The first mosques were modelled on the Prophet Mohammed’s house: there’s the open sahn (courtyard), the arcaded riwaq (portico), and the covered, often domed, sahat al salah (prayer hall). A vaulted niche in the wall is called the mihrab; this serves to indicate the qibla, or direction of Mecca, towards which Muslims must face when they pray. The minbar, or pulpit, is traditionally reached by three steps. The Prophet is said to have preached from the third step. Abu Bakr, his successor, used the second step.
Superb mosques can be seen in Istanbul (Turkey), Esfahan (Iran), Islamabad (Pakistan), Samarkand (Uzbekistan), Xian (China), Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei), Afghanistan, Egypt and the old cities of Morocco. Some of the most spectacular are the mud mosques of the Sahara – like the Djenné Mosque in Mali.
Here are some mosques significant in the history of Islam:
Jerusalem, Israel & the Palestinian Territories (691)
Dome of the Rock & Al-Aqsa Mosque
The golden dome stands over the rock on Temple Mount – the probable site of the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Solomon. The rock is alleged to be the point from which the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven in the Night Journey, carried by the Angel Gabriel. The Knights Templar turned the sanctuary into a church after the Crusades, but it was returned to Islam when Saladin recaptured Jerusalem.
Damascus, Syria (705)
The Umayyad is one of the largest and oldest mosques in Islam, and the last resting place of Saladin. It is significant to both Muslims and Christians who come to worship at the shrine of St John the Baptist (revered as a prophet in Islam), whose head was allegedly found during mosque excavations. The mosque has the distinction of being the first mosque to be visited by a pope (John Paul II in 2001).
Córdoba, Spain (755)
Built as a mosque under an Islamic Arab caliph Abd-ar Rahman I, using Christian labour, Mezquita is now a cathedral. The building’s chequered identity is made even more complicated by the history of its construction. Christians conscripted to the task were free to worship their own religion on site during the building process; attracted by this spirit of compromise, many allegedly converted to Islam.
Cairo, Eqypt (877)
Ibn Tulun Mosque
Ibn Tulun is one of the oldest and most beloved mosques in Egypt, commemorated on the back of the Egyptian five pound note. It could be seen as a symbol of triumph in the face of adversity, as it was built by the son of a Turkish slave who rose to become Governor of Egypt. Architecturally, it is renowned for a unique spiral staircase.
Seville, Spain (1167)
Started life as an important mosque but is now one of the largest cathedrals in the world. This remarkable building is considered an important landmark in the history of Gothic and baroque architecture. It is notable for its Giralda (bell tower), which is almost 100m-high and was originally designed as a minaret, with ramps wide enough for the muezzin to ascend on horseback.
Demak, Indonesia (1466)
Built in Demak, a district of Java, the Mesjid Agung (Great Mosque) is one of the oldest mosques in the Far East. The great carved wooden doors are known as the ’Doors of Thunder’, on account of the motifs, including an open-mouthed animal, which are said to be representative of thunder.
See also our article on Top sights of the Islamic world