Systems for providing illumination are as old as the beginning of human civilization. Primitive people needed light to get through the gloom of night. The manufacture of utensils for illumination flourished in Islamic Egypt. This development took place in line with the technology available at that time, the architecture of buildings, and of the purposes for which such utensils were used. Archaeological evidence and historical sources are full of details of the development of such utensils. Illumination can be divided into two main categories: Natural and Artificial.
Utilization of natural light depends on the architectural elements of the building. An architectural plan is arranged in a way that allows sunlight to penetrate the building through courts or open sahns, (interior courtyard of a mosque), as can be seen in the mosques of Amr Ibn-Al-As and Ahmad Ibn-Tulun. Light can also enter the building by passing through stucco and transparent glass windows. Architects also built windows and other opening into the drums of domes to allow light into buildings. For the purpose of embellishing and increasing the beauty of the light, the windows, the sunshades and the hoods were decorated with colored glass, which made the light livelier. An example of that display can be seen in the funeral dome of the Madrasah of Sultan Hassan.
Utensils for illumination are used at night or in dark places where light cannot penetrate. They were also used as decoration for ceremonies and celebrations. Pottery lamps are among the most ancient of these utensils that are known. There were numerous shapes and designs of such artifacts in the Fatimid period. Pottery lamps were decorated with geometrical designs on the outside and were filled with oil and supplied with wicks. There was a special market in the ancient city of Fustat that was called the Lamp Market, where pottery and glass lamps were made and sold. The Persian traveler poet Nasseri Khisro saw the market and remarked, “There is no market that resembles that market in any country, and it contains all sorts of rare objects from all over the world.” The Fatimids wished to provide mosques, such as those of Amr Ibn Al-As, Al-Azhar and Al-Hakim, with lamps, particularly for feasts and celebrations.
It was told that Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah gave, as a gift, a great silver chandelier to the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-As. It bore 700 lamps. At that time it was necessary to remove one of the mosque's doors in order to mount it. Candles were used for illumination and their production flourished in Islamic Egypt. The candlesticks were made of copper and were probably used in great houses and palaces. Mohammad Ibn-Tugkj Al Ikhshid used to go out at night with his servants carrying lighted candles in their hands. Candle markets were very popular during the beginning of the month of Ramadan, in the Fatimid period, as candles were used a lot for lighting.
Radish and turnip seed oil, which were called hot oil, were used in lamps. Such oils became more expensive, when Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah ordered that all stores, lanes and shops should be lit at night. Mamluk artists produced the most marvelous glass lamps; sultans and princes ordered that they should be placed in mosques. They were made of glass inlaid with mina and gold, and distinguished by their special shape became known as mosque lamps.
Additionally, brass candlesticks and lanterns were manufactured in the Mamluk period. Chandeliers were large and consisted of several circles, each carrying a number of glass lanterns; the circles were attached to each other by chains. The collection of lighting utensils in the Madrassa of Sultan Hassan is considered to be the largest.