These stunning places of worship in the Middle East may have escaped your radar, but are definitely worth adding to your list of places to visit, thanks to their timeless architecture and cultural significance
From the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, much has been said about these phenomenal places of worship that are celebrated not just for their religious significance but also for their stunning architecture. And while these famous landmarks draw people from all around the world, year after year, there are a number of lesser-visited religious places of worship scattered across the Middle East that demand equal attention. Some are well preserved examples of centuries-old architecture, while others are relatively new, yet striking additions to the city's list of cultural attractions.
One of the few mosques in the UAE that welcomes visitors of other faiths, the Sharjah Mosque is a relatively new addition to the emirate. Located at the intersection of the Maliha Road and Emirates Road in Sharjah's Tay area, it was commissioned in 2014 by the ruler of the emirate and can accommodate up to 25,000 worshipers at a time, both inside the halls and in the landscaped areas outside.
The mosque is designed in Ottoman style and is inspired by traditional Islamic architecture found elsewhere in the region. The domed ceiling of the main prayer hall is inscribed with intricate Arabic calligraphy and gold detailing, making for a truly spectacular setting.
For visitors, the mosque features a museum, gift shop, open yards, fountains and waterfalls as well as a large library rich in Islamic and cultural references.
Qatar State Grand Mosque
Also known as the Imam Abdul Wahhab Mosque, this beautiful structure is the largest mosque in Qatar and a proud symbol of the nation. Its graceful arches, grand domes and clean, simple lines are characteristic of Islamic architecture, while the opulent, earth-coloured marble adds a regal appeal.
After sunset, its domes are illuminated in white, making it a striking addition to the skyline. Its grand prayer hall is covered in carpet and lit with chandeliers, and can accommodate up to 30,000 visitors at a time.
Non-Muslim visitors are allowed outside of prayer times, where they can benefit from a range of social, educational and cultural programmes held throughout the year.
Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan
One of Cairo's most significant historical monuments, the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan is regarded as one of the finest early pieces of Mamluk architecture in Egypt. It was built in the 14th century in the madrassa style, rather than as a congregational mosque as it was dedicated to teaching Sunni Islam.
Stretching across 150 metres, with its tallest minaret towering 68 metres above Cairo's old city, it was an impressive architectural feat for its time, and it still remains one of the largest mosques in the world. Upon entering, visitors walk through an enormous, intricately-carved gateway into a small, dark corridor, which then leads to a large, peaceful courtyard centred on a domed fountain. On each side of the square are the four soaring vaulted halls dedicated to each of the four different Sunni Islam schools of thought.
Tickets to the Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan also include access to the next-door Al Rifa'i Mosque or the Royal Mosque of Cairo. It makes for an interesting experience to see each one side-by-side, comparing their similarities despite their age differences, with the latter built in the 20th century.
Great Mosque of Damascus
Also known as Umayyad Mosque, this cultural landmark in Syria's capital city is one of the earliest surviving stone mosques. It was built in the eighth century, but its origins go way back to about 3000 BCE, as the site has been home to religious buildings for centuries.
The earliest known relics come from an Aramaean temple dating back to the Bronze Age, while during the Roman era in the first century AD, a Hellenic temple to Jupiter was built here. Later, a church of St. John the Baptist was erected on its foundation, before it finally became the Umayyad Mosque it is known as today. Although it was destroyed twice, it was rebuilt on both occasions and remains an impressive architectural monument.
The mosque occupies a huge quadrangle and contains a large open courtyard surrounded by arches and slender columns. The marble grilles that cover the windows in the south wall are the earliest example of geometric interlace in Islamic architecture. And while the walls of the mosque were once covered with more than an acre of mosaics depicting a fanciful landscape thought to be paradise, only a few fragments of this creation survive today.
Jeddah's Al-Rahmah Mosque or Floating Mosque was one of the first religious places to be built on the waterfront in Saudi Arabia's coastal city. The all-white structure, with its turquoise dome, is easy to spot from anywhere in the city, and it appears to be floating on the Red Sea.
The mosque was built in 1985 and is spread across 2,400 square metres. Its magnificent architecture includes 52 white domes supported by large pillars and 56 carved windows adorned with Islamic art and motifs that glisten in the sunlight. With the sights and sounds of waves lapping the shore, the mosque promises a peaceful yet powerful setting.
Al Salam Mosque
With its unique coral façade and gold finishing, Al Salam Mosque in Dubai's Al Barsha neighbourhood instantly catches the eye. It stands out amid a row of beige-coloured houses in the background. As you get closer, the Emirati architecture looks even more spectacular, revealing the influences of Andalusian and Ottoman design practices.
Imam Al-Tayeb Mosque
A new symbol of tolerance and coexistence, Abrahamic Family House – comprising a mosque, church and synagogue in the same facility – opened on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi earlier this year. The Imam Al-Tayeb Mosque features a modern design, inspired by the domes of traditional mosques, while on the inside, it reveals lofty, vertical vaults.
The mosque is open to visitors of other faiths, who are invited to observe the customs of Islamic prayer from viewing thresholds. Tours covering all three places of worship are also available, with guides offering insight in English and Arabic.
Al-Omari Grand Mosque
Located in central Beirut, Al-Omari Grand Mosque is one of Lebanon's most significant religious sites with a storied past. It dates back to 635 AD, built during the reign of Umar Bin El Khattab, Islam's second caliph. In the 12th century, it was converted into a church, however, a few decades later, in the 13th century, the Mamluks restored it into a mosque.
The Lebanese Civil War towards the end of the 20th century left the structure badly damaged. But as a historic treasure of Beirut, it was renovated in 2004, and still retains its Mamluk-style entrance and minaret, while an ancient cistern, with Roman columns and stone vaults, remains preserved beneath the structure.
DIFC Grand Mosque
Staying true to DIFC's aesthetic of contemporary, cutting-edge architecture, the neighbourhood's Grand Mosque feels right at home. The design reinterprets the essence of a traditional mosque, but with a modern style. Simple, clean lines make up the façade, while the perforations on its outermost layer allow light to bathe the interior space, creating a dappled effect.