Jawhar As-Siqilli was commander-in-chief of Al-Mu’izz Li-Din Allâh, first Caliph of the Fatimid dynasty. He conquered Egypt and founded the city of Cairo; then, he began the construction of the Al Azhar Mosque. The work started in the month of Jumâdâ Al-Awwal of the year 359 A.H. (970 C.E.) and completed in the month of Ramadan of the year 361 AH (972 C.E.).
Al Azhar was the first mosque built in the city of Cairo, and it is today the oldest monument dating from the Fatimid era in Egypt. The origin of his name was not unanimous. Nevertheless, it seems that the Fatimids called it “Al-Azhar” in honor of Fatimah Az-Zahrâ ‘, the daughter of the Prophet – peace and blessings of God on Him.
At the time of its construction, this mosque was likely an open courtyard, surrounded by three galleries, the largest being the sanctuary of five corridors. A transept, slightly higher, crosses the middle of the sanctuary, from the inner court to the Qiblah wall, and ended with a dome above the mihrab. The two corners of the corridor were near the wall of the Qiblah. They were covered by two domes of identical shapes. Unfortunately, no trace of it left. Each of the galleries reaches three depths. The arches surrounding the inner courtyard rest on rectangular pillars while all the other arches rest on marble columns of different sizes.
Around 400 A.H. (1009 C.E.), Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah, the third Fatimid Caliph of Egypt restored Al Azhar mosque. All that remains of this restoration is a wooden door currently kept by the Museum of Arab Art in Cairo.
At the end of the Fatimid dynasty (6th century of the Hegira – XII century C.E.), the covered part was enlarged. A corridor was added on each side of the inner court whose arcades rest on marble columns. In the middle of the eastern hall and at the beginning of the transept, is a dome whose interior is adorned with stucco decorations and friezes with Koranic inscriptions in Kufic script. A large number of stucco ornaments and Kufic inscriptions are still visible all around the arches of the transept.
The first extension, after the Fatimid dynasty, was the At-Taybarsiyyah University, which is to the right of Al-Muzayyinin Gate, on Al-Azhar Square. This University was built by the Emir `Alâ ‘Ad-Din Al-Khāzindārî, commander of the armies, in 709 AH (1309 CE). The most important aspect of this University is its finely worked, remarkably proportioned marble mihrab. It has harmonious polychrome ornaments and a golden mosaic.
Subsequently, Aqbughawiyah Madrasah was added, as opposed to At-Taybarsiyyah and the left of the Gate as mentioned earlier. The Emir Aqbughâ `Abd Al-Wâhid built it, who was the Ustadâr of Sultan An-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalâwûn, in 740 A.H. (1339 E.C.). The entrance of Aqbughawiyah Madrasah is known for the beauty of its marble.
Towards the year 844 A.H. (1441 C.E.), Jawhar Al-Qunuqbâ’î built Madrasah Jawhariyyah, on the north side of the sanctuary. It has two entrances: one on the side of the mosque and the other on the outside. The Emir built a dome over a tomb where he was buried. Despite its small size, the artistic wonders it brings together distinguish this Madrasah.
In 873 A.H. (1468/69 E.C.), Sultan Qayt-Bay rebuilt the main entrance between the Madrasah Taybarsiyyah and Aqbughawiyah, which overlooks the inner courtyard and to the right of which he also built a minaret. These two buildings, like the other works of the Sultan, are richly decorated. He added a gallery for the Maghrebians as well as some cabinets.
In 920 A.H. (1514 C.E.), Sultan Qansuh Al-Ghuri built a high minaret at two peaks, next to Qayt Bay. Notable features of this minaret are the two separate stairwells from the first floor. They ensure that if two people climb both stairs at the same time, they will not see each other until they reach the upper level.
The most substantial extensions, brought to this mosque were those undertaken by the Emir ‘Abd Ar-Rahman Katkhudâ who, in 1167 A.H. (1753/4 E.C.), built:
- The large gallery behind the old mihrâb whose floor and ceiling level is higher than that of the oldest part
- A mihrab and a marble pulpit side by side
- The entrance “Baba As-Sa`dydah” at the end of the south wall overlooking the learning desk of the Koran
- A minaret to the right of the last entrance
- A dome over his tomb
- The entry “Bab Ash Shurbah” and a minaret next to it.
The Emir also renovated the facade of the Madrasah Taybarsiyyah and connected it to the Madrasah Aqbughawiyah by constructing a double entrance known as “Bab Al-Muzayyinin” and overlooking the Al-Azhar Square.
Around 1210 AD (1795 CE), Al-Wali Ibrahim Bey built a gallery for Sharqqah students. Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha Al-Kabir built another for Sinnariyyah students. The Khedive Isma’il ordered the demolition and reconstruction of the “Bab As-Sa’adah” entrance as well as the office it contained and restored the Madrasah Aqbughawiyah. Khedive Tawfiq rebuilt the gallery which had been added by ‘Abd Ar-Rahman Katkhudâ.
Restoration works were carried out continuously in this mosque until 1310 A.H. (1892-93 CE), when the Diwan al-Awqaf (Islamic Donations Directorate) revived the arches around the inner courtyard.
In 1312 A.H. (1894 E.C.) the Khedive ‘Abbas II undertook the construction of the Abbasid gallery and renovation works:
- Renovation of the northern facade of the mosque
- Restoration of the wooden fence around the inner courtyard,
- Restoration of the marble floor of the sanctuary
- Renovation of the magnificent carpets offered by the King Farûq I.