Five mosques in Jeddah as examples of neo-traditionalism

By Spahic Omer

The mosques of historic Jeddah and its immediate vicinity – where the first development following the demolition of the city walls took place – could be divided into four broad categories: original traditional mosques; homogenous neo-traditional mosques; heterogeneous neo-traditional mosques; modern mosques. The following are five examples of homogenous neo-traditional mosques.

Al-‘Aziziyyah mosque

This mosque is located in the district of al-Baghdadiyyah al-Sharqiyyah, about 2.5 kilometres north of the Madinah Gate (Bab Jadid). The district was among the first to be populated following the demolition of the city walls. Like al-Jaffali mosque, this mosque was also designed by ‘Abd al-Wahid al-Wakil, unambiguously displaying some of his signature architectural and artistic predilections.

The mosque is a rectangle. Like the architect’s mosque of the two qiblahs and the mosque of al-shajarah (the Miqat mosque) in Madinah, this mosque, too, is vaulted. The barrel or wagon vaults are made of red bricks. Unlike the rest of the mosque which is plastered and whitewashed, the vaults are not. They display the natural colour and texture of the bricks, adding thus a significant amount of freshness and naturalness to the interior. The quality contributes to the serenity of the place and to the overall rhythm of its colours and forms. 

The vaults are semi-circular in shape, albeit slightly pointed at the top. There are six vaults – thus forming six arcades – and they run parallel to the qiblah side. They are supported by 20 pillars organised in five rows also parallel to the qiblah. There are four pillars in each row. They support the vaults by means of arches that are identical in shape to the vaults. 

Each pair of pillars is connected by a large beam case, comprising glass and wooden panels inter alia. Obviously, the beam cases do not perform any significant structural purpose. Rather, they are ornamental in nature and perform some secondary tasks, such as supplementary lighting. As a result, their complete front and back wooden panels are richly decorated with the calligraphic rendering of many Qur’anic verses. 

Indeed, the beams are the most decorated elements in the whole mosque. Other than them, there is some expected decoration on the wooden minbar, featuring mainly interlocked geometric patterns. The frames of some windows are also outlined by narrow decorative belts that contain repetitive and knitted floral designs. Surprisingly, the mihrab contains no decorative items or themes. It is made of white marble with its hood partially featuring a muqarnas as the only adornment.

Above the mihrab’s bay, there is a dome. It interrupts, as it were, the stream of the first vault. The dome rests on squinches as devices meant to form above square spaces a base to receive an octagonal or spherical dome by filling in the upper angles of those square spaces (another traditional devices are pendentives and muqarnas). The dome’s drum or pedestal is perforated with eight windows.

At the north-western corner of the mosque, there is a typical Ottoman minaret. It is tall, pencil-shaped and with only one balcony. At its base, the shaft is octagonal. Then, up to the top, it turns dodecagonal or twelve-sided. The minaret is placed on this particular side because it faces a main street, and the other sides are engaged in accommodating a host of other services and needs.

There are three entrances. One is the main and central entrance, which is a tall and protruding arched portal. It is crenelated and slightly rises above the mosque’s façade. The second entrance is a simple door to the right of the former. The third entrance is a somewhat grand entranceway at the south-western corner of the mosque. It has a generous stairway that leads to the upper level of the prayer hall. In passing, the last two arcades of the prayer hall are split into two levels. The upper level is used by men during the Friday Jumu’ah prayer and by women during the holy month of Ramadan and its Tarawih prayers. 

What is more, in front of the western side and its main entrance, there are vast shaded open spaces as additional makeshift prayer zones to be used whenever necessary. This adds to the mosque’s openness, accessibility and usability. It also boosts its status as a community centre that integrates itself well with its natural and man-generated surroundings. The needs of wheelchair users, generally, are also taken care of.

The ablution area and toilets are located at the southern side. On the same side, there are three residential units that are leased as part of the mosque’s endowment and self-sufficiency scheme. There is also another much simpler, and rather provisional, residence for the imam of the mosque. 

The windows of the mosque largely feature traditional wooden jali and shish. The densest and most ornamental ones are used on the windows and openings of the residential units, which is expected. Sometimes, however, windows only employ sparse wooden grills and cement jali. This model, by and large, is found on the windows of the prayer hall. 

Only the qiblah wall is reinforced by buttresses. That, nonetheless, signifies an ornamental tactic and a willingness to stay faithful to a tradition, rather than meeting and fulfilling any additional structural requirements.

Upon entering the mosque, one steps into a vestibule that is the width of the prayer hall itself. From this vestibule, three doorways lead to the prayer hall. A fourth door at the right end of the vestibule leads to an enclosed passageway that extends along the entire southern wall of the prayer hall. To the right side of the passageway are toilets and the ablution area. The three apartments are also there, but their entrances are from the outside. The said passageway, essentially, separates the prayer hall from the mosque’s facilities and services on the southern side. 

Al-‘Aziziyyah mosque

Al-‘Aqili mosque   

This mosque is located next to the Sharif Gate. It is a complete blend of Islamic traditional architectural ideas and solutions, both local and imported. The mosque is in an area that has been fairly modernised – and it still continues to do so – causing the mosque to be architecturally to a certain degree isolated and lonely. However, its assertive and courageous adoption of Islamic traditional modules modifies its role from merely embracing and preserving the Islamic architectural traditions to promoting and propagandising the same. This might explain why the mosque’s exterior is more opulent and more traditionalised than its interior.

Externally, the mosque proudly features elaborate mashrabiyyahs, dense wooden shish, serrated merlons or crenellations, and a tall square minaret topped with a small dome, reminding of the prototype minarets in the western Islamic world.  On three sides the minaret is surrounded by a wall that increases in height as it moves from one side to the other, giving an impression from certain perspectives that the minaret consists of several tapering levels, the last of which is topped with a dome. As such, the minaret faintly strikes a chord with such famous and historic minarets of the similar genre as the minaret of the great mosque in Kairouan, the spiral minaret of the mosque of Ahmad b. Tulun in Egypt, and even the spiral minaret of the great mosque in Samarra even though it is of an ascending spiral conical design.

The mosque has three huge mashrabiyyahs on its external façade. They screen three large windows. However, one of the mashrabiyyahs deteriorated to such an extent that it was recently pulled down. Today, there is only a distinct mark indicating its earlier presence. Moreover, another mashrabiyyah has also decayed to the point that it may soon experience the fate of the former. Only the third mashrabiyyah seems to be moderately in a good shape. 

In spite of the mashrabiyyahs’ condition, the mosque in its totality functions smoothly and efficiently. Nobody seems to even notice, much less care about the problems of the mashrabiyyahs. That conveys a very important lesson to the effect that dealing with tradition is not easy. It is a double-edged sword in the era of invasive modernity. It may be as much a benefit as a liability.

Nevertheless, one thing is clear: tradition is not to be seen as merely ornamental and symbolic, nor should it be just a sentimental obsession. Tradition is to keep evolving, enriching its recognisable individuality with confronting and finding adequate solutions to the problems and situations associated with modern times and tradition’s dynamic evolution in its midst. Tradition is to absorb, not to be absorbed. It is to be a criterion, not an object of unknown and unrelated criteria and standards. It is to be dynamic, alive and fully functional, in lieu of becoming inert and a thing of the past. Tradition is to give generously and receive appreciatively, never separating itself from what may, especially at a first glance, look like novel, unexpected and even inauspicious inclinations and experiences. Standing on the shoulders of giants, tradition certainly has what it takes not to waver, nor capitulate, in the face of life vicissitudes and trials. 

Indeed, the biggest problem when it comes to the relationship between tradition and modernity is one of ideas, values and principles. The crisis is inside: in the mind and the heart. All the physical problems and issues are but manifestations of people’s inner disorders and struggles. There can be no feasible modernisation and progress without tradition as their precursor and harbinger on board, just as there can be no valuable tradition without disciplined modernisation and progress as its furtherance on board.

The mosque has two floors. The first floor is occupied by a series of shops which belong to the mosque and are part of the mosque’s endowment system. On the same floor the ablution area and toilets are located. There are two entrances, one for men and one for women. On the second floor is the prayer hall. The main section of the prayer hall is roofed with barrel vaults that extend parallel to the qiblah. There are five vaults. They are supported by arches that span the whole prayer hall and are at the end supported by the wall. As part of the wall, there are slender pillars that emblematically support the arches. However, since both the vaults and their ostensibly supporting arches bridge the complete prayer hall without any extra support, both then resting on the wall, one gets a feeling that the presence of the arches is as much symbolic as structural. They are also integral to the mosque’s adornment. That could be the reason why the stretched spandrels of the arches are completely decorated, more than any other aspect of the mosque. Besides, in order to ensure a degree of uniformity between the two floors, the axis that runs through the shops on the first floor is also vaulted.

One quarter of the prayer hall has two levels. The lower level is for men and the upper one for women. The upper level rests on the main wall as well as on two additional thick round pillars. The pillars are dark maroon, which together with white is the dominant colour of the mosque. It goes well with all the wooden elements that showcase the same colour, such as the minbar, windows and doors. Aligning itself with the surroundings, the prayer hall gradually all the way through tapers on the left northern side, while proportionately widening on the right southern side. In the end, the alignment affects the width of about five meters. Finally, the mihrab is a niche that is recessed gradually in four stages. The last and deepest stage is the mihrab itself. Its lower section is fluted and the hood contains exquisite muqarnas. It is also dark maroon.

Al-‘Aqili mosque

The mosque of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq

This is a relatively small mosque in the environs of al-Hanafi mosque. Like the case of the latter, this mosque’s qiblah wall borders on the Dhahab street too. It was first established in 1828. Its last reconstruction was in 1987. On account of the nature of the site, the mosque is narrow, but reasonably long. For quite some time, it also functioned as a zawiyah, that is to say, as a religious school (madrasah), monastery, and even a Sufi lodge.

The mosque perfectly fits into its dense predominantly residential setting. On its western and northern sides, the mosque is yet physically attached to the neighbouring buildings. The building on its northern side, which is a typical traditional house of Jeddah with all the conventional components and designs, belongs to the mosque as an endowment. The house has three levels, the mosque has two. Internally, they are conjoined via a staircase and a couple of doorways. In terms of architecture and overall aesthetics, the mosque and its surrounding houses are allies, complementing each other. This is an example of the partnership between residential and mosque (institutional) architecture being at its best.

On the ground level of the house, there are also an ablution area and toilets. The mosque has no women’s prayer section. Owing to its small size, the second level is designated exclusively for men as well. The mosque does not provide for the needs of disabled persons and the wheelchairs users either.

On the many windows of its two floors, the mosque features a dense wooden shish (jali). With respect to its design and appearance, the extensive shish of the mosque perfectly corresponds to that of the neighbouring houses. The same holds true for the octagonal minaret and its numerous vertical openings, which are also filled with a shish. The minaret has only one rounded balcony. Its parapet is pierced with eight apertures, principally in order to equal the number of vertical openings under and above it, providing thus a sense of visual continuity and harmony. Those apertures are likewise fitted with a shish. Covered thus considerably with wooden shish, the minaret unmistakably echoes the local traditional styles and artistic fondness. While rising in this manner above the mosque’s crenelated façade, the minaret proudly affirms tradition and promotes its feasibility and value. Unconventionally, the minaret is located on the eastern qiblah side. It stands next to the jutting mihrab niche.

The mosque has two arched entrances with sumptuously decorated wooden doors. In relation to the type and scale of their decoration, the doors bear a resemblance to those of the biggest and most well-known houses in the city. The two doors are essentially intricate arabesques, subtly fusing into fascinating aggregates calligraphy, geometry and a range of floral configurations.

As a separation between the first and second floor, and running around the entire observable external façade, there is a band about 50cm wide. It features calligraphic inscriptions of several Qur’anic verses on the importance of the mosque institution in the lives of people. These are concluded by the inscription of some famous religious axioms based on the Prophet’s Sunnah. Since the inscriptions are placed on the outer façade, it stands to reason that they are intended to enlighten, advise and remind, more than just to embellish the mosque. 

Internally, the walls of the mosque are completely covered with marble slabs, exhibiting their newness, symmetry and class. However, with the choice of their colour, plus the choice of the colour and themes of the constrained decoration, the interior perfectly reverberates the mood of the exterior. Even though fairly remodelled and modernised, the demands and functions of the interior did not fail to recognise the spirit of tradition and its own exigencies, putting themselves at the latter’s disposal and service. Indeed, in this mosque, one can feel as much traditional as modern qualities and their respective ways of doing things. One can also experience how the two can be at peace and cooperate for the common good.

The mosque has a central dome, which is rather big but somewhat shallow. The dome has no perforated windows. However, along the circumference of its drum, there extends a sizable strip with calligraphic inscriptions. Moreover, the roof next to the qiblah wall contains three little domes. They are plain including neither perforations nor decorations. They themselves are the mosque’s ornaments. 

The mosque of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq

The mosque of King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz

This is the largest and most imposing mosque in historic Jeddah, and one of the biggest and most impressive mosques in the whole city. It stands close to the Makkah Gate. It is comparatively a new mosque. The cost of its construction exceeded 40 million riyals. The mosque has two levels. On the ground level, there are 60 shops as part of an endowment program for the mosque. The shops are meant to sustain the mosque in terms of its maintenance and functioning as a religious and educational centre. With regard to their appearance, operation, equipment and goods, the shops are very spacious, advanced and up-to-date. Since the mosque is located in the heart of a business area, its shops play a prominent role in boosting the business sentiment.

The mosque is on the second level. To go to the mosque, people can use staircases, escalators and lifts, all of which are strategically located around the massive edifice. Once up, people come firstly into contact with various facilities of the mosque, such as toilets, ablution area and a huge water fountain (sabil or shadirvan) similar to those in Ottoman mosques. Behind these facilities and the spaces that connect them is the mosque proper (the prayer hall). Two huge arched portals, one to the right and the other to the left – that is, on the southern and northern sides – are the main entry points into the prayer hall. The façade of the first level is covered with polished dark granite tiles. The façade of the second level is plastered and whitewashed. This way the separation between the two levels, and between the two operational dispositions of the edifice, is clearly marked.

The mosque is a hybrid of the Hijazi traditional architecture and Islamic traditional architecture in general. It represents an extensive vocabulary of Islamic architectural attributes and solutions. However, this mosque executed its tasks in a dualistic fashion. It adopted a wide range of traditional components and themes verbatim and, at times, as though randomly. They were applied together, next to each other, regardless of their historical, cultural and ecological relevance and contexts. In addition, whenever necessary – for example needing to fill the gaps created by such traditional hybrids – purely modern approaches and solutions were resorted to. Tradition thus was attempted to be either crudely fitted into or just placed side by side with the modern-day templates and styles. 

At any rate, this is not the way tradition and modernity in architecture are to be unified. They are not to be incorporated predicated on the two-in-one or the one-in-two principles, but predicated on the all-in-all code. They are simply to become one, inclusive and holistic, irrespective of how that union should be called. Tradition is to be modernity, and modernity to be tradition, in the sense that they form one and the same thing and have the same existential trajectory and purpose. The relationship between tradition and modernity in architecture is the matter of knowing the real goodness and quality in life as well as in the built environment as the former’s receptacle. Their accidents – not essence – are then to be continuously upgraded and facilitated, as a result of life’s vicissitudes, in order to empower and further promote the everlasting essence. 

Peace and constructive alliance between tradition and modernity imply the consistent world of essence (ultimate goodness and truth) being dressed now and again in moderately dissimilar garbs. The problem with most buildings in the Muslim world today is that they adopt either exclusive tradition or exclusive modernity. They are hardly coordinated and reconciled. Which is understandable given that, according to our current understanding, tradition as such and modernity as such are irreconcilable. They are two opposing realms. Trying to bring them effectively together, while applying such an outlook, is an impossible task bound to bring little, or no, genuine success. Apart from some partially successful outcomes, there are situations where things appear extremely awkward and sterile in buildings that adopt the said dualistic philosophy. In such buildings, tradition and modernity are together, yet they are worlds apart. They signify only sums of parts, not whole and harmonious entities. 

This mosque is still regarded as one promoting a homogenous neo-traditionalism in Islamic architecture, for many of its dimensions are still fairly befitting and pertinent, and if nothing then its design is a good directory of the traditional language of mosque architecture in general and Islamic architecture in particular. 

The mosque features: screened windows; shish boxes as window screens; wooden planks, or boards, installed vertically as parapets and fences; huge arched portals with trefoil arches; crenellations; repetitive mizabs or waterspouts; a courtyard (atrium) covered with plain glass which in turn is supported by an elaborate network of steel bars, making the interior very well-lit naturally; elegant geometric and floral decorative styles (calligraphy is surprisingly non-existent); a large dome above the mihrab bay supported by squinches and having in its drum four windows for additional natural lighting; two tall and striking octagonal minarets (about 50 meters high) on the south-eastern and north-eastern corners of the mosque proper which have two balconies and which in some ways resemble the minaret of al-Jaffali mosque; decorative blue and white tiles which cover a quarter of the interior and which remind of the interiors of such Ottoman masterpieces as Sultan Ahmet or the Blue mosque, Rustem Pasha mosque and Sokollu Mehmed Pasha mosque in Istanbul, all of which are noted for the fine quality of the hand-painted Iznik tiles adorning their interiors.

The prayer hall can accommodate more than 3,000 worshippers. Apart from the prayer hall, there are also facilities for various religious and educational activities and programs, for both men and women. There are also residential units for the imam and mu’adhdhin (caller to prayers). On the qiblah side, behind the mihrab and minbar area, there is a public library. 

The mosque is thus meant to be a true community centre. That is why its presence in the neighbourhood, at once as an idea and tangible architectural reality, is overwhelming and commanding. As such, the mosque personifies, invites, reveals and reminds of an advanced spiritual system of values and goals. It is an agent of enlightenment and transformation. And that could be one of the reasons why the mosque extravagantly and freely embraced tradition and its different ways. The latter was perceived as an opulent and attested means for achieving yet a more opulent, but at the same time very challenging, set of objectives. The entire world of tradition (the means) was not spared, in that there was so much at stake with the objectives.

The mosque’s roof is generally supported by large square piers via segmental arches. There are 32 piers in the prayer hall, eight of which are clustered. They are organised in five rows parallel to the qiblah, forming six arcades. The first row of piers and the first arcade are interrupted due to the presence of the mihrab bay’s dome. The same goes to the fourth row of piers and to the fourth and fifth arcades, due to the presence of the covered courtyard. The last arcade is rendered two-tiered. The upper tier, or level, constitutes women’s prayer area. From the first floor of the mosque complex, where the shops are located, there is a special female lift that leads to the female prayer area.  

The mosque of King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz

Yusuf Naghi mosque

This is one of the more recent mosques in historic Jeddah and its vicinity. It is located in the south-western section of the area, in Harah al-Bahr (the Sea District) at the confluence of al-Mu’assasah and King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Streets. The mosque is an example of neo-Ottoman and neo-Mamluk architecture, reasonably permeated with the threads of the quintessence of modernity. It embodies the diverse past and colourful legacies of the city together with its current outlook and direction. 

The mosque stands alone in a neighbourhood that includes mostly modern commercial buildings. Both as a concept and an architectural actuality and experience, the mosque is completely separated from its surroundings. They all exist in their separate and fortified orbs, and have very little in common with each other. Visual, aesthetic and functional alliances are virtually non-existent.

The mosque is a domed square, exhibiting a perfect symmetry. It has a huge central dome, surrounded by fifteen smaller domes. Along the base of the central dome runs a band with a calligraphic inscription. Its drum is punctured with ten windows that feature stained glass enriched with geometric profiles. The smaller domes at their bases have only decorative bands. They feature interlocked geometric designs that are interrupted at regular intervals by the inscription of some beautiful names of Almighty Allah. The domes and the entire roof are made of reinforced concrete. They are additionally supported by four massive round pillars. The scarcity of pillars and other supports ensures an open and free-flowing space inside the mosque.

The mosque’s façade is crenelated. There are three main entrances, one on each side except the eastern qiblah side. The entrances are considerable arched portals with lunettes (half-moon shaped spaces) filled with concrete jali above the doorways. The portals rise slightly above the mosque’s façade. On the western side, to the right, there is a small female entrance that leads to an upper female prayer section. 

From the north-western corner of the mosque ascends a towering partly fluted minaret. The minaret is of a typical Ottoman pencil-shaped type and has two balconies. The parapets of the balconies are metal fences.

The mosque is very well lit. Its interior atmosphere is soothing and refreshing. That is primarily because the wall is pierced with 44 main windows. They are tall, arched and contain only plain glass. They are about one meter wide and about four meters long. They are screened with a beautiful concrete jali, comprising a range of interwoven repetitive geometric patterns. Thus, every window is an arabesque of a kind. 

The windows are then paired, forming 22 pairs. The pairs are framed inside what looks a lot like Corinthian and Gothic window frames. Externally, the frames seamlessly harmonise with the striking and slightly projecting portals, as well as internally with the mihrab which is a big arched niche. The mihrab’s design and scale stand hallway between those of the window frames and the portals. The mihrab contains the wooden minbar as well. The mihrab is bordered by three engaged columns. The first column is decorated with repetitive interlocked square shapes, the third with repetitive interlocked circles, while the second and middle column is spiral fluted. They all have Corinthian capitals.

On the southern side, as part of the mosque itself, there are toilets and an ablution area. In front of them, detached from the mosque, there is a simple water fountain which is also meant for ablution. Next to it, and right in front of the southern entrance, there is a special residential unit (sakan khass). It has two levels and is intended most probably for the imam and mu’adhdhin.***

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