• The Muslim worship space, of course, is called a mosque. It is essentially an empty room, which can be as small as the living room in a suburban tract house, or as large as a minor-league hockey arena. The floor is usually carpeted, and larger mosques feature large chandeliers that are suspended from the ceiling all the way down to about ten feet off the floor.
• Generally you’ll know it’s a mosque by the presence of one or more minarets – tall “steeples” that rise from the corners of the building. The number is significant, although I do not know the precise reason why some mosques warrant more minarets than others. Historically, the müezzin would climb up one of the minarets to issue the adhan – that is, the call to prayer, which is done five times a day. Nowadays, he gives the adhan over a PA system, connected to loudspeakers on the minarets. Turkish minarets are generally tall, round, and thin, while Egyptian ones tend to be squatter, and can be square or octagonal in shape.
• Mosques can also be signified by the presence of a dome over the main structure. In Turkey, most mosques follow the pattern established by Hagia Sophia, where a large, central dome over the main room has a circle of windows along the base to let in light. Also like Hagia Sophia, several half-domes can “cascade” down from the central one.
In Egypt, domes can be smaller, more vertical in shape and/or not centrally placed.
• Usually there is some means of making ritual ablutions on the way in – in the grander mosques there is an entire front courtyard with an ablution block devoted to this function.
• Some mosques, however, consist of nothing more than large courtyards, with the “room” for prayer simply a deep colonnade on the far side as you walk in. I believe they are known as Persian style mosques. The Al-Hakim Mosque in Cairo is one such.
• “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground,” God commands Moses in the Book of Exodus. Muslims retain this tradition; one must always remove one’s shoes before setting foot inside a mosque. (In fact, I would highly recommend wearing sandals or loafers if you are going to be visiting a number of mosques in a given day – constantly having to retie your shoes gets old rather quickly.)
• But that’s not all: modest dress is required in other ways, too. (Not to worry, they’ll lend you a headscarf and/or a wrap-around skirt if you’re dressed immodestly.)
• In large mosques that tourists want to see, there is generally a viewing area at the back of the central room. Only men who wish to pray are allowed to go further. (Women who wish to pray are granted their own area, usually at the back of the mosque, and behind a screen.)
• On the opposite wall once you enter are two features you can’t miss: the mihrab and the minbar. The mihrab is nothing more than a niche in the wall, indicating the qibla, that is, the direction towards Mecca and thus the direction one faces for prayer. The minbar, usually to the right of the mihrab, is a pulpit from which the imam gives a sermon following the Friday noon prayers. It consists of a staircase going straight up; it doesn’t look like your average church pulpit.
• Mosques famously do not feature sculpture or (much) representational art, in keeping with the monotheistic prohibition of images. This means that their decoration consists of intricate designs or texts from the Koran. (In Turkey, these are often rendered on tiles.) I’m certain that there are art historians who would be able to delineate the history and meaning of all of these…
• As far as I can tell mosques do not have the same connection with burial that Christian churches have traditionally had, but some mosques do have cemeteries outside of them, or outbuildings that serve as mausolea for important people.
• But just as it was meritorious, in Catholic Europe, to sponsor the building of a church, so also it was meritorious to sponsor a mosque – thus the multiplicity of mosques in Istanbul and in Cairo, which may not have been justified by the population numbers. But as to who owns the title to the mosques, or who is responsible for their upkeep, or who appoints the imam… these things, at present, I do not know.