To see Al-Ashrafiyya Madrasa, requires a walk of a few dozen meters north towards Bab al-Silsilah, one of the gates of al-Aqsa Mosque. Al-Ashrafiyya Madras is located on the western boundary of al-Aqsa Mosque between Bab al-Silsilah and Bab al-Mathara (Purification Gate), and it is the only school that has its campus on the grounds of al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Mosque’s Third Jewel
Al-Ashrafiyya was known as al-Sultaniyya. The school is attributed to Sultan al-Malik al-Ashraf Sayf al-Din abu al-Nasr Qaytbay who ruled for nearly 29 years. Al-Ashrafiyya Madrasa is known as the most luxurious school in Jerusalem from an architectural and artistic viewpoint. Historian Mujir al-Din described it as the ‘Third Jewel’ after the Dome of the Rock and al-Jami’ al-Aqsa. Travelers and historians who visited it in the 10th and 11th centuries AD wrote about its architecture with admiration. In 1669 - 1670 AD (1080 H), Turkish tourist Eviliya Celebi described it: ‘al-Sultaniyya Madrasa is the best of the schools of Jerusalem.’ Sufi traveler ‘Abed al-Ghani al-Nabulsi visited Jerusalem in 1691 AD (1102 H), stayed in the school and described it as a great school of great importance.
Artistic Characteristics of the School
Al-Ashrafiyya madrasa is composed of two levels. Its main entrance opens up to the courtyard of al-Aqsa Mosque and is characterized by the richness of its decorations and architectural elements that epitomize the best of Mamluk architectural art. The entrance porch is a fan-vaulted roof open on the eastern and southern sides and carried on two pointed arches. The opening of the entrance is located in a deep vaulted porch filled with carvings and decorations adorned with glass ceramic tiles. The door leads into vestibule to the north of which lies a large assembly hall that is used today as an technical center for the preservation and maintenance of manuscripts. In the eastern wall of the assembly hall, there is a door and two windows overlooking the courtyard of al-Aqsa Mosque. In its northern wall, there is a door and a window, while the southern wall includes one window and a mihrab decorated with colored marble.
To the south of the vestibule, there is a stone staircase leading upstairs and to the minaret of Bab al-Silsila. The southern part of the upper floor is in a deteriorated state, but its features are clear and congruent with the Mamluk style of construction. In the center, there used to be a central courtyard flagged by two iwans on the north and south and two smaller iwans to the east and west. None of these remain today, except for the southern hallway which has a niche.
The School’s Cadre
Mujir al-Din said that the Sultan placed 60 Sufis in the school and paid each one a monthly allowance of 45 dirhams. He also appointed workers and ordered the payment of 500 dirhams as a monthly salary to the sheikh. According to a deed document saved in the Ministry of Awqaf in Cairo, Qaytbay endowed plenty of lands and property to his school, including the lands of 28 villages spread throughout Gaza, Ramleh, Jerusalem, and Hebron.