasties. After the Mongol conquest of Baghdad it became the largest medieval Muslim city.
In 969 the Fatimids, moving eastward along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, established a city which they named al-Qahira, 'the Victorious', which then became the nucleus of the medieval quarter. Under the Fatimids, al-Qahira became the seat of power, a ceremonial residential centre where the Caliph dwelt with his court and army.
The princely enclave which the Fatimids established was used as a base to challenge the authority of the Abbasids in Baghdad. The Fatimid legacy, although much is no longer extant, is most evident today in the al-Azhar Mosque and University, and al-Aqmar Mosque. Defensive city walls built by the Fatimids have played an important part in protecting the historic core from encroachment by the sprawling metropolis that continues to grow up around it. These walls were subsequently expanded by the Ayyubid Sultan Salah al-Din.
The population of the city, which grew because of refugees fleeing from uncertain conditions in the east, as well as by Salah al-Din's decree that the princely enclave should be opened to all, and not reserved for the ruling class alone, forced changes in the linear, orthogonal structure, creating the twisting organic streets we see today.
Under the Mamluks, who ruled in various forms from 1250 to 1517, this central core reached its height as a metropolis. After the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1261, the seat of the caliphate was transferred to Cairo, making it the political center of Islam. Its wealth, due to its new status and the monopoly it was able to establish over Red Sea trade, was directed into the construction of many large complexes, such as the extraordinary Madrasa Mausoleum and Maristan of Sultan Qalawun, built between 1284 and 1285, which rivals the highest architectural achievements realized in Europe at this time.
Although the city never reclaimed its once exalted position after the Ottoman Conquest in 1517, the momentum that had been established continued in the form of a conscious attitude toward the enhancement of an important legacy, and many fine architectural examples date from this period.
A brief renewal of prosperity and power was achieved under the Ottoman Governor Muhammed Ali following the Napoleonic occupation of Cairo in 1798. Under the Ottomans, the decision to emulate French city planning techniques, and open up vast new boulevards that moved outward to the north and west, reconfigured the city plan and remains predominant in Cairo's downtown core until today. (Visit the collection Art Deco Architecture in Cairo) to see some of the structures from this period. In addition to neighborhoods like Zamalek, Dokki, and Muhandiseen, present day Cairo encompasses the historically distinct zones of Babylon and Fustat, as well as the nineteenth century suburb Heliopolis (Misr al-Jadida), and its contemporary counterpart, Maadi.
The Mamluks, members of the military oligarchy that ruled Egypt from 1250 to 1516, were constantly engaged in fierce and often vicious power struggles, but at the same time they were great patrons of art and architecture.
Amir Baha’ al-Din Aslam al-Silahdar was one of these warriors who combined ferocity with piety and patronage of arts. His checkered career spanned the reigns of two great sultans, al-Mansur Qalawun al-Alfi and his son al-Nasir Muhammad, and the intrigues surrounding the quick succession of the latter’s numerous sons. Aslam rose through the ranks of Mamluks, and during the third reign of al-Nasir Muhammad (who had been deposed and reinstated twice) was made a silahdar, or Sword-Bearer to the Sultan, acting as the Controller of Armaments. In 1326, however, he was accused of treason and spent six years imprisoned in Alexandria. After his release he regained his previous position, but was later transferred to Safad in Palestine. He was allowed to return to Egypt after Sultan al-Nasir’s death in 1340, and he died in Cairo in 1346. Aslam was unusual among his Mamluk companions for being a religious scholar and a teaching shaykh. In 1344-45 he had the mosque bearing his name built in Cairo.
The Mosque of Aslam al-Silahdar is among the masterpieces of Mamluk architecture in Cairo. The building is a typically harmonious blend of elaborate decoration in different materials, combining formally designed parts in a freely composed, asymmetrical, yet well-balanced whole. The prayer hall has a cruciform plan with a central courtyard covered by a wooden roof (the present roof dates to the early 20th century). Four deep recesses, or iwans, open off the central courtyard. Those on the north and south are supported on arcades of reused Roman marble columns, creating an interior that combines the iwan type and riwaq style. The mausoleum of the amir is in the southeastern corner. The elaborately decorated entrance shows that it was originally an exterior façade indicating that the mausoleum was built first. It is covered with a soaring dome supported within on tiers of elegant stucco muqarnas. The drum of the dome is decorated externally with calligraphy and crenellations in ceramic tiles, another rare feature in Mamluk Cairo. The amir later added the mosque and a minaret (the present minaret dates to the Ottoman period). Many different materials and techniques are combined in the decoration of the building to achieve a harmonious and appealing overall effect. Among these, faience tiles embedded in elaborate stucco decoration enhanced with touches of brilliant color add another unusual feature.
Time took a heavy toll on the Mosque of Aslam al-Silahdar. The Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l'Art Arabe undertook restoration work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but by 2000, the mosque was in urgent need of conservation. Between June 2006 and April 2009, comprehensive conservation of the monument was managed and carried out by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the cultural agency of the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of private, non-denominational, international development agencies created by His Highness the Aga Khan. This project was made possible under the auspices of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, through a partnership agreement with the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE). Funding was provided by the Egyptian Antiquities Conservation grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation.
The restoration and conservation project of Aslam al-Silahdar mosque started by thoroughly documenting the building architecturally and photographically, analyzing and researching its condition and state of preservation. The project dealt with the structural issues of the building and conserved and restored all its decorative features, revealing their aesthetics hidden for years behind layers of dust. A number of highly skilled conservators, craftsmen, architects, engineers and workers were involved in the project. The results achieved, the restoration of the aesthetic beauty and spirit of the mosque, demonstrate their interest and passion for the work.
The mosque is located in a busy traditional neighborhood between the Bab Zuwayla, the Darb al-Ahmar area, and al-Azhar Park created by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. More than just a place of prayer, a neighborhood mosque is a focal point of community life. Heritage conservation can also stimulate social development and promote cultural tourism. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has implemented social development projects and is involved in urban revitalization of the neighborhood, aiming to invigorate the area with visitors from the neighboring al-Azhar Park. The conserved Mosque of Aslam al-Silahdar contributes to the transformation of the whole area.