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Technical Glossary


Cloisters or corridor. 


Literally means incense burner. The term was used to describe a specific shape of minaret finial that flourished in Egypt during the Ayyubid period and the early Bahri Mamluk. Examples of this finial can be found in the Madrasa Salihiyya, Zawiyat al-Hinud, minarets installed by Baybars al-Jashankir in the mosque of al-Hakim and those in the mosque of Salar and Sanjar.  


Openings looking downward used for defense; usually found in forts, citadels, city gates and walls. These could be used to throw stones or pour boiling liquids on unwanted intruders.  


In Mamluk architecture it describes a trilobed arch. The word itself could be derived from the city of Mada’in (Ctesiphon).  




School of Islamic law. There are four schools in Sunni Islam, Maliki, Hanafi, Hanbali and Shafi'i. 


City. If the name of the city however is al-Madina, then it is referring to Medina, the Prophet's city.  


An institute for higher education, in which religious sciences were taught. The madrasa usually consisted of the teaching halls and the dorms. Students there studied Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), traditional system of mathematics (abjad), literature, history, higher grammar, etc. The earliest madrasas we know of are those built in the tenth century A.D. in eastern Iran. Modern historians working on the pre-Saljuq period in eastern Iran suggest that madrasas existed one and a half centuries before the official Saljuq adoption of the institution. These however had not been open to the public during that period. The Ghaznavids also used madrasas in order to spread Islam in the areas of Ghur. Medieval documents prove the existence of about 38 madrasas in Nishapur alone, all predating the great madrasa of Nizam al-Mulk (1068 A.D.). The formal history of the madrasa as a public institution starts with the Saljuk wazir Nizam al-Mulk who inaugurated his madrasa in Baghdad in 1068 A.D. Following this inauguration, several madrasas were disseminated throughout the Saljuk territories and many were found in cities including Merv, Balkh and Herat. Some of these madrasas were annexed to already existing mosques. Some of the madrasas were built by teachers who taught in them, by Sufis or by wealthy notables. Many madrasas were built next to the houses of the founders or in other cases the houses became the madrasas. Architectural origins of the madrasa are traced back to eastern Iran where the institution originated. Bartol’d linked the madrasa to the Buddhist vihara, which flourished in eastern Iran and Central Asia right before the Muslim conquest of the area. The structure was a communal one combining worship, education and burial. The vihara constituted of several elements and the ones discovered are of a four-iwan plan overlooking a courtyard. André Godard argues that the Khurasani house plan is the origin of the madrasa plan, with its four iwans overlooking a courtyard. In the beginning each madrasa was dedicated to the teaching of one of the four schools of law (madhhab); Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki or Shafi'i. The tutor in the madrasa sits, probably with his back against a pillar, and expounds to a group of students sitting in a circle around him in what is known as a halaqa. Since Egypt was Shi‘i during the dissemination of madrasas all around the Islamic world, there are no madrasas to be found in it before the twelfth century A.D. Madrasas were introduced in Egypt with the advent of Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, who used the institution to eliminate all the traces of Shi‘i presence in Egypt. Five years after his arrival there were five madrasas in Cairo. The most important of the Ayyubid madrasas was the last, the Salihiyya built in 1242 A.D., which was intended for all the four rites. Under the rule of the Mamluks the building of madrasas flourished tremendously; the first of which was that of Baybars al-Bunduqdari built in 1266 A.D. in the form of a cruciform plan or four iwan plan overlooking a courtyard. In 1356 A.D. we get the first mosque-madrasa in Cairo, that of Sultan Hasan with a miniature scale plan of the mosque for each madrasa occupying one of the corners of the building. Being of a residential nature madrasas had amenities for the students living inside like toilets, kitchens, stables and in some cases, hospitals.  


Reception chamber, often with a view.  


See aghani.  


A fully cursive script which developed directly from Kufic.  


Derived from ghatas or to immerse or dip. It is found in baths and is the pool in the hot room.  


Clepsydra. This is an old device used to tell time by measuring the regulated flow of water through an opening. 


Open air cistern. 


Derived from the Arabic root, jalas, which means to sit. A room in a house which served the same function as the iwan, to receive people, and always overlooked a court. Its mention in the sources started with the tenth century A.D. historian Mas‘udi who described the majlis hiri bi-kummayn or the T-plan house found in Iraq and Egypt. During the Mamluk period it meant a room that was closed as to differentiate it from the iwan.  


Large assembly hall. It is also used to refer to prayer areas in complexes built in the proximity of the Haramayn in Mecca and Medina, and al-Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. In this context, the majma' replaces what would have been the mosque area in a madrasa or khanqa complex for instance. The proximity of these three holy mosques makes the construction of nearby individual mosques redundant since most people would not foresake praying in the Haramayn and al-Masjid al-Aqsa.  


Warehouse or storeroom.  


One of the four Sunni legal schools. The originator of this school was Imam Malik (713-795 A.D.), the second of the four major imams, who studied and taught in Medina. His teachings spread to the western Islamic world including al-Andalus, Spain. 


A cooling and ventilation device composed of a wind scoop on a roof connected to a wind shaft. This creates wind circulation in the building. 


A spiral tower. 


See Bahri Mamluks and Burji Mamluks.  




Male reception room that is usually found on the ground floor. It is the same as salamlik.  


The Nile Delta cities' traditional style of building where red (single bake) bricks and black (burnt) bricks with white pointing are used on mihrabs and entrance façades. 


A weapon placed above fortresses which threw heavy stones to defend the place.  


Derived from the Arabic root nur or light. In architecture it is the light shaft; on open place that lets light in the building.  




The loggia of a house or a palace. The word is derived from the root qa‘ad, to sit. It was introduced in Cairo in the fifteenth century A.D. in amirs’ residences and on an enormous scale, as can be seen from the maq‘ad of amir Mamay. It was invariably on the first floor and facing north to catch the northern breeze. Being a loggia it was opened by at least one arch and overlooked the courtyard of the house. The portal to the maq‘ad, found beside the maq‘ad and thus overlooking the courtyard as well, was usually beautifully adorned and leading to a staircase. This maq‘ad is also called maq‘ad turki  

Maq‘ad Qibti 

The closed form of a maq‘ad. Instead of the opened arcade it had large window grilles. Two maq‘ad qibtis s are still extant in Cairo; the one of Qaytbay in the Northern Cemetery and the one of al-Ghuri in al-Ghuriyya. According the endowment deed (waqfiyya) of al-Ghuri the function of the maq’ad qibti is to lodge women who are there to visit the tomb of the sultan or to see the buildings of the family. In Arabic, qibti means Egyptian, however the term now means Coptic in spoken Egyptian Arabic.  

Maq‘ad Samawi 

A maq‘ad with no roof. No example of this kind is extant.  


Tomb or cemetery. 


Prayer area, usually part of the qibla, separated from the rest by means of a wooden screen. It was reserved for the ruler or the governor.  


Warriors and Sufis who dwelled in the ribats. By extension, the mausoleum of the Sufi is sometimes called marabut. Even today a Sufi is called marabut in North Africa.  


Derived from Persian, meaning 'place for the sick'. A general hospital. Maristan is an alternative name for bimaristan.  


Method of glass decoration. While turning the vessel against a metal surface or flat stone, glass trails are pressed flush against its surface. The stone or metal surface are called a 'marver'. 


Literally means 'scene of witness', and is used to refer to a shrine or sanctuary. 


Derived from the Arabic root, sharab, to drink. The wooden screens that covers windows of medieval houses. They served to protect the privacy of the household by allowing the family to see the street, while disabling the passerby or the neighbours from viewing the inside of the house. It was also a good way to minimize the heat caused by direct sunlight during the long summer days. Water jars were kept behind them or in front of them and this is probably why the element was called mashrabiyya. The equivalent of this element in Anatolia is the kafes, which literally means a cage.  


Pronounced 'mas-hura'. Small closet in the walls of a qa‘a to keep cushions, small lanterns, carpets, etc.  


Tribunal or public reception hall. 




A changing room in a bath.  


A bench. Mastabas were found in vestibules of houses for the guard or doorman, or in marketplaces for the merchants to display their goods. They were carved of stone and in some cases encased with marble.  


Pronounced 'mat-hara'. Place for ablution. 


An ablution area usually found next to religious buildings.  


Originally used to denote polo ground, but now refers to a city square or open space. 




Literally means 'place of visitation,' but is used to refer to a mausoleum. 


A place where jars of water were stored to be cooled. They were usually found in corridors and covered by a carved wooden screen. Other terms used in its stead are mazyara or bayt al-azyar.  


Sun dial.  

Merenids (1244-1465 A.D.) 

This is a berber dynasty which ruled Morocco from 1244-1465 A.D. originating from the Banu Marin tribe who settled in eastern and southeastern Morocco at the turn of the twelfth century A.D. The Merenids took Meknes (1244 A.D.) and Fez (1248 A.D.) as well as other important Moroccan towns, deposing the Almohads in Marrakesh in 1269 A.D. They then became the most important power in the Maghreb, spreading all the way to Algeria, and even launching several attacks on Spain. Decline started post 1358 A.D. where child sultans ruled between 1358-1374 A.D. and 1393-1458 A.D. under the authority of the Wattisids and even under the Nasrids of Granada (1374-1393 A.D.). Although the Merenid ruler Abd al-Haqq (r. 1421-1465 A.D) managed to stop the Wattasid power in 1458 A.D., he died soon after, following which Morocco was ruled by the Wattasids.  

Mihman Sarai 

Hotel or guest accommodation. 


A prayer niche found in religious buildings indicating the direction to the Ka‘ba in Mecca. The mihrab can be either flat or a concave recess in the wall; the latter form is the most popular one. Most mihrabs were decorated with stucco carvings, marble dadoes or mosaic. Some, however, were left plain like the one in the Khanqa of Barquq in the Northern Cemetery of Cairo. Another type of mihrab is the portable one which flourished during the Fatimid period. These mihrabs were wooden, intricately decorated and can be moved from one place to the other. Interesting examples can be seen in the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo.  


Italian word literally meaning a 'thousand flowers'. This is a technique of glass mosaic. 




A type of pottery that developed in Iran under the Saljuks, during the twelfth century. It was very detailed and depicted epics as in miniature paintings. The technique is like that of enameling.  


Pulpit from which the imam of the mosque gives his sermon on Friday. Intricate geometric patterns with mother of pearl inlay and ivory usually adorned minbars. Wood was the most common material used for the construction of minbars, however stone and marble were used as well.  




An oil lamp.  


Drainage pipe with an outlet pouring from any of the walls of the building.  


A Turkic tribe that originated from the eastern part of Mongolia. Their leader was Temüjin (blacksmith), a young ambitious Mongol born in 1162 A.D. who unified the different Mongol tribes by winning dominion over all the small tribes. He was re-named Jingis Khan, meaning fierce, oceanic or universal ruler, in 1206 A.D. and ten years later he had overtaken the lands of northwestern China. He later marched west and eradicated the Khawarizmshahs ruling northeast of Iran. After his death in 1227 A.D. his son Sgodei continued the Mongol conquests in Korea, northern China, Georgia, Armenia, parts of West Asia and Russia. His grandsons enlarged the empire even farther. By that time, the thirteenth century A.D. witnessed the fragmentation of the empire started by the military genius. Four separate empires evolved as a result; one in Mongolia and China (Yuan Empire), one in Central Asia (Chagatay Khanate), one in Eastern Europe (Khanate of the Golden Horde) and one in Iran (Il-Khanids).  


The man who raises the call to prayer. Also spelled muezzin. 


Literally means 'teacher', but generally refers to master craftsman.  


Muslim citizen in Christian Spain. 


See Mu'adhdhin

Mughals (1526-1857 A.D.) 

This dynasty, based in India, was established by Babur (d. 1523 A.D.) in 1526 A.D. The Mughal empire spread all over the Indian subcontinent except the far south, reaching a climax during the rules of Akbar (r. 1556-1605 A.D.), Jahangir (r. 1605-27 A.D.), Shah Jahan (r. 1627-57 A.D.) and Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707 A.D.). Following Aurangzeb's reign, Mughal control weakened and territories broke off into individual states, reaching an end in 1857 A.D. when the British dethroned the last sultan. The Mughals were great patrons of the arts and architecture, sponsoring the Red Fort in Delhi and the Taj Mahal. Their architectural palette was inspired by local Hindu, Persian Central Asian, and native Indian Islamic architecture. Common Hindu influences include the rich ornamentation of piers and columns, the use of corbelling rather than voussoirs, chatris, chajjas and jahokas. Persian influence is seen in the tilework, the iwans, and chahar baghs. Mughal buildings are distinguished by the use of red sandstone and white marble. Mughals also excelled in the use of pietra dura inlay using semi-precious and colored stones.  




The covered or sanctuary area of the mosque. 


A rounded calligraphic script with well proportioned horizontal and ascending lines, developed by the wazir ibn Muqala. This type of calligraphy was popular for Qur'ans from the thirteenth century A.D. onwards, and is considered one of the six 'classical hands'. 


The post responsible for prefecture of civil life during the medieval period. This person is responsible for overseeing public cleanliness, preventing fraud, overseeing commercial transactions, restraining public harassment or fights, and other similar civil regulations.  


The celebration of the birthday of a Prophet or a Saint.  

Muluk al-Tawa'if 

The rulers of smaller Spanish principalities following the end of the Cordovan caliphate, otherwise known as the 'Party Kings.' 


One of the most important decorative elements of Islamic architecture; also called stalactites. They are composed of small arches carved of the building material and arranged on top of each other forming honeycombs. Another definition would be the division of a squinch into a number of small niches. 


Soldiers for the faith, usually at the borders of Dar al-Islam, where they would often be based in ribats. 


Literally means 'collection of fragments', but refers to an album collecting samples of drawings, paintings and calligraphy.  


Generally means place of prayer. Can refer to a small prayer area or to a large open-air space for congregational prayer. The latter context is where 'Id prayers usually take place.  


Pronounced 'mus-haf'. Single volume Qur'an. 


Construction technique where red and white stone are placed in alternating courses. 


Mamluk member of the janissaries.  

Muzaffarids (1314-1393 A.D.) 

This is an Arab dynasty ruling southern Iran, Kurdistan, and at a time, all of Persia. Taking its name from Sharaf al-Din Muzaffar, the grandson of a Khorasani ruler who had advanced under the Ilkhanids becoming the governor of Maibod, a town in the vicinity of Isfahan. Al-Muzaffar's son, Mubariz al-Din Muhammad (r. 1314-1358) took over after his father and occupied Yazd in 1318 A.D. With the Ilkhand fall in 1335 A.D., he took over Kerman in 1341 A.D., Fars with Shiraz in 1353 A.D., Tabriz and Isfahan in 1357 A.D., thus becoming the most powerful dynasty in Iran. Under Shah Juha (r. 1358-1384 A.D.) the Muzaffarids acquired wealth and invested in cultural achievements. From 1387 A.D. they were in battle with pretenders until Tamerlane deposed them in 1393 A.D.