Decorated with elaborate shapes and geometric patterns rather than images, these mosques are truly unique.
Notre Dame in Paris. St. Paul’s in London. La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. These famous cathedrals are seared into our minds, and yet there are so many beautiful mosques around the world that simply don’t appear on the radars of so many travelers. Whether that’s down to Western ignorance or Islamophobia, it remains that some of the world’s most stunning religious buildings just don’t get the same level of recognition as their Christian counterparts. Here are a few to consider visiting.
Top Picks for You
WHERE: Istanbul, Turkey
A symbol of Istanbul and one of the world’s most unique buildings, the Hagia Sofia has been through a number of changes during its 1,500-year history. A great surviving example of Byzantine architecture, the mosque was a Christian church in the Empire for almost 1,000 years before becoming a mosque under the auspices of the Ottoman Empire between 1453 and 1935.
Following a long stint as a museum, it was controversially converted back into a mosque in 2020 by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But whether you agree with his decision or not, the beauty and architecture of the Hagia Sofia are beyond question.
WHERE: Cordoba, Spain
Another fascinating hybrid structure that has stood the test of time, the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba (or the Mezquita) is one of the finest remaining examples of Moorish architecture. Finally completed in 987, it was an important place of worship in the Islamic community of al-Andalus for three centuries and was one of the largest mosques in the world.
And while it’s been a Catholic church since 1236 following the Reconquista, the prayer hall, mihrab, tile work, calligraphy, and arches all speak to a uniquely Islamic past and present.
Although a mosque has been on Muscat Street in Singapore since 1826 (built for Sultan Hussein Shah, the first Sultan of Singapore), the current incarnation dates from 1932 after the original fell into disrepair. Located in the historic Kampong Gelam district, its large golden dome and handsome minarets are an elegant contrast to Singapore’s ever-growing collection of gleaming skyscrapers.
Approach the masjid from the palm-lined symmetry of Bussorah Street for the best views but take the time to visit too and appreciate the beautiful prayer hall inside.
WHERE: Jerusalem, Israel/Palestine
The third holiest site in Islam, Al-Aqsa sits on the historic Temple Mount hill in the Old City of Jerusalem and is the site where Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammed ascended to heaven. Dating from around the 7th century, it’s been rebuilt at least twice following the effects of a number of devastating earthquakes.
Al-Aqsa’s interior features over 100 stained-glass windows, a carved mihrab (prayer niche), and a ceiling decorated with Islamic and Byzantine designs.
King Fahd Islamic Cultural Center
WHERE: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Completed in 2000 and designed by Saudi architect Zuhair Faiz, the King Fahd Islamic Cultural Center in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires is the largest mosque in Latin America. Taking its name from the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, it began life as a result of a state visit to the country by Argentinian President Carlos Menem in 1995.
The enormous 34,000-square-meter site contains a prayer hall with capacities for 1,200 men and 400 women as well as an Islamic school and a library.
Wazir Khan Mosque
WHERE: Lahore, Pakistan
One of the most impressive sights in the Pakistani capital of Lahore, the Wazir Khan Mosque was completed in 1641 during the reign of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Ornate, colorful, and complex, the mosque contains some of the best examples of mosaic tile work (known as kashi-kari) from the Mughal period while its ceiling is embellished with rich frescoes.
On the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List since 1993, restoration work was begun in 2009 under the direction of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Government of Punjab.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
WHERE: Abu Dhabi
Under the azure skies of Abu Dhabi, the bright white lines and curves of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque make for a striking scene. Constructed between 1996 and 2007 and covering an area of more than 12 hectares, its design incorporates architectural features from a range of different Islamic cultures, including Turkish, Moroccan, Pakistani, and Egyptian.
With room inside to accommodate over 40,000 worshippers, it’s the outside that really captures the eye, especially the vast 17,000-square-meter courtyard that’s made entirely of mosaic marble.
WHERE: Rijeka, Croatia
The first mosque to be built in Croatia’s coastal city of Rijeka is a unique adaptation of the curved geometric shapes and patterns often found in Islamic art and architecture. Designed by Croatian sculptor Dušan Džamonja, the five separate parts of the mosque’s dome form one elegant structure to go with the twisting minaret sitting alongside it.
Muslims in Rijeka had been asking for adequate religious space for many years and with the Islamic Center, they now have one of Europe’s most distinct religious buildings.
WHERE: Damascus, Syria
Completed in 715 following the Muslim conquest of Damascus in 634, the Umayyad Mosque has stood as a symbol of the Syrian capital for over 1,000 years. With three domes, three minarets, and a large courtyard, it’s one of the largest mosques in the Islamic world. It also contains a shrine that’s believed to contain the head of John Baptist.
The recent civil war in Syria has taken its toll on the old mosque, however, with sections damaged by bombs and gunfire while one of the famous 11th-century minarets has collapsed entirely.
Great Mosque of Herat
WHERE: Herat, Afghanistan
On first approaching the Great Mosque of Herat, visitors will be struck by the ornate, tiled façade with a huge arch flanked on either side by two soaring minarets wrapped in stunning geometric patterns. At least 600 years old and going through various incarnations, this stunning mosque is easily the grandest in Afghanistan and one of the finest in all of Asia.
The extravagant tiling that now covers the mosque is the result of its own tile workshop, an ongoing restoration project since the 1940s.
WHERE: Marrakesh, Morocco
Dominated by its enormous 250-foot minaret, Marrakesh’s Koutoubia Mosque is a city icon to the point where local laws restrict any new building projects from exceeding the height of the minaret. Constructed around 1158 under the Almohad dynasty, the mosque is a fine example of Moorish architecture and remains the largest mosque in Marrakesh.
Thanks to an old Moroccan technique, the minaret’s bright brass spire shines year-round as every year its spheres are filled with mineral-rich salt from the High Atlas, to keep the spire from oxidizing.
Diyanet Center of America
WHERE: Lanham, Maryland
Built in classic 16th-century Ottoman style, the Diyanet Center of America is a striking piece of Islamic architecture in an otherwise unremarkable neighborhood of Lanham, Maryland. Completed in 2015, it largely serves the Muslim community of the Washington Metropolitan area and covers over 20,000 square feet.
Much like the King Fahd Islamic Cultural Center in Buenos Aires, it functions as a learning complex with a guest house, a fellowship hall, and a recreational building.
Nasir al-Mulk Mosque
WHERE: Shiraz, Iran
The stunning cocktail of colors that shine through the stained glass of Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in the Iranian city of Shiraz let you know this isn’t just any old religious building. Also known as “The Pink Mosque” due to the large number of pink tiles in its décor, Nasir al-Mulk was commissioned during the Qajar dynasty in 1876 and finally completed in 1888.
Catch the mosque’s extraordinary light by visiting early in the morning so that the sun reflects the stained-glass patterns across the floor.
WHERE: Wan Man, Malaysia
Around 4,000 miles from Mecca lies one of the most unique architectural wonders of the Islamic world. Crafted from steel and glass and located on the Malaysian island of Wan Man Island, the Crystal Mosque was opened in 2008 after two years of construction at a cost of $80 million dollars. Reflecting off the water, its multitude of glass domes and minarets provide an interesting contrast to the older mosques of the Middle East.
And if any more contrasts were needed, it’s also located in an Islamic Heritage Park that contains replicas of some of the world’s most recognizable mosques.
St. Petersburg Mosque
WHERE: St. Petersburg, Russia
Completed a century ago in 1921, the St. Petersburg Mosque was the largest mosque in Europe (outside of Turkey) when it opened. A gift to the city of St. Petersburg from the Emir of Bukhara, its sky-blue mosaic dome and twin minarets are visible from across the old Russian city.
Praying isn’t the only thing it’s been used for during Russia’s turbulent last century. Shut down by the Bolsheviks, it spent time as a medical equipment warehouse during the Second World War.