Located in the old city of Jerusalem, the Madrasa al-Karimiyya is among the many religious institutions founded during the Mamluk rule of Jerusalem (approx. 1260-1516) - a period that saw a proliferation of madrasas, zawiyas, ribats, and mausolea, in an act described by many historians as the "re-Islamization" of Jerusalem. Stability was achieved only after the battle of Ain Jalut (near Nazareth), when the Mamluks defeated the Mongols in 1260, and the subsequent fall of Acre and the expulsion of the Crusaders from the Holy Land by al-Malik al-Ashraf al-Khalil in 1291/690. This stability encouraged administrative officers, patrons, and merchants, to endow and build religious foundations. The city was mostly governed by amirs who were under the sovereignty of the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt.
The al-Karimiyya is bordered from the south by the al-Haram al-Sharif, from the west by the Tariq Bab Hitta (the path emerging from the Hitta gate), which has on its other, western side the Awhadiyya Madrasa, and from the east by Birkat Bani Isra'il ("the sons of Israel's pool"). Because the surviving structure of the madrasa as it stands today is not fully identical to the original structure in terms of its eastern and northern boundaries or internal division, we derive most of our knowledge regarding its history and architecture from the chronicles of two historians, Ahmad Ibn Yahya al-Umari (1301-1249), and Mujir al-Din al-Ulaymi (1456-1522). According to al-Umari, the madrasa was built by Karim al-Din Abd al-Karim, a prominent statesman who was the supervisor of the Mamluk Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad’s Privy Purse (Nazir al-Khawass al-Sharifa al-Sultaniyya al-Nasiriyya). The date of the endowment was 1319 (according to Mujir al-Din), and occurred when Karim al-Din accompanied Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad, (who intermittently ruled Egypt between 1293 and 1341), on a visit to Jerusalem.
The madrasa consists of two floors within an L-shape plan circumscribing a narrow courtyard. Although the madrasa and Bab Hitta ("Gate of Remission") are situated on the northern wall of the Haram, the madrasa is not directly accessed from its southern wall, which projects into the al-Haram’s space, but rather from a portal located on its west wall or the east (right) side of the street of Tariq Bab Hitta, emerging north of the Bab al-Hitta. The main portal entrance, today blocked, comprises a pointed arch 2.3 meters wide, built out of smooth dressed stone voussoirs. A rectangular doorway, one meter wide, is located on the entrance portal’s wall (which is recessed by 60 cm), and is flanked by two low stone benches on each side.
From this arched, recessed area one enters a narrow vestibule (1.4 meters by 4.8 meters) oriented north-south. Along the vestibule’s eastern wall runs a stone bench in a shallow alcove. The vestibule leads from its northern side to a small porch that connects eastward to an open central courtyard (measuring 4 by 4 meters) of the madrasa. To its south, the vestibule opens into a main rectangular, cross-vaulted chamber, oriented east-west (10.6 meters by 4 meters). From the middle of the northern wall of the main chamber, one enters an iwan that leads to the aforementioned central courtyard. This main east-west chamber, together with the courtyard and the iwan on the north-south axis, forms an inverted T-shape plan. An arch with two rows of voussoirs was added to the iwan’s opening that overlooks the courtyard; this addition is stylistically Ottoman. Another Ottoman addition was the partition of the main chamber by a wall, which is also manifested on the iwan’s external elevation. The eastern wall of the main transverse chamber has a window that overlooks the Birkat Bani Isra’il, and a door leading to a smaller rectangular room (6.4 meters by 2 meters) that has two windows (one above the other) on its north wall and another window overlooking the pool on its east wall.
Adjacent to the southern wall of the main chamber and the smaller room to its west is the assembly hall (5 meters by 16 meters), which establishes the border of the madrasa with the north side of the al-Haram. Originally, the assembly hall was connected to these two rooms and the rest of the madrasa on the ground floor, but today access to the ground floor is blocked; this assembly hall is currently considered an extension of the al-Haram.
On the east side of the iwan is a small room (2.4 meters by 3 meters) with a barrel vault and evidence of a staircase that once led to the upper floor. From the landing, a narrow corridor emerges that turns south, then west, and then north again to form a U-shape in plan. This corridor gives access to the different rooms on the upper floor, and ends at the landing directly above the vestibule area on the ground floor, from which one accesses the main room (4.6 meters by 3.4 meters) situated directly above the iwan on the ground floor. From this landing a recently added staircase descends to the ground floor, ending six meters north of the main portal on the western walls of the madrasa.
When the corridor turns west, its floor is directly above the southern wall (2.4 meters thick) of the main chamber. It also contributes to the area above the southern portal of the Bab Hitta and gives access to the room (3 meters by 4.8 meters) above the one-bay chamber above the Bab Hitta. This room hangs between and extends between the eastern elevation of the Madrasa al-Awhadiyya and the western elevation of the al-Karimiyya. When the corridor turns westward, one can enter two smaller rooms with a barrel vault (2 meters by 3.4 meters) on the northern side of the corridor.
Historians of architecture consider the al-Karimiyya Madrasa to be one of the institutions that emerged under Mamluk rule after the city of Jerusalem achieved stability and was thriving as a religious center after the successive defeats of the Mongols and the Crusaders by the Muslims.
Asali, Kamil J., ed. 1997. Jerusalem in History: 3000 B.C. to the Present Day. London & New York: Kegan Paul International; New York: Columbia University Press.
Burgoyne, Michael Hamilton. 1987. Mamluk Jerusalem, An Architectural Study. London: Published on behalf of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem by the World of Islam Festival Trust.
Hawari, Mahmoud. 2007. Ayyubid Jerusalem (1187-1250): An Architectural and Archaeological Study. BAR International Series, 1628. Oxford: Archaeopress.
Al-Ulaymi, Mujir al-Din. 1973. Al uns al-jalil bi-tarikh al Quds wa’l-Khalil. Amman: Maktabat al-Muhtasib.
Al-Umari, Ahmad Ibn Yahya and Kamil al-Jaburi (ed). 2010. Masalik al-absar fi mamalik al-amsar. Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyyah.