Originally built in AD 970 by the conquering Fatimid caliph al-Mu'iz, al-Azhar is the oldest university in the world. Although the Fatimids were Shi'ite, the Sunni Mamluks who ousted them recognized the importance of the institution and replaced the Shi'ite doctrine with the Sunni orthodoxy. Today the university has faculties of medicine and engineering in addition to religion, and it has auxiliary campuses across the city.
Al-Azhar's primary significance remains
as a school of religious learning. All Egyptian clerics must go through the program here before they are certified—a process that can take up to 15 years. Young men from all over the Islamic world come to study here, learning in the traditional Socratic method where students sit with a tutor until both agree that the student is ready to go on. The Shaykh of al-Azhar is not just the director of the university, but also the nation's supreme religious authority.
Built in pieces throughout the ages, al-Azhar is a mixture of architectural styles. The stucco ornamentation and the open courtyard represent early Islamic tastes; the solid stone madrasas and the ornate minarets are Mamluk; additions in the main sanctuary and its walls are Ottoman. The enclosure now measures just under 3 acres.
After you enter through the Gates of the Barbers, an Ottoman addition constructed under the auspices of Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda in 1752, remove your shoes. Then turn left to the Madrasa and Tomb of Amir Atbugha. Check out the recess in the qibla wall; an organic-shaped mosaic pattern rare to Islamic ornamentation can be found near the top.
Return to the ticketing and shoe-removal area and look up at the Gates of Sultan Qayt Bay, the second set on the way into the university. Built in 1483, they have a quality of ornamentation that verifies this Mamluk leader's patronage of architecture. The composition as a whole is masterful: from the recessed lintel to the multitier stalactite arch above the doorway, the grilles and medallions above the arch, and, finally, the finely carved minaret placed off center.
To the right of this lobby is the Madrasa of Taybars. Once ranked among the most spectacular madrasas in Mamluk Cairo, only its qibla wall remains. It is said that the ceiling was gold-plated and that Taybars, the patron, so wanted to glorify Allah that he specifically asked not to see any bills until it was completed, in 1309.
Sultan Qayt Bay's gateway opens to a spacious courtyard, quite typical of early Islamic design. Originally this court must have appeared similar to that of the Mosque of al-Hakim, but changes over the centuries have diminished that effect. The keel arches of the arcades and the stucco decoration, however, remain true to that era. The raising of the arch that indicates entrance to the main sanctuary, while a common feature of Persian and Indian Islamic architecture, remains an oddity in Arab buildings.
The main sanctuary, which was traditionally a place to pray, learn, and sleep, is part Fatimid, part Ottoman. The Ottoman extension is distinguished by a set of steps that divides it from the original. Take some time to soak in the atmosphere, and look for the two qibla walls, the painted wooden roof, the old metal gates that used to open for prayer or the poor, and the ornate stuccowork of the Fatimid section. To the right of the Ottoman qibla wall is the Tomb of 'Abdul Rahman Katkhuda, the greatest builder of the Ottoman era and the man most responsible for the post-Mamluk extension of al-Azhar. To the extreme left along the Fatimid qibla wall is the small Madrasa and Mausoleum of the Eunuch Gawhar al-Qunqubay, treasurer to Sultan Barsbay. Although it is diminutive in size, the quality of the intricately inlaid wooden doors, the stained-glass windows, and the interlacing floral pattern on the dome make it a deserved detour.
Return to the courtyard. To the right of the minaret of Qayt Bay is the minaret of al-Ghuri, the tallest in the complex. Built in 1510, it is similar to, but not a copy of, Qayt Bay's: it is divided into three sections (the first two are octagonal) like its predecessor, but it is tiled rather than carved. The final section, consisting of two pierced rectangular blocks, is unusual, and not at all like Qayt Bay's plain cylinder.
A restoration project has left the complex shiny and clean and has made the custodians especially sensitive about its upkeep. But the beauty of al-Azhar, unlike many of the other monuments, stems in part from the fact that it is alive and very much in use.
Gama' al-Azhar, Shar'a al-Azhar, Cairo, Egypt