One of the early Mamluk rulers of Egypt, Mansur Qalaun was originally a Tartar (Mongol) brought to Egypt as a slave. Mamluks (literally, "those owned") were first imported from the Volga to Egypt by al-Salih Ayyubi, the man buried in the tomb across the street, who used them as his personal bodyguards. Aybak, the first Mamluk ruler, and his successor, Baybars al-Bunduqdari, both had been al-Salih's slaves. Qalaun was acquired by Baybars. In short, one's lot in life could be worse than being a slave to the Sultan in medieval Cairo.
Qalaun died at the ripe old age of 70, on his way to attack the Crusader fortress of Acre in 1290. The complex that he had built (it was begun in 1284) is noteworthy for its workmanship and the diverse styles that it displays.
A hospital has existed on the site since Qalaun first saw the need for one. Only fragments of the original hospital remain. In its heyday, Qalaun's bimaristan was famous for its care of ill, and its staff was said to include
musicians and storytellers as well as surgeons capable of performing delicate eye surgery.
The madrasa and mausoleum present the complex's impressive street facade, a series of pointed-arch recesses, almost Gothic in their proportions, each one pierced with groups of three windows, a much-seen feature of Islamic architecture. Look up at the 194-foot minaret with its horseshoe-shaped arched recesses and its corniced overhang, a device used since pharaonic times. The entrance is set slightly forward up a set of steps; its semicircular arch was the first of its kind in Egypt. Beyond the entrance is a long, tall corridor with the madrasa to the left and the tomb to the right. A door at the end of the corridor used to lead to the bimaristan but has been sealed off.
The gem of the complex, however, is the mausoleum, the burial place of Qalaun and his son al-Nasir Muhammad. The chamber is dark, cool, and mammoth. In its center is a wooden grille that encloses the tombs. There is much here to suggest that Qalaun was deeply influenced by what he saw on his exploits in Palestine. The plan of the mausoleum is similar to that of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem in that it contains an octagon fit within a square. The stained glass and tall proportions have a Gothic quality that are reminiscent of Crusader churches that he saw in the Levant.