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Mamluk Heritage in Jerusalem

By Ali Qleibo

Jerusalem is a treasure trove of architectural monuments: Umayyad, Abbasid, Ayyubid, Mamluk, and Ottoman architectural heritage pervades Al-Quds al-Sharif; namely, Al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), both the lower and upper courtyards, and all the access streets and alleys that lead to the gates of Al-Aqsa Mosque with its sublime noble serenity and inalienable Muslim Arab identity.Wealthy dowagers, emirs, and sultans are among the illustrious pious philanthropists who bequeathed Jerusalem its majestic edifices and grandiose façades: Sitt Tanshiq, Tankiz, Qalawoon, Qaytbay, Barquq, Barka Khan, Baybars, Arghun El-Kamilly, and others. A motley array of personages that included slave traders, palace tutors, royal princesses from East and Central Asia – all seeking a safe haven, distant from Mongol invasion; penitent sisters from Mardin, Sufi friends in personal quest for inner peace, and deposed princes searched for redemption in Al-Quds al-Sharif. Each endowment has its story of love and hate, loyalty and treachery, fear and faith. Behind these exquisitely designed picturesque façades they sought inner peace. The palatial portals were doorways to personal redemption and paradise; the sumptuously decorated first-floor windows with iron-grid bars were windows of grace. Their splendor, the constant Qur’anic recitation, and their sheer glorious disposition compelled the passerby to stop and read al-bismallah, the first verses of the Qur’an (usually recited for the dead).The classic definition of a Mamluk is a person who, before he had reached his mature years, was purchased and brought from beyond the boundaries of the Islamic world to serve at court or in the army. His training as a devoted pious Muslim would be complemented by developing his skills in the arts of warfare, especially archery, in which the best sheikhs and masters of martial arts would be engaged. With his comrades, he helped to form a trustworthy power base for his master, devoid as the young man was of any previous social or political ties.

Throughout the Ayyubid period, and especially during the Mamluk era, Muslims from all over were drawn by the mystical allure of Al-Quds to experience its spirituality and be blessed by its holiness. The city of sacred buildings, mosques, khanqas, zawiyat, and ribats was like a magnet that attracted mystics, Sufis, religious teachers, and pious people from all corners of the Muslim world.

Through shared experience and interest, he was bound to a cohesive group with his fellow mates, with whom he had grown up in the same lodge exercising his admired talent for the art of Turkish warfare, namely, as a mounted archer. The slave status was frequently replaced through emancipation by that of clientage. Perhaps as important was the solidarity between Mamluks of the same master, which could produce powerful interest groups for social and political actions. It was a time when dreams were fulfilled: each Mamluk male could become a sultan, and each female slave could become a wife of a sultan!

The rise of the Mamluks to power as mujahideen by defeating both the Crusader armies as well as those of the invading Mongol hordes legitimized their political sovereignty as protectors of Dar al-Islam. The wars conditioned the overall militaristic outlook of the Mamluk soldier class into a society and political system heavily steeped in military pomp and prowess, but also one that was strongly involved in the Islamic ethos of the “holy warrior,” a mujahid committed to the propagation and teachings of Islam.

Mamluks formed a self-perpetuating military class of former slaves who converted to Islam. Their status was that of slaves but far removed from what is normally understood by this term. They were called Mamluks, which literally means “owned ones” (mamluk, pl. mamalik), or as often as not in earlier years and in the east, “youths, pages” (ghulam, pl. ghilman). They were certainly not to be confused with slaves who were used for menial and lowly tasks and who might often be black, for whom the word ‘abd (pl. ‘abid) was used. As defenders of Dar al-Islam on the eastern and western fronts against the Mongols and the Crusaders, they were quintessential mujahideen. In Jerusalem, this sociopolitical system, which relied heavily on the influence and power of Islam, catapulted the Holy City from the political center of the Latin Kingdom and restored its former Umayyad status as a Muslim capital of paramount religious importance.

Turba al-Sitt Tunshuq: The mausoleum, once a freestanding monument, is located on the north side of the street now called ‘Aqabat al-Takiyya, directly opposite the palace of Sitt Tunshuq. Sitt Tunshuq died in Jerusalem in July-August 1398 and was buried in the tomb that she had had built opposite her great palace.

The Mamluk religious architectural embellishment of Al-Quds al-Sharif was concomitant with the religious zeal that fueled the wars against the Crusaders, leading to their defeat. Following the liberation of Al-Haram al-Sharif in 1187, Saladin initiated a building program that reached its apogee under the Mamluk sultans (1260–1517). During this period, Jerusalem witnessed a magnificent increase in building projects that were funded privately for public use.

Jerusalem’s great concentration of Mamluk monuments confirms the elevated religious status of the city in Muslim theology and practice. The massive building campaign was first and foremost an act of religious tribute to one of the three holiest cities in Islam. Al-Quds al-Sharif, whence Prophet Mohammad connected with Allah during the miraculous Night Journey, represents the holy par excellence. As Islam’s first qibla and the place where the Day of Judgment would take place, Al-Quds al-Sharif, which houses the Sacred Rock – Al-Sakhra al-Musharaffa – exudes an aura of sanctity. The mystical, spiritual allure of Al-Quds further confirms its exalted religious status especially in Sufi Islam. The Mamluk period is considered one of the eras that flourished the most in the history of Sufism, which has led historians to use the term “Orthodox Sufism” to describe Mamluk Sufism.

The exalted religious significance of Jerusalem finds expression in a discursive literary genre of narratives that extol the virtues of the ziyarat, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem (fada’il al-Quds). These complex theological, spiritual, and mystical links reveal, among other complex factors, the Mamluk endeavor to reproduce Jerusalem as a Muslim religious center of pilgrimage parallel to Mecca and Medina.

Al-Ziyara – the visit – is the word used for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; it implies a voyage with a religious purpose; whereas the epithet al-Haj or al-Hajjah is commonly used in reference to one who has performed al-Haj, meaning pilgrimage to Mecca. The male pilgrim to Jerusalem was referred to as al-maqdisi and the female, al-maqdissiya. Extensive lists of academic Mamluk women of renown who have visited Jerusalem have acquired this title. It is remarkable that a great number of Muslim women achieved high status as learned theologians and travelled as pilgrims to Jerusalem. Women sojourned in a special lodge (ribat), adjacent to Al-Haram al-Sharif, built specifically to host female pilgrims. As wealthy princesses, dowagers, and philanthropists, they contributed to Jerusalem’s sprawling architectural boom by building theological colleges (madrassas), mausoleums (turbahs), and palaces.

The Mamluk heritage in its abundance and splendor stands out as a golden period in Jerusalem’s Muslim history. The surviving traces of earlier buildings from previous historical eras undoubtedly conditioned the Mamluk development of the city, in general, and of Al-Haram al-Sharif’s lower western and northern courtyards, in particular. Byzantine, Umayyad, Ayyubid, and Crusader buildings formed an integral element and a point of departure for the Mamluk architect as exemplified in the endowments along Chain St. and Bab al-Nazir. An ingenious redesign and constructions from preceding eras were creatively incorporated into various Mamluk buildings. Mamluk architecture was an infill.

Al-Ashrafiyya, Madrasa of Sultan Qaytbay: Al-Ashrafiyya stands out not only because of its protruding volume into the Haram but also because of its impressive entrance porch, one of the finest and best-preserved portals in Jerusalem. The vaulting of the porch is a very elaborate form of folded cross vault. The remaining decoration of three tiers of muqarnas corbeling spans the recess. On either side of the corbeling and in the tympanum above, more arabesque carving surrounds three circular royal cartouches of Qaytbay.

These magnificent monuments were not constructed in freestanding spatial settings but were designed within already densely built-up residential neighborhoods. Though the palatial façades marked out each individual endowment, second-floor chambers encroached over adjacent buildings, and extant architecture was used either as the foundation or modified and adapted to serve the new establishment, such as in Al-Madrasa al-Arghuniyya. Alternately, bridges were set up and served both as scaffolds to build new monuments and marketplaces, and also to connect street lines leading to Al-Aqsa Mosque. Two cases in point are evident in the Bab al-Hadid and Suq al-Qattanin quarters.

The architectural complexes took into consideration the concept of space as an urban infill in the design of the palatial façades that were designed in relation to existing buildings. The façades presented a serious challenge to the architect as they delineated the operational space, defined the general layout, and delimited the edifice’s boundaries. Restrictions imposed by the geographical topography and the urban context guided, shaped, and challenged the skill of the designers in accordance with the slope and orientation of the street, the alignment with the adjacent buildings, and the direction of the prayer (qibla), for which individual creative solutions had to be found.

The Mamluk endeavor to revive Jerusalem as a Muslim religious center of pilgrimage, comparable in importance to that of Mecca and Medina, brought forth numerous magnificent endowments that include ribat (hospices), zawiyat (Islamic religious schools or monasteries), madaress, mausoleums, caravanserai, hammamat (public baths), and palaces. These monuments exemplify and illustrate various overall structural-cum-decorative details and styles such as ablaq masonry, interlocked stones, stalactite formations in vaults (muqarnas), shell or conch motifs and patterns, calligraphic and ornate inscriptions, and arabesque.

The numerous lavish palaces reflect the presence of a relatively large number of high-ranking members of court who had either fallen out of favor (battal), become ill, or retired (tarkhan). The term battal, from the Arabic word batala, unemployed, denotes a Mamluk emir or politician of high stature who is temporarily without a commission and unemployed. He could be out of favor or simply ill and had wanted to retire in Jerusalem. Yet these personages, having held important positions, arrived in Jerusalem with an allowance to support their luxurious lifestyles. Many of them undertook private building projects in order to live comfortably, to prove their willingness to better serve the sultan, and to regain their former status. Jerusalem was viewed as a doorway to Paradise: a gesture of religious piety and homage to Al-Quds, literally the “Blessed Rock,” in relation to which Jerusalem derived its Muslim Arab name through history – as Al-Quds, Bayt al-Maqdis (the house of the Blessed Rock), or simply Al-Quds al-Sharif, meaning the Noble Blessed City.

Once Al-Quds emerged as a major Muslim religious and pilgrimage center, accommodations for pilgrims, sojourners, visitors, and mystics had to be made available. Thus, the Mamluks actively built many lodges (ribat), caravansaries (khans), multifunctional formal educational Sufi lodges that would include a private mosque, a theological college, a kitchen, and lodging (khanqas), zawiyas (centers for Sufi meditation and lodging), and necessary auxiliary structures, such as hammamat (baths), and water sources. These were necessary for the upkeep of Al-Quds al-Sharif, whose raison d’être was its religious function, and whose economy depended on its ability to play the role of pilgrim city.

In fact, most of the minarets we now see dispersed throughout the neighborhoods of Jerusalem are Mamluk constructions. The Mamluks tended to build the new minarets not only on mosques but also on madrassas (such as the Muazzamiyya Minaret), on khanqas (such as the Salahiyya Minaret), on the gates leading to Al-Haram al-Sharif (such as Bab al-Silsila or Bab al-Asbat minarets), and sometimes they would construct somewhat freestanding minarets (such as the Ghawanima or the Fakhriyya minarets). This proliferation of minarets in Jerusalem attests strongly to the Mamluk desire to create a more intense Muslim flavor within the city and assert Muslim hegemony.

Al-Madrasa al-Tashtamuriyya: The decorative Sufi Arabic letter ه (ha) engraved on the door of the funder’s mausoleum is connotative of God هو which is used as a mantra in Sufi recitations (dhikr).

Attached to many of the foundations were the tombs of their founders. Each foundation was provided with a waqf, an endowment in perpetuity – usually land or property – from which revenues were reserved for the salaries of staff and for maintenance of the structure’s fabric. Commercial establishments were also set up to help finance the upkeep of some of these pious foundations, as well as of Qubbet al-Sakhra, the Dome of the Rock, and Al-Aqsa Mosque. These economic enterprises included khans, markets (suqs and qaysariyyas), a bonded warehouse (wakala), and hammamat.

Mamluk architecture is better understood from the way the space was produced. An initial reading of Mamluk architecture reveals spatial qualities that, in their nature, are neither Euclidean, that is, governed by geometric patterns, nor perspectivist, governed by fixed vanishing points and axes. Mamluk architecture has qualities that are governed by urban, social, and political factors, and as a result, Mamluk monuments cannot simply be viewed as containers of spaces or as isolated objects in space. Instead, individual Mamluk monuments are to be understood as more responsive to their contexts. The monuments in the streets confirm an ever-present characteristic of Mamluk architecture, namely, the importance of the façade, and thus the importance of the street in building design.

The sumptuous façades represent the distinctive marker of the Mamluk architecture of Mamluk endowments. One’s attention is drawn to the contrasting use of rich and high-quality colored stone as a building element that combines functionality and aesthetics. This style of construction is generally referred to as ablaq. The technique describes the color change of the masonry courses; mostly limestone and basalt, alternating in white and black or in white and pink limestone. Ablaq decoration technique adds an aesthetic function and is used especially in the façades and entrances, and around the window openings. This is exemplified in the façade of Al-Madrasa al-Arghuniyya.

The wealthy and flourishing economy of the Mamluks is also reflected in architectural elements that serve merely aesthetic purposes. One of these elements is the rhythmical arrangement of vertical niches in the large and uninterrupted spaces such as the façades and minaret bases. Mamluk façades are dynamic; their composition suggests continuity by off-centering portals and by the rhythmic repetition of recessed panels and other devices. Most of the Mamluk buildings and daily-life movable objects that are designated for sultans and emirs are decorated with the sultan’s inscribed cartouches and the emir’s blazons. An example of the Mamluk blazon’s heraldic devices or emblems is the cup of the cupbearer/taster (saqi). We can also note the napkin (buqja) of the master of the robes (jamdar). The buqja is a piece of cloth in which clothing, chancery deeds, etc., were wrapped. The napkin’s shape, being either square or rhomb, served as a blazon.

The sacred in Jerusalem exuded an overwhelming sense of spiritual serenity and transcendence that made it the favored exile city for deposed Mamluk princes.

In Al-Quds, Mamluks found redemption. In a society where every slave could become a sultan and where every female slave could become a wife of the sultan, life was rife with strife. Many chose to spend their last days in peace in Jerusalem where Muslims believe Judgment Day will take place. A plethora of mausoleums dot the main access roads to Al-Haram al-Sharif encased within the innumerable Sufi educational, spiritual, and lodging institutions that are sumptuously decorated façades and palatial portals. In time, the penitent mystics developed into holy men of God, awliya’. Their mausoleums became holy shrines. Up to the nineteenth century, the passerby would stop and listen to the Qur’an being recited by the sheikh inside, recite the bismillah (the first verses of the Qur’an), and move on.

  • Dr. Ali Qleibo is an artist, author, and anthropologist. Born in Jerusalem and educated in the United States, his books and artwork have taken him all over the world. Dr. Qleibo has lectured and held senior positions at Al-Quds University, conducted a fellowship at Shalom Hartman Institute, and served as visiting professor at Tokyo University for Foreign Studies and Kyoto University in Japan. At The Jerusalem Research Center, Dr. Qleibo developed the Muslim tourism itinerary in Jerusalem, encompassing tangible and intangible heritage. A specialist in Palestinian social history, he has authored the books Surviving the Wall, Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and Mamluk Architectural Heritage in Jerusalem, and published a plethora of articles locally and internationally

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