I'd often wondered, as a fleeting peripheral thought, what the half-dome cutout was that sat in one of the walls of the mosque. In my ignorant youth (wink) I'd assumed it to be a mere decorative element, but as I explored the architecture of more and more of these religious buildings, I began to notice a trend. Each mosque seemed to have one...and only one. And, these curious cutouts were not limited to mosques found in Muslim countries, oh no. They can be found in mosques all over our stunning planet. So? What are they for?
As it turns out, though they are typically gloriously decorated and ornately beautiful, they serve a pretty banal purpose. They're a directional tool. Unless you have an innate sense of direction and are capable of pointing the way to Mecca without reading star charts or whipping out your compass, you'll need a Mihrab (the snazzy little cut-out) to help you out!
Originally, during the reign of Uthman ibn Affan, the Caliph had a sign put up inside the mosque at Medina denoting the direction in which Mecca lay. He did this so visitors would know which way to orient themselves during their prayers. The sign worked just fine for a while, but then, when the Mosque of the Prophet (Al-Masjid al-Nabawi) was renovated in the early 700's, the governor of Medina decided that a half-round, domed cutout was to be put in the "qibla wall" (the wall facing Mecca). After a short while the signs were replaced in nearly every mosque as the Mihrab became the more universally understood method of showing the way to Mecca: most likely because it transcended language and literacy barriers.
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Stunning right? I think it's worth noting that some historians believe that the decision to make the Mihrab look like doorways was made intentionally. If true, its purpose then becomes to represent a literal and figurative "doorway" to Mecca.
Nowadays, Mihrab vary in size and embellishment, but their purpose is the same. No matter who you are, what your language proficiency may be, or whether or not you're from the area, you'll be able to find your way to Mecca.
Though I am not Muslim, I hope someday I'll be able to visit and pray in a building like this, if only to gain a greater understanding of the people around me. Because...it wouldn't hurt for us all to have a little more understanding.