Mosque of Muhammad AliAddress Al Abageyah, El-Khalifa, Cairo Governorate, Egypt
Also known as the Alabaster Mosque, the Mosque of Muhammad Ali towers above the Egyptian capital from its vantage point atop the Citadel of Saladin. The citadel is an Islamic fortification built during medieval times as the seat of the Egyptian government and the home of the region’s rulers. It served in this capacity for almost 700 years from the 13th century onwards and is today recognized and preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Mosque of Muhammad Ali is one of the citadel’s most visited attractions, and one of the first sights to greet people arriving in the capital. Additionally, the mosque’s elevated position and striking architecture make it one of the most recognizable and well-known Islamic landmarks in all of Cairo.
The Mosque’s History
The mosque was the personal project of Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Ottoman governor, who became the de facto ruler of Egypt from 1805 to 1848. He eventually rebelled against the Ottoman sultan and is credited as the founder of modern Egypt. He commissioned the mosque in 1830 in memory of his oldest son, Tusun Pasha, who died of the plague in 1816. To make space for the new building, Muhammad Ali ordered the dilapidated remains of the citadel’s Mamluk palaces to be cleared, which served the dual purpose of helping to eradicate the legacy of the previous Mamluk Sultanate.
The mosque took 18 years to complete, mostly due to its size (it was the largest mosque built in Cairo during the first half of the 19th century). The architect was Yusuf Bushnak, who was brought to Egypt from Turkey to replicate the design of Istanbul’s famous Blue Mosque. Muhammad Ali’s decision to mimic the architecture of the Blue Mosque is symbolic of his defiance of the Ottoman sultan and his attempt to establish Cairo as a rival to Istanbul. The message was underlined by the fact that this architectural style was reserved for mosques built on the authority of the Sultan, which Muhammad Ali’s mosque was not. Ironically, despite its intention as a declaration of Egyptian independence, the mosque is uniquely Ottoman in style.
In 1857, Muhammad Ali’s body was removed from his family mausoleum in Cairo’s necropolis and interred in a marble tomb within the mosque. Structural insecurities were discovered within the central dome in 1931, which caused then-ruler King Fuad to order a complete restoration to make it safe again.
Things to See
From the outside, the mosque is an impressive prospect, with a large central dome that stands over 170 feet high. It is surrounded by four smaller domes and four more semicircular domes, with two graceful minarets that soar 275 feet into the sky. The layout is divided into two main parts: the mosque and prayer area in the east, and an open courtyard in the west. Although the primary building material is limestone, the square and the lower story of the mosque are tiled in white alabaster up to a height of 36 feet (hence its alternative name).
The courtyard is surrounded by columned arcades. In the middle of the northwestern arcade is a clock tower, which was gifted to Muhammad Ali by King Louis Philippe I of France as a thank you for the Luxor obelisk that now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. However, the clock arrived damaged and has never been repaired. The center of the courtyard stands an octagonal ablution fountain, with an elaborately carved wooden roof topped by a leaded dome.
Once you step inside the mosque itself, the first impression is one of incredible space enhanced by the various domes set into the ceiling. In total, the interior covers 440 square feet. The ceiling is a particular highlight, with its ornate paintings, inlays, and gilded accents, all of which reflect the light cast by an enormous circular chandelier. Look for the six medallions arranged around the central dome, which bear the Arabic names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, and the first four caliphs. Unusually, the mosque has two minbars, or pulpits. The first is the original, made of gilded wood and rumored to be one of the largest in Egypt. The second, marble minbar was gifted in 1939 by King Farouk, one of Muhammad Ali’s many descendants.
Don’t miss the marble mihrab, or prayer niche, or the tomb of Muhammad Ali himself. The latter lies to the right of the main entrance and is made of white marble adorned with floral motifs. After your visit, be sure to enjoy the spectacular view from the mosque terrace. In the foreground lies the Mosque-Madrassa Sultan Hassan and the rest of Islamic Cairo. On the horizon, the modern skyscrapers of downtown Cairo beckon, while on clear days, it’s possible to see to the ancient Pyramids of Giza.
How to Visit
It’s easy enough to visit the mosque independently; just ask your Uber driver to take you there. However, guided tours like the ones listed on Viator offer the benefit of an expert’s insight into its history and architecture. Usually, they combine a visit to the mosque with tours of other Cairo attractions such as the Egyptian Museum, the Hanging Church, and Khan al-Khalili Bazaar. Many tours include the chance to sample traditional Egyptian cuisine at a local restaurant, and you should have the option of joining a small group or hiring a guide privately. The mosque stays open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day but is closed to visitors during Friday midday prayers. At all other times, non-Muslims are welcome to look around but must dress modestly and remove shoes before entering the mosque.
Other Citadel Attractions
After visiting Muhammad Ali Mosque, it’s well worth taking a stroll around the rest of the citadel, which stands out for its stunning Mamluk and Ottoman architecture and its panoramic city views. There are several other mosques to visit within the citadel. These include Al-Nasir Muhammad Mosque (built by a Mamluk sultan in the early 14th century) and 16th-century Sulayman Pasha Mosque (the first in Egypt to be built in the Ottoman style).
The citadel also has four museums. Al-Gawhara Palace Museum was commissioned by Muhammad Ali in 1814 and houses opulent belongings, including his throne and a vast chandelier, also gifted by the French king. The National Military Museum tells the story of the Egyptian Army’s conflicts throughout history and is housed in the old Haram Palace, while the Police Museum and the Carriage Museum focus on political assassinations and royal carriages through the ages, respectively.