The Great Mosque, the first monument built in the new, Mamluk, Tripoli, remains the largest and best known of the city's mosques. Officially named the Jami al Mansuri al Kabir after al Mansur Qala'un, who liberated Tripoli from the Crusaders in 1289, it was erected by his two sons, al Ashraf Khalil, who ordered its construction in 1294, and al Nasir Muhammad, who had the arcade built around the courtyard in 1314. Located on the site of what was once a Crusaders' suburb at the foot of the Citadel, the mosque was often mistaken for a remodeled Christian churchl by medieval travelers and modern historians alike. Two elements, the door and the minaret, probably do belong to an earlier, Christian structure and were incorporated into the mosque when it was built, but the building-its court, arcades, fountain, and prayer hall-is essentially a Muslim creation.
The building has four inscriptions. Two record the date of the construction and the names of its founders. The first, set on the lintel of the main entrance to the mosque, consists of three lines of clearly written naskh. It reads as follows: "In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate, our master the most powerful sultan, lord of Arab and Persian kings, conqueror of the frontiers and exterminator of the infidels, al Malik al Ashraf Salah al Dunya wa l-Din Khalil, the associate of the commander of the faithful, son of our master al Sultan al Malik al Mansur Sayf al Dunya wa l-Din Qala'un al Salihi, may God perpetuate his reign, has ordered the construction of this sacred mosque [jami ], during the governorship of His High Excellency the great Amir al Izzi Izz al Din Aybak al-Khazandar [the treasurer] al Ashrafi al Mansuri, governor of the sultanate in the conquered lands and protected shores, may God forgive him. In the year six hundred and ninety-three [A.D. 1294]. Glory to God the One and Only."
Following the inscription, in the left-hand corner, between the lintel and the arch, three additional short lines have been squeezed in. They read: "The humble servant of God Salim al Sahyuni, son of Nasir al Din the Persian, has supervised [or has undertaken] the construction of this blessed mosque [jami ]. May God forgive him."
The second inscription is set in the eastern wall of the arcade around the courtyard and refers to the completion of the mosque. A plaque of white marble shaped like a trilobed arch on a horizontal band, it comprises ten lines of naskh and reads as follows: "In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate, only the one who believes in God and the Last Day shall inhabit God's places of worship [Qur an 9.18]. Our master the sultan, the king, the victorious, the just, the learned, the warrior, the triumphant, Nasir al Dunya wa l-Din Muhammad ibn Qala'un, may God perpetuate his reign, has ordered these riwaqs to complete the blessed mosque, during the governorship of His High Noble Excellency Kustay al Nasiri, governor of the province of Tripoli, may God fortify his victories, under the supervision of His High Excellency Badr al Din Muhammad, son of Abu Bakr, inspector of flourishing diwans, may God lengthen his favor. It was completed in the months of the year seven hundred and fifteen [A.D. 1314-15], may God bless our lord Muhammad. The humble servant of God Ahmad ibn Hasan al-Ba'abaki the architect has supervised [or undertaken] its construction."
The first inscription tells us that the building of the Great Mosque was ordered by al-Ashraf Khalil, son of Qala'un, during the governorship of Izz al-Din Aybak al-Khazandar, his treasurer, in 1294. From the second, we can conclude that it was completed and the arcades were ordered by al-Malik al-Nasir, son of Qala'un, during the governorship of Kustay al Naqiri and under the supervision of Badr al Din Muhammad, by the architect Ahmad al Bailabaki. Work was completed in 1314-15.
A third inscription is on a secondary mihrab to the left of the axial mihrab on the qiblah side of the building. It has four lines of naskh recording that Usindamur ordered the marble revetment of the mihrab in 1478: "The humble slave of God, Usindamur al-Ashrafi, governor of the royal province of Tripoli, the well protected, has ordered the marble revetment of the blessed mihrab, may God fortify his victories, under the administration of our lord the judge of judges the Shafi'ite, the Imam in the beginning of Rabi II of the year eight hundred and eighty-three [A.D. 1478] under the supervision of Inspector Muhammad."
The minbar has the fourth inscription, two lines in a clear naskh, which identify its donor as Amir Qaratay and give the date of its execution as 1326. It reads as follows: "The humble slave of God, Qaratay, son of Abdallah al-Nasiri, has ordered the construction of this blessed minbar, may God reward him. He has delegated this work to Bakthuwan, son of Abdallah alShahabi, may God recognize his effort, in the month of zu al-Qa dah of the year seven hundred and twenty-six [A.D. 1326]."
Amir Qaratay was twice governor of Tripoli, from 1316 to 1326 and from 1332 to 1333. During his first term he endowed this beautiful minbar and also built the finest madrasah in Tripoli, the Madrasah Qartawiyyah, adjoining the mosque to the east.
The Great Mosque occupies an area of about 50 by 60 meters in the middle of the city. It does not have an elaborate facade, but is readily identifiable from the outside by its minaret and its main northern gate, the two controversial elements responsible for the theory that it is a remodeled Christian church.
The square-towered minaret has been re-plastered and repaired many times. It has four floors topped by a balcony on which an octagonal shaft, with its own balcony and conical dome, has been built in recent years. The first story of the minaret has no openings; the second has two arched windows with a central column on each of its four sides; and the third and fourth have three arched windows on the south and north and two on the east and west. The minaret is probably part of the Crusaders' Church of St. Mary, known to have existed at the foot of the Citadel. Although Arab sources do not say anything about its peculiarities, Western scholars have puzzled over its shape since the nineteenth century. The Marquis de Vogue, a nineteenth-century French historian and traveler, thought that the way the stories were laid out, the shape of the windows, and the arrangement of the bell tower suggested a Christian belfry, and when Max van Berchem saw it on his first trip to Tripoli in 1895, he remarked on how its square tower recalled the campaniles of northern Italy. l' Modern guidebooks repeat that theme whenthey describe the minaret as "probably a bell-tower [which] has features of Lombardic art and can be dated to the 12/13th century" and then refer to it as "St. Mary's Lombard tower." Lombard or not, the minaret of the Great Mosque may well have been a bell tower dating from before the Muslim conquest and later integrated into the structure with no particular religious connotation attached to it.
The Muslim origin of the main entrance to the mosque has also been doubted because of its shape and decoration. The rectangular door is set in a portal of successive arches of alternating plain and zigzag carved stone moldings resting on two slender colonnettes of white marble and four narrow wall segments; the whole is preceded by an Arab cross-vaulted entryway. The question is whether the system of moldings above the door is an element brought by the Crusaders, as most writers claim, or whether it is a Muslim work that simply shows the influence of the Crusader style. The Crusaders' source for the molding, known as a "chevron," "dogtooth," or "zigzag in relief," is indisputable; it is undoubtedly of Norman origin and made its appearance in the Fertile Crescent with the Crusaders, but the motif was early assimilated by the Muslims and used in the decoration of many monuments in Jerusalem, Aleppo, and Tripoli. The Muslim version, however, invariably consisted of one row of dogtooth or zigzag in various degrees of thickness. The Western type of successive molding that is seen on this gate is otherwise unknown in Muslim buildings.
Whatever doubts one may have about the origins of the doorway are removed by a closer look. A row of spiky quatrefoil rosettes in relief decorates the inner side of the arched entryway right behind the main entrance with the zigzag decoration. These rosettes are totally alien to the Muslim decorative vocabulary, and it would be difficult to think of a reason why a Muslim architect might invent them for a Muslim arch. On the other hand, identical rosettes are encountered in Western architecture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and are especially common in the Crusader architecture in Syria and Palestine. Friezes of four-petaled rosettes can be found in Norman architecture throughout Europe and on some Norman buildings in the Holy Land. In Jerusalem, similar rosettes can be seen on two reused capitals at the al Aqsa mosque, and in Galilee they frame the doorway of an early Christian church at Yarun. In Syria, the Logis du Maitre at the Krac des Chevaliers has arches decorated with two kinds of rosettes in relief; those decorating the upper third of the arch are of the same four-pointed type as those in Tripoli. Considering that the Krac belonged to the Frankish counts of Tripoli in the twelfth century and that for almost two centuries the Krac and Tripoli had been under Latin rule, the similarity of decorative elements is not surprising. The Abbey of Belmont, a Crusader construction only a few kilometers to the south of Tripoli, has a voussoir with similar four-pointed rosettes. The Crusader origin of the entrance and the minaret therefore seems undeniable, but they are the only elements betraying Christian influence. The rest of the building is purely Muslim in plan and in style and owes nothing to earlier structures.
The plan of the Great Mosque shows a traditional arrangement with a central courtyard, single porticoes on three sides, a deeper qibla side for prayer, and a central fountain. In traditional fashion the mosque has three axial entrances set to the north, east, and west, but there are also two others on either side of the prayer hall. Creswell regards the three axial entrances as a Syrian feature which started accidentally in the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, became part of the Syrian arrangements (e.g. the mosque in Harran), and was then copied in other parts of the Muslim world (e.g. in Anatolia and in a number of Cairene mosques, including those of al-Hakim, al-Salih. Talai, and Baybars I).
A visitor entering the courtyard sees to the right of the main entrance two granite columns springing from the pavement, remnants of classical times that were for some reason left standing. Like the two columns in front of Taynal's mosque and the two in front of the Madrasa Saqraqiyya, they do not seem to have any practical or decorative function.
The courtyard which dominates the building is enclosed by porticoes to the north, east, and west, and by the closed prayer area to the south. The porticoes display a rhythmic arrangement of identical low arches in the courtyard, and a continuous corridor-like area of simple cross-vaulting behind. These are the riwaqs built by al-Malik al-Nasir in 1314, when he completed the mosque. The ablution fountain in the middle of the courtyard consists of two adjoining square units, one of which is covered by a dome. When al-Nabulsi visited Tripoli in 1700, he described the fountain as "having a huge dome and pillars so large as to need four men to embrace them."
The prayer hall takes up the entire qibla side of the building and consists of two aisles divided by six large piers to form fourteen areas, thirteen of them covered by simple cross-vaults, and the fourteenth, the area in front of the mihrab, by a small dome. The qibla wall has three mihrabs -- an axial main mihrab with a rosette set above it and one on either side-and a rninbar.
The minbar is a wooden chair entirely covered with geometric carving. The painted rosette above the minbar is clearly reused; the word "Allah" appears in its center and the same two motifs as were used inside and outside the main gate decorate the periphery. Fourpointed rosettes in relief run around the circumference of the roundel and a zigzag motif forms circles within. This decorative rosette, of the same style as the gate, must have belonged to the same Crusader church.
Since, like the door, it had no particular Christian iconographic or symbolic significance, it could be reused by Muslims as a mosque decoration. In any case, the two Christian elements in no way detract from the traditional Muslim nature of this great royal mosque, the first building erected in Mamluk Tripoli.
In addition to the description, Tadmouri adds several contextual elements: "Just before the end of the 7th H century/ CE 13th century, the Shafii judge of Tripoli, Ahmed Ben Abi Backer Ben Mansour Ben Attieh Eskandari, also called as Shamseddeen, built a school next to the main gate of the Mansouri great mosque, and built on it a dwelling for him. Building of the school and the house was along with the construction of Mansouri great mosque. The historian Shamseddeen Zahabi, stayed at the house during his journey to Tripoli for learning (after 697 H/ CE 1289). When the judge died, he was buried in it (707 H/ CE 1307). The school is still known as the Shamsieh school, referring to him.
In 716 H/ CE 1316, Prince Katlobeck Mansouri, the brother in law of Asandamor Kourji, died, and his wife Hossen built a school over his grave near the Mansouri great mosque. This school is known till now as Khairieh Hossen school. In the sculptured statements on the school's gate, many constructions inside and outside Tripoli are mentioned. Of these are: a soap workshop (Masbanah), an oil-mill on top of which a dwelling block exists, Dawoodieh grinder, Sandamoorieh grinder (at Kfer Kahel village), Asandamor market inside Tripoli, an abbey in Asnon land, an olive store-house, a hall, a house near the school, the Jadidah grinder at Aardat, an olive field, in Btirram, a house and a store in the Crusaders Kisaria insideTripoli.
Meinecke, Michael. 1992. Die Mamlukische Architektur in Ägypten und Syrien (648/1250 bis 923/1517). Glückstadt: Verlag J. J. Augustin, I/52, II/75, 118.
Salam-Liebich, Hayat. 1983. The Architecture of the Mamluk City of Tripoli. Cambridge: The Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture.