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Technical Glossary


Gate or door.  

Bab Sirr  

A small door, usually hidden, found in most medieval Cairene architecture. The bab sirr usually led to a narrow corridor within the walls of the premises, and acted as an escape route. In religious buildings it was a means for the ruler to enter and leave the building without being seen.  


Derives from Persian, meaning 'opening for breeze'. An early form of air-conditioning, often found in medieval Cairene houses, where a directional opening allowed cooler air to circulate and admitted light into the room.  



Bahri Mamluks (1250 – 1382 A.D.)  

The corpus of slave soldiers built by al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub, the last Ayyubid Sultan, and stationed in barracks on the island of Roda during the 13th century A.D. They were Turks bought at a very young age from the various areas in Central Asia, converted to Islam and highly trained in all military sciences. They rose to power in 1250 A.D. when Shajar al-Durr, widow of al-Malik al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub claimed herself sultana and married the Mamluk amir ‘Izz al-Din Aybak. Although Aybak (r. 1250-1257 A.D.) became the first Bahri Mamluk sultan, the proper Mamluk state started with Sultan al-Dhahir Baybars al-Bunduqdari (r. 1260-1277 A.D.). His rule extended for seventeen years, throughout which he protected the Mamluk territories from both the Mongols and the Crusaders. On the inner front he created an infrastructure by reconstructing roads, repairing bridges and fortifying the north coast. He was also a patron of arts and his mosque in al-Dhahir is a living proof. In general the Mamluks were great patrons of the arts and architecture. The epitome of Mamluk architecture can be seen in the buildings of Sultan Qalawun (r.1279-1290 A.D.) and his descendants; the mosque of Sultan Hasan, the complex of Qalawun and the mosque of al-Nasir Muhammad in the Citadel. Amirs, especially those of al-Nasir Muhammad, were encouraged to build. Elegant buildings of amirs include the mosques of Salar and Sanjar, Altinbugha al-Maridani, Shaykhu and the madrasa of Sarghatmish. They were also great patrons of the art of the Book. Qur’an illumination of this period was heavily influenced by the Ilkhanid style. This can be seen in the Qur’ans commissioned or bequeathed by Sultan Sha‘ban to his madrasa in al-Darb al-Ahmar. The artifacts belonging to this period in the Museum of Islamic Art of the different mediums show a great variety in techniques and creativity. Glass enameling for example reached perfection during this period.  


An arcade; a series of opened or blind arches joined together by columns or piers.  


Floor tiler; formerly a specialist in lime plaster waterproofing. 


Derives from Persian and literally means 'what pertains to the mason'. It was used by the Persians to describe a specific type of surface decoration of alternating plain and enameled bricks.  


Refers to the phrase Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim, 'In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate', or its shortened form, Bismillah, 'In the Name of God'. This is the opening phrase of the first chapter of the Qur'an, and is generally written or orally spoken by Muslims at the start of almost all actions. It frequently marks the beginning of inscriptions on monuments and artifacts. 


Arabic for house.  

Bayt al-Hilani 

Gatehouse that is usually fenestrated. 

Bayt al-Mal 

Arabic term that literally means 'house of money.' It refers to the financial establishment that acted as a royal treasury, and was responsible for the adminstration of taxes and zakah.  

Bayt al-Myiah 

Compartment used to store water containers. 


Marketplace and business centre of an Islamic city.  


Market that is covered, and often domed. 


Leader of a tribe. 


Turkish for 'gentleman'. It is a general title of rank and is equivalent to the Arabic title amir


A technique of metalwork developed in early 17th century India, where the zinc alloy vessel is inlaid with silver, brass, and sometimes gold. This is then covered with salts and mud, making the alloy black and leaving the ornamentation contrastingly bright.  


Mental hospital. 


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

Bint al 'usada 

Small cushion usually used as head rest. 




See Basmala


A symbol used by Mamluks in both architecture and decorative arts to denote a certain position or rank. Blazons started as simple shields with a decorative symbol and eventually became more complex. Examples of blazons include the pen, denoting the court scribe; the polo stick, denoting the amir akhur; the cup, denoting the court saqi; and the napkin, denoting the master of the robes. 


A decorative element that is usually of a round or oval shape and filled with patterns (arabesque), with a palmette or calice decorating either end. It is used on all mediums of decoration, buildings, textiles, metalwork, woodwork, illuminated manuscripts, etc. The name is derived from that of the city of Bukhara in Uzbekistan or the quarter of Bukhariyya in Basra.  


Literally means 'mantle' and refers to the cloak of Prophet Muhammad. 'Burda' is the name of a famous panegyric written by al-Busiri in the 13th century A.D. for the Prophet and was used to adorn many of the Islamic monuments, especially the houses of Cairo.  


A tower of a fortress or of city walls.  

Burji Mamluks (1382 – 1517 A.D.) 

Also referred to as Circassian Mamluks. These were the slave soldiers who ruled Egypt from 1382 A.D. until the Ottoman invasion in 1517 A.D. Ethnically they were Turks but unlike the Bahri Mamluks who were from Central Asia, the Burji Mamluks were from the areas around the north and the west of the Caspian littoral. They were named so because they were lodged in the towers of the citadel. The first Burji Mamluk to rule was al-Dhahir Sayf al-Din Barquq (r. 1382-1399 A.D.). He protected Egypt from the danger of the Timurids by slaying all their emissaries. Their artistic patronage reached its zenith during the reign of al-Ashraf Qaytbay (r. 1468-1496 A.D.). Architectural masterpieces from his period include his funerary complex in the Northern Cemetery, his mosque in Qal‘at al-Kabsh and the mosque of Qijmas al-Ishaqi in Darb al-Ahmar. Complexity in design and technique can be seen in their woodcarvings; excellent examples are the minbar and the kursi in the funerary complex of Qaytbay, and the minbar in the mosque of Qijmas al-Ishaqi.  


A Shi'i dynasty established by mercenary soldiers from the Caspian region of Daylum who ruled Iran and Iraq from the mid-tenth to the mid-eleventh century A.D. As Dailamites, they lived in mountainous areas north of Qazvin, and like Turks they were popular mercenaries. Up until the ninth century they managed to repel more than a dozen Muslim attacks, and as many 'Alids sought refuge in their mountains they were gradually converted into Shi‘i Islam. During the early years of the tenth century Ali ibn Buyah (Imad al-Dawla), the founder of the dynasty, began his career in the military, employed in the court of the Samanid prince Nasr ibn Ahmad and was appointed as the governor of Ray. Although they were able to wrest their territories from the 'Abassids and were essentially an independent seat of authority, they still maintained recognition of a puppet 'Abassid Caliph, ruling in his name. The Buwayhids created courts in Isfahan, Shiraz and Baghdad. They were the first to establish the use of revenue grants, iqta', to pay the soldiers, a system that was built upon and used extensively by the Seljuks. 


See Buwayhids