James A. Harrell*, Lorenzo Lazzarini**

 and Mathias Bruno***


*Department of Earth, Ecological and Environmental Sciences, The University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio, 43606-3390, USA; **Laboratorio di Analisi dei Materiali Antichi, D.S.A., Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia, San Polo n. 2468, 30125 Venezia, Italia; ***Via D'Ascanio, n. 1A, 00186 Roma, Italia



            Many of the medieval mosques and other Islamic monuments of Cairo, Egypt, are richly decorated with ornamental stones. These were used for both columns and opus sectile wall veneer and floor tiling. The stones employed are mostly reused from earlier Roman buildings, including Roman materials taken from later Byzantine and Crusader churches. The authors conducted the first comprehensive survey of the ornamental stones used in Cairo's pre-Ottoman monuments (those built before 1517 AD) and herein report the distribution of 35 stone varieties in 62 buildings.



            Cairo in Egypt boasts more surviving medieval Islamic monuments than any other city in the Mediterranean region. Many of these were originally richly adorned with a variety of ornamental stones, both those quarried in Egypt and those coming from sources outside the country. Although Cairo's monuments are well described in terms of their architecture and decoration (Devonshire 1930, Hautecoeur and Wiet 1932, Ministry of Waqfs 1949, Survey of Egypt 1951, Creswell 1952 & 1959, Wiet 1966, Behrens-Abouseif 1989, Williams 1993, Blair and Bloom 1994: 70-96), the ornamental stones used, with a few exceptions, have not been identified. The authors have therefore conducted the first comprehensive survey of these stones in those monuments pre-dating the Ottoman or Turkish period which began in 1517 AD. Except for the Proconnesian marble, some of which was quarried during the Islamic period, all the stones were taken from earlier structures. The ancient Egyptian Dynastic monuments supplied a small portion of this material but the vast bulk of it came from Roman and Byzantine buildings in the eastern Mediterranean region, especially Palestine and Egypt, with most of the Byzantine material reused from earlier Roman sources. This survey provided the authors with the opportunity to investigate aspects of the Roman 'marble' trade, especially as it relates to the stones quarried in Egypt.



              The Muslim builders of medieval Cairo used ornamental stones to decorate the interiors of mosques and other buildings associated with Islam, especially the madrasa (theological school for Muslim scholars) and mashhad (combination mausoleum and shrine). Also sometimes decorated, usually to a much lesser extent, were palaces, zawiyas (small chapels), sabils (water dispensaries), khanqahs (residential institutions for Muslim ascetics), and kuttabs (Quranic schools for young boys). The stones were used for columns, and opus sectile wall veneer and floor tiling. These are most commonly found in and around the mihrabs (prayer niches) set into the eastern (Mecca-oriented) walls of all buildings, and also sometimes throughout the mashhads and the qibli liwans (sanctuaries) of mosques and madrasas. The decoration survives today, to various degrees, in scores of buildings. Of these, six stand out as having both a large variety of abundant and well-preserved ornamental stones, and also being easily accessible to scholars and tourists. These are the mosque-madrasa-mausoleum of Sultan al-Mansur Qalawan (1284-5 AD, #43 in Table 3), the mosque-mausoleum of Aqsurqur (1346-7 AD, #123), the madrasa-khanqah-mausoleum of Sultan al-Zahir Barquq (1384-6 AD, #187), the madrasa-mausoleum of Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay (1425 AD, #175), the mosque-madrasa-mausoleum of Sultan Hasan (1356-63 AD, #133), and the mosque-mausoleum of Sultan al-Muayyad Shaykh (1415-22 AD, #190). The last two buildings are especially notable.

            The use of ornamental stones in all these buildings closely follows the opus sectile decoration in early Byzantine churches, such as the sixth century AD Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (Krautheimer 1986: 214). These, in turn, copied the earlier Roman usage (Adam 1994: 227-231). Opus sectile in Islamic monuments first appeared in the late seventh and early eighth centuries AD in mosques such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusaleum and the Great Mosque in Damascus (Lewcock 1978: 135, Ettinghausen and Grabor 1994: 28-45), but this decorative style came to Egypt much later. Ornamental stones were originally used in Cairo just for columns (beginning in the ninth century AD) and it was not until the Fatimid and Ayyubid periods (969-1171 AD and 1171-1250 AD, respectively) that they were employed for opus sectile, and then only for the prayer niches. This changed dramatically in the Mamluk period (1250-1517 AD) when opus sectile was used extensively in other parts of the buildings. The impetus for this change was the Muslim victories over the Christians in the latter half of the thirteenth century during the Wars of the Crusades. Chief among the victors were the Cairo-based Sultans al-Zahir Baybars al-Bunduqdari and al-Mansur Qalawan whose armies plundered the Byzantine and Crusader churches in Palestine and brought the spoils back to Egypt. It was in the mosque-madrasa-mausoleum of Qalawan that ornamental stones were first extensively used for wall veneer and floor tiling. By the early fifteenth century AD, after the war in Palestine was concluded, these stones became scarce and were used less lavishly than before, and so the mosque-mausoleum of Sultan al-Muayyad Shaykh (1415-22 AD) was the last to be richly decorated with these materials. With the beginning of the Ottoman period in 1517 AD, much of Cairo's ornamental stone was stripped from the Mamluk buildings and removed to Istanbul for reuse there. Still, however, enough of it survives in Cairo to make this city one of the great repositories of reused Roman stones. 

            It is not known how much of the ornamental stones used in Cairo came as spolia from Palestine. Certainly, however, a substantial portion of it must have come from Roman and Byzantine monuments within Egypt, and especially in Alexandria. A hint of what Alexandria could have supplied is seen today at Kom el-Dikka, where there are excavated Roman houses dating from the first through fourth centuries AD.  Collected into piles by excavators are small, thin slabs of many varieties of ornamental stones originally used in the houses for wall veneer and perhaps also floor tiling. A cursory examination of these materials by one of the authors (JAH) revealed the following varieties. From Roman quarries in Egypt there are: abundant granito rosso di Siene, porfido rosso antico and porfido verde Egiziano; common granito del foro; and rare basalte verde, breccia verde antica, serpentina moschinata, granito della colonna, granito bianco e nero (del Cairo), granito verde della sedia, granito verde fiorito di bigio, and granito bianco e nero gabino (or dell'Uadi Fawakhir) (for information on these stone see Table 1 in the present paper and also Mielsch 1985, Gnoli 1988, Borghini 1989, Brown and Harrell 1995, Pensabene and Bruno 1998). All except the last three stones are found in Cairo's Islamic monuments. Imported into Egypt and also found at Kom el-Dikka and in Cairo are: abundant cipollino rosso brecciato and venato, marmo di Proconneso and other "white" marbles, and verde antico; common pavonazzetto; and rare africano and bianco e nero antico. A more thorough study of the Kom el-Dikka material is needed and would surely reveal the presence of yet other ornamental stone varieties. Other rich Roman coastal cities outside of Egypt could also have supplied some of Cairo's ornamental stones: for example, Caesarea Maritima in Palestine and, along the Libyan coast, Apollonia, Leptis Magna and Sabratha.

            Byzantine-Coptic churches in Egypt were richly decorated with reused Roman ornamental stones. These have been reported in excavations of several fifth century AD churches, including the Basilica of Hermopolis Magna at el-Ashmunein, the White and Red Monasteries (Deir Anba Shenouda and Deir Anba Bishuy, respectively) near Sohag, the Pachomian Monastery at Faw Qibli, and the Church of St. Menas at Abu Mina near Alexandria, where one of the authors (LL) saw columns and slabs of all the stones commonly used by the Byzantines, including bianco e nero antico, cipollino rosso, occhio di pavone rosso and verde antico (Baily 1984, Walker 1984, Krautheimer 1986: 110-117, Grossmann 1989: 81-85). There were undoubtedly other Roman and Byzantine monuments available for plundering but they have either not survived or have not yet been discovered. There could not have been much left in Egypt to plunder by the thirteenth century and so the infusion of spolia from Palestine was a welcome event. There was, however, never enough stone for all of Cairo's building projects and this caused Egypt's rulers to take it from the monuments of their predecessors. This means of procurement was aptly characterized by the fifteenth century Cairo historian al-Marqizi as "thieves stealing from thieves" (Rogers 1976: 313).


Survey Results

            A total of 137 pre-Ottoman monuments in Cairo have been examined by the authors, and 62 of these contain reused Roman ornamental stones (Table 3). Those possessing only Proconnesian marble (marmo di Proconneso), columns of which are present in virtually every building, are omitted from Table 3. Excellent maps giving the locations of these buildings are provided by the Survey of Egypt (1951), and less complete but still useful maps can be found in Devonshire (1930) and Williams (1993). The naming of the monuments varies greatly in the literature and so when referring to them it is always best to include their official Islamic monument number (the first column in Table 3). Stones known to have been quarried in Roman times and used in these buildings are listed in Table 1. The stones were identified by megascopic examination. The authors are collectively familiar with all of them, having derived this knowledge from their work in many of the quarries and with reference stone collections, and also from photographs in Mielsch (1985), Gnoli (1988), Borghini (1989), Pensabene and Bruno (1998) and other references. Table 2 indicates how each of the stones was used and in which buildings it can be found. Some of the granito rosso and granito nero di Siene, and perhaps also some of the basalte verde and alabastro Egiziano came from Pharaonic monuments. In most cases their provenance cannot be determined and so no distinction in source is made here. Stones added in modern restorations, which began in the 1890's, are excluded where recognized. One of those widely used in this work, which was often done by Italian stonemasons, is marmo bianco di Carrara. This stone was also quarried by the Romans but it seems that very little, if any, of it in Cairo is of ancient derivation. It, therefore, has not been included Tables 1 and 2. It should be noted, however, that it is found in the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna and Sabratha, and so possibly also at Alexandria. The ubiquitous Proconnesian marble has also been excluded. Although quarried by the Romans, much of it in Cairo may date to the Byzantine and Islamic periods, when the quarries on Turkey's Island of Marmora (ancient Proconnesos) were still active. For detailed information on the stone varieties and on their abundance, locations and uses in each building, see the web site of one of the authors (JAH) at  



            Roman stones quarried in Egypt and present in significant quantities in Cairo's pre-Ottoman buildings include: basalte verde, breccia verde antica, granito bianco e nero del Cairo, granito della colonna, granito nero di Siene, granito rosso di Siene, porfido rosso antico, porfido verde Egiziano, and serpentina moschinata. Other Egyptian stones notable by their absence or rarity in Cairo are alabastro cotognino, gabbro eufotide, granito bianco e nero di Santa Prassede, granito del foro, granito bianco e nero gabino (or dell'Uadi Fawakhir), granito verde della sedia, granito verde fiorito di bigio, and porfido serpentino nero. These stones, unlike the others from Egypt, were apparently mainly export commodities. In contrast, the granito bianco e nero del Cairo was used mainly in Egypt (Harrell et al., in press).

Roman stones brought into Egypt and present in significant amounts are bianco e nero antico, bigio antico di Lesbo, bigio lumachellato di Lesbo, cipollino rosso, cipollino verde, marmo di Proconneso, occhio di pavone rosso, pavonazzetto, and verde antico. Notable by their absence or rarity in Cairo are other Roman stones from outside Egypt that were quarried in large quantities and had a wide distribution within the Mediterranean basin: africano, breccia corallina, breccia di Settebasi, giallo antico, granito violetto, greco scritto, porfido verde antico, portasanta, and rosso antico among others. For these stones it would appear that Egypt certainly and possibly also Palestine were outside the usual 'marble' trade routes. 



            The authors wish to gratefully acknowledge grant support from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.



Adam, J.-P., 1994, Roman Building Materials and Techniques. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Baily, D. M., 1984, A building of the Antonine period. In British Museum Expedition to Middle Egypt – Ashmunein (1983) (eds. D. M. Bailey and W. V. Davies), 29-48. London:  British Museum Press.


Behrens-Abouseif, D., 1989, Islamic Architecture in Cairo – An Introduction. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.


Blair, S. S. and Bloom, J. M., 1994, The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Borgini, G., 1989, Marmi Antichi. Rome: Leonardo-De Luca Editori.


Brown, V. M. and Harrell, J. A., 1995, Topographical and petrological survey of ancient Roman quarries in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. In The Study of Marble and Other Stones Used in Antiquity (eds. Y. Maniatis, N. Herz and Y. Bassiakis), 221-234. London: Archetype.


Creswell, K. A. C., 1952, The Muslim Architecture of Egypt (Vol. I – Ikhshids and Fatimids, A.D. 939-1171). Oxford: Clarendon Press.


Creswell, K. A. C., 1959, The Muslim Architecture of Egypt (Vol. II – Ayyubids and Early Bahrite Mamluks, A.D. 1171-1326). Oxford: Clarendon Press.


Devonshire, R. L., 1930, Eighty Mosques and Other Islamic Monuments in Cairo. Paris: Maisonneuve Freres.


Ettinghausen, R. and Grabar, O., 1994, The Art and Architecture of Islam 650-1250. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Gnoli, R., 1988, Marmora Romana. Rome: Edizioni dell'Elefante.


Grossmann, P., 1989, Early Christian architecture in the Nile Valley. In Beyond the Pharaohs – Egypt and the Copts in the 2nd to 7th centuries AD (ed. F. D. Friedman), 81-88. Providence: Rhode Island School of Design and Rhode Island Museum of Art.


Harrell, J.A. and Lazzarini, L., in press, A new variety of granito bianco e nero from Wadi Barud, Egypt. In Transactions of the 5th International Symposium of the Association for the Study of Marble and Other Stones in Antiquity. London: Archetype Publications.


Hautecoeur, L. and Wiet, G., 1932, Les Mosquιes du Caire (2 vols.). Paris: Librairie Ernest Leroux.


Krautheimer, R., 1986, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (4th ed.). New York: Penguin Books.


Lewcock, R., 1978, Materials and techniques. In Architecture of the Islamic World – Its History and Social Meaning (ed. G. Michell), 129-143. London: Thames and Hudson.


Mielsch, H., 1985, Buntmarmore aus Rom in Antikenmuseum Berlin. Berlin: Staatliche Museum Preussischer Kulturbesitz.


Ministry of Waqfs, 1949, Mosques of Cairo from 21 H. (641) to 1365 H. (1946) (2 vols.). Giza: The Survey of Egypt. [reprinted in 1992 Hazar Publishing, London, with some added material]


Pensabene, P. and Bruno, M., 1998, Il Marmo e il Colore Guida Fotographica — I Marmi della Collezione Podesti. Rome: L'Erma di Bretschneider.


Rogers, M., 1976, The stones of Barquq – building materials and architectural decoration in late fourteenth-century Cairo, Apollo, No. 170, 307-313.


Survey of Egypt, 1951, Index to Mohammedan Monuments in Cairo. Cairo: The Survey of Egypt.


Walker, S., 1984, Notes on fragments of coloured marble from Hermopolis Magna. In British Museum Expedition to Middle Egypt – Ashmunein (1983) (eds. D. M. Bailey and W. V. Davies), 53-55. London:  British Museum Press.


Wiet, G., 1966, The Mosques of Cairo. Paris: Librairie Hachette.


Williams, C., 1993, Islamic Monuments in Cairo — A Practical Guide (4th edition). Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.