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Volume 29, Number 5September/October 1978

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A Mosque for Rome

Written and photographed by Gian Luigi Scarfiotti

In 1982, a slim, 131-foot minaret will take its place among Rome's Christian domes, spires and crosses.

The idea of a mosque in the Eternal City - the center of the Roman Catholic Church - is not new. More than 40 years ago, a group of Arab ambassadors put a similar proposal to the Italian government. But because there was opposition, it was not until the 1970's that firm plans could be made. In accordance with the new spirit of ecumenism, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was welcomed in Rome in 1973 and found that the opposition of the past had evaporated.

Faisal's visit also helped solve the financial problems involved in building a large new mosque. After his visit, Muslim countries and individuals began to donate the estimated $20 million that the mosque will cost.

Since then, progress has been rapid. The City Council of Rome provided a site, a seven-and-a-half acre wooded tract at the foot of Monte Antenne. The Islamic Cultural Center of Italy, the project's sponsoring organisation, held an international competition and approved a complex and innovative design submitted by a three-man team composed of Sami Mousawi, an Iraqi architect working in England, and Paolo Portoghesi and Vittorio Gigliotti, two Italian architects. And they began to translate their ideas into blue-prints.

Architecturally, Professor Portoghesi said, a mosque in Rome presents challenges. It must blend with the site and be compatible with the architectural context of Christian Rome. The architects, moreover, had to blend the modern functional needs of the mosque - which will include conference facilities and a library -with both the historical traditions of Islamic architecture and the possibilities opened by modern construction technology.

Because a mosque is a house of prayer, Professor Portoghesi said, architects of the "classical period" of Islamic architecture used to divide the mosque into smaller spaces which seemed to emphasize the direct relationships of each individual with God. Orientation to Mecca was the only important physical requirement of the construction. The architects in Rome, therefore, designed a rectangular space, directly connected to a courtyard and broken into a series of smaller spaces by a series of unusual pillars. Four-sided, they narrow toward the top and then fan out again in two graceful curves, suggesting the form of hands opened in prayer. The cupolas they support are formed on interwoven arches - a recurrent theme in Islamic architecture - that intersect in a complicated and beautiful pattern. In another adaptation of traditional Islamic design, Professor Portoghesi and his associates are surrounding the mosque with gardens that take advantage of the rolling topography of the site. The gardens will be planted with palms, pines, cypresses and myrtle hedges, and embellished with basins, fountains, and streams in stony beds - for, in the Koran, "gardens and fountains" are a metaphor for paradise, "flowing with rivers of water incorruptible..."

With the design and engineering complete, the Islamic Cultural Center is now awaiting approval of its building permit and hopes to start construction immediately thereafter.

Gian Luigi Scarfiotti, once director of a cement company, is now a successful freelance photographer and journalist based in Rome.

This article appeared on pages 12-13 of the September/October 1978 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1978 images.