By Dr. Hussein Shehadeh - MUSCAT
When instructions were given by Sultan Qaboos of Oman in 1992 to build the Grand Mosque, it took six years to complete.
In the year of 1993, the Diwan of Royal Court held an international competition to find the best design for the Grand Mosque. The construction commenced in 1995, headed by the master architect Mohamed Saleh Makiya and Quad Design of London and Muscat. The long years that went into the construction of the Mosque complex are testimony to the effort and dedication that has gone into making it a true piece of marvel in marble, sand, stone and wood.
The mosque complex consists of a scared platform on which stand the two important monumental objects of the main prayer hall and the open-air prayer courtyard. This sacred platform is defined by the four corner Minarets each standing 148 feet high. The five minarets, including the main minaret, are symbolic of the five pillars of Islam.
The main prayer hall is an elevated square block on the western part of the complex. A small ladies prayer hall is situated to the east of the main hall. The main prayer hall building has a capacity of over 6,600 in prayer. Put together the complex can accommodate over 20,000 worshipers in its main hall, ladies hall and the open air court yards.
Arriving from the south side, which is the main entrance, you will be lead into the grounds of the complex through three entrances, each ending in its own separate open area, off which lead a series of arcades.
The Riwaqs are the arcades that form the transitional space between the site and the complex and they are marked by a set of vaulted archways. They are covered by a series of attractive domes inspired by the domes of the Bilad Bani bu Ali mosque in the Sharqiya (eastern region) region. Although the north and south Riwaqs give an impression of a complete enclosure, the complex is conceptually open at the east and west ends. The Riwaqs by their location define the boundary of the sacred platform. The southern Riwaq houses all the ancillary facilities namely the ablution courts, library, conference hall and administrative quarter.
The central minaret and dome gives the skyline of Muscat a peerless grandeur, which one can behold from afar. The dome, rising to a height of 50 meters, has an outer structure of gold embossed fretwork design, like a lattice screen over an inner shell lining in gold mosaics. An undulating parapet, with merlons typical of Omani fort architecture, runs around the solid dome structure.
The walls of the mosque are sheer poetry in stone. Geometric and floral border motifs give the stone facades a vibrancy that is felt all along the structure. The intricacy of the carving increases as you approach the interiors of the complex. The geometric patterns that fill the arch spandrels of the Riwaqs and the calligraphy bands that run below the vaults are beyond description. The outer walls of the main prayer hail harbours a set of blind arches and niches and the densely carved stone panels at the top end of the walls brings the mute stone wall to life.
If the exteriors of the mosque have already taken your breath away, the splendour of the interiors of the main prayer hall will make you speechless. The magnificence of the inner sanctum will put one in veritable trance for as long as you are inside it.
Intricately carved wooden doors, all topped with Quranic verses in sprawling decorative calligraphic style, leads one into the main prayer hall. It would take a while for one to get over the sudden awe inspired by what one sees.
What strikes one first is the vastness of the space that has been so aesthetically integrated into a spiritual arena. One soaks in the bliss while walking towards the Mihrab (niche facing Makkah) that projects through the outer Qiblah (direction of Makkah) wall. The Mihrab exists as a separately designed original artwork set within arches. The entire structure is laced in cut tile ceramic inlays. A twisted cable ceramic moulding, painted in gold highlights the structure, the beauty of which is indescribable.
Walk around the hall viewing the stained glass windows that complement the patterns and motifs of the interiors. Gaze at the 35 chandeliers made of Swaroski crystal and gold plated metal work. The grand central chandelier, which is eight meters wide and 14 meters high, weighs eight tonnes. The radiance it produces comes from 1,122 lamps that constitute it.
The inner dome and the carpet of the main prayer hall that are made with such meticulousness stand testimony to the integration of a splendid design, superlative material, and supreme craftsmanship. The dome is assembled in segments between the marble ribs and columns from large pendetive elements all inlaid in fine cut tiles. All the cut tile work was carried out by special craftsmen and assembled in panels and elements at the mosque workshops. A calligraphy border inlaid with cut tile work in blue and gold colours run along the perimeter of the space just below the ceiling.
Behold the amazing single spread of Persian carpet that covers the floor of the main prayer hall! The 70 x 60 meters of sheer magic in fine wool and cotton yarns is made of 1700 million knots and weighs 21 tonnes. Contemplate this. It took four years for the carpet to come into existence. Six hundred women weavers worked tirelessly under the supervision of 15 technical experts in the Iranian province of Khurasan to create this magic in twenty-eight colours. Fifteen months were spent in finalizing the designs and getting the weaving materials and workshop together, 27 months in actual weaving and five months to finish and trim the 58 pieces. And then these pieces were joined and laid inside the hall by special weavers. It is notable that most of the shades in the carpet were obtained from traditional vegetable dyes. The beauty it exudes under the Swaroski radiance is fascinating to say the least.
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque symbolizes the coming together of a spectacular array of traditional Islamic art and architectural styles that are set in a contemporary mode. The confluence of Ottoman, Mamluk, Islamic Indian Mughal, Iranian Safavid, traditional Omani and other styles of architecture, various parts of the structure confer on it a uniqueness that is hard to surpass by any modern piece of architecture. Its attributes expose the limitations of language as one searches for a perfect paean to scribble in the visitors register as one takes leave.
Suffice it to say that it stands tall as a man made complement to the natural beauty of a country called Oman.