It was in the early hours of the morning following dawn prayers inside the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Al-Madinah Al-Monawara, in Saudi Arabia. Worshippers were sitting peacefully reading the Quran, and women were eagerly waiting for the gates to open to visit the prophet’s holy shrine located inside Al-Masjid Al-Nabawi, the Prophet’s Mosque.
The visit was part of an umra (lesser pilgrimage) that I performed several years ago, but I still remember the unforgettable moment when the white canopies opened, allowing the first rays of the sun to reflect on the white marble of the mosque courtyard outside. A mixed sense of peace and awe reigned, the red carpets of the mosque had a beautiful scent and the sight of white pigeons flying peacefully around the white marble copper-adorned pillars completed the picture.
Only minutes later the gates opened and the female worshippers were allowed to flock inside for a two-hour visit to the prophet’s tomb in a moment that every Muslim yearns for. It feels like heaven inside the Al-Rawda Al-Sharifa, or garden of paradise, so-called because of the feeling of peace inside. This is in the southeastern part of the mosque that houses the blessed shrine of the prophet and his two companions, the first two Muslim caliphs Abu Bakr Al-Seddik and Omar Ibn Al-Khattab.
The current hajj season immediately brings these memories back to mind, and for those suffering from nostalgia who could not make it to Mecca this year, a recently launched 3D virtual tour of the Prophet’s Mosque, along with other apps allowing virtual visits to the holy sites in Mecca and the pilgrimage sites, can provide solace.
The tour has been launched by the King Fahd Glorious Quran Printing Complex (KFGQPC) in Saudi Arabia, which uses 360-degree three-dimensional technology for the first time. The app allows visitors to walk virtually through the grand pillared corridors of the mosque. With just a click of the mouse, you find yourself in front of the Al-Salam Gate, swiftly moving to the Jebril Gate with just another click, then walking along the corridors and ultimately standing before the holy shrine of the prophet and his two closest companions in the holy Al-Rawda, all from the comfort of your own home and enjoying a rare moment of solitude away from the crowds.
Other recently launched apps also allow virtual tours to the Kaaba in Mecca and nearby locations that form a part of the ritual of the hajj, including Mount Arafat, the Jamaraat Bridge, and the Al-Muzdalifa, as well as a number of exhibitions held in the holy city.
“The King Fahd Glorious Quran Printing Complex is the first government entity in the Kingdom of the Saudi Arabia to use 360-degree virtual-reality technology to photograph the facility and provide virtual roaming service inside it to all visitors,” says the official website of the complex.
“More than 15 years ago, the complex and its most important facilities were photographed using virtual-reality technology by cadres in the IT Department, and the pictures mentioned were made available on the website. The KFGQPC was also keen to benefit from its experience in this area to achieve a community service for all Muslims around the world, by giving them the opportunity to roam virtually inside the Prophet’s Mosque (peace be upon him), and with the help of Allah it was able to complete the project to high quality and with perfection in implementation.”
According to Hamza Ghandorh, a professor of computer science at Taibah University in Saudi Arabia, “virtual-reality technology has started to play a critical role in the tourism industry by virtually exposing users to certain places.”
Ghandorh presented a paper entitled “A Virtual Exploration of Al-Masjid Al-Nabawi Using Leap Motion Controller” at the International Conference of Reliable Information and Technology recently held in Saudi Arabia, explaining how virtual tours have been on the rise and how filming holy sites has been part of this trend.
“Religious tourism is gaining in popularity, and more and more people want to visit the religious places,” Ghandorh told the conference.
In the light of the current economic pressures, many Muslims are left with no other choice than to take a virtual tour of the holy sites, the most important of which are the holy Kaaba in Mecca, the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
“The Al-Masjid Al-Nabawi holds historical priority for 1.5 billion visitors having different languages, cultures, and ethnicities,” Ghandorh wrote.
While the Saudi government has been keen on making the necessary expansions to accommodate the increasing number of visitors, computer scientists have been employing new technology to allow those who cannot afford to go to treat their eyes and souls and gain a sense of the place through 3-D virtual visits.
THE PROPHET’S MOSQUE
The Prophet’s Mosque in Medina is one of the largest mosques in the world, and it has a special status in the hearts of Muslims as the second-holiest site in Islam after the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
It is a must-visit site for all pilgrims because of its deep attachment to the prophet’s life. It was first built by the prophet himself in the first year after the Muslim hijra (migration) from Mecca to Medina as a result of the oppression inflicted on early Muslims in their homeland in Mecca, but was expanded several times over the centuries. It was located near the prophet’s home and served as the centre around which the first years of the Islamic Daawa, or call, revolved.
“The original mosque was an open-air building and served as a community centre, a court, and a religious school,” writes Indian architect Uday Dokras in a study entitled “The Medina Architecture of Al-Masjid Al-Nabawi — The Mosque of the Prophet.”
The fact that the mosque accommodates the holy shrine of the Prophet Mohamed lends it huge significance, and pilgrims who perform the hajj or umra also travel to Medina to visit the Prophet’s Mosque and perform the ritual of itikaaf (worship in seclusion).
“The mosque was adjacent to the prophet’s house, which was made of raw brick and opened onto an enclosed courtyard where people gathered to hear him,” according to Dokras. “It was a simple open-air building with no decoration whatsoever.”
“After the battle of Khaybar, the mosque was enlarged to accommodate three raw columns beside the west wall which became the place of praying,” Dokras writes. “The second caliph Umar demolished all the houses around the mosque, except those of his wives, to further expand it. Subsequent expansions took place during the rule of successive caliphs.”
When Islam spread and with it the number of Muslims, the mosque was expanded many times over the years. This took place “in the reigns of the caliphs and the Umayyad, Abbasid, and Ottoman states, and then finally during the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1994 when the largest expansion operation took place,” according to Dokras.
Professor of Islamic History and Civilisation at Al-Azhar University’s Faculty of Arabic Studies Mohamed Fahim Bayoumi told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the mosque’s architecture developed over the years, but the most important expansions first occurred during the reign of [Mameluke] Sultan Qaytbay and then much of the expansion work was done under the rule of Ottoman sultans Abdel-Hamid I and Abdel-Meguid.”
“The mosque’s decorative motifs and ornaments were first added during Mameluke and Ottoman rule,” Bayoumi added.
The Al-Rawda area received special attention and was adorned significantly during the Ottoman era in an effort to sanctify and highlight its significance. It houses six pillars that have special significance and has the minbar (pulpit) and two entrances.
“Ottoman Sultan Abdel-Hamid I, just like all the Islamic rulers who gave attention to the Prophet’s Mosque, gave special precedence to the restoration of the mosque. One of his most prominent activities was restoring its ceiling in 1191 AH / 1777 CE,” said Bayoumi, who has dedicated his life to studying the Prophet’s Mosque and is the author of many books on it.
“In the same vein,” Bayoumi added, “Abdel-Hamid I also assigned Mohamed Amin Faydallah to supervise other restoration work in the mosque, including tiling the Al-Salam entrance and its adjacent corridors with marble and adorning the qibla [prayer niche] and interiors with colourful mosaics among other things.”
The Prophet’s Mosque was also the first place in Saudi Arabia to be lit with electricity in 1909, according to Dokras.
The iconic Green Dome located above the holy shrine of the prophet and his companions is one of the most prominent features of the mosque. It is located in the southeastern corner, which is where the prophet is buried and where he had lived with his beloved wife Aisha.
“In 1279, a wooden cupola was built over the tomb, which was later rebuilt and renovated multiple times in the late 15th century and once in 1817,” Dokras’ study says. “The current dome was added in 1818 by the Ottoman Sultan Mahmoud II, and it was first painted green in 1837, hence becoming known as the ‘Green Dome’.”
The current mosque is rectangular in shape and has two attached structures. The older structure is in the south and was built by the Ottomans. It comprises 27 domes and an open-air courtyard.
The rest of the mosque was expanded by successive Saudi rulers beginning in 1951 and comprises several classical architectural styles of the Umayyad, Ottoman, and Mameluke eras.
One of the most prominent modern features are the automated rectangular white canopies that fan out like umbrellas adorning the open marbled courts of the mosque, providing shade from the hot sun of Medina.
“To protect worshippers from the heat of the sun during prayer, as well as from the risk of slipping and falling in the event of rain, convertible umbrellas were erected by king Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz,” Dokras writes in his study.
“The project of 4.7 billion riyals was completed in August 2010 and initially included the construction of 182 umbrellas aligned to the pillars of the mosque in the square. Later, 68 umbrellas were added in the eastern square, totalling 250.”
ROLE OF THE MOSQUE
The evolution of the Prophet’s Mosque bears on more than its architectural significance since it played a crucial role during the early days of Islam and the life of the prophet and his companions.
Hence, its architectural evolution and expansions should be viewed in the context of the evolution of the Muslim ummah or community.
According to Spahic Omar, author of The Mosque as a Community Centre: A Concept and Evolution, “at the outset, the Prophet’s Mosque was very simple because its initial roles were simple, and the mosque’s roles were simple because the Muslim community in Medina was in its infancy.”
“When completed, the form of the Prophet’s Mosque was extremely simple,” Omar writes in his article “The Form of the Prophet’s Mosque.”
“It consisted of an unpaved enclosure with walls made of mud bricks and an arcade on the qibla side (towards Mecca) made of palm-trunks used as columns to support a roof of palm-leaves and mud. There were initially three entrances which pierced the eastern, western and southern walls.”
“Notwithstanding its unpretentious and rudimentary structure, the Prophet’s Mosque from the very first day served as a real community centre, quickly evolving into a multifunctional complex,” Omar writes. “It was meant not only for performing prayers at formally appointed times, but also for many other religious, social, political and administrative functions.”
Omar explains how the Prophet’s Mosque was more like “a nerve-centre” for the then fast-emerging Muslim community. It was more than just a place for worship and prayers, but also “a learning centre, a seat of the prophet’s government, a welfare and charity centre, a detention and rehabilitation centre, a place for medical treatment and nursing, and a place for some leisure activities.”
“The impact of the mosque complex on the development of Medina was such that the core of the city eventually grew to be almost ring-shaped, centering around the complex,” he adds. “Thus, it would be appropriate to say that talking about the Prophet’s Mosque during the time of the prophet (pbuh) is to talk about the people who instituted and then made the most of it.”
In the same vein, according to Omar, “to talk about the stages which the mosque institution went through during the Medina period of the prophet’s mission is to talk about the stages which the Muslim community, and with it the Muslim mentality and spirituality, went through.”
With the gradual growth of Muslims’ engagement and requirements, the prophet’s companions asked for some improvements to the mosque’s original austere form.
“Thus, during the prophet’s time, his Mosque evolved from a simple roofless and plain enclosure to a complex institution that featured, among other aspects, a roofed section, a pavement outside one of its entrances, a minbar and a dakkah or dukkan (seat, bench) for communication purposes, lamps as a means for lighting up the mosque, several compartments that facilitated the various social functions of the mosque, and a person or persons whose job was to keep the mosque clean,” Omar writes.
Egypt played a significant role in servicing the Muslim Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.
It was not only responsible for providing the kiswa, an embroidered covering, for the holy Kaaba every year during the hajj season, but also contributed significantly to the expansion of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, together named Al-Haramain Al-Sharifain or the two holy places.
Bayoumi has made several studies on the role of Egypt in the service of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque, starting from sending the mahmal or procession which carried the kiswa of the Kaaba, to allocating money (waqf) to be spent on sheikhs reciting the Quran and making the call to prayers, and those cleaning the mosques, among other things.
Not many people, however, know that Egyptian architect Mohamed Kamal Ismail, born in 1908, was the first engineer to undertake the expansion of the Al-Haramain in contemporary times.
Kamel, who was known for his academic interests, was keen on keeping a low profile. He refused to take the millions of dollars offered by the Saudi government and the Bin Laden Construction Company in return for his expansion work and designs for the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, always wanting to avoid the limelight.
One of the most-repeated stories about Kamel, who dedicated his life to Islamic architecture until he passed away in 2008, concerned the marble he chose to buy for the Grand Mosque. Chosen by Saudi king Fahd to expand the mosque, he opted for a special kind of marble which could only be found in Greece and which he believed could perfectly absorb heat.
He used half of it to tile the sacred space surrounding the Kaaba, which was perfectly cooled to make it easier for pilgrims. Some 15 years later, Kamel was asked to expand the Prophet’s Mosque, but when he tried to get the same marble, he found it was unavailable. Fortunately, he was able to track down the buyer who had bought up the remaining marble, discovering that he was keeping it in storage and was willing to give it up for the expansion of the Prophet’s Mosque.
Kamel was also responsible for the idea of the automatic opening and closing of white umbrellas that shade the open courtyards of the Al-Masjid Al-Nabawi, a breathtaking scene that is engraved in the hearts of millions of visitors.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.