Updated: Apr 29, 2021
Since its introduction in the very first decade of the 8th century (during the reconstruction of the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, by the Umayyads), the mihrāb has become a fundamental feature for every mosque, although its presence is not mandatory as such. Indeed, the direction towards Mecca (qibla), that the mihrāb indicates, is a sacred requirement while performing the prayer, not the mihrāb in itself. Moreover, the mihrāb is not solely found in mosques, but in various other Islamic buildings such as medresas, hospitals or sanctuaries. Its automatic association to the mosque is thus rather tenuous.
Nevertheless, the mihrāb developed as the focal point of the architectural translation of the qibla, as well as – in most cases, and especially in mosque mihrābs – one of the most favored sites for ornament and decoration. Placed in the axis of the main entrance, it immediately attracts the attention of the believer or visitor as (s)he enters the mosque. If one shall apply anthropomorphic qualities to the mosque, thus considered as a body, the mihrāb could then be labelled as its very heart.
As for many other elements of a mosque – and even the mosque itself – there is no liturgically or achitecturally sanctioned shape or pattern to emulate for the mihrāb, and one can find all around the Islamic world a wide range of aesthetics. However, several formal and decorative features came to emerge as standards, and have been since repeated in the vast majority of mosques in the Islamic world, including the Balkan ones. Beside the predominant niche form for the mihrāb itself, one thus usually finds one calligraphic panel on each side of the mihrāb : one (placed at the right) bears the Name of Allah, another (placed on the left) the name of the Prophet, both in Arabic. Calligraphic quotes from the Qūr'an are usually inscribed in and/or above the mihrāb, either in panels or directly on the surface of the mihrāb. The choice of specific passages from the Qūr'an is never fortuitous, as the mihrāb, alongside the entrance, is a privileged location in order to convey spiritual messages, reminders or injunctions to the Muslim believer. One such association is to the Light verse (24:35, surah An-Nur), which evokes the Light, the Light of God. Recurrent decorative patterns include the lamp (which naturally echoes the Light verse, which indeed also mentions a lamp), geometric figures or floral patterns.
Combining similar functions, traditional features, and a wide range of aesthetics and decorations, mihrābs thus perfectly embody the Islamic concept of diversity in unity, and unity in diversity. Balkan mosques are no exception to the rule, as shown with this illustrated panel of fourteen mosques, located in three countries (mostly Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also Bulgaria and Montenegro), all formerly part of the Ottoman realm.
One can compare the epurated, simple, whitened mihrāb of the Bijela (White) mosque of Vratnik in Sarajevo, to the similarly multicolored muqarnas („honeycomb“ vaulting systems) of the mihrābs of the Careva (Imperial), Baščaršijska and Ferhadija mosques of Sarajevo, not to forget the lavishly decorated and calligraphed mihrāb of the mosque of Tărgovishte (Bulgaria). To this exquisite variety of decorations and motives responds a formidable diversity of materials (wood in Podgorica, stone in Knežina, plaster in Kušlat, etc.), shapes and sizes (tall in the Careva of Sarajevo, thin in Kušlat, pointed in Sofia, etc.), types of surfaces (recessed, in relief, embedded), geometric forms and elements (octagons, semi-circles, stars, squares, lozenges, among others).
The present photographic panel offers the reader a glimpse at the large palette of possible decorations and styles of the mihrābs of the region, as well as it enables him/her to identify their common features, while contemplating their exquisite beauty.
Photo credits : Robin Cognée (2018-2021).
Cover photo : Ferhadija mosque (Baščaršija, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina)
1- Careva (Imperial)mosque(Bistrik, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina)
2- Selimija mosque (Knežina, Bosnia and Herzegovina)
3- Mornarska (Sailors') mosque (Ulcinj, Montenegro)
4- Bijela (White) (Vratnik, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina)
5- Ali-pašina mosque (Džidžikovac, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina)
6- Starodoganjska mosque (Podgorica, Montenegro)
7- Aladža mosque (Foča, Bosnia and Herzegovina)
8- Buzadži hadži Hasanova (Logavina, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina)
9- Ferhadija mosque (Baščaršija, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina)
10- Eski Cuma mosque (Tărgovishte, Bulgaria)
11- Baščaršijska mosque (Baščaršija, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina)
12- Sultana Mehmeda Osvajača/Ebulfethova mosque (Kušlat, Bosnia and Herzegovina)
13- Banya Bashi mosque (Sofia, Bulgaria)
14- Kose hadži Sinanova/Lučevica mosque (Medrese, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina)