Standing inside the almost-complete prayer hall of Palo Alto's first freestanding mosque on San Antonio Road, Durriya Tyabji sees a space reminiscent of a mosque built in Cairo, Egypt, in 1125 A.D.
Tyabji, an artist originally from India who lives in Los Altos Hills, has melded the traditional elements of the seminal Al-Aqmar mosque with her own contemporary design to create the south Palo Alto building, a seven-year labor of love that is about two weeks away from being fully complete.
There are elements of ancient Islamic architecture throughout, starting with a perfectly recreated exterior façade of the Al-Aqmar Mosque, which Palo Alto contractor John Lerch hand-molded. A large, marbled medallion shipped from India, inscribed with "Allah" in Arabic, sits above the entrance -- the central point from which all of the concrete sun beams originate. Creating a feature similar to the Cairo mosque's medallion, Lerch cut holes in the medallion to allow light to shine through at night.
A unifying design, identical to that of another ancient Egyptian mosque -- circles and squares interwoven with each other -- appears throughout the mosque, on ornate latticed window grills and on frosted mirrors above two sinks where people wash their hands and face before entering the prayer hall.
Inside the prayer hall, passages from the Quran, the 100 names for God and a verse that means "God is merciful," Tyabji said, wrap around the top perimeter of the walls. The delicate Arabic script -- raised and coated in sheets of 24-karat gold -- is laid on top of white marble, brought to Palo Alto from the same quarry from which the marble the Taj Mahal was built.
But everywhere else is Tyabji's more contemporary touch, perhaps best represented in delicate, simple light fixtures that she designed herself. Like a modern chandelier, the lights resemble constellations, a collection of metal rods with small glowing orbs of light at each end.
"It's the old design that we interpreted in a contemporary way," Tyabji said. "We juxtaposed both old and new together to make it a very unique design by itself."
Tyabji, along with the support of her husband, a team of local architects and contractor, built the 12,000-square-foot mosque to serve as a more convenient, centralized place of worship and community gathering for about 100 Bay Area families as far north as San Francisco and as far south as San Jose. Tyabji and the families are part of the Dawoodi Bohra community, a sub-sect of Shia Islam based out of India. Tyabji said the closest mosques they go to are in Santa Clara and Fremont.
"We wanted something central so that everybody could come and congregate," she said.
The south Palo Alto mosque is not actually the city's first mosque, though it is the first freestanding one. Jamil Islamic Center at 427 California Ave. was opened more than 15 years ago by the late Mohammad Mazhar Jamil, who owned Jamil Oriental Carpets next door. It occupies part of an existing building.
Seven years ago, Tyabji enlisted the help of Lerch, whom the couple had known since he built their Los Altos Hills home in 1987, to build the mosque. Palo Alto architects John Barton (a former City Council member) of Barton Architect and Tony Carrasco (a former member of the Architectural Review Board) and Abha Nehru of Carrasco & Associates -- none of whom had designed a mosque before -- became her design team, executing her unique, intricately detailed vision. The entire design, from the proportions of a minaret tower to the more creative, original elements, also had to be reviewed and approved by sect leaders in India, Nehru said.
Unlike minarets from which calls for prayer are traditionally made, Palo Alto mosque's roughly 60-foot minaret is serving only a decorative purpose.
Tradition notwithstanding, Tyabji has left a contemporary mark on the mosque in ways that are more than ornamental. On the mosque's second floor is the separate women's prayer hall, which centers around a balcony that looks down into the first level, where the men pray. Depending on space, women traditionally pray either behind men or in a separate room to maintain modesty and ritual purity -- an increasingly controversial separation within Muslim culture that often leaves women with a subpar area for prayer.
Tyabji, though, made the upstairs an expansive, airy space. Large windows face the Palo Alto Foothills, the ceiling is just as high as the one below and there are five smaller versions of her chandeliers.
"Sometimes, what happens is that in most of the women's section, the ceilings are low and they are not given as much air and space, so we wanted to make sure that the women had just as beautiful of a prayer area as the men," she said. "It's unique in a sense because this is so airy."
Both upstairs and downstairs, as well as in a children's room and a community room, are large flat-screen TVs on which they plan to live-stream important ceremonies or religious events that might be happening elsewhere in the world for the India-based sect. Tyabji said they will stream their own event when the sect's high priest comes to bless the Palo Alto mosque in the next few months.
The proposed rebuilding of what used to be a church at 998 San Antonio Road, which sits just west of U.S. Highway 101 on an offshoot of San Antonio Road, across from the Oshman Family JCC, was announced in October 2007, but it had been years in the making. The local Dawoodi Bohra community had searched for a site to purchase for years before settling on the former church and acquiring it for $1.6 million, with a major contribution from Tyabji and her husband, Hatim. The couple also backed the entire design and construction process.
The city's Architectural Review Board approved the project in 2008. Construction started in December 2011 and is now almost complete, though the two-level prayer hall will not be used until it has been officially blessed by Syedna Aali Qadr Mufaddal Saifuddin, the 53rd leader of the Dawoodi Bohra sect. He is based in India and is expected to visit the United States in the coming months to bless a series of new mosques.
The mosque pays unique homage to the sect leader, with exactly 53 light bulbs on the largest of Tyabji's constellation chandeliers. That chandelier drops from the second-floor ceiling into the first floor in front of the mihrab, a hollowed out archway that Tyabji defines as "the heart of the mosque." The mihrab indicates the mosque's qibla, or the direction to Mecca, which Muslims must face while praying. In order to have the qibla perfectly aligned, the building sits at a slight angle from San Antonio.
Though the prayer hall is not yet open, the congregation has started holding events for special holy nights and holidays in a large, carpeted adjoining community room, which is plainer than the prayer hall. The carpeted space, with a completely open floor plan, is undecorated, save for three black-and-white framed portraits of Syedna Aali Qadr Mufaddal Saifuddin and his two predecessors. The windows and a few skylights also allow in expansive natural light, one of Tyabji's priorities throughout the building. The community hall connects to a full commercial kitchen, in which two women dressed in full Muslim garb were making rice on a recent afternoon.
Despite the fact that the mosque centers around the Dawoodi Bohra Islamic sect, Tyabji said that it is an all-welcoming space. She and other team members also spoke to the cooperative relationship they have had with the neighboring Oshman Jewish Community Center throughout the building process.
"It's like a dream come true," Tyabji said of seeing the years-long project come to fruition. "For myself and my husband, I think the biggest motivation was the fact that we have been blessed and we wanted to do something for our community. This is our way of giving back to our community."
See a timeline of construction photos on the 998 San Antonio Road blog at 998sanantonioroad.blogspot.com.
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