In the heart of Old Cairo, near the Al-Fakhareen district and where Egypt’s most authentic handicrafts are showcased to people in Souk Al-Fustat, lies one of the biggest mosques in Egypt and the one with the most important history to tell.
Built in AH21 (AD642), the old mosque, or Amr ibn al-Aas Mosque, was the first mosque in Egypt and Africa; it was also the fourth biggest mosque in the Islamic world.
The district the mosque was built in was the country’s religious capital since ancient Egypt. Back then, it was called “kheer’aha”, which means the land of fights. This place is where the ancient Egyptians used to idolise Ra, or Re, the ancient Egyptian sun god.
This place is one of the places where the Holy Family was hiding, and where Amr ibn al-Aas set up his tent to beleaguer the fort of the Romans in order to conquer Egypt.
The mosque has three legends. The first was about the well in the middle of it; people thought that the well was enchanted and if a woman took water from that well, she would get married, and if she already was, she would get pregnant.
The second legend is about the mosque’s pillars. There are two pillars in the mosque. It is said that if you doubt someone is telling the truth, all one would had to do was to make him/her try to pass between the two pillars. If they could pass between the columns, they were honest. If he/she could not, they were deemed a liar.
The last legend is about the Mihrab of Nafisa, or the place where one of the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughters used to constantly pray in. Hence, it is believed that this place is blessed; that is why people pray in the same spot inside the mosque, with the belief that if they wipe their hands with the sign “amen” in that place, they could receive blessings and their prayers will be answered.
The design of the mosque was inspired by Coptic and Jewish art. As for the mosque’s minaret, its style was taken from the Jewish style. The minaret is a tall, slender tower on a mosque, from which Muslims are called to prayer.
The pulpit was inspired by Coptic art. It was a gift from Al-Muqawqis to Amr ibn al-Aas, Al-Muqawqis was mentioned in Islamic history as a ruler of Egypt before and during the Arab Islamic conquest of the country.
The pulpit caused dispute between Amr ibn al-Aas and Omar ibn al-Khattab, the caliph at the time. Some people tried to stir up trouble, so they complained to Omar ibn al-Khattab that the ruler of Egypt, Amr ibn al-Aas, prays on the heads of worshippers. Therefore, to stop this from occurring, Omar ibn al-Khattab ordered to get rid of that pulpit. To please Omar ibn al-Khattab, Amr ibn al-Aas removed the pulpit until the caliph’s death, after which it was returned to the mosque.
Amr ibn al-Aas Mosque was the first university, even before Al-Azhar. In the mosque, they held science sessions. There was a seat of judges to judge among the people on conflicting issues.
Despite its historical importance over the years, the mosque suffered from several acts of sabotage.
The first was by a vizier named Shawar who was the last de facto ruler of the Fatimid state. The vizier learned that one of the crusades was aiming to enter Egypt, so he burned Cairo so that the crusaders could not enter it. The fire lasted for 45 days and the mosque was severely damaged by that fire.
Then came the French campaign, which took all the wood antiques from the mosque and burned it to warm the army.
Finally, in the era of the British occupation, they were using the mosque as a horse stable, despite the devastation the mosque suffered from. Nevertheless, it kept its basic form, with only simple restorations.