The monumental projecting portal-a central element of the masjid façade—is a significant Fatimi contribution to masjid architecture. First featuring in the Great Jami of Mahdiyya, the portal is symbolic of the importance of the Imam in Fatimi thought and tradition. Lézine, a French archaeologist involved with the restoration of the Great Jami of Mahdiyya in the 1960s said that the majestic, triumphant character of the gate reflected the majestic character of the Imam. The Imam was for his followers, as Lézine described, *le chef des Croyants et le Sauveur du Monde —the commander of the believers and the saviour of the world. The first two masjids the Fatimi Imams built in al-Qāhira both displayed this architectural feature. Historians suggest that al-Jami al-Azhar originally had a similar monumental portal but due to irreversible alterations and additions to its front façade, it is now lost. Similarly, al-Jami al-Anwar’s portal and façade had over the years been disfigured with accretions, the most prominent among them was the addition of a Mamluk mausoleum known as Qubba Qurqumash. With this alteration to al-Anwar’s façade, the lone surviving monumental portal in al-Qahira, a major Fatimi contribution to masjid architecture, was seemingly lost.
Recognizing the architectural significance of al-Jami al-Anwar’s façade, the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe (Committee for the Conservation of Monuments of Arab Art) carried out an extensive programme to remove structures and accretions from 1311/1893 onwards. During this prolonged process, a pair of beautifully decorated arched blind niches were revealed on the north-eastern side of the monumental portal in 1324/1907. In their report for that year, the Comité went to great lengths to explain the importance of these niches and the uniqueness of their stone carvings and inscriptions. With this discovery, it was clear that Maulana al-Imam al-Hakim AS chose to emphasize the main entrance to the masjid through the use of a projecting portal and also highlighted its significance through detailed ornamentation. Whilst the general construction of the walls was of brick or coarse stone finished with a layer of plaster, the portal was built of fine dressed stone and was intricately carved. Such an architectural element so painstakingly crafted and meaningfully accentuated was sadly enveloped on nearly all its sides by later construction. In time, all other buildings against the portal and the length of the façade were removed save the Qurqumash Qubba. It remained the sole disfigurement denying the Fatimi masjid the value and beauty of one of its most defining characteristics: the monumental portal.
It was not until the restoration of al-Jami al-Anwar at the hands of Syedna Burhanuddin RA that the difficult issue of the Qubba, a listed Cairene monument, was addressed. After deliberations with the EAO, their highest governing authority sanctioned the dismantlement of the Qubba and gave instructions to rebuild it adjacent to other tombs contemporaneous with the Qubba in a nearby cemetery. The relocation of the tomb brought harmony to the masjid’s façade and enabled the projecting portal to reclaim its place as the façade’s focal point. It also revealed the continuity of the design band from the north-eastern side of the portal as well as a pilaster and depression in the western wall immediately behind the Qubba.
Despite high-level approvals and the agreement to relocate the Qubba, the EAO’s decision was met with criticism, stoked partly by perceived violations of international conservation principles and partly by xenophobia and prejudice. Though general guidelines inform the practice of architectural conservation, the reality that each building and the context of each restoration differ from the next must be considered. The Qurqumash tomb had its own historical value in that location; yet, it was ultimately an intrusion. Its removal restored the only existing Fatimi projecting portal in the city of al-Qahira, an invaluable resource for students of architecture, admirers of Fatimi art and followers of the Fatimi faith.
The Prophet Mohammed—Allah’s salams and salutations upon him—informed Muslims that, ‘Everything has a face, and the face of your religion is salat.’ This analogy stresses the importance of ritual prayer for a Muslim and indicates its prominence and pre-eminence among other acts of piety and worship. The analogy with the face also speaks to identity; that the essence of a Muslim’s faith, his Muslimness, is identified by his salat. Similarly, the measure of a Muslim society to a certain extent is the venue for salat, its masjid, whose façade, which is its face, reflects the masjid’s primacy among other Islamic buildings, its prominence within the Muslim city and its value to Muslim patrons. A masjid’s façade, like a Muslim’s prayer, is its identity.
Extracted from: ‘al-Jami al-Anwar-The Luminous Masjid’ pages 284-6: Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah Publications