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Al-Rifai Mosque

Friday, April 15, 2011

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Al-Rifai Mosque is the last of the massive mosques built in Cairo. It was completed over a 43 year time span from 1869 to 1912. This mosque is also known as the “Royal Mosque” since it contains the burial tomb of several of the last Egyptian kings.

The mosque is rectangular in shape measuring 6500 square meters, while 1767 square meters is reserved for prayer. The remaining area is a mausoleum for the royal family. The mosque was commissioned by Khoshiar Hanem, Khedive Ismail’s mother, in 1869. It was built with the intention of using part of it as a mausoleum for the royal family. The most important engineer at the time, Hussein Fahmy Pasha, was responsible for building the mosque.

The mosque was built on the former site of the Rifai zawiya. Shaikh Ali al-Refai was a medieval Islamic spiritual figure. The zawiya was a pilgrimage site for locals who believed that the tomb had mystical healing properties. It houses his tomb, along with that of Yehya Al-Ansary, a companion of Prophet Muhammad, and Ali Abi-Shubbak. Although Al-Rifai is not actually buried in the mausoleum or even in Egypt altogether, the site is still popular as people make pilgrimage to Al-Rifai mausoleum, moving their hands across the sandlewood screen to seek his blessing and help in their personal lives. Such practices are widespread across Egypt, but are largely frowned upon by Sunni scholars. Thousands of visitors still come every year to celebrate Al-Rifai’s birthday.

As stated earlier, building the mosque was commissioned in 1869 and its contstruction was moving at a good pace, until its engineer as well as Khoshayr Hanem unexpectedly died in 1885. Khoshayr Hanem was buried in Al-Rifai Mosque. Her son carried, Khedive Ismail, carried on the task of building the mosque until he died in 1894. He was also buried next to his mother. These events have resulted in delaying the construction of the mosque for 25 years.

During Hussein Hilmy II rule, he ordered Max Herz, an Austrian engineer, and his Italian assistant Carlo Virgilio Silvagni, to finish the work on the mosque. The original architect of the mosque, Hussein Fahmy Pasha, did not leave any plans for the final decorations for the mosque. Max Herz ended up developing his own decorations for the mosque. The most striking feature is the use of the circular objects as in typical Mamluk architecture, but using them in such a way that it resembles a cross.

The mosque now contains a large mashrabiya screen (wooden interlaced screen work), where several royal tombs lie. Khedive Ismail (who ruled 1863-1879) is buried there along with his three wives. One of his wives was a Christian who converted to Islam before her death. Her tomb is marked with a cross along with Quranic inscriptions. Sultan Hussein Kamel (who briefly ruled from 1914-1917) is buried there along with his wife. He was only one of two Khedives who held the title of Sultan. Although he ruled briefly and did not contribute much to the country, he has the largest tomb in the mosque. King Fuad, who reigned from 1917 to 1936, and his mother are buried there. It also contains the tomb of the last monarch of Egypt, King Farouk I, who was crowned in 1936 and dethroned in 1952 died in exile in Italy in 1965. His body was returned to Egypt and buried in Al-Rifai Mosque. The mosque briefly held the burial place of Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran who died in exile in 1944. After World War II, his body was returned to Iran from Egypt. Part of the burial chamber is currently occupied by his son, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi (or Muhammad Reda Bahlawy as pronounced in Arabic), who died in exile in Cairo in 1980. Thousands of Iranians come to his tomb to celebrate his birthday every year.

The interior of the mosque is very grand. The minbar and mihrab were built in typical Mamluk style, which was popular at the time, since the Mamluks were associated with a time when Egypt possessed great military and economic strength. The minbar is decorated in mother of pearl. The door is made of wood and decorated with abanos wood and alabaster. The dome interiors are also decorated in gold.


  • [1] Williams, Caroline, Islamic Monuments in Cairo: The Practical Guide, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press 2002.

  • Keywords: Cairo, Egypt, mosque, Al-Rifai

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