Madrasa al-Firdaws, whose name means “paradise,” is located some distance outside
the medieval city walls of Aleppo in the neighborhood known as al-Maqamat. Its
patron was Dayfa Khatun, the wife Ayyubid sultan al-Malik al-Zahir Ghazi, and
the effective queen of the region between 1236 and 1242. She is one of the most
prominent architectural patrons in Syrian history, having established large
endowments for the maintenance and operation of her charitable foundations.An inscription mentions that the
madrasa’s “construction was ordered” in 1236/633 AH, but the attribution in the
same inscription to Dayfa Khatun makes this problematic given her regnal dates
of 1236-1242/633-640. It is thus possible that the inscription refers to the
foundation rather than the completion of the complex.1
to its location outside the city walls, the madrasa was developed as a
freestanding structure, and takes the form of a rectangle surrounding a square
courtyard. The building has a stark façade made of neatly dressed stone slabs.
The building’s eleven domes that rise around its perimeter add to its
madrasa originally had four entrances: one on the east, one on the west, and
two on the north side of the building. Today, only the eastern portal is functional.
This portal takes the form of a shallow iwan with an elongated, narrow archway
and muqarnas vault.
portal leads to the courtyard through a vaulted corridor. The courtyard itself
is paved with beautiful black-and-white stone designs and is equipped with an
octagonal basin at its center. Surrounding the courtyard on three of its four
sides is a covered aisle supported with an arcade (riwaq), while the north
side is dominated by a large iwan.
bands on under the riwqas surrounding the courtyard feature a highly unusual
combination of verses in Arabic containing a combination of poetic passages
and Qur’anic text. Yasser Tabbaa has argued that together describe a series of mystical (Sufi) practices that the original residents of the madrasa would have undertaken. These practices aimed at attaining a connection to the Divine, and possibly included recitation of the Qur’an,
ecstatic dancing, and the consumption of wine as a stimulant.2
the riwaqs, one comes to the domed chambers on the east, south, and west sides.
Each is one bay deep and three long. The space on the south side of the
courtyard serves as a prayer hall. Here, the mihrab dome is distinguished by an
elaborate muqarnas base and twelve small openings. The mihrab is made of veined
white marble, red porphyry and green diorite. Its niche is composed of granite
columns with muqarnas capitals. Two additional domed chambers flank the
prayer hall in the southeastern and southwestern corners of the building.
large iwan, or classroom, is across the courtyard from the prayer hall. The
walls are carved with three niches used for book storage. This iwan is backed
by a larger iwan that faces north and opens onto the exterior of the building.
Though this iwan currently faces a wall due to the dense urban growth around
al-Firdaws, it is believed to have been originally open to a walled garden and
a large pool. Yasser Tabbaa compares this double-sided iwan in al-Firdaws to
similar iwans in Baghdad madrasas, palatial structures in Mardin and early
Islamic palaces in Samarra and Bust, tracing its origins to the palatial
typology. Residential cells are located in the northeastern and northwestern
parts of the building.3
Ball, Warwick. Syria A Historical and Architectural Guide, 134. New York: Interlink Books, 1994.
Herzfeld, Ernst. Matériaux pour un Corpus inscriptionum arabicarum. Part 2: Syrie du nord. Inscriptions et monuments d’Alep, vol. 1, pt. 2, pp.297-302. 2 vols. in 3 parts. Cairo: Institut Francais d'archéologie orientale, 1954-1956.
Rihawi, Abdul Qader. Arabic Islamic Architecture in Syria, 138. Damascus: Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, 1979.
Tabbaa, Yasser. Constructions of Power and Piety in Medieval Aleppo, 46-48, 142, 168-171. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.