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The Attarine Mosque in Alexandria, Egypt

by Seif Kamel

The Attarine district is considered to be one of

the most interesting areas in Alexandria. It is a
sprawling antiques district. There are antique
shops piled high with European furniture and
trinkets that date back to Napoleonic times.
Here, also, the intriguing belongings of many
Europeans who fled the 1952 revolution are
up for sale.
The Attarine Mosque is located in
the middle of this unique area, on
Attarine Mosque Street. This
mosque was originally a church
dedicated to Saint Athanasius in
370 AD. When Islam came to
Egypt, the church was converted
into a small mosque, which was
built up and eventually became
known as the Mosque of a
Thousand Columns. As time
passed, this mosque started to get
old and some of its ceilings were
damaged at the beginning of the
Fatimid period.

Badr El Gamaly, the general of the

army, came to Alexandria to put
down the revolution started by his
older son, Muzafar El Dawla, who
was trying to create an
independent state apart from the
Fatimid rule in Alexandria in 1055
AD (447 H). Badr placed the city
under siege for an entire month before he was able to enter Alexandria, after which he took his
son Muzafar prisoner. Badr punished the people of Alexandria, because they helped his son in
his revolution, by ordering high taxes to be collected from everyone, Christians and Muslims
Badr took some of this money and
restored the mosque of Al Attarine
in 1057 AD (449 H), after which it
became a congregational mosque
for Friday prayers. At the time that
the Attarine Mosque was rebuilt,
Alexandria had two mosques. One
was the western mosque, or old
mosque, built by Amr Ibn El Aas
when he conquered Egypt. He
named it the "Mosque of the
Thousand Columns. The second
was the eastern, or new mosque of
Attarine, so named because of its
location in the Attarine area in
Alexandria. The word Attarine
means 'the spice dealers'. It had, at
the time, not been a
congregational mosque for some time. It was only practiced in the western mosque of Amr Ibn
El Aas before the period of Al Nassir Ibn Qalawun, who ordered the practice of Friday prayer in
the Attarine mosque continued once again.
The mosque has suffered much damage and
renovation throughout its history. In 1370 AD
(772 H), one of the columns of the mosque was
broken, although this didn’t cause any major
damage. In 773 H, the mosque was renovated
and there was a small garden placed beside it,
which was a custom in mosques in North
African countries and Spain. However, in the
Mamluk and Ottoman periods the mosque was
neglected. Therefore, the ceiling and the walls of
the mosque were damaged. When Abbas II
became the ruler of Egypt in 1901, he ordered
his men to plan a whole renovation process for
the mosque. What we see today is the result of
that renovation.
The mosque was designed in a rectangular shape
that appears triangular from outside, with the
minaret in the corner of the triangle in the
southeastern part of the mosque. The mosque
actually has two facades. The first one is in the
northeast portion of the mosque where the main
entrance door is located. The other entrance door
of the mosque is located on the eastern side of
the mosque, and it leads to the mausoleum of the
mosque. The southern part of the mosque consists of eight commercial stores. The profit from
these stores is used to pay for the expenses of the mosque.
However, perhaps the most alluring
element of this mosque is its minarets,
which many believe to be one of the most
beautiful in Egypt. It consists of four
levels. The first level or base of the
minaret is square in shape. The second
level is an octagon shape. The third level,
where the Imam stands and call for
prayer, is circular shaped and has
accurate, marvelous decorations all
around it. The fourth level is a wonderful
small circular dome with astonishing
The interior of the mosque
consists of two floors. The
first floor hosts the prayers of
men while the second floor is
only for women. The first
floor of the mosque is a
rectangular shaped area with
four huge stone double
columns that in tern support
arches that support the ceiling.

The ceiling of the middle part

of the mosque was covered
with an open square dome, or
a shokhsheikha. This is
actually more of a skylight
than a dome, with four
decorated windows on each
side. Under these windows,
there is a line of Islamic inscriptions from the Quran. Overall, the ceiling of the mosque is the
most appealing element within the mosque. It is covered with amazing paintings of geometric

The lighting of the mosque is appealing as well. There are two kinds of lanterns in the mosque.
The first type are gold plated lanterns with many arms, each holding a lamp at the end. The
second type are huge brass lanterns, such as one that hangs from the shokhsheikha. These brass
lanterns have Islamic decorations all around them.

The qibla wall, which is always on the side of the mosque facing Mecca to indicate the direction
in which Muslims should pray, lies in the northeast part of the mosque. It is where the mihrab of
the mosque is located. The mihrab of the mosque is wider than most mihrabs in mosques in
Egypt. It is decorated with green and brown paint and has two gold plated columns on its sides.
At the top of the mihrab there is a verse from the Quran which says that the angels asked the
Muslims to pray in the direction of the mihrab.
The minbar (basically the Islamic equivalent to the pulpit always located to the right of the
mihrab) of the mosque lies to the side of the mihrab and it's design is very simple. However, it is
made of one of the finest kinds of wood. The door of the minbar has gold plated designs all
around it and there is a small triangle shaped dome at the top.

A visit to the Attarine Mosque is very interesting for various reasons, one being to see how this
historic mosque has transformed through time. The only remaining original item is the stone
stating that the mosque was built by Badr El Gamaly. Another reason for visiting the mosque is
to see the wonderful architecture, including one of the most beautiful minarets in Egypt.
Enjoying the variety of shops while walking through the Attarine district is also always

The double columns supporting arches surrounding the shokhsheikha