Key Mosques in the GCC
by Eni Llalla
Religion is a fundamental component of daily life in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, maintaining social cohesion and solidarity through shared rituals and beliefs. As a 7th century cradle of Islam, the world’s second-largest religion after Christianity, the Arabian Peninsula hosts Muslim-majority countries and some of the holiest places in the tradition. The word Islam in itself means "submission to the will of God," which is manifested in the ritualistic prayer and worshipping followers dedicate to it.
Building mosques, the worship houses in Islam, is an old prophetic and Islamic tradition. And as such, the Gulf region, with around 51 million Muslims, has over 100,000 mosques. They are holy and symbolic places for the Muslim Ummah (community) built to recreate pure and divine presence on Earth. While the primary use of mosques is for prayer, they also serve as cultural, educational, and community centres, gathering people for lectures, study groups, or communal dinners.
Ranging from low-profile mosques to some of the world's most monumental ones, the Gulf countries are unique in their adherence to tradition, while intertwining it with world-class infrastructure. Mosques' architecture and design hold an important testimony about history, culture, art, and tradition in an era of sweeping changes, taking us on a journey through time and space. This article will introduce the main mosques in each GCC country, illustrating the magnitude of religion across the Gulf.
Masjid Al-Haram — Saudi Arabia
The sacred city of Mecca in the western part of Saudi Arabia occupies a special spot in Islam as the birthplace of Prophet Muhammed, housing one of the holiest shrines in Islam, Masjid Al-Haram, also known as the Great Mosque of Mecca. It has been rebuilt and enlarged multiple times over its 1,400-year history; the most recent $10 billion expansion aims to double its area to 756,000 m2, securing its place as the world's largest mosque, able to accommodate 2.5 million worshipers. It is under the custody of Saudi Arabia's King and belongs among the oldest mosques in the world. The mosque is surrounded by nine (soon to be eleven) 89-meter minarets guarding over the immense outdoor courtyard and the focal-point — the Kaaba. The cube-shaped black stone structure with massive golden doors, covered in black and white silk cloth (kiswah), accentuated by golden calligraphy and embroidery, completes the divine ensemble. Each year, a new 658 m2 kiswah replaces the old one, which is cut into small pieces and distributed. The Kaaba interior, rising 2 metres above the ground area where pilgrims perform the tawaf ritual during Hajj and Umrah, is furnished with numerous gold and silver lamps illuminating the marble walls and the three pillars supporting its roof. Around the inner walls of the Kaaba, several engraved plaques are installed, recording the repairs performed through history. Kaaba, also known as the House of God, is said to have been built by Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ismail as the world's first mosque.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque — United Arab Emirates
The UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, hosts the splendid Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the final resting place of the country's first President, deceased in 2004. With more than 22,000 m2, it is the second biggest mosque in the GCC, large enough to accommodate 40,000 worshipers, and consists of over 100,000 tons of Greek and Macedonian marble. The project, designed by Syrian architect, Yousef Abdelki, cost around 2.5 billion AED and demanded the work of dozens of companies. The architectural artwork masterfully fuses several Islamic schools and took ten years to build, opening its doors in 2007. Long-lasting materials such as crystals, marble, stone, gold, and ceramics have been delivered from more than 15 countries. Semi-precious stones embellish the mosque's 1,000 columns. Four 107 meter-high minarets, situated on the four corners of the courtyard, pierce the sky above the mosque along with the impressive 82 white marble domes. The majestic, floral-design courtyard contains the largest marble mosaic in the world. The interior is no less impressive than the exterior. The floor of the main prayer hall is covered with the world's largest hand-knotted carpet (5,627 m2), designed by an eminent Iranian artist, Ali Khaliqi, which weighs 35 tonnes and took 1,200 artisans 12 months to knot. The walls are decorated with white and gold floral ornaments. The ceiling hangs a massive, 12-tonne crystal chandelier, one of seven dazzling chandeliers imported from the Faustig company in Germany. Much thought and work were put towards the lighting of the mosque's exterior structure, using white and shades of blue and cutting-edge technology to imitate the lunar cycle light.
Al Fateh Grand Mosque — Bahrain
In the Juffair district of the capital, Manama, lays the monumental Al Fateh Grand Mosque, the main and largest mosque in Bahrain. With an area of 6,500 m2, it can welcome around 7,000 worshippers at once. The late ruler, Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa, dedicated the mosque to Bahrain's founder, Ahmed Al-Fateh, and commissioned the Lebanese company, Dar Al Handasah, to design it in the mid-1980s. The construction took about four years and required special materials and deep piles due to the proximity to the sea. Soaring at 70 meters over the mosque and its four domes of varying sizes are two minarets. The world's largest fiberglass dome dominates the mosque 40 meters above the main prayer hall. It was built by the Bahrain-based BFG in under a month, using lightweight materials, notably aluminum. The interior of the main prayer hall is dominated by a massive 3.5-tonne chandelier from Austria with 952 French hand-blown glass lamps, Italian marble floors and walls, carpets from Scotland, and Indian teak doors. Geometric shapes with repetitive patterns representing infinity and the traditional Kufic calligraphy are central decorating features of the mosque. The architectural wonder is also housing Bahrain's National Library with around 7,000 books, and it is one of the most visited tourist sites in Bahrain.
The Grand Mosque — Kuwait
The national mosque of Kuwait, the Grand Mosque, is located in Kuwait City, near the seaside between Sief Palace and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The rectangular-shaped, sand-colored mosque with one main dome and a minaret spans across 20,000 m2, making it the largest in the country. It required seven years of work before it opened in 1986. The main prayer hall can accommodate 10,000 men and 950 women in a separate hall. The magnificent interior with marble walls is illuminated by 144 mosaic windows installed around the main prayer hall. The natural light accentuates the ornamental calligraphy and the saturated blues and golds in the carpet and high ceilings. The 26-meter wide dome, inspired by Persian structural design, soars some 43 meters above the main prayer hall. Calligraphy and geometric patterns play an essential role — the dome is decorated with 99 Names of Allah from the Quran (al-Asma al-Husna) by the well-known calligrapher, Hamid Haddad. There is also a strong Andalusian influence visible on several elements, including the tiles and minaret. There is a 5-level parking below the courtyard, used as a praying hall during crowded times, like Ramadan. Also, since Islam strongly emphasises the importance of education, the Grand Mosque has an extensive library with Islamic books and references.
Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab Mosque — Qatar
Overlooking the West Bay skyline in the Lejbailat district of the capital, Doha, is Qatar's national mosque, the Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab Mosque, named after the 18th century Sunni Muslim preacher and founder of Wahhabism. The mosque was initially built by Qatar's founder, Jassim bin Mohammed Al-Thani, in 1878, and then, in 2006, it underwent a 5-year renovation, spearheaded by the Qatari firm, Arab Engineering Bureau. As a result, the sandstone edifice combines modern features and traditional Islamic architecture, reflecting the country's desert environment features. The mosque has become a centre for education and guidance, offering enlightening programs. The mosque's three floors cover 27,644 m2 and can accommodate around 12,000 people inside its air-conditioned halls. Built on a hill, the mosque is visible from afar and attracts attention for its robust appearance, strikingly resembling a fortress. The structure is formed by a succession of arcades and 93 domes — instead of one dominant dome, 28 identical domes cover the central building, and 65 smaller ones surround the courtyard. The impressive yet simple interior with a vast red carpet, light-coloured walls, ceilings illuminated by 28 chandeliers, and minimal decorations amplify the pure religious atmosphere. The spectacular architectural simplicity is additionally revealed through the mezzanine floors, warm colours, and the wood decorations around the mosque. The exterior and the interior design of the mosque complement each other revealing a distinct architectural identity.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque — Oman
Dominating the skyline of Muscat is Oman's main mosque, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. It was inaugurated in 2001 following almost seven years of construction works by an Omani construction company, Alawi LCC, which required around 300,000 tonnes of Indian sandstone. The Grand Mosque extends over a 40,000 m2 area and has a capacity to accommodate 20,000 worshipers, making it the largest one in the country. From the main prayer hall of the astonishing mosque erects a 50 metre dome with five 45-91.5 metre minarets installed in the corners, representing the five pillars of Islam. At the time of the construction, the interior held numerous world records with its unique features until it was overtaken by the UAE Sheik Zayed mosque. The ceiling of the main prayer hall is dominated by what once was the world's largest chandelier, a true 8.5-tonne-masterpiece made of 600,000 Swarovski crystals and 24-carat gold, which took four years to complete. The visitors could also walk on the world's largest carpet (4,343 m2, weighing 21 tonnes) hand-woven by the Iran Carpet Company. The whole interior is embellished with unique colorful mosaics, with white and turquoise setting the tone.
3 March 2021
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