Durban's mosque with a cross on top: defunct heritage building becomes a house of prayer again

21 February 2017 - 17:22 By Shubnum Khan
The Aliwal Congregational Church is a protected listed building, which means the design of the new mosque has to original aesthetics, including the cross on the spire.
The Aliwal Congregational Church is a protected listed building, which means the design of the new mosque has to original aesthetics, including the cross on the spire.
Image: Jackie Clausen

Moroccan artists were brought in to add an authentic touch to the conversion of Durban's listed Aliwal Congregational Church into a new mosque, writes Shubnum Khan

Growing up I was taught that places of prayer must be revered and I was taught that conversations with God are the best ones to have. Whilst studying fine art, one of my projects at university focused on how places of prayer were built to instil a sense of peace in their design.

With this interest in mind, I was intrigued to hear about a group of Moroccan craftsmen who have arrived in Durban to practise an ancient art form on the walls of the beautiful but neglected Aliwal Congregational Church which is currently being converted into a mosque.

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The church, which was built in 1903 close to the city hall, was sold in the 1990s and used for business thereafter. During World War 1 the hall was used by British armed forces and decades later the church was used as a furniture store and then a photographer’s studio.

The family of Moroccan artisans led by Mohamed Houifed Kanar are at work at the church, applying gypsum which is then hand-carved in detail in the ancient tradition of yeseria, a technique of carving plaster originally used by Spanish Moors.

The craftsmen begin their apprenticeship at an early age but the numbers of these highly skilled artisans are dwindling.

Kanar from Tangiers was in Durban 21 years ago to work on the Muslim prayer facility at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

When I visited the men at work they were near the end of their project, which had taken almost two months to complete. To watch the crafters at work is a pleasure; as they carve each wave and indent into the intricate design their every movement seems filled with love and respect.

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The building is now being meticulously restored by heritage architect Lindsay Napier in association with Architects Collaborative. Yusuf Patel, one of the architects working on the project said that the Moroccan artists were brought in to add an authentic touch to a heritage building.

The mosque aims to be an inclusive space and this is emphasised with the Arabic quote carved into gypsum taken from the Quran, “O mankind, indeed. We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.”

Renovations include the creation of a women’s prayer area and a visitor’s area for those of other religions to observe Muslim prayers. The hall is to be used for exhibitions, lectures and functions.

Walking into this holy space sanctified by not one but two major religions is breathtaking. As a protected listed site the building must retain the original church aesthetics, including the cross on the spire. The church exterior, combined with the interior detail of handcrafted Moroccan embellishments, has turned the space into a spiritual wonder that radiates history, peace and inter-religious cohesion.

Acclaimed Durban sculptor, Andries Botha has praised the restoration. “When you walk into the building you will immediately know that transcendent values are being embraced.”

As I move through the hall that is filled with dust and paint I am filled with a sense of peace and I am reminded of something my father said. “A place of prayer is a space created entirely for the contemplation of God’s creation.”

For me, this is the ultimate place of prayer.

• This article was originally published in The Times.

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