From a distance, it is not immediately obvious that ar-Rifai mosque is so much newer than its enormous neighbour, Sultan Hassan mosque, with which it shares the same colour, style and height. Until the end of the 19th century, the space that is now occupied by the mosque was a shrine of the medieval Islamic saint Ahmad al-Rifai, who would eventually give his name to the mosque built on his shrine. The zawiya, or shrine, was a destination for pilgrims who believed it had special healing powers. Ahmad al-Rifai lived in the 12th century and was known to have exceptional healing powers. He was the founder of the Sufi Rifai order.
Much more than just a mosque, ar-Rifai mosque was intended to become a resting place for Egyptian royalty, a nationalistic symbol of Egyptian strength, as well as a sign of a progressive, cosmopolitan Egypt. The mosque was not finished until 1912, and several architects, including the lead architect Max Herz from Austria. The architects sought to complement the adjacent structure of the Sultan Hassan, a massive building; and indeed, also ar-Rifai mosque is enormous. When you stand in the alleyway between the two buildings, you feel absolutely dwarfed, and the little space there is, forces you to turn your head almost entirely up to see the roof and the minarets. While the door to the ar-Rifai mosque is high enough, it appears as tiny compared to the entire building. After entering ar-Rifai mosque, the feeling of smallness does not leave the visitor, as the ceilings are high - which sometimes is a pity, because it is more difficult to appreciate their beauty from the carpets on which you walk.
To the left of the entrance, you can find the resting places of several members of the Egyptian royal family, including last king Farouk, ousted in the 1952 revolution. The tombs are marvelously decorated with Quranic texts in graceful Arabic calligraphy. In addition, an especially beautifully decorated room with marble and precious carpets holds the tomb of the last Shah of Iran, who died here after spending his last time in exile in Cairo. This high-ceiling room has exceptionally beautiful acoustics. Moving to the mosque proper, the daylight coming in from the dome reminds you that the dome is even higher. The colourful minbar or pulpit is of extreme elegance, and made of Indian wood with layers of ebony, ivory and mother-of-pearl, while the mihrab is decorated using marble inlays and mother-of-pearl (imported from Europe). Besides, I was attracted by the many white lamps with Quranic verses hanging down from long cords from the ceiling.
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