Paradise Present

Volume 48, Issue 3 :: By Tammy Gaber • Photographs by Ashraf Hani

Approach to the Mosque of Sultan Hassan in Cairo.

Approach to the Mosque of Sultan Hassan in Cairo.

The imagined and manifested images of Paradise in Islam

The aspiration of paradise was embedded in the daily consciousness and imagination of Muslims through their prayer, scripture, and invocations to God. The brilliance of paradise described in the Qur’an did not remain in the textual imagination alone. Throughout the centuries and in all regions the religion has spread, followers have attempted to imagine paradise on Earth physically. From the objects commissioned of lamps, kursi, doors, and the portable verdure on carpets, the abstraction and recreation of paradise was wholly composed within the constructs and mediation of architecture: paradise was reimagined again and again as a shadow of what is possible and more importantly as an offering to God.

To the followers of a religion born in the desert, the verdure and ideals of paradise in the Qur’an were represented in objects and in architecture as exemplified by the objects commissioned for the 14th-century Mamluk madrasa mosque of Sultan Hassan in Cairo, and the encompassing architecture. The Sultan Hassan madrasa mosque was the height,1 if not the epitome, of ambitious Mamluk architectural patronage that creatively combined elements of extant architectural innovations in the city and region and of contemporaneous influences.2 The Mamluks’ active patronage of the arts, scholarship, and pious buildings was an essential aspect of their reign, interpreting the Muslim requirement of charity on a large scale:

When a human being dies, his doings come to an end except in three cases, [if he leaves behind] an ongoing charity, or beneficial knowledge, or a virtuous offspring to pray for him.3

The act of patronage of such a charitable institution, like the madrasa-mosque, regardless of other political motivations and ambitions, to the medieval Muslim mind would have clearly been an act to earn entry into paradise. Layered within this pious act, the images of paradise were abstracted though geometries, forms, and colors and represented cohesively throughout the architectural complex of the madrasa-mosque reinforcing this space as a gateway to promised hereafter.

Entrance portal to the Hassan mosque is rich in images of nature.

Entrance portal to the Hassan mosque is rich in images of nature.

Commissioned Objects: Lamps, Kursi, Doors, and Carpets

Within the madrasa-mosque spaces, forests of oil lamps were suspended from long metal chains. Those in place today are replicas of the originals, a number which are on display in museums.4 The original lamps demonstrated various designs with emphasis on Qur’anic scripture, foliage, and sometimes a royal seal.5 The scripture quoted on the lamps was from the “Light” chapter:

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is as a niche in which there is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as if it had been a glittering star, kindled from the blessed olive tree, neither eastern nor western, whose oil is about to illuminate although no fire touches it. Light on light, God guides to His Light whom He wills! And God propounds parables for humanity and God is Knowing of everything. The light is lit in houses God gave permission to be lifted up and that His Name be remembered in it. Glorifying Him in the first part of the day and the eventide. 6

Plan of the Mosque of Sultan Hassan.

Plan of the Mosque of Sultan Hassan.

In the Mamluk era this specific passage was often placed on the lamps commissioned for mosques and at Sultan Hassan, or was written in gilded ceramics with ornate naskh script on an elaborate floral background.7 The associations to paradise were accentuated with the floral designs filling all other surfaces of the lamps, and the light that projected through their transparencies and contrasted with the opaque presence of the enameled text. The path to paradise was translated from the text to exquisite physical objects, that when suspended by the dozens and softly lighting the space, must have been ethereal—providing just enough light in the massive spaces for prayer and contemplation.

The kursi, the stand for the large-scale-manuscript Qur’an commissioned for the mosque (one of the few furniture elements in the madrasa mosque), was located in the mausoleum room behind the eastern iwan. The embellishment of the kursi paralleled the work on the doors of the mosque with elaborate geometric patterns forming an array of multi-pointed stars. Specifically, at Sultan Hassan the decorative program of the kursi, the original main door,8 and the mihrab door9 focused on a series of complex 16-point stars. Stars in their celestial form referenced the heavens, but the number of points on the stars was designed with mathematical and cosmological significance. Traditionally, various numbers were interpreted as expressions of divine and esoteric concepts.10 In Mamluk tradition the number eight represented the important transition between the terrestrial earth (formed by squares) to the heavenly infinity of the circle, or dome because the number of angels or rows of angles that supported the throne of God numbered eight.11 The doubling of the eight-point star into 16 and the use octagonal shapes12 on the kursi, interpreted in aesthetic and mathematical terms the rows of angles supporting the word of God in the physical Qur’an it supported.

The same types of stars appeared on the original doors of the madrasa mosque and on the smaller scale doors of the minbar (pulpit). The verdure of paradise was not absent; rather, within the shapes composing the stars on the metal doors of the minbar and main door, small vegetal forms were embossed and punctured out so that at close proximity the stars dissolved into arrays of petal-like elements. The consistency of the geometry in the mosque suggested a cohesive collaboration between the numerous trades and craftsmen and pointed to an overall agenda of focusing on the transition and support for the divine appropriate to the aspiration of the complex commissioned.

For Muslims, the primary object facilitating worship is the carpet—both historically and in contemporary practice. For nomadic and traveling Muslims, the carpet was a portable memory of physical gardens and a reminder of promised paradise with literal representation of verdure or abstractions in colorful geometric patterns that reflected the ordered layout common in Islamic gardens. The prayer carpet in particular became the virtual portal to Mecca and paradise. Individual prayer carpets were of a smaller and specific range of dimensions allowing for efficient portability and use.

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Large extant Mamluk carpets featured dominant geometric designs often with a central octagonal medallion and combinations of squares and stars that were multiples of eights and were predominantly red with detailing of geometrical and vegetal forms in other colors such as green and blue13 and contained Egyptian local vegetal forms such as papyrus, lotus, cypress, and palm trees.14

Smaller Mamluk prayer rugs from the 15th century demonstrated the open field in the center framed by and arch made of scrolls and an octagonal form at the bottom.15 Other 16th-century Ottoman-made individual prayer rugs had the same distinctive format of an open space framed by arches and columns with a hanging lamp were influential on village-made prayer rug designs and on carpet making in regional centers of the Ottoman empire.16 In the 17th century, Egyptian-made group prayers rugs in the form of long rectangles, for Yeni Cami in Istanbul, had multiple mihrab forms depicted on them (from 10 to 132 forms)17 indicating the popularization of a mosque type of carpet derived from the design of individual carpets that in effect created rows and rows of arches on columns. This virtual architecture, abundant with weaved representations of lamps, served to create multiple portals of prayer.

What the carpets commissioned for Sultan Hassan madrasa mosque looked like can be inferred from these examples and due to their portability, the carpets were probably relocated more than once and worshippers simply brought their own to pray on. Themes of the virtual portal connecting to Mecca and octagonal medallions framed by verdure emphasize transitions to the hereafter through the designs.

The Architecture of Paradise

The architectural design of Sultan Hassan embodied ideas of imagined paradise. The approach to the madrasa mosque led to a set of stairs under the monumental entry portal, which was emphasized by the large epigraphy and the complex muqarnas (stalactite-like pendentives) detailing at the apex proclaiming this building as a path to paradise. Passing though the monumental door elaborately covered with 16-point stars, worshippers were brought to a dark vestibule that led to a darker and narrower, megaz (multiple-bent entrance hall). Moving through the tunnel-like megaz was an exercise that phenomenologically separated the worshipper from the outside world: it dulled the sound with three-meter-thick stone walls, it dulled sight and allowed for moments of guidance only at every sharp turn (three times) where the small opening above permitted for momentary light and air flow to help orient the worshipper.

The experience of the prolonged entry allowed for the clear separation of the public world into another, unearthly place. At the end of the megaz, the opening to the courtyard was an overwhelming sight: the spatial expanse, bright light, and the completely different soundscape of the water fountain and lingering birds hushed the loud, busy, outer world. The abundant light, in contrast to the dark megaz, coming from the courtyard opening above, along with the four-pointed iwans led the gaze heavenward. The unpredicted void, roughly more than a cube, seemed carved out of the monumental mass of the madrasa mosque.

Underfoot in the large courtyard18 the cool paving of polychrome marble inscribed a paradise garden. Strips, squares, triangles, and octagons cut from white-, black-, grey-blue-, yellow-, and red-colored marble fit together to form a large composite covering for the whole courtyard—similar to the perfected expressions in Islamic gardens and paradise carpets.19 The effect of the polychrome marble floor was amplified by the stark, four-story massive and unembellished (save for the epigraphy) walls and iwans. The four iwans (spacious teaching and praying areas formed out of deep pointed vaults four stories high) of the madrasa-mosque complex equally connected to the courtyard. The layout of the courtyard floors was divided into a nine-square grid, with the fountain at the center. The patterns in the eight remaining squares propelled the visual reading of the space in counter-clockwise motion (like circumambulation at the Ka’ba) through the rotation of geometries. All nine squares had geometrical compositions with a central four- or eight-point figure and multiples of this geometry emerged around them. The rotations of geometries occurred on multiple scales within the composition using shapes and color reinforce the dynamic quality of the courtyard space.20 The “geometric choreography” unified the horizontal composition and served to link the various spaces of the madrasa mosque.

In the center was a covered fountain with the bulbous wooden dome resting on eight marble columns, and with marble stools facing the marble water basin. Underscoring the importance of the number eight (angles supporting the throne of God), the Throne Verse was written around the dome of the fountain:

God! There is not god but He, The Living, The Eternal. Neither slumber takes Him nor sleep. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in and on the earth, who would intercede with Him but with His permission? He knows what is in front of them and what is behind them. And they will not comprehend anything of His knowledge, but what He willed. His Seat encompassed the heavens and the earth and He is not hampered by their safe keeping. And He is the Lofty, The Sublime.21

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Within this verse, which was also inscribed on the interior of the mausoleum dome, the basic tenant of the faith—affirmation of a single God—was expressed. In the transitory, octagonal space of the fountain, the worshiper through the purification washing ritual shifted to the act of prayer.

The eastern iwan, the largest of the four, was the main iwan of the complex and was reported by the 14th-century historian al-Maqrizi as the largest in the Medieval world.22 On the interior surface of the iwan, the continuous band of epigraphic text from the Victory chapter surrounded dense floral designs and proclaimed entry to paradise as a victory. From this space the call to prayer was made, the Friday khutba sermon was given from the top of the elaborate minbar, and prayer was directed with the polychrome marble mihrab and marble dado finishes on the walls. As in all of the iwans, the lamps hung by the dozens framing the spaces and illuminating them when there was no daylight and the carpets were spread facing Mecca and reinforcing the virtual portal connecting to the center of their world.

Behind the main iwan was the mausoleum room—the apex of the journey through the spaces. With three external walls, and large deep-set grilled windows that immediately pierced into the exterior life of the city the mausoleum created a public presence of the dead that was imagined by the Mamluks to allow for a continued existence in the city and to facilitated the back-and-forth flow of baraka (blessings). From the large kursi, continuous reading of the Qur’an (by scholars supported by the madrasa mosque) for salvation of the sultan was recited out loud and heard in the street would be reciprocated for intercessions by those walking by. Although Sultan Hassan himself was not buried there,23 the space of the mausoleum had a many-fold importance and reinforced the desire of an earthly expression of paradise.

Inside at the center was the elevated and decorated casket, facing the mihrab—the dead in Islam were buried lying on their right side facing Mecca so that in death the body was connected to the center. Above, the dome rested on painted and gilded wooden pendentives, and a cantilevered octagonal frame hung with no other purpose than to reinforce the mystical connection of earthly square base, octagonal transition, and the heavenly sphere of the dome that rested on seven rows of wooden muqarnasa like the seven levels of heavens.24 Emphasizing the transition of earth to heaven, behind the cantilevered octagonal frame, was the epigraphic text of the Throne verse25 in large gold and green colors in a band encircling the mausoleum interior, similar to the relationship of the dome of the ablutions fountain.

The worshipper, after paying respects in the mausoleum, returned back through to the main iwan and the view of the extents of the madrasa mosque on the way out culminated the simultaneous qualities of serenity, silence, mass, and space that reinforced the transformative power of space—one that glimpsed momentarily a paradisiacal world.

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Paradise Manifested Then and Now

Sultan Hassan was an exemplary Mamluk madrasa mosque architecturally, coupled with the objects and elements commissioned for it. The entire composition demonstrated a uniquely sophisticated cohesive expression of the conceptual idea of paradise still palpable by worshippers today.

What does this mean to contemporary worshippers and designers? The importance of the unifying conceptual idea of religion inspiring and manifesting itself in design is not anachronistic, or exclusively the domain of medieval design. Paradise in the written imagination is ever present in contemporary Muslims’ minds. The text still speaks the same ideas, the rituals of prayer remain the same. Architects, artists, and patrons need to collaborate and continue to imagine a space with objects that layer together pragmatically, aesthetically, and with expression in contemporary language the Islamic ideas of paradise.

  1. Rabbat, Nasser. Mamluk History Through Architecture Monuments, Culture and Politics in Medieval Egypt and Syria. (London, UK: I.B. Tauris, 2010).
  2. Extensive and excellent studies of the architecture of the Mamluks of Egypt include: Behrens-AbouSeif, Doris. Cairo of the Mamluks. A History of the Architecture an Its Culture. (London: IB Tauris, 2007). Creswell, K.A.C. The Muslim Architecture of Egypt. (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1979). Rabbat, Nasser. Mamluk History Through Architecture Monuments, Culture and Politics in Medieval Egypt and Syria. (London, UK: I.B. Tauris, 2010).
  3. Saying of the Prophet Muhammad, narrated by Abou Hurairah in the 9thC collection of Hadith: Imam Muslim, Sahih Muslim. Volume 4 Book of Wills. Hadith number 4223.
  4. Islamic Museum in Cairo, Bibliotheca Alexandrina Library museum.
  5. Ward, Rachel. “Mosque Lamps and Enameled Glass: Getting the Dates Right,” The Arts of the Mamluks in Egypt and Syria – Evolution and Impact. Doris Behrens-Abouseif, ed. (Bonn: Bonn University Press, 2012). pp 66-68.
  6. Sura al-Nur ‘The Light’ The Sublime Quran. English Translation. Trans. Laleh Bakhtiar. (Chicago: Library of Islam, 2009). 24:35.
  7. Al Basha, Hassan. Mawsuah al-Amara wa al-Athar wa al-Fanoon al-Islamaia. Arabic.[Encyclopedia of Islamic Architecture, Archeology and Arts]. (Beirut: Awraq Sharqai, 1999).
  8. The original bronze doors of the Sultan Hassan Madrasa-mosque were illegally obtained by the Sultan al-Mu’ayyad who re-installed them in his own mosque. See Behrens-Abouseif, Doris. Islamic Architecture in Cairo an Introduction. (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1989). p 125.
  9. Broug, Eric. Islamic Geometric Design. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013). pp 170-171.
  10. Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Islamic Science and Illustrated Study. (Kent: World of Islam Festival Publishing Company Ltd. 1976). p 88.
  11. Gabr, Aly. Influence of Traditional Muslim Beliefs on Medieval Religious Architecture. A study of the Bahri Mamluk Period. Unpublished PhD Thesis. (Department of Architecture, University of Edinburgh, 1992).p 475.
  12. Broug, Eric. Islamic Geometric Design. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013). pp 88-91.
  13. Atil, Esin. Renaissance of Islam Art of the Mamluks. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981). Pp 126-127.
  14. Atil, Esin. Renaissance of Islam Art of the Mamluks. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981). Pp 244-247.
  15. Thompson, Jon. ‘Late Mamluk Carpets: Some New Observations’ The Arts of the Mamluks in Egypt and Syria – Evolution and Impact. Doris Behrens-Abouseif, ed. (Bonn: Bonn University Press, 2012). pp 130-31.
  16. Bloom, Jonathan and Sheila Blair. Islamic Arts. London: (Phaidon Press Limited, 1997). Pp 376-377.
  17. Atil, Esin. Renaissance of Islam Art of the Mamluks. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981). Pp 227.
  18. Moussa, Muhammad. Courtyard Floor of Sultan Hassan Complex, Cairo, Egypt: Full Documentation and Geometric Analysis. Unpublished M.Arch Thesis. (School of Architecture, Carleton University, 2001).
  19. Architect Hassan Fathy (b.1900 d.1988) in walking through the Sultan Hassan Madrasa described the polychrome paving as images of the Garden of Paradise, abstractions of garden plans with rivers, fruit trees and fields. Described in: Gabr, Aly. Influence of Traditional Muslim Beliefs on Medieval Religious Architecture. A study of the Bahri Mamluk Period. Unpublished PhD Thesis. (Department of Architecture, University of Edinburgh, 1992). Pp 475-477.
  20. Moussa, Muhammad. Courtyard Floor of Sultan Hassan Complex, Cairo, Egypt: Full Documentation and Geometric Analysis. Unpublished M.Arch Thesis. (School of Architecture, Carleton University, 2001). P 167.
  21. Sura al-Baqarah ‘The Cow’ The Sublime Quran. English Translation. Trans. Laleh Bakhtiar. (Chicago: Library of Islam, 2009). 2:255.
  22. Maqrizi, Khitat. Qtd. In Behrens-Aboseif. Islamic Architecture in Cairo.
  23. Sultan Hassan had a tumultuous reign and was murdered before the completion of his madrasa-mosque and the body was not recovered. See Behrens-AbouSeif, Doris. Cairo of the Mamluks. A History of the Architecture an Its Culture. (London: IB Tauris, 2007). P 201.
  24. Gabr, Aly. Influence of Traditional Muslim Beliefs on Medieval Religious Architecture. A study of the Bahri Mamluk Period. Unpublished PhD Thesis. (Department of Architecture, University of Edinburgh, 1992).p 487.
  25. Sura al-Tawbah ‘Repentance’ The Sublime Quran. English Translation. Trans. Laleh Bakhtiar. (Chicago: Library of Islam, 2009). 9:21-22.


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