As a public place of worship for Muslims, the mosque has a special importance - one reason why governments in the Middle East, North Africa and the Far East have chosen to depict mosques on their postage stamps. Another is that these places of worship are often historically valuable, architecturally striking and esthetically beautiful.
From Malaysia to Morocco, the typical mosque has the same basic form. Exteriors are often rectangular in outline with interiors consisting of a central, open court surrounded by a cloister or walkway covered by a roof atop rows of pillars. A dome often covers the mosque's central court. The wall facing the Ka'ba in Mecca, the holy city of Islam in Saudi Arabia, contains a prayer niche, or mihrab, towards which worshipers face when they pray. Rising above most mosques - vertical extensions of them - are one or more minarets from which muezzins call the faithful to prayer five times a day.
Most mosques have three features in common: fountains or faucets used by Muslims to wash before prayer, space for worshipers to pray and a pulpit, or minbar, from which a learned member of the Muslim community gives the Friday sermon. But there are variations on the basic design, and the numerous postage stamps issued by Muslim countries throughout the world show graphically how extensive these variations can be.
In Turkey, for example, mosques and minarets are frequent themes on postage stamps, particularly the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, two of the most famous buildings in the world.
The Hagia Sophia mosque is in Istanbul. Built as a Christian church by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, it was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman Turks, who captured Constantinople from the Greeks in 1453. It is depicted on a 1955 Turkish 30 kurush stamp.
A 20 kurush value in the same set depicts another of Istanbul's famous structures, the Mosque of Sultan Ahmad, better known as the "Blue Mosque." The Ottoman Sultan Ahmad I built the Blue Mosque between 1609 and 1616, and it is the most conspicuous edifice in Istanbul that can be seen from the Sea of Marmora. These two stamps - the one showing Hagia Sophia and the other showing the Blue Mosque - are part of a series issued to publicize the Tenth International Congress of Byzantine Research, an event which took place in Istanbul in September, 1955.
Cairo, one of the most picturesque of Middle Eastern cities, contains more than 400 mosques, and numerous Egyptian stamps picture Cairo's mosques and their minarets. The best known mosque in Cairo is al-Azhar - also the name of the world's oldest university. Built in 972, al-Azhar has grown in size and grandeur over the centuries, and on the occasion of its 1,000-year anniversary, in 1957, the Egyptian government issued three stamps clearly depicting the mosque's towering minarets. Other Egyptian stamps, including a series of airmail issues from 1959 to 1965, have also featured al-Azhar.
Another famous mosque in Cairo is the Mosque of Sultan Hasan ibn Nasir. Built between 1357 and 1360, this structure has long been a Cairo landmark. Islamic art in Egypt reached its peak with the construction of this great shrine to the Muslim faith. This mosque appears on a number of Egyptian stamps, including six values in a regular issue series from 1953 to 1956. In the early 1970's the Egyptian government printed special, multicolored four-stamp sets showing famous minarets within the city of Cairo. Included in a 1972 set, for example, are stamps depicting the east and west minarets of the Sultan Hasan mosque.
A number of Middle Eastern countries have collectively produced a myriad of stamps illustrating the famous Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Erected by Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan in the seventh century to commemorate the Prophet Muhammad's journey to heaven, the Dome of the Rock is one of the great Islamic shrines and one of the first great works of Islamic architecture. Its unique, octagonal shape and golden-colored copper dome, as well as its beautiful tiles, set it apart as one of the loveliest religious monuments anywhere. Another famous mosque in Jerusalem is al-Aqsa. According to the Koran, God miraculously conveyed Muhammad to the site of this mosque on a night journey from Mecca.
Both the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosques are depicted in a regular series issued by the Jordanian government in 1954.
Other Middle Eastern countries have also printed stamps showing the Dome of the Rock. Iraq, for example, has produced several varieties of stamps, in particular a five fils specimen issued in 1977, showing an overall view of the mosque that captures its unique architectural beauty. And after World War I, when the British mandate issued its own stamps for Palestine, several values in the long regular series from 1927 to 1945 depict the Dome of the Rock. Though these latter stamps are modestly priced, they still have great collector interest.
In Saudi Arabia, site of Islam's most important shrines, stamps naturally depict the Sacred Mosque in Mecca, the Ka'ba, and the Prophets Mosque in Medina, another holy city.
Such stamps show graphically that details in shape, size and materials used for construction may vary greatly from one region to the next. Each country, in fact, has stamped distinctive characteristics onto its mosques and minarets.
The Grand Mosque of Tunis in Tunisia, for example, has a square minaret with galleries running along the sides of the mosque. From within ornate battlements on the minaret rises a smaller square tower crowned by a pyramid roof. Superb designs decorate the walls of the structure. The minaret of this mosque - built in 732 - looks quite different from the circular, slender towers of many Turkish mosques. In fact, if someone were unable to read the writing on a Turkish stamp, he might easily be able to recognize it as a Turkish stamp because of the shape of the minarets.
In parts of Africa, minaret designs diverge even more from those seen in the Middle East. In Somalia, for example, mosques often have windmill-like round minarets with two galleries. A mosque in Djibouti, so designed, adorns a Somalian postage stamp, and a stamp from the Ivory Coast shows the mosque of the inland city of Bobo-Dioulasso with a motif typical of the mud-brick architecture of the African village. Indeed, postage stamps - insofar as they depict houses of worship - convey the different architectural styles of the countries from which they originate.
Even the most enterprising philatelist will find it a great challenge to put together a comprehensive assemblage of stamps depicting mosques and minarets. Over a period of more than a century, dozens of countries have collectively turned out thousands of postal issues in this category.
Robert Obojski, a specialist on Middle East stamps and coins, contributes regularly to Aramco World.