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Jerusalem Architectural History: Elaborate Buildings of the Mamluk Period

(1249 - 1517)

The Kurdish general Salah al-Din (Saladin), who gained control of Egypt in 1169 (also famed for his defeat of the Crusaders at the Horns of Hittin in 1187), followed the Muslim military tradition of including a slave corps in his army. The practice was continued by his successor Al-Malik, who was the largest purchaser of slaves, mainly Turkish. Upon his death in 1249, the Mamluk (Arab., slaves) generals managed to establish their own dynasty, which ruled over Egypt and Syria until 1517.

Jerusalem declined in political and economic importance during the Mamluk period, and its population decreased. For much of this period the city remained unfortified, with the exception of the Tower of David, the seat of the Mamluk governor of the city.

However, Jerusalem became the most important religious center of the Mamluk Sultanate, underwent an intensive process of Islamization and became the focus of Muslim pilgrimage. The Mamluk period imprinted a Muslim architectural character on the city: many buildings with religious functions were constructed by the Mamluk administrators, local Muslim leaders, and wealthy pilgrims who settled there. These buildings, primarily madrasas for Islamic studies, ribats, intended as monasteries but primarily used as hostels for pilgrims, and elegantly designed burial structures were built along the streets to the west and north of the Temple Mount (Haram esh-Sharif), where the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque are located. Extensive building activity also took place on the Temple Mount itself, including the western portico, archways, prayer platforms and fountains.

In the city, new mosques were built and new minarets added to existing ones. Buildings of a secular nature included bathhouses and a market, and the ancient aqueduct that carried water from Solomon's pools beyond Bethlehem to the city was restored.

A number of architectural styles of the past are distinguishable in Jerusalem today, such as the legacy of the Early Arab period on the Temple Mount and Christian edifices from the Crusader period, but the massive construction work of the Mamluks in the 14th and 15th centuries established the Muslim character of the city. Many of these buildings have remained intact to this day and, though worse for neglect, still retain a past splendor, and the numerous tall minarets dominate the skyline.

The Mamluk buildings of Jerusalem have elaborate façades on which most of the decorative elements were concentrated. The entrances are recessed in the façade, with high stone benches on either side. Some of the characteristic decorative elements of the Mamluk period are:

Mukarnas - graduated, three-dimensional stone stalactites in the half-dome above the entrance.

Ablak - striped masonry. Courses of the beautiful cream-colored local limestone are alternated with courses of differently colored stone, usually red, but also black and yellow.

Klebo - interlacing stones in different colors, carved in a variety of profiles and laid in intertwining, puzzle-like fashion.

Inscriptions, in elegant Arabic script, include quotations from the Kur'an, but also the name of the builder and the date of construction.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry