By Spahic Omer
Al-Mi’mar mosque is a historic mosque in Jeddah situated in Harah al-Mazlum (al-Mazlum quarter). It is located in a historic area that contains traditional markets and a number of illustrious houses. It also lies along the pilgrimage route, halfway between the sea and the Makkah Gate. It was recently fully restored during the reign of King Abdullah.
Due to its strategic location and several other high-profile places and elements in the vicinity, the mosque is fast becoming one of the main attractions for visitors and tourists. Following the opening of the Dhahab Street that cuts across the historic city from the Sharif Gate in the south to the Madinah Gate (Bab Jadid) in the north, the mosque is now easily accessible by vehicles as well.
Some of the most prominent members of the mosque’s neighbourhood are Nasif House, Nur Wali House and al-Jamjum House. These houses are so finely built that they embody all the beauty and intricacy of the celebrated traditional residential architecture of Jeddah. When ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn Sa’ud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, entered Jeddah as conqueror in 1925, he stayed in Nasif House. For a while, the house functioned as his official residence and a royal meeting place. Today the house functions as a museum and cultural centre.
Built by an Ottoman governor
There is a considerable disagreement as to the exact date of the mosque’s construction and who was responsible for it. However, what is certain is that the mosque is more than two centuries old. It was built by an Ottoman governor in the city about whose name there is some dispute.
The form and overall configuration of this mosque are all about heavy mass. Thus, such is the visual impact the mosque creates that it is evocative of firmness and permanence. Its walls are about 1.3 meter wide, meant to slow the transfer of heat and to help the building exude a sense of weightiness and permanent presence.
The square pillars or piers, inside the main prayer area are also massive and almost two meters in diameter. One gets a feeling that, as a consequence, the internal spaces have been somewhat compromised.
Despite a number of large windows and other openings, the interior is rather dark naturally. That is the case because those windows and openings include dense wooden jali or shish (a web or a lattice of wooden laths).
As expected, the main building materials are coral stone and wood. The whole mosque is finely plastered and whitewashed. However, the steady gandal courses of wooden planks between coral stone layers, as part of the taklilah process in order to boost the structure’s firmness, is greatly emphasized and made visible.
Windows and doors are huge arched recesses that aim to reduce the structure’s weight as much as possible. Sometimes such recesses extend as single units from the ground to the ceiling. At other times, they are divided into two segments, standing separately one above the other.
Clever interplays between geometric recesses and the zones as well as swathes of full walls generate a fascinating symmetry. It, in turn, spawns an unconscious sense of appreciation and delight. Surely, a natural and spontaneous action leads to a natural and spontaneous reaction. One then gets a feeling that the whole mosque is defined and imperceptibly framed within those interplays.
The main prayer area has six pillars. The pillars are arranged in two rows, with three pillars in each row, which are set perpendicular to the qiblah. They support a flat wooden roof by the agency of slightly pointed arches, creating 12 bays in the process, with three bays in each line parallel to the qiblah. The pillars are interlocked by wooden beams so as to add to their stability.
Above the middle bay in the second line of bays from the qiblah there is a medium-sized wooden dome similar to the one in al-Shafi’i mosque. Its drum, or pedestal, is octagonal with each of its eight sides featuring a window with thick wooden jali.
Suspended between the last pair of pillars from the qiblah wall there is a wooden mukabbiriyyah (a platform for mu’adhdhin or caller to prayers) that is raised almost to an average man’s height. That is clearly an Ottoman tradition that remains preserved in a number of regional mosques, including the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah. The mukabbiriyyah is not used today. It is there as an objet d’art.
Except the mihrab and minbar areas, the mosque is devoid of any decoration. While the wooden minbar includes some simple geometric patterns, the mihrab is fully enveloped in a framework of calligraphy and a series of combinations of delicate geometric and floral designs. They are all decorative plasterwork executed in stucco. They seem to be relatively new, perhaps the result of the latest restoration programmes.
Moreover, above this framework, inside a vertical stretch, stands a calligraphic inscription. It comprises part of a Qur’anic verse and a well-known religious dictum. The inscription appears as though original, and as such, not in full harmony with the former, which oozes a contemporary sophistication and freshness.
One minaret with two balconies
The mosque has one minaret with two balconies supported by muqarnas. The parapets of the balconies are made either of stone or bricks. The parapet of the upper balcony is regularly perforated with small holes. Embellishment seems to be their raison d’etre. At its base, the minaret is square. It then turns octagonal up to the first balcony, after which it becomes cylindrical and slightly slenderer. Its summit is pencil-shaped like the standard Ottoman models.
Like in the case of all original traditional mosques in the city of Jeddah, the minaret is positioned at the south-western corner. Such is the location of the mosque that its minaret adjoins the main street. It is relatively high, but not as high as most of the neighbouring residential buildings.
In the historic sector of Jeddah, the houses and mosques did not compete for spatial and functional supremacy. Rather, they recognised that their respective purposes and missions were parts of something bigger and more substantial, for which they supported and complemented one another.
The mosque is not physically attached to any surrounding building. This, however, by no means diminishes its organic relationship with the surroundings and its role as a community centre. Taking into account the strategic public site of the mosque and the strategic sites and functions of its neighbouring private and institutional buildings, the mosque proved to reside in the non-physical midpoints of people’s lives. It connected with them subtly in different pious individual and collective ways, forming a nexus of spirituality, allegiance, communications and ultimate states of mind and soul.
On the western side of the mosque, in front of the main prayer hall, there is an open space almost as big as two thirds of the prayer hall. The space could be regarded as an improvised yard. It is meant to provide a significant extra space for worshippers. This yard and the prayer hall are connected via two doors. One can enter the yard directly from outside through a door on the northern side. The yard has a wooden parapet, or a fence, that from outside reminds of the outlines of the flat roofs of the city’s houses. B
Topography excellently circumnavigated
The mosque is built on a slope. Its topography is excellently circumnavigated and made use of. Still, the mosque has two levels. The upper level is the main prayer hall with its yard. On the ground level, there are ablution areas, toilets, a prayer section for women, and an additional prayer area for men whenever needed such as on Fridays. Formerly, there were also shops as part of an endowment scheme for the mosque. However, those shops are no longer in operation today. There are only vacant compartments that suggest their earlier existence.
Due to the sloped landscape of the place, entrances to all these spaces are mainly from the southern street-side and partly from the eastern side. From the southern side, furthermore, there are two un-ceremonial entrances to the main prayer hall. But to reach them, one must climb two runs of stairs, which are so high that they can be burdensome for the elderly and such as are in poor health.
Thus, on the northern side, there is another entrance which, while taking full advantage of the slope, opens directly into the main prayer hall. It is there that everything necessary, as regards the needs of disabled individuals and wheelchair users, has been taken into consideration.***