The Lost City of Ibn Tulun
The story of Ibn Tulun's lost city has all the hallmarks it should have, including buried treasure, fabled buildings, exotic beasts, and an apocalyptic end.
all photos and images from IbnTulun: His Lost City and Great Mosque (AUC Press)
Many years ago, I toyed briefly with applying for a teaching position in archaeology at the University of Indiana. Thus might the legend of Indiana Fletcher-Jones have been born.
It is probably too late now to grab my fedora off a hook, take down my bullwhip from the mantelpiece and set out for the Amazon to find the very last refuge of the Inca, but fortunately we have a lost city far closer to home.
For, if you were to transport yourself to the top of the hill now occupied by the Citadel during the years between 870 and 905, you would see stretched before you the first capital of an independent Egypt since antiquity: al-Qata’i.
The story of this lost city—its founder, and its greatest triumph, the great mosque which stands today as the oldest intact mosque in Egypt and Africa—is told in a new beautifully crafted book by Tarek Swelim, IbnTulun: His Lost City and Great Mosque. It is a story that has all the hallmarks a lost city should have, including buried treasure, fabled buildings, exotic beasts, and an apocalyptic end.
The story, of course, starts with the man.
Ahmad Ibn Tulun (835-884) was the son of a Turkic slave and was raised at the Abbasid court in Samarra. Through both luck and talent, Ibn Tulun rose through the courtly ranks until, at the age of 33 (in 868), he was appointed governor of Egypt. His own military success and the growing weakness of the ‘Abbasid caliphs led Ibn Tulun to form an independent sub-kingdom consisting of Egypt, Palestine and Greater Syria in 880.
As early as 870, Ibn Tulun began to build al-Qata’i, in the shadow of the Muqattam Hills, and to the northeast of the first two Islamic capitals of Egypt, Fustat and al-Askar.
Let us look out southwestwards again from our imaginary vantage point—one that was occupied at the time by a domed building from which Ibn Tulun himself looked down—and we will see that the new city contains some of the most magnificent buildings built in Egypt since the departure of the Romans.
Indeed, much of the city, including the aqueduct linking it to an ancient well some miles to the south, the hospital, and the mosque, was probably paid for, not by taxes as one might expect, but by great buried ancient treasures found in the Muqattam Hills at a place called Tannur Firawn (Lantern of the Pharaoh), and in the desert.
In the far distance, we can pick out the Pyramids across the Nile, but if we look down, our attention is immediately drawn to the large open parade ground and the palace below us. The parade ground was most probably used for many public functions, including polo games, military parades, civil acts of charity, and public performances. Little is known of the palace itself, except that it had many gates that would be open only at certain hours of the day. The son of Ibn Tulun, Khumarawiya, created a zoo of exotic animals within the palace, including a blue-eyed lion that acted as his bodyguard.
Across the parade ground, and at the head of the great street, Shari’ al-Aazam, which connected the palace to the mosque, our eyes are drawn to the Bab al- Sibaa. This ‘Gate of the Lion’ appears to have been a triple-gated structure, decorated with two stucco lions, and reminiscent of the monumental triumphal gates of the Roman Empire and, perhaps, similar gates in Samarra.
At the other end of Shari’ al-Aazam, we can see the mosque of Ibn Tulun in its original form. The great mosque was built between 876 and 878, and made impervious to earthquake or flood by being constructed directly onto the bedrock of the limestone hill of Gabal Yashkur.
What most catches our eye from our viewpoint is the spiral minaret modeled on that of the Great Mosque in Samarra. The steps on the outside are wide enough for two fully laden camels to climb to the summit side by side, and the top of the minaret is surmounted by a boat-shaped filial which is reputed to have come from the pharaonic treasure which paid for the mosque’s construction.
The builders of al-Qata’i’s monuments may have expected that their splendid city would last forever, but, after just 35 years as the capital of Egypt, it was almost entirely destroyed over a four-month period in 905 by the Abbasid general Muhamad Sulayaman al-Katib.
The mosque of IbnTulun is the only part of al-Qata’i’—except for a few miserable remnants of the aqueduct—to have survived to the present. Yet it is entirely fitting that this lost city should live on through its greatest monument as, in deed, Ibn Tulun, believed it would.
For, as the fourteenth-century Egyptian historian Ibn Duqmaq, noted: “[Ibn Tulun] said that he wished to build a structure that if Misr was burned down it would survive, and if it were inundated it would survive.”