Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Mosque

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MOSQUE (Jámi‛ or more fully Masjid Jámi‛, the place of congregational prayer). Owing to the almost complete absence of ritual in the Moslem worship, the mosque, at least in its earlier forms, is one of the simplest of all religious buildings, — its normal arrangement being an open court (Ṣaḥn) surrounded by a covered cloister (Líwán), in the centre of which is a cistern for the ablutions requisite before prayer (Míḍa’a);[1] the side of the mosque which is towards Mecca is occupied by a roofed building (Maḳṣúra), or place reserved for prayer, sometimes screened off from the court, but frequently quite open towards it. In the centre of this sanctuary is a niche (Miḥráb or Ḳibla) showing the direction of Mecca; and by the side of the niche is a lofty pulpit (Mimbar). In front of the pulpit is a raised platform (Dakka) from which certain exhortations are chanted, and near it one or more seats and lecterns combined from which chapters of the Koran are read to the people.

Minarets (Ma’ádhin, sing. Ma’dhana) were not built during the first half-century after the Flight, but now as a rule no mosque is without at least one. From the upper gallery of this the Moedhdhin announces to the faithful the times for prayer, — five times during the day, and twice at night. Blind men are generally selected for this office, so that they may not overlook the neighbouring houses.

Most mosques have endowed property, which is administered by a warden (Náẓir), who also appoints the imáms and other officials. The larger mosques have two imáms: one is called (in Arabia and Egypt) the Khatíb, and he preaches the sermon on Fridays (the Moslem Sabbath); the other, the Rátib, reads the Koran, and recites the five daily prayers, standing close to the Miḥráb, and leading the congregation, who repeat the prayers with him, and closely follow his postures. The imáms 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 imám. Doorkeepers and attendants, to sweep the floor, trim the lamps, and perform other menial offices, are attached to each mosque, in numbers varying according to its size and endowment. 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. This is the case in the mosque of Sitta Zainab in Cairo. In the Aḳsá mosque at Jerusalem there is a latticed balcony for the women, who can see without being visible to the male worshippers below.

The greatest possible splendour both of material and workmanship is often lavished on the building and its fittings. The whole outside is frequently decorated with the most elaborate surface-carving in stone or marble, — the pavement of the richest marbles, inlaid in intricate patterns, the walls panelled in a similar way, or decorated with the most minute mosaics of glass, mother-of-pearl, agates and other costly stones. The central niche and the pulpit are of special magnificence; and, if the latter is of wood, it is often covered with delicate ivory carvings, and inlay of pearl and ebony. Very beautiful surface-ornament, executed in hard stucco, and enriched with gold and colours, is used to decorate arches, wall surfaces, and the pendentives of domes, which latter generally have the so-called “stalactite” form of ornament — one of great beauty and complexity. The woodwork of doors, screens, and ceilings is frequently very gorgeous with carving, inlay, and elaborate painting; the whole of the doors outside are often covered with very delicate pierced and embossed work in bronze, or more rarely iron. The magnificent tiles from Persia, Damascus, and Khodes, enamelled in brilliant blue, green, and red, on a white ground, are often used to cover the walls. Traceried windows in pierced marble or stucco work often occur; these are filled with brilliant coloured glass, always in very small pieces, forming a transparent mosaic of jewel-like richness.[2] Lamps of enamelled glass, or of bronze inlaid with silver, were once common, but are now rapidly disappearing.

Some mosques, especially the Karúbin mosque at Fez in Morocco, possess a collection of magnificent illuminated MSS., chiefly copies of the Koran and other religious books; in the large collection at Fez, MSS. of Aristotle's Natural History, with the works of Averroes and other commentators, exist in considerable number; some few of the MSS. are as early as the 10th century.

Plans of Mosques. — Considerable diversities exist in the plan and arrangement of mosques in various countries, either because the Moslem conquerors adopted to some extent the existing buildings and architecture of the conquered people, or on account of the new mosque being built on a site already cramped by surrounding buildings. The first of these causes influenced to some extent the mosques of India, and to a much greater extent those of European Turkey. The second cause, the cramped site, especially in Cairo, created a special type of plan. Nevertheless, when free from such disturbing influences, there is one normal plan adopted, at least in early times, by the Moslems in all countries — from India to Cordova, and from northern Syria to Egypt.[3] This normal plan is a very simple one, and is the natural product of a country like Arabia, unskilled in architecture, where land was worth but little, and timber very scarce. (See fig. 1.)

Though not the earliest, the great mosque of Cordova is the most magnificent, and in the main the best preserved, of this typical form.[4] It was begun in 784-5 by the caliph ‘Abd al-Rahman I. (Abderame) and completed by his son Ḥisham in 793-4; though it was afterwards enlarged, and then to some extent injured by additions — the work of the Christians, who made it into a cathedral —  yet it still remains but little altered, except by the loss of its magnificent carved and inlaid wood ceiling and sumptuous Mimbar. It consists (omitting recent additions) of two main parts, a large cloistered open court, with at one side a covered building for prayer. In one respect only it differs from the usual plan: the open court is generally much larger than the roofed space, whereas at Cordova it is smaller. For the sake of brevity this arrangement will, in the rest of the article, be referred to as the “normal plan.” In spite of neglect and alterations this mosque is still one of the most imposing buildings in the world. The long ranges of aisles, nineteen from east to west and thirty-one from north to south — on their marble columns the spoils of many a Greek and Roman temple — seem to stretch almost endlessly in every direction, and each range of pillars appears to lose itself in the gloom of distance, so that from no point can any idea be formed of what is the real size of the whole building. The side towards the court was quite open, and all over the court orange-trees were planted at regular intervals, continuing the lines of the columns within, and set at the same distances apart; so that aisles of orange-trees in long ranges covered the open space, just as the marble columns did within. No words can describe the jewel-like splendour of the mosaics in the sanctuary, which in complicated Arabesque patterns, mixed with elaborate Cufic inscriptions, cover the walls and even the arches, which cross and recross each other in the most fanciful and daring way, forming a sort of aisle round three sides of the sanctuary. There is documentary evidence to show that these glass mosaics, though of thoroughly Oriental design, are, like those in the mosques of Jerusalem and Damascus, the work of Christian artists from Byzantium.


Britannica Mosque - Amr Old Cairo plan.jpg
Fig. 1. — Plan of Mosque of ‘Amr, Old Cairo.
1. Ḳibla. 2. Mimbar. 3. Tomb of ‘Amr. 4. Dakka. 5. Fountain for Ablution. 6, 6. Rooms built later. 7. Minaret. 8. Latrines.


The most important early mosques were all built on this normal plan, with but very slight variations. The following are some of the finest examples of this type:—

Mosque of ‘Amr, Old Cairo, begun in 642 A.D., but much enlarged at the end of the 7th century, and afterwards partly rebuilt (see fig. 1).

Mosque of Sidi-‘Oḳba at Ḳairawán in Tunis, latter part of 7th century.

Mosque of Sidi-‘Oḳba near Biskra in Algeria, about 684.

Mosque of Edris at Fez in Morocco, end of 8th century.

Great mosque of Damascus, 708.

Great mosque of Cordova, 784-794 (described above).

Mosque of Ibn Túlún, Cairo, 879.

Mosque of Al-Azhar, Cairo, begun about 970.

Great mosque at Old Delhi, 1196-1235.

The first of these, the mosque of ‘Amr (see Coste, Architecture Arabe), is now in a partly ruined condition. Its east wall probably still retains some of the original work of Amr, who in 642 built a small mosque on the site of the present one. But little remains except its fine antique marble columns to tell of its former splendour in mosaic, stucco reliefs enriched with painting, and magnificent inlaid wood ceilings and screens. According to Maḳrízí, it once contained 1290 MSS. of the Koran, and was lighted by 18,000 lamps. In general effect, like all mosques of this simple and extensive plan, it is very stately, from the vast size of its area, and its great number of closely-ranked columns and arches, the latter being of many forms — pointed, semicircular, and horse-shoe. Fig. 1 gives its plan as a good typical specimen of this normal type of mosque.

The mosque at Ḳairawán, Tunis, said to have been founded by ‘Oḳba (see supra, p. 567), follows the normal plan, with 439 fine antique marble columns, horse-shoe arches, some pointed and others round, and flat ceiling of dark wood, once magnificently painted. Its sanctuary is ten aisles deep by seventeen wide. In the centre of the court is a marble fountain over the sacred well, said to communicate with the spring Zemzem at Mecca. Its minaret, a rather later addition, is very massive and stately; it is square, in three stories, each battlemented, the walls battering considerably. The sanctuary is domed, and the Miḥráb is decorated with magnificent tiles. Adjoining the sanctuary is a small room for a library.

The other great mosque of Sidi-‘Oḳba, built soon after his death in 682, and containing his tomb, is in Algeria near Biskra; it much resembles the Kairawan mosque, but is less splendid, some of the columns being not of marble but of baked clay decorated with painting.

The great mosque of Fez, about the same date, is also very large and magnificent, with Mimbar and Miḥráb richly ornamented with minute mosaics; it has also a fine inlaid and painted wood ceiling, and some elaborately-carved doors. It still possesses a fine library. (See Amici, Journey to Fez, 1878.)

The great mosque of Damascus was built on the site of a Christian basilica, erected by Theodosius in 395-408. From 636, when the Arabs conquered Damascus, until 708 this basilica was used jointly both by the Christians and the Moslems. The basilica was then pulled down, and the present mosque built by the caliph Walíd. It has the normal plan, and is 508 feet by 320 feet. Its sanctuary is only three aisles deep; it has a central dome on the south or Mecca side, and on the east and west a large porch. Samhúdi records that one of the conditions of peace concluded between the Byzantine emperor and Walíd was that the emperor should furnish a certain number of workers in mosaic for the decoration of the mosques at Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, and Damascus.

The mosque of Aḥmed Ibn Ṭúlún, in Cairo, completed in 879, has the normal plan, with the exceptional addition of an outer court, or wide passage, running round three sides of the rectangle, —  probably to cut it off completely from the noise of the surrounding streets. It is built of brick, coated with delicate reliefs in stucco, once enriched with painting. The Miḥráb has beautiful mosaics, and the Mimbar is a marvel of delicate carving and inlay. The pillars and arches are of brick enriched with elaborate stucco-work. It has a very remarkable minaret on the west side, with a spiral external staircase. The architect was a Copt, an Egyptian Christian. It is perhaps the earliest important building in which the pointed arch is largely used.

The mosque Al-Azhar, “The Splendid,” was built in the centre of New Cairo about 970 and, though frequently restored, has in the main been little altered. It is on the normal plan, with ranges of pointed and slightly horse-shoe arches, supported on more than 400 fine antique columns of marble and porphyry, chiefly from Roman buildings. Among its later decorations are magnificent wall-coverings of the most beautiful Persian tiles. It has a special interest in being the chief university of the Moslem world, containing some thousands of students (mujáwirín), for whom certain parts of the mosque (Riwáḳ) 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 in which to keep his clothes and books; these 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 Sheikh al-Azhar, receives about £100 a year, the others little or nothing, as regular pay. The Koran, sacred and secular law, logic, poetry, and arithmetic, with some medicine and geography, are the chief subjects of study.

Of mosques which are not built on the normal plan the earliest and most important are the two in the Ḥarám al-Sherif (High Sanctuary) at Jerusalem (see vol. xiii. p. 642).

The Kubbet al-Sakhra (Dome of the Rock), popularly, but wrongly, called the “Mosque of Omar,” is not, strictly speaking, a mosque at all. It belongs rather to the class of “shrines,” — generally small square, circular, or octagonal buildings erected over some sacred spot or tomb. It is a very beautiful building, with high central dome, and double ambulatory round it, — the outer wall being octagonal, and the dome, with the pillars that carry it, circular in plan. It is decorated in a very sumptuous way by inlay of rich marbles and very splendid glass mosaics. The outer wall and most of the internal mosaics are later than the dome itself. Its windows of mosaic-like stained glass are very beautiful, and are almost the only Moslem example of the use of lead “cames,” instead of the bits of glass being fitted into marble or stucco tracery; this, as well as the glass wall-mosaics, was probably the work of Byzantine artificers.[5]

The mosque within the same enclosure, called Al-Aḳṣá, is entirely roofed, with many aisles and columns, having no open court, quite unlike the usual arrangement of a mosque.

The finest and largest group of mosques is at Cairo. Many of them are very complicated buildings, with no resemblance to the normal plan before described. In some cases a hospital, a school, a court of justice, a monastery, or very frequently a tomb, forms part of the building, and causes considerable modifications in its plan.


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. Dakka. 10. Sanctuary. 11. Mimbar. 12. Ḳibla. 13. Door to tomb. 14. Domed tomb-chamber. 15. Tomb within screen. 16. Ḳibla. 17, 17. Minarets. 18, 19, 20. Various entrances to mosque. 21. Small rooms connected with service of the mosque. 22. Sultan's private entrance.


The finest of these is the mosque of the sultan Hasan, built between 1356 and 1359 (fig. 2), a good specimen of a mosque built in a crowded site with a wing for a tomb. In plan it is cruciform, the central part being open to the sky; the eastern arm of the cross is the sanctuary, and farther east is the stately domed tomb of the sultan himself. All four arms of the cross are vaulted in stone with a plain waggon vault. Its magnificent entrance on the north, with an enormously high arch, decorated with stalactite reliefs in stone, is set somewhat askew to follow the line of the old street. It has two minarets, one of great height and grandeur.

The Muristán Ḳalaún is a combination of hospital, tomb, and mosque, — an enormous building covering a very large area. It was built by Sultan Ḳalaún at the beginning of the 14th century; his tomb, built 1320, which forms part of this great building, is a massive square edifice with a very grand and well-designed octagonal dome. Its wall-mosaics in pearl and precious stones are unusually magnificent. Even a bare list of the mosques of Cairo would occupy a large space; they are over four hundred in number, and are mostly remarkable for some beauty in design or richness in their ornament and material.

The mosque of Ibrahim Agha should specially be noted for the splendid Persian tiles which cover the east wall of its sanctuary; these are of the end of the 16th century, and are unrivalled in beauty both of drawing and colour. The tiles are 9 inches square, and work into large designs with very graceful sweeping curves of foliage, drawn with the greatest skill, and painted in the most brilliant yet harmonious colours — perfect masterpieces of coloured decoration. See Mural Decoration.

The so-called “Tombs of the Caliphs,” really tomb-mosques of Egyptian sultans, are a large group of very fine buildings, less than a mile outside the walls of Cairo. The largest is that of Sultan Barḳúḳ, with a superb dome and two stately minarets. In addition to an extensive open court, it has on each side of the sanctuary a magnificent tomb-chamber containing the bodies of the sultan himself, who died in 1399, and various members of his family.

The most beautiful and graceful of all these mosques is that which contains the tomb of Sultan Ḳáit-Bey, who died in 1496; its dome is entirely covered externally with beautiful and delicate reliefs carved in stone. Its minaret is a masterpiece of invention and extreme grace of outline, combined with the richest and most exquisite detail; like most of the Cairo mosques, its exterior is ornamented by bands of red stone alternating with the yellow Mokattam limestone. Inside, marble inlaid pavements and mosaic on the walls, with decorations in painted stucco and wood carved and inlaid give extreme splendour to the building. Fig. 3 gives its plan as a typical example of the combined mosque and tomb, the latter the more important. The mosque inside the walls of Cairo, built by the same sultan, is also very beautiful, and remarkable for its carvings and mosaics.

Britannica Mosque - Sultan Káit-Bey Cairo mosque-tomb plan.jpg
Fig. 3. — Mosque-tomb of Káit-Bey, Cairo.
1. Main entrance. 2. Lobby and cisterns for ablution. 3. Great minaret. 4. Ḳibla. 5. Mimbar. 6. Sultan's tomb-chamber. 7. The tomb within a screen. 8. Dakka.

It should be observed that the magnificent mosques of Egypt, as of other countries, owe little or nothing to the native architectural talent of the Arabs themselves. Their own buildings at the time of the Prophet were of the simplest and rudest description, but they were always ready to make use of the architectural skill and constructive power of the people they conquered.

The earlier buildings of Egypt are mainly the product of Coptic and Byzantine skill, while rather later the art of Persia, both in its general designs and details of workmanship, exercised a paramount influence over the whole Moslem world. Another influence must not be forgotten, that of French and English Gothic, produced by the buildings erected by the crusaders during their occupation of Palestine. One of the Cairo mosques, that of Ḳalaún, possesses a fine arched doorway, taken from a Christian church at Acre — a fine specimen of Early English work, which would not be out of place in Salisbury Cathedral. Moslem translations of the clustered jamb-shafts and deep arch-mouldings of this style often occur.

The rest of northern Africa contains many mosques of great size and splendour; among these the most important, in addition to those already mentioned as having the normal plan, are — (1) the mosque-tomb of ‘Abdallah b. Wadib in Ḳairawán, Tunis, a very large building, containing several courts and cloisters, dating from the same early period as the other great mosque in Ḳairawán; its minaret is covered outside with fine blue and green tiles; (2) the great mosque of Algiers, 10th century; and (3) that of Tlemcen, in the extreme west of Algeria, built in the middle of the 12th century; this has a very splendid pavement, partly composed of Algerian onyx, and a beautiful bronze chandelier, 8 feet in diameter, given by Sultan Yarmorak, 1248-83.

In Spain, at Zahra near Cordova, was one of the grandest of the early mosques, finished in 941; but nothing of it now exists. Several churches in Spain were originally built as mosques, such as S. Cristo de la Luz at Toledo, a small, nearly square building, roofed by dome-like vaulting on marble pillars.

In Persia but little now remains of the magnificent early mosques, built with such splendour, especially during the reign of Harun al-Rashíd. At Erzeroum there is a fine mosque, combined with tomb and hospital, almost Early Gothic in style, dating from the 13th century.[6] At Tabriz there is another church-like mosque, evidently the work of Byzantine builders; according to Texier, this belongs to the 16th century, but it is probably two or three hundred years earlier.

The mosque of Houen, near Cæsarea in Cilicia, is a fine large rectangular building, covered with low domes on square piers. It dates from the second half of the 12th century.

At Tchekirghe near Broussa is a very remarkable mosque — that of Murad I., built in the 13th century, almost in the style of contemporary Italian Gothic. Its main façade bears an extraordinary resemblance to one of the earlier Sienese palaces.

The later capital of Persia — Ispahan — became the centre of the highest development of the Persian arts under Shah ‘Abbás I., 1585-1629; to this period belongs the splendid mosque called Masjid Shah, a strangely-planned building of great size, enriched in the most sumptuous way, inside and out, by wall-coverings of the finest Persian enamelled tiles. The mosque of Sultan Hosein, built as late as 1730, preserves much of the old beauty of design and decoration.

India is especially rich in mosques of great size and beauty. The earlier ones are much influenced by the still older Hindu architecture, and some of the larger mosques are built of materials from the old Jain temples. It is recorded that twenty-seven Hindu temples were destroyed to build the great mosque in Old Delhi, erected 1196 to 1235, which presents a curious mixture of the semi-barbarous Hindu carved work with the more refined and graceful decoration of the Moslem builders. This great mosque is on the normal plan, as is the 13th century mosque at Ajmir, also built on the ruins of a Hindu temple. A whole volume would not suffice to describe the magnificent mosques of India, such as those at Ahmedabad, Mandu, Maldah, Bijapur, Fathipur, and countless others. The introduction in the 17th century of Florentine marble and mosaic workers produced a new and very splendid style of building, of which the “pearl mosque” and the Taj Mehal at Agra are the finest specimens.

At Srinagar in Kashmir there is a large and very remarkable, mosque of the normal plan, constructed entirely of wood logs, with numerous pillars of deodar pine; it was built by Shah Hamadan, and is an extremely picturesque building. (See Cole, Ancient Buildings in Kashmir, 1869.)

In Turkey the mosques are either old Christian basilicas, such as S. Sophia and S. Saviour's at Constantinople, and the numerous fine early churches of Thessalonica and Trebizond, or else are mostly copies, more or less accurate, of Justinian's splendid church of S. Sophia, a building which seems to have been enthusiastically admired and appreciated by the Ottoman conquerors. The mosque of Solaimán the Magnificent, 1550-1555, is the finest of these Turkish reproductions of S. Sophia. Another, rather less close a copy, is the mosque of Sultan Ahmed, 1608. None of this latter class are of course earlier than the middle of the 16th century.[7]

In the present century Moslem art has produced but little of architectural importance. The great mosque of Mohammed Ali, on the citadel of Cairo, is the work of a German architect, and though built of rich materials is of small artistic value or interest; it is a large but feebly designed building of the S. Sophia type. Unfortunately European influence seems now to be rapidly destroying the feeling for true art that still survives among Moslem nations.

Literature. — In addition to works referred to above see Monumentos Arquitectonicos de España, 1859-83; Murphy, Arabian Antiquities of Spain, 1813; Owen Jones, Alhambra, 1842; Antiguedades Arabes de España, 1870; Hay's Views in Cairo, 1840; Roberts, Holy Land, Egypt, &c., 1842-9 ; Hessemer, Arabische Bau-Verzierungen, 1853; Castellani, Architettura Orientale; Launay and Montani, Architecture Ottomane, 1873; Salzenberg, Alt-Christliche Baudenkmale von Constantinopel, 1854; Lewis, Illustrations of Constantinople, 1837; Chardin, Voyage en Perse, 1735; Fergusson, Architecture of India, &c., 1876; Cole, Ancient Delhi. (J. H. M.)


  1. In mosques frequented by Turks or other members of the Hanafí sect running water is provided from a raised tank with flowing jets, called a ḥanafíya after the sect who require it. Other Sunnis are content to wash in a stagnant tank.
  2. See Coste, Architecture Arabe, 1837-39; Bourgoin, Les Arts Arabes, 1868; Prisse d Avennes, Art Arabe, 1874-80; and Texier, L'Arménie et la Perse, 1842-52.
  3. The great mosque of Mecca (q.v.) is unique in plan. For an account of the mosque of Medina, see Medina.
  4. Contreras, Arte Arabe en España, 1875; Academy, 19th November 1881, “Mosque of Cordoba,” by J. H. Middleton; Mon. Arqui. de España; and Prangey, Mosquée de Cordoue.
  5. See De Vogué, Temple de Jerusalem, 1864; Texier, Asie Mineure, 1862.
  6. See Texier, L'Arménie et la Perse, 1842-52; Coste, Monuments Modernes de la Perse, 1867; Flandin and Coste, Voyage en Perse, 1843-54.
  7. Texier and Pulian, Byzantine Churches, 1864; Pugher, Églises de Constantinople, 1882.