1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mosque

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MOSQUE (through Fr. mosquée; Span. mezquita, from Arab. masjid, sajada, to adore), the house of prayer in the Mahommedan religion, consisting generally of a large open court (sahn) surrounded by arcades (liwan), with a fountain (mida-a) in the centre of the court, for the ablutions necessary before prayer. The principal feature in the mosque is the niche (mihrab), which is sunk in a wall built at right angles to a line drawn from Mecca, and indicates the direction towards which the Moslem should turn when engaged in prayer. The arcades in front of the Mecca niche were sometimes of considerable depth, and constituted the prayer chamber (maksura), portions of which were occasionally enclosed with lattice work. By the side of the niche was the pulpit (minbar), and sometimes in front of the latter a platform (dikka) raised on columns, from which chapters from the Koran were read to the people.


Britannica Mosque - Amr Old Cairo plan.jpg
Fig. 1. — Plan of Mosque of ‘Amr, Old Cairo.
1, Ḳibleh. 5, Fountain for ablution.
2, Minbar. 6, 6, Rooms built later.
3, Tomb of ‘Amr. 7, Minaret.
4, Dikka. 8, Latrines.


Most mosques have endowed property, which is administered by a warden (nazir), who also appoints the imams and other officials. The larger mosques have two imams: one is called (in Arabia and Egypt) the khatib, and he preaches the sermon on Fridays (the Moslem Sabbath); the other, the ratib, reads the Koran, and recites the five daily prayers, standing close to the mihrab, and leading the congregation, who repeat the prayers with him, and closely follow his postures. The imams do not form a priestly sect; they generally have other occupations, such as teaching in a school or keeping a shop, and may at any time be dismissed by the warden, in which case they lose the title of imam. Moslem women, as a rule, are expected to say their prayers at home, but in some few mosques they are admitted to one part specially screened off for them.

The earliest mosque erected was that at Mecca, which consisted of a great court, in the centre of which was the Ka'ba or Holy Stone. The court was surrounded with arcades, all of which constituted the prayer chamber, so that its plan is necessarily different to the normal type; the existing buildings date only from the first half of the 17th century, as the whole mosque was destroyed by a torrent in 1626.

The normal type referred to is best represented in the mosque of ‘Amr (see 'Amr-ibn-el-Ass) at Fostat, Cairo; built in A.D. 643 it still retains its original arrangement, though partly rebuilt and increased in its dimensions. The mosque (see fig. 1), now in a somewhat ruined condition, covers an area of about 130,000 sq. ft. with an open court, 240 ft. sq., arid a sanctuary or prayer chamber, 106 ft. deep, there being a central avenue and ten aisles on either side. The columns and capitals were all taken from ancient buildings, Egyptian, Roman and Byzantine, and they carry arches of different forms, semicircular, pointed and horseshoe.

The columns and other materials of the mosque of el-Aksa at Jerusalem were taken by Abdalmalik (A.D. 690) from the ruins of Justinian's church of St Mary on Mount Sion, and the central avenue or nave built with them presents the appearance of a Christian church; it however runs north and south, the Mecca niche being at the south end; originally there were seven aisles on each side, now reduced to three. The Kubbet-es-Sakhra, or Dome of the Rock, at Jerusalem, is only a shrine erected over the sacred rock, so that the title often ascribed to it as “the mosque of Omar” is misleading.

The mosque of the Omayyads in Damascus was built by the Caliph Walid in A.D. 705 on the foundations of the basilican church of St John: its plan differs therefore from the normal type in that its arcades run east and west, and the transept in the centre becomes the prayer chamber. The Mecca niche is sunk in the doorway of a Roman temple which formerly occupied the same site, and the substructure of the minaret at the south-west angle is of still more ancient date. The great court on the north side has a lofty cloister round it, so that in many respects it follows the normal type.

The mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun, in Cairo (A.D. 879), is the first mosque erected in which the materials were not taken from ancient buildings; it has therefore a special interest as being the earliest genuine example of the Mahommedan style (see Architecture: Mahommedan). The walls, piers and arches, are all built in brick, covered with stucco, a great portion of which is preserved down to the present day. The plan is of the normal type, with a great court in the centre, a prayer chamber four aisles deep on the Mecca side (south-east), and a double aisle on the other three sides. All the arches are pointed and slightly horseshoe, preceding therefore by about two and a half centuries the introduction of the pointed arch into Europe. The piers carrying the arches have shafts at their angles, the earliest examples known, and the decoration of the walls consists of friezes, borders, and impost-bands, all enriched with conventional patterns interwoven with cufic characters and modelled in stucco. The windows in the outer walls are filled with pierced stone screens of geometrical design. The architect is said to have been a Coptic Christian who deprecated the destruction of ancient buildings to obtain columns and blocks of stone, and who undertook to design a mosque which should be built entirely in brick, which when coated with stucco and appropriate decorative designs would rival its predecessors.

The next important mosque is that of Kairawan in Tunisia, which was founded by Sidi Okba in A.D. 675, but was partly rebuilt and added to in the following two centuries. Its court covers an area of 38,000 sq. ft., and its prayer chamber is 150 ft. deep, having a central avenue and eight aisles on each side.

The chief interest of the mosque at Kairawan lies in its being the prototype of the great mosque at Cordova, which was built by Abdarrahman in A.D. 780; the earliest portion of the mosque is the prayer chamber (135 ft. wide by 220 ft. deep), which is in front of the entrance gateway to the great court, and consists of a central avenue with five aisles on each side. In A.D. 961 this portion was extended 150 ft. in the rear by Hakim II., the mihrab and Mecca wall being rebuilt; about 20 years later a further enlargement was made, and eight more aisles were added along the whole eastern side, so that the prayer chamber covered an area of over 148,000 sq. ft. In the 13th century a portion of Hakim's addition was pulled down to make way for the first cathedral, which was dedicated to the Virgin. The most beautiful portion of the mosque, however, still exists in the prayer chamber of Hakim, where are to be found the earliest examples of the cusped arch and the origin of many of the geometrical patterns in stucco at the Alhambra.

The mosque of el Azhar, “the splendid,” was begun about A.D. 970 by Jauhar, the general of the Fatimite Caliph Moizz, who captured Fostat and founded el Kahira, the present town of Cairo. It was based, therefore, on the great mosque at Kairawan, and although more or less rebuilt, it still preserves its original plan. It has a special interest in being the chief university of the Moslem world, containing some thousands of students (mujawirin), for whom certain parts of the mosque (riwaq) are screened off, according to the country from which they come. Thus special parts are reserved for natives of the various provinces of Egypt, of Morocco, Syria, Arabia, India, Turkey, &c. Each student can, if he is too poor to hire lodgings, live, eat and sleep in the mosque. Each has a large chest which to keep his are piled against the walls to a height of seven or eight feet. The students pay no fees, but the richer ones give presents to the lecturers, who sit on the matting in various parts of the sanctuary or cloister, while the students sit round each lecturer in a circle. The usual course of study lasts for three years, though some students remain for much longer. The chief of the lecturers, called the Sheik el-Azhar, receives about £100 a year, the others little or nothing, as regular pay. The Koran, sacred and secular law, logic, poetry, arithmetic, with some medicine and geography, are the chief subjects of study.


Britannica Mosque - Sultan Hasan Cairo plan.jpg
Fig. 2. — Plan of Mosque of Sultan Hasan, Cairo.
1,  2, Main entrance.
3,  Court open to sky.
4,  5, Fountains.
6,  6, North and south vaulted transepts (the dotted lines show the curve of the vault).
8,  9, Dikka.
10,  Sanctuary.
11,  Mimbar.
12,  Ḳibleh.
13,  Door to tomb.
14,  Domed tomb-chamber.
15,  Tomb within screen.
16,  Ḳibleh.
17,  17, Minarets.
18,  19, 20, Various entrances to mosque.
21,  Small rooms connected with service of the mosque.
22,  Sultan's private entrance.


Of other mosques in Cairo, the finest is that of Sultan Hasan (fig. 2), completed in A.D. 1360. It differs from the normal type in many respects, as it includes residences for various sects, so that portions of it, with the several storeys externally, resemble an immense mansion or warehouse, and this would seem to have led to an important change inside, as instead of a cloister of two or more aisles there are four immense halls all covered with pointed barrel vaults. Beyond the Mecca wall is the tomb of the founder, covered with an immense dome. The entrance doorway on the north-east side is over 80 ft. in height, its summit being decorated with stalactite vaults, one of the grandest features in Mahommedan architecture, only equalled by the magnificent portals of the mosques in India. The central square court, of moderate dimensions, with halls and great recesses, is followed in other examples in Cairo, among which the Tomb Mosque of Kait-Bey (c. A.D. 1470) is the most graceful (fig. 3). In this case the central court is roofed over, and has an octagon lantern in the centre; the recesses are covered with horizontal ceilings carried on great beams, the whole being elaborately carved, coloured and gilded; the tomb is covered with the later type of dome, built in stone, and elaborately carved outside with delicate conventional patterns in relief.

Britannica Mosque - Sultan Káit-Bey Cairo mosque-tomb plan.jpg
Fig. 3. — Mosque-tomb of Kait-Bey, Cairo.
1, Main entrance.
2, Lobby and cisterns for ablution.
3, Great minaret.
4, Ḳibleh.
5, Minbar.
6, Sultan's tomb-chamber.
7, The tomb within a screen.
8, Dikka.
(For views of interior and exterior, see Architecture.)

Although the conquest of Persia by the Arabs took place in A.D. 641 there are no remains of mosques there earlier than the 13th century, and the oldest example at Tabriz is evidently, as far as its plan is concerned, a copy of a Byzantine church, departing entirely therefore from the normal plans.[1] The great mosque at Isfahan, built by Shah Abbas the Great (1585-1629), has one great court (225 ft. by 170 ft.) and two smaller ones, all with fountains in them. The prayer chamber is a lofty structure, quite unlike those of Egypt and Kairawan, with a dome 75 ft. in diameter and halls on each side divided into two aisles, each compartment being covered with a dome, in this respect also not following the early normal type, in which domes were only found over tombs.

The mosques of Constantinople are all copies more or less of S. Sophia: they have courts in front with a range of arcades round, and the centre portion forms the prayer chamber, the side aisles serving as passages. The central dome has but a slight elevation outside, but with the numerous cupolas round, and the minarets, it forms a picturesque group which is wanting in the mosques of Kairawan, Cordova, and other examples in North Africa.

In India as in other countries the Mahommedans took possession of the ancient buildings and adapted them to their religious requirements. The materials of the native styles of India, however, did not lend themselves to their utilization as in Syria, Egypt and North Africa, where the columns and capitals formed the substructure of the arcades which surrounded their courts. In the earliest mosque at old Delhi, they adopted the piers and bracketed capitals of the Jaina builders, whom they probably employed to build their mosque. They, however, had no confidence in the arch, which, as the Hindu says, “never sleeps but is always tending to its own destruction,” so that the pointed arch, which had almost become the emblem of the Mahommedan religion, had to be dispensed with for the covered aisles which surrounded the great court, and in the triple entrance gateway the form of an arch only was retained, as it was constructed with horizontal courses of masonry for the haunches, and with long slabs of stone resting one against the other at the top. A similar construction was employed in the great mosque at Ajmere, built A.D. 1200-1211 at the same time as the Delhi mosque. The objection to the arch is more clearly shown in the entrance gateway of the Lai Darwaza or Red Gate mosque at Jaunpur, where an arch (of two rings of ogee shape) is carried by a solid wall, built under it, which is pierced with three doorways with bracket-capitals and architraves, returning therefore to trabeated construction. The covered aisles of the court of the Jumma Musjid at Jaunpur are in three storeys with piers, bracket-capitals and architraves, bearing therefore no resemblance to the arcades of Kairawan and Cordova, and constituting a different style. There is however one feature which throughout the Mahommedan mosques in India is always found, viz. the dome. But this also in India is built in horizontal courses, so that the form only and not the construction of the Cairene domes is followed. The chief peculiarity of the mosques at Ahmedabad is that, as the style progressed, it became more Indian; in the Jumma Musjid (A.D. 1420) and the Queen's mosque at Mirzapur, the pointed arch exists only in the façades of the prayer chambers; in the mosques built 30 to 40 years later the whole is constructed without a single arch, all the pillars have bracket-capitals, and the domes, which are of very slight elevation, are all built in the trabeated style. As a contrast to the Ahmedabad mosques, the Kadam Rasul mosque at Gaur in Bengal possesses some characteristics which resemble those of the mosque of Tulun in Cairo, possibly due to the fact that it is entirely built in brick, with massive piers carrying pointed arches.

The climax of Mahommedan work in India is reached in that of the Mogul emperors at Agra, Delhi and Fatehpur-Sikri, in which there is a very close resemblance in design to the mosques of Syria, Egypt, and Persia; the four-centred arch, which is in the Mogul style, finds general acceptance, and was probably derived from Persian sources. The mosque at Fatehpur-Sikri possesses in its great southern gateway, built by Akbar in the second half of the 16th century, the masterpiece of Indo-Saracenci architecture. As a rule, the mosques of India followed the normal plan, with a great central court and aisles round and a prayer chamber in front of the Mecca wall, which in India is always at the west end. (R. P. S.)


  1. It is very generally held that this “Blue Mosque” dates only from the 15th century (see Tabriz).