Masons at Work

Ahmed Wahby and Dina Montasser
Deutsches Archäologisches Institut
The Ornamented Domes of Cairo: The Mamluk Mason’s Challenge
The ornamented domes of Cairo’s Mamluk architecture are unique and have never been equaled since in the Muslim world. They represent a challenge not only in terms of their structural boldness but for their distinctive decoration programs. From the mid 14th to the early 16th c. A.D. there was increasing sophistication in the development of carved decoration on Mamluk stone domes which reached a climax by the use of elaborate arabesque motifs and geometrical patterns; the most distinguishing of which are the interlacing stars. Despite the fact that there was a paradigm shift in dome architecture during the Mamluk era in terms of construction materials and decoration programs, historical information is scarce - if not totally silent - regarding the design and implementation process of these unique themes of decoration. This paper is concerned with the design principles and techniques employed in the creation of the carved decorative geometric star patterns on Cairene Mamluk domes in an attempt to investigate the likely participants who might have collaborated to apply these patterns on the semi-spherical surfaces of the domes and answer whether they were executed before or after the dome was assembled. The paper also draws attention to the knowledge and skills of designers and masons who conceived of and constructed Mamluk architecture and how the designs of such architecture might have been transmitted to the many parties involved in the construction process. The study is based on reviewing historical sources and scholarly papers, site survey of the domes’ stone courses and decorations as well as making drawings to understand the underlying grids, upon which the unique star pattern interlaces were created.
Sultan Barsbay’s mausoleum
Fig. 1. Dome of Sultan Barsbay’s mausoleum, A.D. 1432.
Amir Gani Bek’s mausoleum
Fig. 2. Dome of Amir Gani Bek’s mausoleum, A.D. 1432.
star pattern interlace of Barsbay’s dome
Fig. 3. The formation of the six-pointed star pattern interlace of Barsbay’s dome.