Photos of over a hundred beautiful mosques decorate the four-hundred-page coffee table book titled Eternal Art in Mosque Architecture. The encyclopedic work, written and photographed by the Iraqi artist Hussein Mahmoud Al-Azami, was recently published by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre (a part of the Department of Culture and Tourism, Abu Dhabi).
A unique book, and possibly the first of its kind, it provided detailed information about the many mosques that the writer saw during his travels. Al-Azami also describes their history and architecture in his own words.
The author, a graduate of the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad, has written several plays, apart from numerous articles in Emirati newspapers and magazines. He was also the winner of the Al Owais Prize for Creativity for his work 'The Most Beautiful Mosques in the World,' in 2016.
Talking about his ten-year journey to publish this book, Azam answered some questions for Gulf News and shared a few pictures he used in his book.
1. When was the idea to publish the book “The Immortal Art in Mosque Architecture” conceived?
The project of this book has always been present in my heart and mind. It came from images, situations and events that I have lived over ten years, and trips I took around the world come to mind.
Despite the misery, fatigue, exhausting travel, and having to deal with various types of human moods and languages, I was keen not to preoccupy the reader with such details, because the aim of this book is to get acquainted with the architecture of those mosques. The outcome, in the end, was a fruitful harvest, through which I hope to provide the Arabic library with a new reference on this subject.
2. How did you come up with the idea of writing this book? Was it out of your love for Islamic architecture, the journey, or your love of documenting these distinctive mosques?
The idea of writing the book came to me after I accumulated a lot of knowledge and information, during the journeys I took to various countries when I was working in the field of producing and directing television programs, related to the culture and architecture of Islamic civilisation.
Over ten years, I developed a deep understanding of the origins of Islamic architecture in the mosques I visited.
I decided to document what I saw and collect the outcome of my observations in an encyclopedic book that chronicles the important historical stages in Islamic architecture and its aesthetic and artistic values. These values have been resilient for centuries without being affected by the conditions of the invasion or the factor of time. I expressed my passion for this art in the book.
3. Did you study each mosque separately, and how were the mosques chosen - was there a method?
The mosques I wrote about were chosen after reviewing and getting to know them either through internet research, other media or even through friends and acquaintances who referred me to these mosques.
The area and the cost of construction of a mosque were a factor because the diversity in schools of architecture for building mosques was essential to not fall into repetition and boredom. And naturally, some mosques were selected because I studied them in all respects, including obtaining official approvals for photography or talking to people who told me about the mosques' architecture, history, and more.
I would do all this before travelling to avoid situations where my efforts to reach the mosque would go in vain.
4. More than a hundred mosques are included in your book. What continents did these mosques cover, and are there mosques that you could not reach or did not visit?
This encyclopedia dealt with the significant mosques built before 2020 in the three continents - Asia, Europe, and part of Africa. It is certainly not possible to reach all mosques on all these three continents due to, as I mentioned earlier, my technical criteria used to shortlist the mosques - which are the uniqueness of the architecture, its shape, location, and significance.
In this part, we dealt with some of the most important mosques in the North African region, such as those located in Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, in addition to the mosques of South Africa. The reader will find in this part the mosques of the continents of Asia and Europe and part of the African continent. We will continue to work to reach the mosques of other continents. The arrangement of the chapters of this book is similar to a geographical survey synchronised with the movement of the sun, where we started with the mosques of the farthest continent of Asia, and ended with the farthest continent of Europe, passing South, West, and East Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Caucasus regions, the Balkans, the Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East, and North Africa, then we continued on our way towards Europe until we reached the Scandinavian region, to end the journey of the first part of this book in the far north of Britain.
7. What about Iraqi mosques?
The book included some of the most important mosques in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, such as Abu Hanifa Mosque, Umm Al-Qura Mosque, and Umm Al-Tabul Mosque. We will have a lengthy mention in the next parts of the book, of other Iraqi mosques in various cities.
8. Are writing and photography complementary to each other or was it a difficult task to do both?
It is difficult on the one hand, but fruitful on the other, where the information comes to complement the image and vice versa. And when it is the same person who puts the information and captures the image, it leads to a kind of integration that reaches its widest extent.
9. Your book combines travel literature, visual pleasure, and documentary information. Did you choose this method in writing your valuable book?
I consider the book a journey that I did not stop long for when categorising it. I left it to the readers and critics to choose the classification they choose. What was important to me was to document these trips in a way that serves the recipient, whether he is a reader for literary and artistic pleasure, an architect, an engineer, or even a historian. The book is a historical document and scientific material, for the benefit of a researcher, an engineer, a student of architecture, and artists exploring traditional decoration and calligraphy.
10. Can your book be considered the first of its kind to document these mosques and introduce them to the Arab reader?
It is not the first book to supplement the Arab library in this field, but to my knowledge, it is the most comprehensive and the first book that brought together such a large number of mosques. Especially considering their different urban and historical schools and the diversity of geographical areas in which these mosques are spread.
11. What are the most important challenges that you faced while writing the book?
When you travel for ten continuous years to more than 85 countries and more than 140 cities around the world and use all means of transportation from planes, cars, ships, and even bicycles, and deal with dozens of nationalities and in multiple languages, you will undoubtedly encounter many paradoxes and embarrassing, difficult and funny situations. But I was keen not to preoccupy the reader's mind with these matters, because most of my focus was on the engineering technical approach to building and building mosques.
12. Do you intend to translate your book into English so that readers from all over the world can see it?
Yes, there is a plan to translate the book into many international languages by the Arabic Language Center in Abu Dhabi, which is the organisation that published this book. Without their great efforts and keenness to show this book, it would not have come to light, as its management was keen to choose the best types of paper and the best artistic designs. And for its printing, it chose the most important printing presses in the country. Here, I would like to express my sincere thanks to Dr Ali bin Tamim, President of the Center, and Mr Saeed Hamdan Al Tunaiji, Executive Director, for their tremendous efforts in bringing this book to light.
The author of this article is a writer and journalist based in Dubai. With inputs from Evangeline Elsa, Social Media Editor.