At first, the primary reason for my travels across Central Asia was to string together a bunch of potential trips into one big continental traverse. Once I actually had it planned out, it wasn’t long before another idea came to me.
Mosques are some of my favorite cultural sites. They’re all over the world. There’s nearly 2 billion Muslims worldwide, and a lot of them are in what we like to call the “Muslim World,” but we’d be wrong to assume that just means the Middle East.
Really, the Muslim World extends from Senegal all the way to Indonesia. There are Muslim-majority countries on three continents, which creates an interesting cultural duality. Any given Muslim country is at once its own distinct culture, yet also under the blanket of Islam. In that way, you can reasonably expect certain cultural elements to be present in the majority of the Muslim world by virtue of it all being Muslim cultures to some degree.
The most obvious of these things you can reasonably expect everywhere is probably the most recognizable part — the mosque!
That’s what I was so interested in as I made my way across the Asian Muslim World. Mosques are a trait of Islam and there are certain features of a mosque that are just there. However, anyone who’s looked at more than two photos of mosques can see that there’s a lot of room for interpretation.
The first mosque I saw was in Jiayuguan, a city in north-central China. The last mosque I saw was in Istanbul. That’s a distance of 5,705 kilometers, or 3,544 miles. I crossed seven countries in that distance, and there’s a lot more in that distance that I didn’t even touch. In each of these places, I sought out as many mosques as I could so I could compile a gallery of photos showing each culture’s interpretation of what a mosque should be.
So in this post, we’ll be covering: Mosques and their components, Etiquette, Islam in Central Asia, and finally — Mosques of the Silk Road!
Mosques have been a feature of Islam for about as long as Islam has existed. There’s not really a point in the history of Islam where mosques didn’t exist in some form or another. Some say they are modeled after the Prophet Muhammad’s home (if you don’t know, Muhammad was the founder of Islam).
There’s actually two mosques in competition for the status of being the original. “Original” is a tricky word when describing mosques, though, because the distinction must be made between the oldest congregation or the oldest physical mosque.
For example, the Mosque of the Companions, in Massawa, Eritrea, is not only the oldest mosque in Africa but also believed to be the oldest surviving mosque in the world. It’s said to have been built by the companions of Muhammad. Imagine a church built by Jesus’s disciples. It’s incredibly old, and incredibly sacred.
However, the Mosque of the Companions was continuously added to. As certain features became commonplace in Islam (such as the minaret), the mosque was expanded.
Parts of the Mosque
This is probably the most recognizable and distinctive feature of a mosque. The first was built (allegedly) to bring mosques on par with Christian churches and their bell towers, and the function was quite the same — to call the faithful to prayer.
The adhan, or call to prayer, is sung out from the minaret by a mu’adhin (sometimes called a mu’azzin in English). Originally, they’d climb to the top and sing out the adhan to call the faithful to the mosque; by being high up, the call could reach much further. Now, though, it’s quite common for the mu’azzin to deliver the adhan via a microphone and speakers at the top of the minaret.
The mu’azzin is chosen for their ability to sing the adhan clearly, beautifully, and melodically, and loud enough for all the mosque’s congregation to hear so that they may come to be led in prayer by the Immam. As someone who had never heard the call to prayer, I had to stop and listen to the whole thing. The first I heard was in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.
The words to the call to prayer are standard, though the number of repetitions per line can vary.
“God is the greatest (Allahu akbar)
I testify that there is no God but Allah (Ashhadu anna la ila ill Allah)
I testify that Mohammed is God’s Prophet (Ashhadu anna Muhammadan rasul Allah)
Come to prayer (Hayya alas salah)
Come to security/salvation (Hayya alal falah)
God is the greatest (Allahu akbar)
There is no God but Allah (La ilah ill Allah)
Prayer is better than sleep (Assalatu khayrum minan naum)”
That last line is sometimes added during the call to the first prayer of the morning.
It’s very common for mosques, especially in the Middle East, to have a dome structure in the roof. Like many of the other common features, the dome has both a symbolic and practical purpose.
Symbolically, the dome represents the vault of heaven and as such is very ornately decorated.
Practically, the dome creates an acoustic environment that projected the voice of the Immam, who leads the congregation in prayer, throughout the open area of the mosque. Nowadays, it’s much more common to simply use a microphone.
The prayer hall, called the musalla, or literally “place for prayer,” is the open interior of the mosque. It’s bare and devoid of furniture, a callback to the first mosque in the courtyard of Muhammad’s home in Medina, present-day Saudi Arabia.
Ever since that first congregation in Muhammad’s courtyard, a mosque could literally be a bare plot of land that would be considered sacred as a place of congregation.
All prayers happen in the musalla. The congregation kneels and prostrates on the floor of the musalla together, facing the mihrab.
There’s generally bookshelves along the walls, called rihal, containing hard copies of the Qur’an.
The mihrab is a semi-circular indentation in whichever wall of the mosque that faces in the direction of the qiblah, or the direction towards Mecca. During prayer, Muslims orient themselves according to the qiblah, so that when they prostrate, they bow in the direction of Mecca.
The mihrab is heavily ornamented, ordained with mosaics and tiles to make it stand out among the rest of the wall. It’s generally shaped like a door, but the size and ornamentation vary greatly.
A lot of larger mosques have a separate interior courtyard, often centered around a public fountain. It’s common for Muslims to perform ablutions prior to prayer, washing the hands, feet, and face.
Many mosques have a designated space for this in some capacity, but I didn’t enter a lot of them. In Baku, I actually had my feet washed with a garden hose when the gardener invited me inside a mosque in the old Muslim neighborhood.
In Osh, I saw a mosque that essentially had a basement where the fountain was housed. It varies a lot, but the key is that there’s some sort of space where visitors and the faithful can wash themselves.
Mosque Etiquette (for visitors)
- Take off your shoes!
It’s the easiest to forget, especially as a Westerner like me who doesn’t typically go to places where shoes must be removed. Muslims care a lot about keeping mosques clean. I wore my shoes in the wrong part of a courtyard in Istanbul and I got an earful from a bystander. So just take them off.
- Don’t take photos of people during prayer.
Actually, it’s probably best not to take photos of anyone. At least inside the mosque. But taking photos during prayer is a no-no. That’s why people are absent from basically any photo I’m posting here, except for a few (like the courtyard photo in Ashgabat).
- Respect the quiet.
Every mosque I actually entered — admittedly far less than the ones I photographed — was quiet. Like, really quiet. At almost any given time, there’s probably someone praying. Part of the reason I have so few interior photos is because even the click of my camera shutter felt like a gunshot in such a quiet environment. That also means putting the phone on silent, just in case.
- Dress modestly.
That goes for both men and women. I always had long pants and long sleeves, even in the ungodly heat of a lot of these places. And for the ladies, sorry, but that includes covering your hair.
- Don’t eat in the mosque.
Strictly-speaking, it’s not forbidden, but it’s generally not done. Sometimes there might be communal gatherings where people share food, but as a visitor, don’t bring anything. It’s mainly to keep it clean, but you also don’t wanna be the guy crunching on M&M’s while someone’s trying to pray.
- Be respectful.
Honestly, that’s what it all boils down to. There’s one thing I learned in Kyrgyzstan, though, and that’s the common greeting you might hear in a mosque.
When I approached a mosque in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, a man said to me, “As-Salaam-Alaikum,” which means “Peace be unto you.” In response, you say, “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam,” meaning, “And unto you peace.”
I don’t really know if that’s expected of visitors or foreigners, but people said it to me, so I made sure to give the appropriate response.
Islam in Central Asia
The history of Islam in Central Asia is almost as old as the history of Islam itself. The vast majority of people in Central Asia are Muslim, and the vast majority of them adhere to the Sunni Hanafi school of thought. However, there’s a lot of further distinctions country-to-country, which we’ll get into.
Hanafi is one of the four schools of thought within the Sunni school of jurisprudence, which is the largest denomination of Islam in the world. It’s also the oldest school in Sunni Islam, and the largest in terms of adherents.
In the 8th century, much of Central Asia was conquered by the first Muslim Empire. The region became a stronghold of Islam over time, and was the seat of some of the greatest Muslim empires, such as the Timurid from Uzbekistan and the Persian Empire from what’s now Iran.
For a long time, certain areas of Central Asia, particularly major cities of modern-day Uzbekistan, were centers of Islamic learning and culture. In fact, the “Sayings of the Prophet,” Islam’s second-holiest book, was assembled by a scholar in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.
We talk a lot about the European Renaissance in the West, but while Europe was busy having its Dark Ages, the Muslim world was flourishing. Some of the earliest and most significant advances in science, medicine, and mathematics came out of some of the great Islamic centers. It took one of the greatest disruptions in history, the Mongol Conquests, to temporarily set back the greatness of Central Asia.
Jabir ibn Hayyan of the 8th century was from modern-day Iran. He’s often called the “Father of Chemistry.”
The oldest known chess pieces were recovered in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
The first true observatory was in Baghdad, Iraq.
The pinhole camera came from Basra, Iraq. Yeah, the camera.
Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi was a scholar from Khwarazm, a region of Persia shared by modern-day Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. He’s credited as the “Father of Algebra.” His name, al-Khwarizmi, is the origin of the world algorithm.
The list goes on and on. The point is that Central Asia, a region that’s not really on anyone’s minds nowadays (except for a few key countries like Iran and Afghanistan), is one of the most historically significant in the world. I think it’s important to remember how much we, on a global scale, owe to Central Asia. It’s especially important to remember that, as the global perception of the region has been so damaged. During the past 150 years, Central Asia was transformed. First by the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union, and then the world at large.
The Russian Years
There were competing ideas as to how to deal with Islam in Central Asia during Imperial Russian rule. Some influential Russian leaders advocated for religious tolerance, and others saw Islam as a threat, justified by the Muslim-led Dungan revolt in Western China. Still, Islam was generally tolerated under Imperial Russia.
During Soviet rule, the policy of tolerance evolved into outright condemnation. There was a state-run effort to shut down mosques and religious schools. The effort to shut down mosques was marked by violence and disorganization, where self-appointed local leaders arrested Immams and destroyed religious buildings. Islam was seen as an enemy to communism.
Despite Soviet oppression, Islam in Central Asia survived. It actually evolved as a result of near-eradication, becoming much more moderate and family-oriented. Islam retreated from the public sphere and melded with local traditions.
In the 80’s and 90’s, under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union became more tolerant of Islam once again, prompting an immediate and sweeping of revival of Islam in Central Asia. Mosques were rebuilt. Schools were opened again. Travel policies between Muslim nations were relaxed, and Central Asia became reconnected with the greater Muslim world in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia actually sent Islamic literature all over Central Asia in the 80’s.
In the 21st Century
It’s no secret that Central Asia isn’t the most stable of regions. However, the widespread instability that its nations have worked to overcome isn’t a result of the radical Islamic militancy that has affected the neighboring regions.
After the fall of the USSR, most of Central Asia simply wasn’t prepared for independence. Less-than-democratic governments took root in the ensuing chaos. As the ‘Stans tried to crawl out of ethnic tension and poverty, global superpowers interested in fighting terrorism and advancing their interests descended on the region. The various heads of state around the Central Asian republics offered their nations as staging areas for US troops bound for Afghanistan. The only other American I’ve met so far who has been to Kyrgyzstan was there prior to being deployed to Afghanistan.
The US, Russia, and China, with new footholds in Central Asia, began investigating ways to exploit the rich energy resources they were after. With so many Muslim nations in possession of some of the richest natural resources in the world, it’s no wonder the world’s superpowers were quick to jump into the corruption and chaos.
Totalitarian governments took the worldwide fear of Islam that spread after 9/11 and used it as justification for once again cracking down on its adherents. Things got messy for awhile as various governments consolidated power under the guise of fighting radicalism. There was a massacre in Andijan, Uzbekistan in 2005. A revolt in Kyrgyzstan overthrew then-president Askar Akaev before that.
A recent documentary called The Dawn Wall shared part of professional climber Tommy Caldwell’s story of being captured by militants in Kyrgyzstan while on a climbing expedition in the early 2000’s. As much as I love that documentary, it was, to my eye, one of the only references to Central Asia in recent American pop culture. And I’ll admit — it made me slightly nervous to be planning to go to Kyrgyzstan.
But lemme just say, despite the tumult of the last century — and Central Asia has endured a lot — radical Islam is not one of the problems. Poverty, sure. Them and a lot of the world. Ethnic tension and border disputes still happen in weird little enclaves that you’ll probably never get close to.
But the vast majority of Central Asia is a safe and fascinating place to travel. There’s a post-Soviet harshness to everything, but efforts to look behind it yield the warmest of interactions and some of my most memorable stories.
The region is, as a whole, making progress forward. And it’s full of examples of what Islam is supposed to look like — not the bastardized false version that circulates in American media, but one of kind people who have managed to make some of the harshest places on Earth their homes.
Mosques of the Silk Road
I’m finished subjecting you to all the background stuff now. A lot of it is what I learned on the fly as I crossed Central Asia, and a lot of it came from further reading now that I’m finally writing this post. I’ve specifically not included any mosque photos up to this point, because I wanted to share them all at once now!
Suzhou Mosque, Jiayuguan, Gansu, China
Dunhuang Mosque, Dunhuang, Gansu, China
East Turkestan (Xinjiang)
Emin Minaret + Mosque, Turpan, East Turkestan
Local Mosque, Turpan Old City, East Turkestan
Id Kah Mosque, Kashgar, East Turkestan
Sulaiman-Too Mosque, Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Kyzyl-Oy Mosque, Kyzyl-Oy, Kyrgyzstan
Jany-Aryk Mosque, Kyzart, Kyrgyzstan
Al-Amin Mosque, Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan
Ertuğrul Gazi Mosque, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Taza Pir Mosque, Baku, Azerbaijan
Sehidler Xiyabani Mosque, Baku, Azerbaijan
Jumah Mosque (Tbilisi Central Mosque), Tbilisi, Georgia
Suleymaniye Mosque, Eminönü, Istanbul, Turkey
Nuruosmaniye Mosque, Fatih, Istanbul, Turkey
Neighborhood Mosque, Beyoğlu, Istanbul, Turkey
So there you have it. Much of my exploration in cities across Central Asia was driven by my trying to find more mosques to add to this post. I omitted a lot of Turkey and all of Uzbekistan because, let’s be honest, Turkish and Uzbek mosques have been covered quite a lot by other people.
I wanted to show lesser-known mosques in lesser-known places. Geographically-speaking, the Muslim world is harsh. Look at a map — it’s either arid desert or high mountains, with very little in between. As I compiled my photos, I began to notice that mosques, intentionally or not, tend to mimic the landscape.
The domes of Kyrgyz mosques are studded like the mountains, and their color schemes reflect the mountains themselves. The massive mosques of Istanbul are as textured and grand as the Bosporus. The walls of East Turkestan’s are sand-blown and hardy. Azerbaijan’s are rocky and angular like the Caspian Coast.
I was excited for a long time to write this. I wanted to see these photos all side-by-side. And now, at the end of Central Asia, here they are — Mosques of the Silk Road! By revisiting my zigzagging route across Asia, we’re now closing this chapter and leaving the Silk Road behind us.