Three mosques in Jeddah as examples of heterogeneous 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 three examples of heterogeneous neo-traditional mosques.

Al-Asnawi mosque         

This mosque is located halfway between al-‘Aqili mosque next to the Sharif Gate and the midpoint of the historic part of the city which contains the Nassif House and al-Mi’mar mosque. It is on the right side of the Dhahab street towards the Sharif Gate. Its location marks a point where authentic traditional houses, and traditional architecture in general, stop to dominate, and where buildings with a modern architectural leaning start taking up the baton.

The mosque’s design displays an awareness of, and duly acknowledges, this transition. It tries to adopt and maintain the value of tradition, albeit through some modern means and channels. However, its espousal of tradition is heterogeneous. Its choice of traditional ideas and components, and their application, are inconsistent and almost haphazard, just as its embracing of modern concepts and their amalgamation with the former, are.

The mosque thus stands for a typical hybrid type. It is neither traditional nor modern. At the same time, though, it in particular contexts can be categorised as either one. In any case, its reconciliatory efforts are to be commended and learned from.

On two sides: the western and southern ones, the mosque is surrounded by medium-sized modern buildings, whose main building materials are reinforced concrete and glass. On the remaining two sides, the mosque is bounded by streets. The mosque’s location is so restricted that it had to vie with its surroundings for space and attention. Its plan and design had to be attuned somewhat in order to conform to the specifications of the site and to make the most effective use of it.

The mosque has two levels. The ground level is occupied by shops, which serve as an endowment. The shops look very modern in terms of their plans, designs, merchandise and operation. At the same level there is a female prayer section. Toilets and ablution facilities are located underground.

At the upper level is the mosque per se. One can go up through a flight of stairs and an escalator. The prayer hall is dominated by a huge dome that covers its central part – or two thirds of it – almost completely. The dome, however, is rather shallow, which is disproportionate to its expanse. Pierced in its drum, which is a dodecagon or a 12-sided polygon, are 36 good-sized glazed windows. The dome is fully embellished with extravagant decorative styles. In such a way, it arches over the prayer hall, causing everything else to appear as though smaller, less important and less attractive.

Domes such as this are normally used in larger mosque complexes where there is a salient rhythm of space planning and configuration, and where there is a conspicuous harmony between all structural and functional aspects: internal and external, conceptual and operational. Massive mosques with such huge central domes can be found on some historical mosques in Turkey, and on some modern ones in Malaysia and Indonesia.

The situation is made yet more peculiar by the fact that the domed prayer hall is not befittingly tall. As shallow as it is, the depth of the dome is approximately the height of the prayer hall, thus denying the space its visual symmetry and equilibrium. 

The prayer hall is excessively decorated, employing an endless variety of calligraphy, colours, and floral as well as geometric patterns. There is so much decoration that it almost becomes a clutter, hindering a person form appreciating it. Yet a feeling can easily be developed that the decoration in question repels, rather than attracts. Hence, this is arguably one of the most decorated mosques in Jeddah.

The substantial rear of the prayer hall, which is not covered by the dome, is rendered two-floored, so as to augment the mosque’s potential. The section is about one third of the prayer hall. However, the problem is that the prayer hall itself is not too high, and here, after the same elevation had been halved, two low-slung levels were created. So low are the two levels that when a taller person raises his hands, he can almost touch the ceiling. That means when the mosque is full and crowded, worshippers in the rear section can develop a degree of discomfort. Some people with certain medical conditions can even feel a sense of restlessness and claustrophobia.

In the prayer hall, there are two rows of windows, one above the other. The lower windows are square, while the lower ones are arched. They use plain glass. However, due to a poor plan and a cluttered design, the intended function of the windows is often obstructed. Some windows are only partly visible, while others are hardly visible at all.

Because of the constraints of the site, a minaret is erected on the qiblah side. It is an octagonal and relatively high structure with two balconies. It looks as if the minaret was envisioned to enhance the mosque’s identity, and to reinforce the latter’s physical presence in the midst of the neighbouring predominantly modern buildings. The height of the minaret is slightly above the heights of the tallest nearby buildings. One cannot help but think that such was a premeditated strategy.

The minaret’s shaft is a framework with eight corners and supports, through which runs a winding staircase with a central newel. The framework with its eight sides is filled from top to bottom with a dense concrete jali (grill). The parapets of the two balconies are also screened in like manner. The minaret is capped by a dome, which in turn is topped by an elongated finial meant to emphasise the apex of both the minaret and its dome.

Al Asnawi Mosque
The interior of Al Asnawi Mosque

The mosque of Ibn Mahfuz

This mosque is located halfway between the Sharif Gate and the Makkah Gate along the Banajah street. It is a relatively big mosque. It has only one level, which however is slightly raised off the ground. That means that after each entrance, there is a small staircase that leads to the mosque proper. There are four main entrances: two on the western side, and one on the southern and northern sides each. Practically, the northern side, which partly adjoins the main street, is the principal side of the mosque, with its entrance functioning as the principal entrance as well. On that side, there is an additional small entrance leading to the female prayer area.

The mosque is located in a dense residential and commercial area. On all sides, except to some extent the northern side facing the main street, the mosque is encircled by a series of mid-rise buildings. Some of those buildings are part of the mosque’s endowment, while others are owned by the patron of the mosque. The western and southern entrances to the mosque are routed through the buildings.

The northern (street) side of the mosque is the only side that is partly left unobstructed. It is therefore fully utilised for the purposes of “announcing” the presence of a mosque and for revealing its identity and style. It is no wonder why the mosque’s (principal) entrance on that side is grand. It resembles monumental neo-Mamluk arched portals. The height of that entrance is about three-quarters of the height of the adjacent buildings.

For the same “publicising” purposes, bordering the fine arched entrance (portal) is a tall minaret. The minaret has two balconies. They are placed immediately one above the other, the upper balcony resting on eight short pillars that originate from the lower balcony. This is a unique design. It is not found as such in any other mosque in Jeddah. The two balconies thus create a feature that in part brings to mind the notion of chhatri (canopy or umbrella), which is a prominent element in traditional Indian (Mughal) architecture.

The minaret’s shaft is octagonal up to the two balconies, including the small section between the balconies. The balconies are octagonal too. After that, the shaft turns cylindrical. For obvious reasons, the minaret soars significantly above the height of the neighbouring buildings. It takes the contest for space and attention with its immediate congested built environment literally to “another level”.

The architecture of this mosque is a crossbreed par excellence, hybridising different features of several different styles. Moreover, it does so in such a heterogeneous and unsystematic way that its entire form and even function have been thus affected one way or another. The mosque arbitrarily combines elements from neo-Mamluk, Ottoman, traditional Saudi, modern, and even Indian architectural styles. It wanted like so to create its own identity and style. However, all things considered, the mosque is without a distinctive and appropriate identity. Both its appearance and function leave a lot to be desired. It resorted to many variables, but fell short of generating a cohesive and harmonious architectural blend that could ooze the senses of place, time and way of life. Indeed, excessively and imprudently following, as well as imitating, inevitably impede creativity, pragmatism and vision, just as uncontrolled freedom, ingenuity and innovation bring about egotism, eccentricity and defiance.

It is obvious that the mosque faced a set of serious site constraints and limitations. However, that is as much a setback as a challenge and opportunity. Needless to say that a good architecture, together with good architects, thrive in such situations. A good design is a process that invites and integrates all sorts of advantages, and repels all sorts of disadvantages. Workable alternatives for the latter are then painstakingly sought. A good architect is always in charge. He controls the situations, instead of being controlled thereby.

Upon entering the mosque, one is immediately struck by its heterogeneity and haphazardness. Since the qiblah is not aligned with the street, and the main grand entrance facing the street realistically had to be, a spatial manoeuvre was needed to make a transition from the street to the prayer hall that is naturally orientated towards the qiblah. A bent vestibule behind the entrance was used for the purpose. However, the execution of the manoeuvre was neither complete nor smooth. As a result, the prayer hall is not fully congruent with the qiblah requirement, needing some extra angling.

At any rate, since the mosque tends to show a propensity for neo-Mamluk architecture, studying how expertly the Mamluks had dealt with the issue of aligning their buildings with the streets of Cairo, might have been expedient. Taking a page from their book could certainly help.

The mosque is a forest of columns, supporting thus a flat roof through the intermediary of slightly pointed arches. The columns and their arches try to copy those of the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah. There are 86 columns. They are organised in nine rows, forming ten arcades.

However, the rows of the columns and their arcades run asymmetrical to the qiblah wall. They are neither parallel, nor perpendicular to it, but are closer to the former. This creates a strange atmosphere inside the prayer hall. It also impinges on the mosque’s overall function, because the rows of the columns are both uneven and inconsistent. They vary in size and often interrupt the prayer rows (sufuf), including the first and most important row (saff). There is hardly a prayer row that is not affected by the irregularity of the columns and arcades.

The first row, next to the qiblah wall, has only six columns. The subsequent two rows have twelve columns each, followed by a row of ten columns. Then, there are two rows with nine and eight columns respectively, after which come two rows with eleven columns each, and then the last row with only seven columns. (The number of columns in the fourth, fifth and sixth rows – ten, nine and eight respectively – is affected by the presence of the two covered courtyards, as will be seen next.)

In passing, the Prophet (pbuh) was against praying in congregation with people not standing tightly together in rows (sufuf). Gaps are not to be left between the people praying together in a row. The Prophet (pbuh) used to say that Satan penetrates such rows (gaps). A companion Anas b. Malik is reported to have said: “We were prohibited from performing prayers between pillars in the period of the Prophet (pbuh) and we used to be driven away from staying between pillars.”

Finally, to add to the unevenness and asymmetry of the prayer hall, there are two covered courtyards, or atriums. Although they do a commendable job in providing much needed natural light in the interior, their respective locations and sizes do little to mitigate the lack of structural and visual unity as well as harmony inside the prayer hall.

The first covered courtyard is square. It is placed near the grand entrance facing the street. It occupies four bays, two bays in each of the fifth and sixth arcade. The parapet along the courtyard’s roof edges has 24 windows, six windows on each side. On the parapet, the courtyard’s ceiling rests. It is richly decorated with repetitive geometric designs.

The second and much bigger covered courtyard is located somewhat in the middle, slightly towards the southern side of the prayer hall. It is also square. Its size is four times the size of the first courtyard. It occupies four bays in each of the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh arcade, making it sixteen bays in total. Its parapet along the roof edges has 48 windows, twelve windows on each side. Its ceiling is also richly decorated, exactly like that of the small courtyard.

The ceilings of the two covered courtyards (atriums), together with the mihrab area, are most conspicuously decorated. However, in the whole mosque, both internally and externally, there is little accord, along with co-ordination, between the decorative media, styles and contents. All that makes this mosque perhaps the most confounding, and at the same time most intriguing, example of the city’s heterogeneous neo-traditional mosque architecture.

The interior of the mosque of Ibn Mahfuz

Al-Shati’ mosque

This mosque is located on the western side of the city, near the sea. Previously, there was a fish market nearby and the mosque used to accommodate people’s many needs. It was as busy as the market itself. Today, the market is no longer there. There is only a vast empty space that functions as a parking zone. The area is also intersected by some minor and major roads which, while leading to the newer and modern districts of the city, happily avoid the bustling historic part. Therefore, standing isolated, the mosque is rather a sign and a landmark. It evokes, as well as preserves, a great many chapters associated with the place and its former times.

The mosque’s design is at once a curious and thought-provoking attempt to revive traditional themes and styles. It does so boldly, sensibly, and often excessively. It could be dubbed a mosque of mashrabiyyahs and wooden jali screens.

On the exterior façade, for the purpose of screening windows the mosque employs three unadorned mashrabiyyahs. Inside the prayer hall, there are nine mashrabiyyahs, which are elaborate and delightfully decorated. They are identical. There are three mashrabiyyahs projecting from each of the western, southern and northern walls. Those on the western wall serve as screened windows for a female prayer area that is located on the second level at the back of the prayer hall.

The remaining six mashrabiyyahs on the southern and northern walls of the interior are used only for ornamentation purposes. They are intended the boost the overall aesthetics and the symbolistic character of the mosque. They are mere symbols, yet artefacts, devoid of any practical function.

All the remaining windows and apertures of the mosque are screened with compact wooden jalis. It is obvious that the mosque was intended to be of a local traditional genus. It was also envisioned to be identifiable with the most prominent components of Islamic traditional architecture in the city: mashrabiyyahs (and rawashin) and jali screens (shish). Although such components are most commonly found in residential architecture, the mosque aimed to universalize them and expand their usage, ensuring thereby their long-term importance and survival.

Nonetheless, as important as articulating and preserving tradition may be, efforts are not to swerve and gradually slip into the worlds of abstraction, deadening symbolism and blind formalism. Tradition is to guide and inspire, rather than misadvise and stifle. Tradition, furthermore, is to encourage dynamism and forward-thinking, rather than cultural lifelessness and intellectual inertia. Traditional concepts and components – just like everything else relevant to man – are to be credited with adequate denotations, grades and functions. They are to confidently operate in the present moment (here and now), proudly honour and cherish their past, and courageously anticipate and prepare for the future. A subtle combination of continuity and change is a foremost blueprint in nature; that must be the case in the realm of architecture as well, because the latter is an upshot, yet a distant relative, so to speak, of the former.

The dominant colour of the mosque is dark red – of course besides white and light cream colours used for the interior and exterior facades respectively. Dark red is the innate colour of the twelve wooden mashrabiyyahs (nine inside and three outside), of the wooden jalis of many windows and other openings, of the five huge wooden doors as part of the three entranceways, of the wooden minbar and a wooden door in the mihrab section leading to the minbar, of the minaret’s wooden balcony, and of many other minor components inside as well as outside the mosque. The overwhelming presence of genuine wooden elements accords the place a natural soothing atmosphere and a strong environmental vibe.

However, in the midst of this naturally infused setting, a few decorative missteps have been committed. They affect the naturalness and consistency of the aura generated by the many wooden constituents and their natural dark red colour. Enjoying and appreciating the mosque’s aura is nearly rendered anticlimactic thereby. Those decorative missteps are: the two vertical decorative bands featuring floral and geometric patterns, and flanking the mihrab segment that contains the mihrab along with the minbar; a fragmented decorative band featuring calligraphy, which runs horizontally around the prayer hall; and the mihrab niche.

The decoration of all these components is dominated by different shades of a blue colour. Nevertheless, when observing those rendered-blue elements against the backdrop of the many dark red wooden components, one gets a feeling that they do not really look good together. There is a degree of mismatch and irreconcilable disparity. As if they are two different realms operating disjointedly. It is difficult to create an authentic feeling that the two support each other in creating a visual and emotional unity.

This is especially so because neither of the two colours is the colour of the mosque’s either interior or exterior facades. They are the colours of the auxiliary, yet very essential and serviceable, components. And it is right within that utilitarian domain that visual rhythm and uniformity are expected most. Hence, since the natural dark red is the foremost colour of the mosque – apart from the white and light cream colours of the walls – those dominated-by-blue decorative modules should have resorted to something else more suitable, something more responsive to the implications of the RYB (red, yellow and blue) colour model.

The minaret of the mosque is erected at the north-eastern corner. It is very tall and inviting, corresponding to the overall status of the mosque as a sign and a landmark. It is square. However, from the point of its separation from the body of the mosque skywards, the minaret starts getting narrower. It does so gradually in five stages, and right through in a symmetrically wavy fashion till the apex where it becomes merely a tip. All this takes place only on the minaret’s western and southern (internal) sides. Its external eastern and northern sides remain intact and unbroken.

This way the minaret adopts what could be called a post-modernist disposition, which is characterised by playful, irregular, unpredictable, artistic and surprising design moves and solutions. One can hardly foresee a next step or a next stage, experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions, reactions and thoughts. The only predictable thing is unpredictability.

Hence, attaching to this minaret a purely traditional wooden balcony, which is supported by beautifully carved brackets and which has a parapet that features wooden jalis similar to those elsewhere in the mosque, was somewhat wide of the mark. This type of minaret called for a bolder and more resourceful outcome. The existing balcony is a picture of a clear incongruity. A more tuned and more expressive solution was needed.

In point of fact – as a potential solution – a balcony might not have been used in the first place. It was not desperately needed as a functional element, in that nobody climbs minarets to call physically for prayers anymore. Accordingly, several loud speakers are placed as much on the minaret and its balcony as on the rest of the mosque’s body. Moreover, when juxtaposed with the background of the minaret and its audacious design, the balcony as an ornament also underperforms. It comes into view almost as a form of visual awkwardness. Even conceptually it was not a necessity, as this minaret stands for a totally different set of ideas, making it without equal in the whole of Jeddah.

The minaret with its gradual narrowing and fading towards the sky represents a gradual separation from the confines of matter towards the spiritual fulfilment. It directs towards infinity in the heavenly realm. The minaret signifies a journey, and its broken surfaces stages on that journey. Its extremely narrow apex represents the end of one realm and the beginning of another. It further represents eternity and a continuous existential unfolding towards it. It also exemplifies human struggles and endless hopes as well as dreams.

Thus, affixing a balcony to such minaret was loaded with an extra difficult challenge. It demanded from architects and builders to give it their best shot. A balcony that could be a conceptual and functional hindrance, or a snag, should have been reconsidered. What was needed was something that could give extra support to the minaret in its perceptual and functional resolution. Not having a balcony at all, could have been considered as one of the prospects. ***

The interior of Al Shati’ Mosque

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