Essential Architecture-  Syria

Madrasa al-Firdaws










austere stone architecture


Founded by Dhayfa Khatun, the strong wife of the Ayyubid ruler of Aleppo al-Zahir Ghazi. This is the most celebrated Syrian madrasa and the finest example of austere stone architecture. It is balanced in composition and conservative in decoration with a fine mihrab topped with a "Syrian knot," a decorative element that later spread to Anatolia.
Al-Firdaws madrasa is located on an extra-mural site southwest of Bab al-Maqam. Due to its location outside the city walls, the madrasa was developed as a freestanding structure. The Ayyubid building has a stark facade that appears as a solid mass of stone, with eleven domes. Its patron was Dayfa Khatun, the wife al-Zahir Ghazi and the queen of the region between 1236-1243. She is one of the most prominent architectural patrons in Syrian history; she established large endowments for the maintenance and operation of her charitable foundations.

Although the madrasa has four entrances, three of the secondary ones are now blocked up, leaving the main eastern entrance as the only current entry point inside. The main entrance is typical of Ayyubid architecture, with its elongated and narrow proportions and three-tiered muqarnas vault. The portal leads to the courtyard through a vaulted corridor. Three large chambers and residential cells are arranged around the rectangular courtyard, which is enveloped by an arcade (riwaq) on the eastern, western and southern sides, with a large iwan on the northern side. The columns have muqarnas capitals. The Roman and Byzantine heritage of Aleppo is reflected in this Ayyubid madrasa as it is the only one with an arcaded courtyard.

The southern chamber is used as the mosque. It has two domes on the corner bays. All the domes are the same except the mihrab dome, which has an elaborate muqarnas base and twelve small openings. The mihrab is made of veined white marble, red porphyry and green diorite. Its niche is composed of granite columns with muqarnas capitals.

The large iwan, or classroom, is across the courtyard from the prayer hall. The walls are carved with three niches used for book storage. This iwan is backed by a larger iwan that faces north. Though this iwan currently faces a wall due to the dense urban growth around al-Firdaws, it is believed to have been originally open to a walled garden and a large pool. Yasser Tabbaa compares this double-sided iwan in al-Firdaws to similar iwans in Baghdad madrasas, palatial structures in Mardin and early Islamic palaces in Samarra and Bust, tracing its origins to the palatial typology. Residential cells are located in the northeastern and northwestern parts of the building.


Allen, Terry. 2003. "Madrasah al-Firdaus". In Ayyubid Architecture. Occidental, CA: Solipsist Press. [Accessed August 2, 2005]

Tabbaa, Yasser. 1997. Constructions of Power and Piety in Medieval Aleppo. The Pennsylvania State University: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 46-48,142,168-171.

Ball, Warwick. 1994. Syria A Historical and Architectural Guide. New York: Interlink Books,134.

Rihawi, Abdul Qader. 1979. Arabic Islamic Architecture in Syria. Damascus: Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, 138.


Special thanks to the Islamic architecture website