Al-Qarafa, Cairo’s oldest Islamic cemetery, is the burial place of pious notables, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, and learned men, like al-Imam al-Shafi’i, whose wisdom and teachings have endured to the present day.
Born in Palestinian city of Gaza in 767 AD, Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i was a great scholar and poet, the founder of the Shafi’i doctrine of Sunni Islam.
He travelled around the Islamic world in pursuit of knowledge, finally settling here in 815 AD.
Al-Shafi’i established a study circle in the mosque of ‘Amr ibn al-As in al-Fustat. He also studied with al-Sayyida Nafisa bint al-Hasan, the great-granddaughter of the Prophet Mohamed.
He died in 820 AD at the age of 53 and was buried in the graveyard of his friend Abd al-Hakam Family, which soon became a popular site for visits.
The boat-like finial atop the dome is said to be in reference to him being described as a “sea of knowledge”.
In the past, al-Shafi’i tomb was visited by rulers on the eve of war, learned men honouring their teacher, and members of the public seeking solace from the trials of life, or simply desiring to be near their beloved Imam.
Today, Egyptians and foreigners alike still visit al-Shafi’i. Letters left at his grave — or even sent by post – tell of misfortunes in the hope that al-Imam al-Shafi’i, the exalted scholar, will intercede on the sender’s behalf.
Al-Shafi’i is the author of a number of compendia, most importantly Al-Risala and Kitab al-Umm. He is also known for his simple, yet elegant poetry, much of which deals with human values such as the importance of the pursuit of knowledge, the ups and downs of friendship and the spiritual aspects of belief.
From his poetry:
“Journey from your country seeking elevation
And travel, for in travel are gains in five matters;
Relief from worry, and earning of livelihood
Knowledge, culture, and a companion of stature.”
Throughout the ages, Egypt’s rulers competed to pay tribute to Imam al-Shafi’i by embellishing his shrine and adding their own mark on it. In the Ayyubid era, in 1180, Al-Madrasa al-Nasiriyya was built by Sultan Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi north of al-Shafi’i’s shrine. He installed a cenotaph above the grave and redecorated the shrine.
In 1211, Sultan al-Kamil Muhammad son of Sultan al-Adil built the present dome of al-Shafi’i.
In the Mamluk period (1310-1516) renovations by three sultans — al-Nasir Muhammad, al-Ashraf Qaytbay and Qansuh al-Ghuri — included coating the dome exterior with green tiles and cladding the interior with marble.
In the Ottoman period in 1763, a mosque, maqsura and cistern were built by Abd al-Rahman Katkhudha, on the site of al-Madrasa al-Nasiriyya and the space between it and the dome.
In 1772, almost the entire interior of al-Shafi’i Dome was redecorated by ‘Ali Bak al-Kabir. The exterior is repaired and clad with lead.
In 1787, Ali Bey Daftardar built a sabil-kuttab south of the entrance, which recently turned into a visitor centre.
In 1892, the current mosque, entrance block, and administrative wing with sabil-kuttab were built by Khedive Tawfiq.
In 1910, Muhsin house, which belonged to the custodians of the shrine, was built south of the entrance porch.
The building has unique features including his wooden dome, which is regarded as the largest timber dome remaining in Egypt from the Islamic period. At the height of 29-metre, the timber dome is about 16 metre in diameter standing on a square chamber whose inner sides measure 15.3 metres. Its walls are more than 2 metres thick.
In addition, the coffered ceiling above the north window is the first of its kind in the architectural history of Historic Cairo.
The dome has a colourful marble façade and Ottoman Baroque portal. The flooring is a rare example of Ottoman tile mosaic in Egypt.
The inner doors are Ayyubid and carved with the date 7 Jumada 1 608 AH (17 October 1211).
Between 1896 and 2021, the dome was restored five times. The Committee for the Conservation of Monuments of Arab Art implemented the first two modern conservation projects, during which it carried out extensive restoration of the external decorative stucco and discovered the Mamluk tile cladding beneath the lead sheets.
The dome receives approximately 700 visitors on weekdays and 1,000 visitors on public holidays and religious celebrations.
Last month, the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry inaugurated the visitor centre next to the mosque and the mausoleum of Imam Al-Shafi’i. The project is funded by the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) and implemented by Athar Lina initiative of ‘Megawra’.
It includes a room showcasing the excavations that were carried out in 2017 under the floor of the current dome. There you see a Fatimid dome that we never knew existed and that is under the ground of the current dome.
It consists of an arcaded qibla riwaq, a burial courtyard and a marble-clad space with a domed central bay carried on double columns. Among the discovered stucco fragments, one bears the word “Salah”, the writing is similar to the Citadel’s foundation inscription at Gate of al-Mudarraj, one of the two original gates of the Citadel.
The visitor centre also has an activity room, where children can understand the history of the place through games for all ages. In addition to learning about the life and travels of al-Shafi’i through his poetry.
There is also a film screening area to experience the conservation and excavation works that were carried out between 2016 and 2021 and how it regained its former splendour.
The visitor centre spreads archaeological and tourism awareness among visitors and residents of the surrounding area.