Today, we build a mosque. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
David Macaulay has delighted
us with books on the great engineering works of the
past. With titles like: Castle, Mill,
Cathedral, Ship, Underground, Pyramid, they've
led us through various great constructions. And now
I have his latest book, Mosque.
Macaulay shows us how yet another fictitious, but
representative, structure was built. This time
we're back in the Ottoman Empire of the mid 1500s,
in Istanbul. It's been a century since the Moslems
conquered Constantinople and renamed it.
Perhaps the most beautiful of the Ottoman mosques
is the one at Edirne, about 130 miles west of
Istanbul. It was done by the great Turkish
architect Mimar Sinan, during this period. Macaulay
bases his fictional mosque upon Sinan's work.
By this time, Gothic cathedrals had seen their day.
They, and the great Christian churches that
followed them, were all laid out in the shape of a
cross, pointing eastward. The focus of that design
is the chancel at the east branch of the cross,
with the congregation occupying the other three
mosque has its own unique shape, equally
well-defined. Ideally it's a large open cubical
prayer space with a high domed roof. The front side
faces Mecca, and on its inside wall is a niche
called a mihrab -- a symbolic gateway to
paradise. A mosque also has as least one minaret --
a tall tower for calling the faithful to prayer.
That mosque at Edirne has four lovely minarets,
twice as tall the mosque itself. A courtyard on the
side away from Mecca provides fountains for
worshipers to wash, before they enter.
All this creates its own set of design problems.
The Gothic cathedral used flying buttresses to hold
a high ceiling in place over a large open space. To
stabilize a mosque from the sides, smaller
semi-domes surround the large central dome.
Cathedrals usually had one or two spires to serve
the same visual function as minarets -- to signal
its presence from miles away. Instead of a cross on
the spire, the mosque's dome is topped with an
upward-reaching bronze crescent.
While cathedrals display human images, the
décor in a mosque is far more abstract.
Instead of pictures in stained glass, air and light
are admitted through lacy stonework filigree in the
lower windows. We find floral designs and highly
stylized Arab calligraphy with passages from the
Koran, all patterned into complex geometrical
forms. Much of the design is pure geometry alone.
Enter one of these great mosques and, as in a
cathedral, we feel ourselves in a place apart. We
are, for a moment, beyond the rough-and-tumble,
problem-drenched world outside.
We catch that in Macualay's book. It seems to be
about an unfamiliar place, yet it leaves us feeling
quite at home. It causes me to recall every time
I've entered one of the great mosques or cathedrals
-- interior beauty enveloping me in precisely the
same contradictory mix of awe, along with peace and
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
D. Macaulay, Mosque. Boston. MA, Houghton
Mifflin Co. 2003.
A listener adds an interesting note to this program:
Another important function of the minarets is cooling.
They act as chimneys in which hot air entering
the mosque is drawn up and escapes
out the top. As long as the resulting breeze at floor
level is below body temperature, it cools the worshipers
both by evaporating persperation and by
Sinan's great mosque at Edirne. (photo by John Lienhard, Nov. 1974)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.