Umran ibn Shahin Mosque

ARound: Najaf and its mosques

In part four of the ARound: Najaf series, architect and Round City contributor Turath Jamil explores the history and architect of Najaf’s mosques.

Among the different architectural treasures that can be found in the old downtown area of Iraq’s southern city of Najaf is the city’s mosques. While we previously exposed the architecture of the mausoleum of Imam Ali in the heart of the city, as well as the architecture of the traditional houses, in this article we will discuss the mosques of the city.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Najaf’s old downtown area had between 78 and 90 mosques in a surface area of one kilometre. These mosques, which were well integrated within the urban tissue of the city, were classified as three types: the mosques of the mausoleum, the mosques of the neighbourhood and the smaller mosques, also known as the mosques of the houses. However, during the past century, the city observed several urban development schemes that led to the transformation in Najaf’s urban tissue, causing either the demolition of some of the mosques or their separation from their context. Some were also simply torn down to be rebuilt in a modern architectural style.

Today, there exist around 22 mosques in the old downtown area, with only a few listed for protection and even fewer kept in their original architectural style. The main mosque of the city has become the mosque of the mausoleum.

The city’s main mosque, located at the mausoleum

One of the main reasons behind the decrease in the number of mosques is the lack of prayer services today. The high number of mosques in the 20th century was due to the practise of having a mosque for each imam or sheikh inside which he preached and/or gave religious classes. During prayer time, the mosques served their initial role as a sacred place to pray for the students and inhabitants of the neighbourhood. Moreover, other mosques were built as part of the houses, which happened when someone allocated a part of their house in the service of god. These practises changed when more people started to pray in the court of the mausoleum – an activity that had previously been discouraged.

Praying in the mausoleum had long been seen as a disturbance for the imam’s visitors and many believed that the court should be kept for its original purpose: a gathering space for the inhabitants of the city and a place of accommodation for a Khan, or visitor of the imam. However, during the 19th century, the imams and sheikhs started to provide unified prayer in the court of the mausoleum. This gradually led to several transformations, such as the neglect of the small mosques followed by their destruction, as well as the conversion of the mausoleum’s court into a sacred place, which grew more attached to the sanctuary than the city.  

The history of the mosques in Najaf’s old downtown starts with the city’s foundation, as evidenced by the placement of three main mosques being a stone’s throw from the sanctuary where Imam Ali is buried. Mosque al-Ras to the west is actually still attached to the sanctuary; it was founded during the 13th century by the Ilkhanides. Mosque Umran ibn Shahin in the east was attached to the sanctuary until the project of Shah Abbas I in 1623, when it was partially destroyed to create a part the mausoleum’s court. The third mosque, al-Khadra’, is located to the northeast, and is considered as old as the sanctuary itself. Even though these three are listed for protection by the authorities, they were rebuilt during the mausoleum’s rehabilitation. What can perhaps offer some relief is the fact that the project retained the spirit of the buildings’ original design and style, but sadly, due to little respect of conservation laws in Najaf and Iraq in general, a listed building does not prevent it from a severe rehabilitation or reconstruction effort.

Beyond the mausoleum are many more mosques, and the most important ones include mosque al-Tusi, which was the house if Imam al-Tusi, who arrived from Baghdad between 1056 and 1058. This mosque is across the road and to the north of the mausoleum. It was recently rebuilt in a modern style similar to mosque Saf al Safa, which sits on the edge of the city to the west and is under reconstruction. The latter is important because it is said that Imam Ali himself prayed in the very spot the mosque sits in. Another important mosque is al-Hindi, founded in 1800. It still bears its original design and style and is located within the urban tissue of the city near the market al-Huwaysh.

A peculiar architectural aspect of Najaf’s mosques is their lack of minarets, dominant domes and fountains – common markers of mosque design all over the world. In general, the mosques of the city are simple and defined by an entrance that usually leads to a small court. This small court plays the role of a buffer zone between the outside area and the prayer hall, which in many cases is a quadrilateral-shaped space containing, at the least, the mihrab. The size of the hall differs from one mosque to another, but they typically have very sober decoration and are designed to be quite simple. One main exception to that is the mosque al-Ras, which is decorated with mirrors in the same style of the sanctuary, while the mosque Umran ibn Shahin is decorated with bricks and marble. In terms of construction materials, the mosques are mainly composed of brick and gypsum, although sometimes marble is used for flooring or wall surfaces, either fully or partially. It should be noted that the use of marble is only in modern construction or the rehabilitations of mosques.

The only minarets in the city are those that belong to the mausoleum, and only two of them are built, flanking the entrance of the sanctuary of Imam Ali. The reason behind this, we have hypothesized, is to illustrate respect to Imam Ali – for centuries the inhabitants of the city refused to build any structure taller than the sanctuary, in order to follow a hierarchy of spaces (the mausoleum being the most important should therefore be the most visible), and consequently, a short minaret is useless, as it does not sufficiently emit the call to prayer. The second reason is to respect the privacy of the inhabitants. As the houses were then packed within a small area, it could be seen as invasive to a conservative population if a minaret overlooks their homes.

The mosques of the city have kept their identity – simple in construction and decoration – and their dwindling number has now stabilised. Nearly all the mosques of Najaf’s old downtown are being rehabilitated and reconstructed in order to welcome visitors in better conditions – a normal life cycle for buildings founded and built within the past millennial.

Read more: ARound Najaf

This article was written by Turath Jamil, a Paris-based architect originally from Baghdad, Iraq, and is originally part of his ongoing PhD thesis research. He works with Fevre et Gaucher / 5-cinq, and is a PhD candidate in art history at Sorbonne University. He is also a coordinator for Tamayouz Excellence Award and oversees the Iraqi Graduation Projects Award.