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Egypt: Mosques by Brian Rosewood


Mosques

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Brian Rosewood

Introduction

Cairo is known as the City of 1,000 Minarets because of its many mosques. Many of these mosques are open to visitors, and in fact, Cairo has an ongoing program for the restoration of ancient mosques, a few of which ranks as some of the oldest to be found in the world. Certainly some are the grandest to be found anywhere.

Many visitors to Egypt, who arrive with even a meager interest in this architecture and a slightly open mind, and particularly those with a creativity streak, will be awestruck by their beauty and design. Yet, and unfortunately, many western visitors may completely bypass these wonders of a very different civilization, and for many others who do wonder into an ancient mosque or two, their lack of knowledge regarding this art form will often result in a short, cursory examination lacking substance.

Mosques, and Islamic architecture in general, unlike western architecture, varies more between different geographical regions then it does between historical ages. Scholars tell us that this is at least due in part to the rapid initial spread of Islam, as opposed to that of Christianity, which was suppressed during its first several hundred years. Christianity had the opportunity to develop more common architectural styles in its formative years, while Islam spread through a vast territory quickly where the use of local building material and ideas


Basic components of a Mosque

The Demarcated Space


Prayer is an essential element of Islam, and the demarcated space allows a space for congregational prayer. In formal mosques, the demarcated space is almost always partially roofed, and partly open to the sky. The covered prayer hall, or sanctuary (haram) usually varies relative to the size of the open courtyard (sahn). The courtyard is most often surrounded on three of its sides by colonnades, or arcades (riwags), with the fourth side opening into the covered sanctuary. The prayer hall, which is normally rectangular or square, may take the form of a hypostyle hall with its roof supported by a number of evenly spaced columns. In this design, a system of horizontal beams known as architraves, or alternatively, a system of arches support the ceiling. In other designs, the roof may consist of a single large dome on pendentives (one of the greatest contributions made by Islam to architecture), or instead, by one or more smaller domes.

The size and proportion of the covered verses the open courtyard is dependent both on the size of the congregation and the climate of the region where the mosque is located. Obviously, in wetter or colder climates a smaller open courtyard would be required then in, for example, a city such as Cairo, where rain is scares and the climate is usually moderate even in winter.

The Qibla Wall and the Mihrab

Mosques throughout the world have a standard orientation. Within the prayer hall, one wall must face Mecca, the direction in which Muslims should face in order to pray. This wall is called the qibla wall, and at its midpoint is a niche or recess that constitutes the central and most decorated feature of any mosque, known as the mihrab. The mihrab basically takes the layout of a Roman niche, with a semicircular recess arched at the top. It should be noted that the mihrab is not considered to be a sacred element of the mosque. Rather, it prescribes the the sacred direction for prayer to Mecca. When in prayer, Muslims will form row upon row, each parallel to, and facing the qibla wall.

The Minbar

The minbar is basically the Islamic equivalent to the pulpit and is always located to the right of the mihrab. It takes the form of a staircase leading to a small platform from which the iman leads prayers and also delivers the oration (khutba), which occurs on Fridays and may be part sermon and partly a political message. An iman may be defined as any adult male who leads a congregation in prayer. In actuality, the iman usually leads the prayers not from the platform at the top of the minbar, but from a step below. This is because the platform itself is symbolically reserved for the Prophet Muhammed, himself.


The minbar may vary in height depending on the congregation's size, as it is simply to provide an elevated platform meant to allow the congregation to more easily hear the iman's words. Depending on the size of the congregation, the minbar may have only a few steps, or may be truly monumental, though in very small mosques, there may be no minbar at all. The minbar may, or may not have handrails leading up the staircase to the platform. The small platform is often covered with an attractive shape, such as a cupola style roof.

As a side note, in historical times, the minbar was used for the coronation, or inauguration for a new caliph, a political ruler.



The Dikka


The dikka is a raised platform form which the respondents (qadi) repeat the ritual postures of the iman and speak the responses so that the stages of prayer may be transmitted to larger congregations. For those familiar with the Greek Orthodox Church, the qadi is not unlike the role of the cantor and chorus. Though the dikka is often located within the covered sanctuary, depending on the climate and the size of the congregation, it may be located in the open courtyard. Regardless, it is aligned with the position of the mihrab.

The dikka usually takes the form of a wooden, "single story platform" accessible from its own staircase.



The Kursi


The kusi is basically a bookstand or lectern on which the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an, is placed. The kusi is generally set next to the dikka, so that the qadi man read and recite form the Qur'an.



The Maqsura


In ancient times, when many of the most interesting mosques were constructed, rulers or governors, often referred to as caliphs, were in danger of assassination. In the earliest era of Islam, this individual was also the iman of a principle mosque. Originally, the maqsura consisted of a raised platform with protective wooden screens built to safeguard the ruler's life. In this early age of Islam, the governor's place (dar al-imara) was often constructed adjacent to the qibla wall providing him immediate access to the mihrab area of the mosque and the maqsura. The maqsura was often very elaborate, providing a suitable environment for the prestige of the ruling governor. In some cases, a separate enclosure was also provided for princes, or local rulers, such as the open iwans of mosques in Central Asia.



The Pool


Water for ablutions before prayer is provided in most large mosques, though these days its function is sometimes purely decorative. If the pool is decorative in nature, then another water supply, often in a room near the shoe storage area, is available for ablutions. The pool may, or may not have a fountain, though when used for ablutions, it is more likely to have a fountain to allow a number of worshippers to wash simultaneously under running water. The pool is usually located at, or near the center of the open courtyard.


If the pool incorporates a fountain, this structure is very often of a creative and inventive design, surmounted by domed, or small pavilion like roofs.



The Minaret


The towering minarets are the most visible part of a mosque, particularly form any distance, and we have a strong identification of mosques with minarets, even though they were not universally incorporated into their construction until the 14th and 15th centuries. Used to call worshippers to prayer (adhan) by the muezzin, during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammed, the adham was issued from the roof of his house in Medina. Hence, while many elements of a mosque mimic elements within the Prophet's Medina home, the minaret does not.

Scholars believe that as an architectural form, the minaret may be based on one, or a combination of Zoroastrain symbolic fire towers, Roman watch towers, coastal lighthouses or even church towers. Regardless, other then serving as perhaps a local landmark, the minaret provides a means to ensure that the voice of the muezzin can be heard at a maximum distance.


Today, many calls to prayer may be issued through loudspeakers. Hence, in modern times, the function of the minaret has often become more symbolic, and may even be excluded from modern structures. Another interesting modern facet of minarets is that many, including those of ancient origin, may have elaborate lighting.

Obviously, only one minaret was actually needed, which most public mosques incorporate, However, under the Ottoman and Mughal empires, twin minarets signifying royal patronage were frequently built. Sometimes, more minarets were added, with four not being completely uncommon, and at Mecca, there are seven

.


The Portal


Mosques are almost always surrounded by high walls. In the ancient world the protection of ones family, particularly women and daughters, rested more squarely on the shoulders of individuals rather than a public security force. Therefore, one general nature of early Muslim architecture that has survived even into the modern era is the concealment of building interiors from outside view. Enclosure walls, sometimes functioning for the purpose of fortifications, are and were common.

With regard to mosques, this barrier became to symbolize the threshold between the chaos and bustle of the outside world, and the tranquil atmosphere within. Entry to this more subdued atmosphere is gained through the portal, a gateway to the mosque that takes on a powerful psychological importance. Hence, these elements are often monumental and incorporate ornate decorations intended to pay tribute to God's presence, and really, to also emphasize the generosity of the mosque's principle patron.


Yet, another reason for these grand entrances is that Islamic theology requires that the outside of a mosque, remain somewhat plain and simple because the building itself may not seduce by means of ornamental frills. However, in major mosques where possible, including the minaret, dome and portal, allowances were often made so that the patronage of the mosque's major contributor, often the caliph, could be appropriately commemorated.


Geometric Designs


Judaism, Christianity and Islam all spring from a common religious well. They are like limbs of a tree, that originate from the same trunk, and we can find examples, sometimes even somewhat obscure, that mirror each other. A regular occurrence among these religions is that one branch may take a somewhat extreme view of some specific ancient doctrine that another takes more lightly. Such is the case with graven images. The Islamic faith takes the ban of graven images (particularly regarding humans and god in a religious setting), also found in the common Christian Old Testament, much more seriously then do Christians in general. Yet there are fundamental Christian sects that likewise reject almost all graven images, carrying this to an extreme not even remotely mirrored in the Muslim world, excluding even television, pictures and paintings from their personal lives.


However, the real point in this discussion is that, particularly in a religious setting, the Islamic faith and the Christian faith specifically deviated considerably regarding graven images, and thus, religious decorations within places of worship took two very different paths. While the early Christians developed all manner of religious icons of Christ, his apostles, saints and others, the Islamic faith substituted geometric designs to decorate their sacred places. Both divergences evolved in sophistication, and so often the decorations within a mosque will seem very alien to a modern Christian visitor, though a more thorough examination of ancient Christian churches will reveal some similar elements. This is rather interesting, because modern analysis of this design work in mosques indicates that it probably has no iconographic meaning other than to supply a neutral system of aesthetic expression. However, it has been argued that such patterns within the context of a mosque may psychologically be conducive to contemplation and meditation.


The geometric design work in ancient mosques are, to many visitors, their most impressive architectural elements, and those who transgress beyond simply viewing this work, to imagine the craftsman's skill, will often become awestruck. Clearly their efforts extended beyond simple design into the realm of mathematics, and many of the designers were, in fact, mathematicians often specialized in the field of geometry. In gazing at the intricate geometric decorations within a mosque or other Islamic monument, what may be missed is the magnificent geometry of such buildings in general including both the decorative elements and the more basic architectural elements. Of course, all architecture is a study in geometry, but Islamic architecture is most often intricately extreme in comparison with western styles. Symmetry is also a basic element of Islamic architecture though it may not extend along a whole axis of the structure, but is rather localized to specific parts.

Yet it is the geometric surface pattern decorations that capture the attention of modern visitors to the archaic mosques. These patterns are carried out in materials including mosaics, stone, stucco, ceramics and wood, and can totally transform the qualities of a structure. Generally believed to have originated in Baghdad, these designs really only matured during the 10th century, about 400 years after the rise of Islam. The classical work, which we will refer to as arabesque, was superceded in 16th century, when the patterns took on a more realistic and freer vegetal style.


The classical arabesque, take the form of rectilinear, or radial grids, in which the circle and its polygonal and star shaped derivatives are prominent, though often regularized only in modular units. Therefore, considerable flexibility may exist in whole compositions, considering the arabesque consists of multidirectional repetitions of the basic units.

These patterns may be integrated within the actual building in two different manners, either incorporated within the building material itself or structurally independent. For example, the Mamluk architecture of Egypt uses what is termed the "brick style" (or in this case, stone), where the stone of the actual building is laid in geometric patterns. Structurally independent designs often incorporate textile covers with similar patterns.

In addition to the two dimensional pattern work, there is also the magnificent three dimensional patterns often associated with domes but sometimes with doorways and other architectural elements.


One of the basic elements of three dimensional design is the rib, almost exclusively used in domes. Ribs may have originally been incorporated to add structure strength, but have also been used for purely decorative purposes, and in some instances, for both decorative and structural reasons.

An Islamic invention of the 10th century, the muqarnas, another three dimensional design, was not really widespread until the 12th century, yet it is certainly one of the most aesthetically interesting forms of decoration. In effect, this is a highly sophisticated application of geometric principles, really often an extension of two dimensional design, that incorporates a replication of units arranged in rows corbelled one atop another. muqarnas configurations are therefore arranged according to recilinear, or radial grids in which the circles and its polygonal and star shaped extensions are basic features, just as in early arabesque, only with stereometric extensions.

The units themselves may be made of wood, stone, stucco or ceramics, and can be arranged to fit within any configuration and to visually dematerialize and divide surfaces, and so they may often be found in a variety of structures, including column capitals, minaret balconies, cornices and entrance portals. While in rare cases, these elements may have structural value, most often they are purely decorative.


In specific monuments, such as the Mosque of Sultan Hasan in Cairo, the use of muqarnas may be very general, covering much of the monument, while in specific styles, such as that of the Ottoman mosques, it may be limited, but a standard feature of certain elements, such as the portal, mihrab, column capitals and minaret balconies.


The Role of Calligraphy

Basic components of a Mosque

The Demarcated Space

Prayer is an essential element of Islam, and the demarcated space allows a space for congregational prayer. In formal mosques, the demarcated space is almost always partially roofed, and partly open to the sky. The covered prayer hall, or sanctuary (haram) usually varies relative to the size of the open courtyard (sahn). The courtyard is most often surrounded on three of its sides by colonnades, or arcades (riwags), with the fourth side opening into the covered sanctuary. The prayer hall, which is normally rectangular or square, may take the form of a hypostyle hall with its roof supported by a number of evenly spaced columns. In this design, a system of horizontal beams known as architraves, or alternatively, a system of arches support the ceiling. In other designs, the roof may consist of a single large dome on pendentives (one of the greatest contributions made by Islam to architecture), or instead, by one or more smaller domes.

The size and proportion of the covered verses the open courtyard is dependent both on the size of the congregation and the climate of the region where the mosque is located. Obviously, in wetter or colder climates a smaller open courtyard would be required then in, for example, a city such as Cairo, where rain is scares and the climate is usually moderate even in winter.

The Qibla Wall and the Mihrab

Mosques throughout the world have a standard orientation. Within the prayer hall, one wall must face Mecca, the direction in which Muslims should face in order to pray. This wall is called the qibla wall, and at its midpoint is a niche or recess that constitutes the central and most decorated feature of any mosque, known as the mihrab. The mihrab basically takes the layout of a Roman niche, with a semicircular recess arched at the top. It should be noted that the mihrab is not considered to be a sacred element of the mosque. Rather, it prescribes the the sacred direction for prayer to Mecca. When in prayer, Muslims will form row upon row, each parallel to, and facing the qibla wall.

The Minbar

The minbar is basically the Islamic equivalent to the pulpit and is always located to the right of the mihrab. It takes the form of a staircase leading to a small platform from which the iman leads prayers and also delivers the oration (khutba), which occurs on Fridays and may be part sermon and partly a political message. An iman may be defined as any adult male who leads a congregation in prayer. In actuality, the iman usually leads the prayers not from the platform at the top of the minbar, but from a step below. This is because the platform itself is symbolically reserved for the Prophet Muhammed, himself.

The minbar may vary in height depending on the congregation's size, as it is simply to provide an elevated platform meant to allow the congregation to more easily hear the iman's words. Depending on the size of the congregation, the minbar may have only a few steps, or may be truly monumental, though in very small mosques, there may be no minbar at all. The minbar may, or may not have handrails leading up the staircase to the platform. The small platform is often covered with an attractive shape, such as a cupola style roof.

As a side note, in historical times, the minbar was used for the coronation, or inauguration for a new caliph, a political ruler.

The Dikka

The dikka is a raised platform form which the respondents (qadi) repeat the ritual postures of the iman and speak the responses so that the stages of prayer may be transmitted to larger congregations. For those familiar with the Greek Orthodox Church, the qadi is not unlike the role of the cantor and chorus. Though the dikka is often located within the covered sanctuary, depending on the climate and the size of the congregation, it may be located in the open courtyard. Regardless, it is aligned with the position of the mihrab.

The dikka usually takes the form of a wooden, "single story platform" accessible from its own staircase.

The Kursi

The kusi is basically a bookstand or lectern on which the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an, is placed. The kusi is generally set next to the dikka, so that the qadi man read and recite form the Qur'an.

The Maqsura

In ancient times, when many of the most interesting mosques were constructed, rulers or governors, often referred to as caliphs, were in danger of assassination. In the earliest era of Islam, this individual was also the iman of a principle mosque. Originally, the maqsura consisted of a raised platform with protective wooden screens built to safeguard the ruler's life. In this early age of Islam, the governor's place (dar al-imara) was often constructed adjacent to the qibla wall providing him immediate access to the mihrab area of the mosque and the maqsura. The maqsura was often very elaborate, providing a suitable environment for the prestige of the ruling governor. In some cases, a separate enclosure was also provided for princes, or local rulers, such as the open iwans of mosques in Central Asia.

The Pool

Water for ablutions before prayer is provided in most large mosques, though these days its function is sometimes purely decorative. If the pool is decorative in nature, then another water supply, often in a room near the shoe storage area, is available for ablutions. The pool may, or may not have a fountain, though when used for ablutions, it is more likely to have a fountain to allow a number of worshippers to wash simultaneously under running water. The pool is usually located at, or near the center of the open courtyard.

If the pool incorporates a fountain, this structure is very often of a creative and inventive design, surmounted by domed, or small pavilion like roofs.

The Minaret

The towering minarets are the most visible part of a mosque, particularly form any distance, and we have a strong identification of mosques with minarets, even though they were not universally incorporated into their construction until the 14th and 15th centuries. Used to call worshippers to prayer (adhan) by the muezzin, during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammed, the adham was issued from the roof of his house in Medina. Hence, while many elements of a mosque mimic elements within the Prophet's Medina home, the minaret does not.

Scholars believe that as an architectural form, the minaret may be based on one, or a combination of Zoroastrain symbolic fire towers, Roman watch towers, coastal lighthouses or even church towers. Regardless, other then serving as perhaps a local landmark, the minaret provides a means to ensure that the voice of the muezzin can be heard at a maximum distance.

Today, many calls to prayer may be issued through loudspeakers. Hence, in modern times, the function of the minaret has often become more symbolic, and may even be excluded from modern structures. Another interesting modern facet of minarets is that many, including those of ancient origin, may have elaborate lighting.

Obviously, only one minaret was actually needed, which most public mosques incorporate, However, under the Ottoman and Mughal empires, twin minarets signifying royal patronage were frequently built. Sometimes, more minarets were added, with four not being completely uncommon, and at Mecca, there are seven.

The Portal

Mosques are almost always surrounded by high walls. In the ancient world the protection of ones family, particularly women and daughters, rested more squarely on the shoulders of individuals rather than a public security force. Therefore, one general nature of early Muslim architecture that has survived even into the modern era is the concealment of building interiors from outside view. Enclosure walls, sometimes functioning for the purpose of fortifications, are and were common.

With regard to mosques, this barrier became to symbolize the threshold between the chaos and bustle of the outside world, and the tranquil atmosphere within. Entry to this more subdued atmosphere is gained through the portal, a gateway to the mosque that takes on a powerful psychological importance. Hence, these elements are often monumental and incorporate ornate decorations intended to pay tribute to God's presence, and really, to also emphasize the generosity of the mosque's principle patron.

Yet, another reason for these grand entrances is that Islamic theology requires that the outside of a mosque, remain somewhat plain and simple because the building itself may not seduce by means of ornamental frills. However, in major mosques where possible, including the minaret, dome and portal, allowances were often made so that the patronage of the mosque's major contributor, often the caliph, could be appropriately commemorated.

References:

Title

Author

Date

Publisher

Reference Number

Alexander to Actium (The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age)

Green, Peter

1990

University of California Press

ISBN 0-520-05611-6

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul

1995

Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

Egypt in Late Antiquity

Bagnall, Roger S.

1993

Princeton University Press

ISBN 0-691-1096-x

Egypt, Greece and Rome (Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean)

Freeman, Charles

1996

Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815003-2

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian

2000

Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2

Valley of the Golden Mummies

Hawass, Zahi

2000

American University in Cairo Press

ISBN 977 424 585 7

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