In 2007, catastrophe struck the mosque of Abu’l-Hajjaj. Faulty wires in the mosque’s dome caused an electrical fire that heavily damaged the building. The Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities officially listed the mosque as an Islamic monument in order to bring it under their management and care, and began repair and conservation work on it that same year. In parallel with this project, the American Research Center in Egypt – with funding made available by the U.S. Agency for International Development – commissioned a documentation survey to record the architectural history and development of the building. This was the first-ever documentation of its kind for this distinctive site, and provides a sharper picture of the enigmatic mosque’s architectural past.
Set nearly 30 feet (9 meters) above ground level at Luxor Temple atop the northeastern corner of Ramesses II’s court and wall, the mosque of Abu’l-Hajjaj is a visual oddity. The natural question is: How did a mosque dating back to Medieval times come to be on top of one of the country’s most recognized ancient Egyptian monuments? To understand this curiosity, it is necessary to look back to the post-Pharaonic history and use of Luxor Temple. In the fourth century, the temple was modified to function as a military base for the Roman army. It operated as an active fortress under the Romans until well into the second half of the sixth century. During this time, numerous churches were built within the temple’s walls, including one located inside the Great Court of Ramesses II, in the same location where the mosque of Abu’l-Hajjaj would later be constructed.
Due to scarce early documentation, it is unclear what changes or activities the temple experienced following the end of Roman rule in Egypt and the advent of Muslim rule in the seventh century. However, it appears in later 19th-century drawings and photographs that the temple had been partly buried under the accumulated debris of continuous habitation, with a mosque visible amid the houses filling the temple’s first court.
The mosque itself was built in honor of Sheikh Yusuf Abu’l-Hajjaj, for whom it is named. Abu’l-Hajjaj was a Muslim scholar and teacher who migrated from Baghdad to Luxor in his youth and settled there, quickly gaining a reputation for his wisdom and piety. It is likely that he lived within the site of the partially buried temple and conducted his religious teaching there. By the time he died in 1244, Abu’l-Hajjaj was well over 90 years old and had amassed a large and loyal following in Luxor. His body was placed in a mausoleum located on the roof of the ancient church, which by this point was buried below ground level. This site is also where the early structure of the current mosque would be erected a decade later by Abu’l-Hajjaj’s son.
It is possible that Abu’l-Hajjaj was buried on the site of an already existing mosque, as the older of the two remaining minarets dates to the Fatimid period, some 150 years before the saint lived in Luxor. The present mosque was constructed in the 1820s and
the second minaret in 1851-52. Abu’l-Hajjaj’s mosque is the only enduring part of the ancient town of Luxor that survived the archaeological clearance undertaken to expose the temple from the 1880s to the 1950s.
Two experienced heritage architects, Nairy Hampikian and May El-Ibrashy, led ARCE’s documentation and surveying team. They worked meticulously onsite for a year during the extensive reconstruction and repairs following the 2007 fire. Conducting the documentation project during the construction work was a singular opportunity to examine the building fabric of the mosque, and provided a great deal of information about its history and construction, as well as how it was integrated within the ancient structure of Luxor Temple.
During the course of the restoration, conservators removed cement and plaster covering the interior and exterior mosque walls and the minaret, revealing original hieroglyphic reliefs and inscriptions, and medieval texts. Hampikian and El-Ibrashy carefully photographed and recorded all of these markings. The floor of the mosque was dug up, revealing for the first time hieroglyphs on the temple blocks that support the mosque. A medieval-era well shaft was also discovered and documented under the ground near the mosque’s second minaret, in addition to many other archaeological remains.
The documentation team carefully noted changes made to the mosque during this last restoration phase, thus preserving vital information for any future conservation or repair work. These records are especially important given the mosque’s significance in the life of the local community, which uses it for prayer services and religious events such as the annual mawlid festival that culminates 15 days before Ramadan and attracts large numbers of pilgrims from all over Egypt. During this festival, a procession of boats is paraded around the temple, carried by the descendants of Abu’l-Hajjaj. The boats symbolize his journey to Egypt. A modern interpretation of this festival draws parallels between the ancient festival of Opet, when the sacred images of Amun, Mut and Khonsu were carried in boats between Karnak and Luxor temples.
While the mosque is still used on a daily basis by the community of Luxor, it is always open to visitors looking to experience Egyptian heritage in a new way.