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23 March 2023

Four Majestic Mosques of the Caspian Region

As the holy month of Ramadan begins, Edward Rowe looks at four of the Caspian Region’s important, if lesser-known, Islamic gems.

Four Majestic Mosques of the Caspian Region

The Caspian region can be well described as a multicultural and multi-confessional melting pot, and Islam is a key component of that mix. Muslims have had a longstanding presence in the region dating back to the seventh century.

Today, a majority of the populations of most Caspian countries consider themselves Muslim, and there are significant minority populations in both Georgia and Russia.

The centuries-long Islamic presence has gifted the region with many beautiful mosques.

The earliest examples include the Juma (Friday)[1] mosques of Derbent in Dagestan, Russia, and Shamakhi in Azerbaijan. On paper, at least, both are the first known mosques in their respective countries, with foundation dates in the eighth century under the rule of the Arab Umayyad dynasty and caliphate. The one in Derbent is believed to have been founded in 734 CE by the Umayyad prince Maslama ibn Abd al-Malik, the son of Caliph Abd al-Malik (r.686-705 CE), who in turn had founded Jerusalem’s iconic Dome of the Rock. It is worth noting, however, that the physical structures of such buildings do not necessarily appear anything like the mosque’s historic original design. What you see today in the great mosque in Shamakhi, for example, is certainly not how the original would have looked in 744 CE. Today’s magnificent stone iteration dates from a 2013 rebuild, albeit incorporating central elements of an older core that had itself been entirely restyled after earthquakes in 1859 and 1902.

Many other historic Caspian mosques are world-renowned for their splendour and architectural grandeur. The nineteenth-century Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran, boasts almost kaleidoscopic stained-glass windows. In Uzbekistan, Samarkand’s Bibi Khanum Mosque dazzles with the turquoise majolica of its domes and iwans.

Many other, perhaps lesser-known, mosques in the Caspian region also reflect the area’s fascinating history, culture, people, and mind-blowingly mish-mashed heritage.

Here are four interesting examples:

1. Heydar Mosque, Azerbaijan

Opened in 2014, and named after Azerbaijan’s late former president Heydar Aliyev, Baku’s Heydar Mosque is believed to be the largest in the South Caucasus. Its two ornate domes and four towering minarets make it a sight to behold, especially when lit up at night. The structure’s symbolic significance is perhaps even more noteworthy.