The walls of Ibn Tulun: bringing medieval Cairo back to life

Runaway success of Reem Bassiouney's novel about 9th century Egyptian ruler Ahmad Ibn Tulun shines light on often-overlooked period of history

The mosque of Ibn Tulun is considered one of the oldest and largest substantially intact mosque in Egypt and Africa. Mahmoud Nasr / The National
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The majestic walls of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun rise defiantly above Cairo’s streets, seemingly impregnable amid the chaos and pollution of the city.

More than 1,000 years since it was built, the mosque has retained an air of glory and splendour despite the high-rise towers and incessant traffic noise that have risen around it.

Though the Egyptian authorities are slowly restoring the capital’s wealth of historical sites, the turn of Ibn Tulun has not yet come and some in Cairo worry about how long the fortress-like walls of the mosque will be able to keep the city at bay.

Every wall has a story behind it
Reem Bassiouney

It’s hardly a befitting situation for Cairo’s largest mosque by area, which has become a symbol of its creator, the medieval ruler Ahmad Ibn Tulun, and his courageous pursuit of inclusion and diversity in 9th-century Egypt.

But a bestselling author has set her sights on giving life to a period of Egyptian history often skimmed through.

Reem Bassiouney’s latest novel, Al Qata’aeh, takes its name from the city built by Ibn Tulun.

The book has captivated many in Egypt, helping to restore the respect and reverence that the country’s rich heritage deserves.

"Architecture is very important. Every wall has a story behind it,” she told The National.

A 701-page tome filled with expressive Arabic, the novel tells the story of Ibn Tulun up until his death, after which his vision for the future takes centre stage.

“The hero in the novel is Ahmed Ibn Tulun's dream, a dream of harmony among people who rise above their differences,” said Bassiouney.

“It's important that we shed light on moments in our history when people are bound by harmony."

But the Ibn Tulun mosque and medieval Cairo itself are also important characters in their own right – more than mere backdrops for the drama.

A lost world

While the mosque survives to this day, the surrounding city was razed by a vengeful army sent by the Baghdad Caliphate to wrest back control of Egypt after four decades of autonomous rule under Ibn Tulun and his successors.

For Bassiouney, the surviving mosque is a gateway to a lost world. "It's possibly only in Egypt where you can read a historical novel with events in the Middle Ages and then you go and visit the place where they took place,” she said.

“If you go to the Ibn Tulun Mosque now, then you are in the middle of Al Qata'aeh – the city he built."

The founder of the Tulunid dynasty that ruled Egypt and parts of Syria at the close of the 9th century, Ibn Tulun realised his dream of turning what was once merely a province in a sprawling Muslim empire into a strong, autonomous and prosperous nation with its own dynasty and an army made up of a patchwork of Egyptian, Greek, Nubian and Sudanese soldiers.

The Ibn Tulun Mosque has come to symbolise all that the leader who built it sought to achieve.

In line with Ibn Tulun’s drive for inclusion, it was a Christian architect – Said bin Kateb Al Farghany – who was commissioned to design the mosque and supervised its construction.

Al Farghany sought to emulate the imposing Pharaonic temples of his ancestors that by the 9th century had already stood for thousands of years and were much admired by Ibn Tulun.

Built around an open square courtyard which allows natural light to flood in, the mosque is actually Egypt’s oldest to survive in its original form without being rebuilt over the centuries.

Curiously, the mosque’s walls are topped with doll-shaped figures holding hands to symbolise unity.

Bringing history to life

An Oxford-educated linguistics professor at the American University in Cairo, Bassiouney has upended Egypt’s literary circles with her latest novels. And while her fiction is in many ways a scholarly undertaking of sorts, she has intensified the buzz about her work with a carefully choreographed social media blitz, engaging with fans and readers in online discussions.

Bassiouney also invites readers to visit the mosque with her to discuss her novel and read from it.

“I feel that the novel is only complete when you visit the place where its events took place,” she said. "The story of Egypt is often told through its religious buildings. Palaces tended to be destroyed during wars but temples, churches and mosques survived."

She has also sought to revise history through her portrayal of Ibn Tulun, an Iraqi-born Turk who has over the centuries become a popular figure among Egyptians. She claims that contrary to common belief, the medieval ruler was the first to recruit native Egyptians to the army since Pharaonic times, and not Mehmet Ali, the 19th-century Ottoman viceroy who practically took Egypt away from Ottoman control and established a dynasty that ruled Egypt for 150 years.

“The Tulunid state contributed to the formulation of the Egyptian identity,” said Bassiouney, highlighting the recruitment of Egyptians into Ibn Tulun’s army.

“It’s not true that Mehmet Ali was the first [modern] ruler to put together an army of Egyptians. The dream of independence began with the Tulunid state.

“We are dealing with a personality that has ambitions and principles,” she said of Ibn Tulun. “Some take against him things that he had done but on closer examination you’ll find that he was harsh towards his enemies – but what he did for Egyptians endeared him to them.”

In a country that had not celebrated a novelist since the late Nobel literary laureate Naguib Mahfouz, Bassiouney has taken Egypt by storm. She is the toast of Egypt’s literary circles, lavishly praised on social media and is a much sought-after guest on popular television talk shows.

Bassiouney has energised the genre of historical fiction and in the process given Egyptians a true story many knew little about.

She is the first author since fellow Egyptian novelist Ali Ahmed Bakatheer (1910-1969) to captivate the nation with works of historical fiction. "But fiction is not history, although I endeavour to remain true to history. Others who have embraced the historical fiction genre are not necessarily doing that," she said.

“The idea of Egypt becoming independent during the Islamic era is one that no one dealt with in any detail,” she said. “Ibn Tulun was an inspiration for future eras.”

Updated: June 06, 2023, 11:54 AM