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Basuna Mosque: in-depth discussion with Waleed Ara...

Basuna Mosque: in-depth discussion with Waleed Arafa

Basuna Mosque, Sohag, Egypt. Islamic architecture waleed arafa/ dar arafa

An Egyptian mosque that opened in 2019 causing such a buzz in Egypt and abroad for its innovative design and cultural facet. Established in Basuna Village, Sohag, by Dar Arafa Architecture and initiated by Shiekh Osama Al Azhary: Egyptian President’s Religious affairs Advisor.

Basuna Mosque received many national and international awards and was featured in multiple articles as well. Here you will find an in-depth discussion on the route Arafa followed to produce this architectural benchmark. We go through the design’s spiritual dimension that he meticulously merged with the environmental solution and cultural context.

Background

Shiekh Osama Al Azhary is a respected community member in Basuna, his family -Al Abu Stet- donated this 450m2 land for the mosque. This land hosted two mosques before.

When the second one was almost collapsing due to torrent, Shiekh Al Azhary contacted Waleed Arafa in London in 2015. Arafa underwent the mosque’s conservation statement, to assess its historical value and propose a solution. The statement revealed its lack of historical value and structural instability and proposed demolishing it and starting from scratch.

Basuna Mosque Timeline & Funding

After the site and context assessment in 2015, the design process took 6 months. Construction was over 2 years, during which the design evolved continuously.

Funding this whole project until 2019 had some twists and turns. The Ministry of Endowments did not have a fund for re-building this mosque. Dar Arafa donated the architecture fees from the start. Shiekh Osama Al Azhary collected about 85% worth of donations to build the mosque. The remaining donations came from the Architect’s side.

Basuna Mosque under construction. Photo Courtesy: Waleed Arafa
Basuna Mosque under construction. Photo Courtesy: Waleed Arafa

Basuna Mosque Concept

As much an ordinary safe structure would suffice, Arafa was eager to push the envelope beyond a dome and a minaret. He went through the village’s architectural timeline. He found out that buildings in the last 120 years were very poor in architectural value and structure. Beyond 120 years, buildings were much more valuable, in local materials, structural stability, and aesthetics. Therefore, he decided to connect the mosque with this era and add his own twist to it through scientific innovation.

Photo Courtesy: Karim El-Hayawan sohag
120 year old building. Photo Courtesy: Karim El-Hayawan

He linked the mosque context and spiritual value throughout the entire process. From zoning to architectural elements and circulation, the Architect merged spiritual values with engineering and architectural innovation. One of the most common baseline for this design was the golden section. For example, the mosque prayer lines on the prayer carpet are a set of squares with a rectangular void in between, representing the square’s golden section.

Women Prayer Hall. Photo Courtesy: Essam Arafa
Women Prayer Hall separating wall. Photo Courtesy: Essam Arafa

Separating Wall

Another golden section-based element, and one of the most memorable ones, is the Mezzanine separator between men and women halls. The openings in the separating wall are rectangular from the women’s side, square from the Imam’s side (men side). The rectangle is the golden section of the opposite square. Visually, women can see the other side and are not clearly visible from the other side. Vocally, the Imam’s voice reaches the women’s space better, while voices from the women’s side are more muted.

Zoning & Circulation

Mosques are a set of prayer halls with service zones. In Basuna, the Architect designed flexible and accessible zones for the community with respect to their social structure. The mosque contains three levels, the main ground level, lower ground & the mezzanine levels.

Ground Level

The ground level contains the mosque’s main prayer hall for men, accessed by the main entrance. The main entrance is a broken angled one, as it is located on the main street, where multiple traffic coincides.

Basuna mosque broken entrance
Basuna mosque broken entrance. Photo Courtesy: Tariq-Al-Murri

Mezzanine Level

As for the Mezzanine level, it hosts the women’s prayer hall. The Architect located their entrance in a woven wall, leading to their staircase. Women have access to the entrance from al Abu Stet family cul-de-sac street. The cul-de-sac access point has a secondary entrance to the main hall, allowing men from this family only to go through.

Women Entrance. Photo Courtesy: Essam Arafa
Women Entrance. Photo Courtesy: Essam Arafa

Interestingly enough, older women can pray in the main hall, and access the mosque from any entrance. In upper Egypt, the community perceives older women as community leaders. Their flexible accessibility saves them the stair trip to the mezzanine level as well.

Lower Ground Level

The lower ground level on the other hand is a multi-functional level. Accessed from the men and women’s outdoor entrance spaces, they can go down to their dedicated ablution and bathrooms. Moreover, it consists of a flexible space that serves worshippers and the community.

This space is a collective set of 16 equal modules, facing the Quebla. Flexible sections divide the space proportionally, depending on activity and flow rates. Men and women can pray in this hall after filling up their main prayer halls. While community activities include clinics, classrooms and more.

Lower Ground Floor architecture drawing plan. Photo Courtesy: Dar Arafa
Lower Ground Floor. Photo Courtesy: Dar Arafa

Innovation in Basuna Mosque

The mosque represents a locally-driven innovation through multiple design elements along with the whole building. Many of them became a constant discussion over national and international portals.

The most influential and one of its kind is the Main Dome. By 2017, the work started with establishing the dome as one of the first sections of the building. Waleed Arafa based his Dome’s concept and implementation on his accumulative experience since 2010.

Innovative Dome islamic architecture mosque
Photo Courtesy: Essam Arafa

It imitates the flower bloom and represents the golden section as well. It consists of 35 concentric circles, each of 64 blocks. Its support depends on a set of intersecting beams, creating 108 squares, supporting the central dome.

dome from inside_ islamic architecture mosque
Photo Courtesy: Essam Arafa

Other innovative dimensions of the Basuna mosque include the historically inspired entrance Dome, the interior columns, the minaret and the Mehrab.

dome from inside_ islamic architecture mosque
Photo Courtesy: Essam Arafa

The anti-clockwise twisted columns imitate the Kaaba circulation. In addition, the Minaret design is based on the letter “Alif*” in proportion script. The Mehrab is a lit sculpture that hosts God’s names in each block, made out of Impermeable Alabaster.

Materials, Industry & Labor

Innovation does not only include the spiritually inspired built structures, but it also includes the journey in creating it. The Main Dome has quite a story behind its final image, multiple trials, meticulous scientific investigations, and labor cooperation.

The main mason working with Arafa is a dome builder, who gained his empirical experience throughout his career. The Architect started off with the mason practice in building domes and then injected his scientific and historical input into several projects. Since this dome is the first of its kind, Arafa provided the masons with 3D model & calculations to guide them through the process.

Dome construction islamic architecture mosque sohag Egypti
Dome construction. Photo Courtesy: Waleed Arafa

Block Design and Building

Waleed Arafa made a cutting list for every concentric circle since every block has to be of a certain size that might vary by a couple of millimeters. The block size is originally 20*10*60cm, so the masons cut all of them into 20*10*38cm. Then they minimize one dimension -20cm- as the circles decrease in diameter vertically. For example, the 20 cm block on the 1st circle, reaches 5 cm in the last one. The 38 cm depth was determined to allow the interior and exterior protrusion.

dome construction using sand block
Sand blocks. Photo Courtesy: Waleed Arafa

As for orientation, he created a steel compass calculating the blocks’ tilt among every circle, detecting their X,Y & Z axis.

“Bridging the gap between labor experience and what you want through a solution you provide” Waleed Arafa

Sand Blocks

In Basuna mosque, industry and material allocation are as important as the architectural design and the empirical experience. For instance, the sand blocks used for this mosque and its dome are produced by one company in Egypt “Delta Sand Bricks”.

Those blocks are made of sand, lime, water, sponging agent (i.e. powder aluminum), and a small percentage of cement. This combination creates lightweight blocks, affecting the building structurally and environmentally.

Given the mosque’s large doors and sections, the architect and carpenter designed them through full assembly technique.

Ventilation & Lighting

Due to the site surroundings, odors, sounds, and sand circulation through the air would affect the mosque interior. Hence, the architect did not add windows, but overhead openings instead. He did not only aim at finding a solution to deal with Basuna mosque context but pursued the spiritual conception as well.

“In the mosque, you need to separate yourself from the horizontal world and establish a vertical connection, so the solution literally comes from heaven” Waleed Arafa

The access points, the doors, needed to be embedded in the walls, so Arafa designed their outdoor orientation to separate them from the street traffic. While ventilation and lighting come from above. As the intersecting beams from 108 vertical openings, that are 8 meters high from street level, away from the circulating sand and odors.

Roof plan architecture drawing mosque design
Roof plan. Photo Courtesy: Dar Arafa

Openings Maintenance

Those openings are maintained manually using a wheeled scaffold twice a year, in summer and winter. Since maintaining the openings twice a year is enough, the architect did not introduce a mechanical system. It would cost 4-5 times the manual one, would require complex mechanical and electrical engineering, and periodical maintenance.

Window Facing the Cemetry

Arafa made one exception to the overhead openings and added one window towards the neighboring cemetery. Once you enter the main hall foyer, you face the only window in the mosque’s eastern facade, overlooking your loved ones. Context wise, the cemetery is a buffer zone from any distractions on the street.

“An earthly connection between the life as we know it to the next life” Waleed Arafa

windows natural light architecture mosque
Photo Courtesy: Essam Arafa

Passive Cooling

The vertical openings Arafa created do solve a context challenges, and addresses spirituality, but he considered passive cooling in their design too.

He wanted to minimize energy consumption in cooling and lighting the prayer hall artificially. So, he divided each one of the 108 overhead squares into two triangles following the sun path. Then, he built pendentive domes over the triangle facing south and west directions. It does not only block the sun’s higher thermal effect but the undesirable wind as well. Simultaneously, it directs the desirable wind inwards, into the prayer hall.

The pendentive dome is usually used as a transitional structural element, switching from the square to the circle, creating a dome. However, in Basuna’s mosque, the architect used it as a wind catcher and a skylight.

Photo Courtesy: Waleed Arafa
Photo Courtesy: Waleed Arafa

“Drawing lessons from history, instead of imitating it” Waleed Arafa

Rainwater Harvesting

The intersecting beams over the main prayer hall created enough space to insert a series of half-cut pipes. Each pipe is titled to meet the next one in a particular manner, where it finally pours into a service tank. People can then use the collected water for irrigation and cleaning. Since the rain rates in Basuna is low, the architect did not introduce filters or any advanced systems. He also considered local engineering capabilities in relation to operation and maintenance.

Project Challenges

Basuna mosque establishment faced some challenges along the way. Some of which is financial instability, and technical coordination. For example, creating the Mehrab depended on electrical, resource and labor management.

Another aspect is the cultural context. A portion of the community was against women prayer spaces inclusion into the mosque. Through Shiekh Osama Al Azhary, the community’s ladies, and the younger generation, this challenge was also dissolved.

Essam Arafa Community Surroundings Basuna Mosque
Basuna Mosque surroundings. Photo Courtesy: Essam Arafa

The site context called for a specially designed entrance, due to the surrounding traffic conditions and activities. As the area is quite limited, the Architect managed the design as practically as possible.

Arafa upgraded the entrance design to a better version due to the kind donation from Ms. Ayat Hassan Youssef. She donated one room from her house –given the high land value- that allowed better orientation.

Community Feedback

Initially, this project acceptance was different in the community among age groups and gender. Women of all age groups were looking forward to the mosque new approach and supported its process morally.

The community divided men into age groups. Older groups were impatient and wondering about the project’s timeline length and approach. On the other hand, the new development fascinated the younger group and they watched closely how it unravels, step by step.

Once Basuna mosque opened for the community, all divisions melted into a huge celebration. Afterward, the village turned up in the media and press regularly to cover the project and its effects. The Egyptian President honored Arafa, while embassies, and universities -national & international- arrange mosque visits. Basuna’s community realized that this mosque means more than a prayer space; it is an Egyptian innovation.

Aerial View Basuna Mosque.
Aerial View Basuna Mosque. Photo Courtesy: Essam Arafa

Awards & Honorable mentions

Basuna Mosque is the first Egyptian mosque to be nominated for Abdul Latif Fuzan’s 2020 Award. It is in the finalists currently, with the announcement in September 2020. Moreover, it landed in multiple other awards. One of which is winning 1st place at ARCHMARATHON STONE AWARD @MARMOMACC 2019, Verona, Italy.

While the mosque landed in the finalists at Moscow’s ARCHMARATHON STONE AWARD @MARMOMACC 2020. It also won the Egyptian President’s “Arab & African Youth Platform” in March 2019. Additionally, the mosque got special mentions in Green Solutions Awards 2019 Paris, France: Regional & International Energy & Hot Climate.

Architectural Digest named Basuna Mosque as one of the top 10 buildings of 2019 in the Middle East. They also named Dar Arafa to be one of the top 50 practices in the Middle East based on the mosque. “Tamayoz” Award-nominated Waleed Arafa himself for the Architecture personality of the year. Meanwhile, The Mosque will participate in the upcoming Agha Khan Award.

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Nada is an Architect & Urban Researcher. Based in Hurghada, and inspired by its sea & vivid mountains. She seeks local innovations along the Egyptian Red Sea coast, since our communities are the best designer for their own contexts.

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  1. Karima Khattab

    15 July

    I’m very proud and happy for this beautiful project, concept, innovation
    Thanks for everyone who participated in this project

  2. Uwe-Jens Walther

    30 September

    Great documentation of a wonderful architectural and spritual asset and its innovative features. As a Eurpean non-Muslim i have always admired the art of channeling light through architectural means in a lot of mosques and in Arab building culture in general. In old European churches what probably comes closest would be the colourful window pane design, in modern churches (eg Ronchamps by Le Corbusier) it is more the architecture.
    Anyway: It does appear to matter in theis case as well. Possibly to remind us of the important spiritual element of changing shades, patterns of light etc in architecture? I wonder how and where these elements of light patterns come into this particular building, what kind of specific patterns they create and whether that was one of the main intentions as well ?

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