I am almost 1,000 metres above the Earth, looking down at what appears to be a giant depiction of a blazing sun. But, unlike the one beating upon my head, this sun is not a fiery orange colour. Instead, it is constructed entirely from stainless steel. It glints in the daylight, making it hard to look at it for long, much like the flaming orb it represents.
As the hot air balloon I am travelling in floats away silently, this pattern becomes three-dimensional, revealing itself as a giant dome atop a hulking metallic structure. I stare at it, trying to work out what it is. "That's the Iron Mosque," says the hot-air balloon's pilot, Jonas Van Doorsselaere, a 31-year-old Belgian who does scenic flights over the Malaysian political hub of Putrajaya. "It doesn't look like your typical mosque, does it?"
He has read my mind. I would not have guessed that this hyper-modern metallic building was a mosque. Completed in 2009 using more than 6,000 tonnes of reinforced steel, it is among the largest mosques in south-east Asia, capable of accommodating more than 20,000 worshippers at one time. Both Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur – which is just a 30-minute drive away – are home to an array of stunning mosques, which draw on a mix of architectural styles from the Middle East, North Africa and Spain.
The Iron Mosque
In the case of the Iron Mosque, however, its designers took inspiration from state-of-the-art commercial architecture in China and Germany. To keep the faithful cool in this swelteringly hot country, the mosque uses cutting-edge technology, and its enormous prayer hall is enclosed by towering steel lattice walls. This is a highly-modern interpretation of mashrabiya.
The strong air flow facilitated by these lattice walls works in concert with gas district cooling, a contemporary form of temperature-control technology. This modern theme continues on the main interior wall of the prayer hall, which is embellished with giant, 13-metre-tall glass panels from Germany. On these translucent panels are etched verses from the Quran. This, according to the mosque's website, is intended to make the verses appear as if they are floating in the air.
The modernity of the Iron Mosque is indicative of just how young Malaysia is as an Islamic nation. Although Islam arrived in the country about 700 years ago, and became widespread under the Malay Sultanate of Malacca in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was marginalised during the country's more than 400 years of colonial rule. This period only ended in 1957, when Malaysia became independent of Britain. It is since then that Islam has once more become central to society. As a result, many of Malaysia's most significant mosques are not ancient structures but relatively new ones.
The oldest mosque in Malaysia – Kampung Laut in the far north-east – is less than 300 years old. Its style was typical of the Malay mosques of this era, which bore minimal resemblance to those of the Middle East. Borrowing from the design of Malay and Javanese homes of the time, it has a triple-tiered roof, was built on top of stilts, and was constructed entirely from wood.
By the time the country earned independence, these ancient styles of Malay mosques had died out. Islam became the official religion of Malaysia and the national government began commissioning new places of worship across the country, which fused elements of Byzantine and Mughal architecture. Central to this campaign by the government was the National Mosque of Malaysia.
Also known as Masjid Negara, when it was completed in downtown Kuala Lumpur in 1965, this was widely considered to be the most spectacular mosque in south-east Asia. As I wander around the landmark, I am amazed at the complexity of its form. That helps explain why it took almost three years for architects to complete its design. With the aim of creating a unique mosque of which the nation could be proud, they blended architectural features from the UAE, Turkey, Spain, India, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The first thing visitors see as they approach Masjid Negara is its 73m-high white minaret. Beneath this is what I find to be the building’s most beguiling feature. With its 16 points, the mosque’s beautiful blue-and-green concrete dome resembles an open umbrella.
From beneath this dome, inside the main prayer hall, when worshippers look up at the roof, it seems as if they are shaded by this ornate canopy, which is inscribed with verses from the Quran. The theme continues in the adjacent mausoleum.
Known as the Makam Pahlawan, this burial ground hosts the remains of several Malay political leaders under a seven-pointed, umbrella-style roof. Masjid Negara was expanded in 1990 to increase its capacity so that it can now hold up to 15,000 worshippers. To help manage the easy arrival and exit of such large crowds, the mosque is linked by a short underground walkway to Kuala Lumpur Railway Station.
I leave Masjid Negara and catch a taxi from outside the station to Kuala Lumpur’s oldest mosque, Masjid Jamek. Nestled in one of the city’s most historic areas, this mosque opened in 1909 on the location of what was Kuala Lumpur’s first Malay burial site.
It is distinct from the National Mosque in two obvious ways. Firstly, it has an eye-catching neo-Moorish style of architecture, influenced by the grand colonial structures of northern Indian cities like New Delhi. Its roof is topped by three white domes and two minarets, and its earthen-red façade decorated by dozens of white columns and arches, creating a hypnotic pattern.
Secondly, despite being the city’s main mosque until the 1960s, Masjid Jamek is miniscule compared to the National Mosque, with a capacity of only about 1,000 worshippers.
It also is dwarfed by northern Kuala Lumpur’s colossal Masjid Wilayah. My favourite of Kuala Lumpur’s mosques, Masjid Wilayah can hold 17,000 worshippers, which makes it even larger than the building on which it was modelled – Istanbul’s famed Blue Mosque. Designed in 17th century Ottoman style, this hilltop mosque is adorned by 22 domes and two lofty minarets, and bordered by landscaped gardens and a massive, semi-circular water feature. Unfortunately, I mistimed my visit, arriving during prayer time, and could admire only its exterior.
had no such misfortune when I headed to Putrajaya's astonishing Masjid Putra. While the uniqueness of the Iron Mosque was expected to make it a major tourist attraction, its pulling power seems to pale in comparison with the nearby, more traditional Masjid Putra. During my visit to the Iron Mosque, I came across a mere handful of other tourists, whereas, when I arrived at its neighbour, I encountered throngs – with a long line of visitors posing for photos in front of the mosque's iconic pink dome.
Perched on the edge of Putrajaya Lake, it was built in 1999 from rose-coloured granite in the Persian architectural style associated with the 16th-century Safavid Dynasty. At more than 100 metres high, Masjid Putra’s skyscraping minaret is one of the tallest in the region, towering above its main prayer hall and beautiful courtyard, which combined can host up to 15,000 worshippers.
As I'm leaving the mosque in a taxi, I find my eyes locked on its 50-metre-tall pink dome. Decorated with intricate Arabesque patterns, it is mesmerising, and I am disappointed when it disappears from view. The extraordinary Islamic architecture of Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur has left me enchanted.