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Volume 13, Number 7August/September 1962

In This Issue

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Mosques Of Many Nations

Each country where Muslims live has influenced, in its own way, the grace and beauty of the mosque.

An especially vivid sense of beauty is evoked by the architecture of the Muslim world, and nowhere more so than in those buildings erected for religious observances. Called mosques, they have existed since the rise of Islam 13 centuries ago.

When the Prophet Muhammad migrated to Medina in 622, he prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, then considered the center of the world. Soon he substituted the Ka'bah, a small sanctuary in the sacred city of Mecca, and ever since, Muslims at prayer the world over have faced toward it. Today it is a cubical stone building in the courtyard of the Great Mosque, shrouded in black silk, the kiswa, and containing the sacred Black Stone, believed to have been sent by God as a sign.

As a meeting place for public prayer on Fridays, the Muslim day of rest, Muhammad used a simple assembly room (musalla) with a flat roof supported on pillars. A niche resembling a door (mihrab) indicated the direction of Mecca, toward which the congregation prostrated itself while praying. The prayer leader (imam) spoke from a pulpit (minbar) and a superstructure on the roof (minaret) was the site from which a man (muezzin) summoned the people to prayer with a call known as the adhan. Series of arcades parallel to the mihrab wall were included so the faithful could come to prayer in the same ranked formation in which they went forth to battle unbelievers. The final arcade opened on a courtyard surrounded by colonnades, with a fountain in the center for ritual ablutions.

The basic components of the mosque have remained much the same through the years. Mosque architecture, however, has absorbed something of the spirit and culture of each country where Muslims are found. Different building materials and variations in structural styles and techniques mean that from nation to nation the mosque changes its appearance, but not its purpose.


Built by Caliph 'Abd al-Malik in 691, Jordan's Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhra) rose on the site of King Solomon's Temple, a spot in Jerusalem where Muslims believe the angel Gabriel carried the Prophet Muhammad to heaven. A Byzantine plan—circular domed central nave surrounded by octagonal aisles—was used. It is the earliest example of a mosque featuring a single, enlarged dome.

Great Mosque at Damascus, believed to be first constructed in Syria, was regarded by medieval Muslims as one of world's wonders. Erected in 707 by Umayyad Caliph al-Walid, it was strongly influenced by churches of the time, and the nave, transepts and aisle scheme are recognizable. The use of brickwork to lend a striped effect to masonry is Byzantine.

The simplicity of early mosques gradually gave way to more creative interior and exterior decoration. One of the finest Egyptian examples is the early nineteenth-century Muhammad 'Ali Mosque in Cairo, called the "Alabaster Mosque" because of its striking white walls and fixtures. Its delicately wrought minbar is a tall, shrine-like pulpit approached by a long flight of stairs.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Indian delight in beam construction added a new dimension to the mosque, as in the Jumma Masjid or Great Mosque in Delhi. Although the court entrance, with its high central arch capped by twin minarets, is Persian, the arcades are covered by octagonal domes, typically Indian and known colloquially as "lotus" domes. Indian architects combined love of cusped arches and white marble surfaces with Persian affection for great size.

The Golden Mosque of Khadhimain in Baghdad, Iraq, crown of the 'Abbasid dynasty of 750-1258, indicates strong Persian influence. Many Persian mosques derive from audience halls of Achaemenian kings. Their flat timber roofs rest directly on columns without intermediary arches. Prayer room is covered with gilded, bulbous dome; walls are overlaid with mosaics in glazed brick and tile.

Seventeenth-century Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey is a good example of the buttressed masses and vast, unencumbered interiors typical of the Ottoman school of mosque architecture. It is understandable that Turkish builders should have retained the Byzantine stress on domes, since Istanbul was constructed on the site of ancient Byzantium, capital of the rich Byzantine Empire.

When 'Abd er-Rahman became Emir of Cordova, he established the Moorish school of architecture of North Africa and Spain. In 785 he began the Great Mosque at Cordova. Decorated with previously unknown lavishness, it is noteworthy for its interlacing arches and double arcades, intricate plaster ornamentation and cusped arches. Typically Moorish, these horseshoe arches of alternate brick-red and white keystones rest on pillars. Above them rises a second tier which supported the original cedar ceiling.

This article appeared on pages 10-14 of the August/September 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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