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Each city has an architectural icon: Shah Faisal mosque is Islamabad’s. Featured in almost every televised version of the azaan since 1986, the mosque evokes Islamabad more than the Parliament, the Supreme Court and the Presidency put together. This is also why it is a popular location with broadcast reporters.

A mosque like no other… Nestled in the foothills of the Margallas, the mosque was designed by the Turkish architect, Vedat Dalokay. Strikingly, the mosque lacks the kind of architecture defined as ‘Islamic’: it doesn’t have domes or arches. Instead, the eight-faced concrete shell resembles a Bedouin tent, flanked by four minarets. Dalokay subsequently said that the design was inspired by the cubic Kaaba, whereby the apex of each of the minarets represents the corners of an imaginary cube.

Foreign policy, politics and art… Funded largely by the late King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, the mosque is symbolic of Pakistan’s complex, money-as-politics relationship with the oil-rich kingdom. Construction was completed in 1986 when the petro dollars were still flowing into Pakistan thanks to the close ties between the two countries fostered by military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. (Coincidentally, both men were assassinated). The fact that Zia’s funeral prayers were held at the mosque and his mausoleum lies adjacent is, however, no coincidence. Ironically, the man chosen to decorate the interior of the mosque was ‘Holy Sinner’ Sadequain, Pakistan’s most famous yet most controversial artist.

Eat, pray, love… The main prayer hall can accommodate up to 10,000 worshippers, the courtyard fronting it can take another 40,000 while an additional 24,000 can easily occupy the porticoes. The courtyard once housed the International Islamic University; now, only the library, a lecture hall, a museum and a café remain. Although there are no major markets in the area, Jinnah Super – that cornucopia of restaurants, boutiques and what not – is just five minutes away by car. While most shops will be closed on Eid day, the flower shops, the mithai wallahs and the bakers will be open: when else is one to buy Eid cakes?

Around and about… The areas adjoining the mosque – primarily E7 – are purely residential, and given their breathtaking views of the hills, real estate gold. Accordingly, they are peopled by foreign diplomats, top-ranking government officials and MNAs. As they say in Islamabad, “[Sector] E is for the elite.”

In a nutshell… If you have your heart set on greeting the afsaraan-e-aala – the bureaucrats, the judges and the politicians – who have not left Islamabad for Eid and you can face the mad rush for parking, do make it in time for Eid prayers at the Shah Faisal Mosque.

– Soha Ahmed
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First published in the Real Estate Section of The Dawn National Weekend Advertiser on August 19, 2012.