State of Immersion

A trip to the cultural and spiritual hub of India turns site visits into celestial experiences

The week before Thanksgiving we received an invitation from our client to join them in any one of three undisclosed locations for the annual commemoration of Ashara. Observed by Shi'a Muslims, particularly the Dawoodi Bohra community, the annual event of Ashara is marked by expressions of grief, sorrow, and remembrance for the martyrdom of Imam Husain-–a key figure whose death symbolizes the struggle against injustice and evil. With the weight of this invitation in mind, we received word that Ashara would be held in Surat, India, the cultural and spiritual hub of the Dawoodi Bohra community for over 200 years, and the location of their first educational institution, Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah.

As members of the winning team for an international competition to plan and design a new Islamic campus in Kenya, FXFOWLE's Sylvia Smith and I dutifully joined competition partners, Frederic Schwartz and Tracey Hummer (of Frederic Schwartz Architects) in quickly acquiring visas, tickets (special thanks to Teyana Chin), and making the long trek to India. Here, the intention was to experience the Ashara, visit an existing campus, and meet with our clients, in order to make the transition from competition-to-project a reality.

Once in Surat, it felt as if the clock never stopped. From massive gatherings where pilgrims sat cheek-by-jowl, to whirlwind facility tours and meetings, our client immersed us in the experience of Fatemi life, tradition, and architectural expression.


Whether the three-day building effort to prepare the city for upwards of 50,000 pilgrims, or the ornately patterned masonry arches, we witnessed many expressions of the interwoven narratives of Fatimid architecture, culture, history, and meaning.

To further the cultural immersion, our clients traveled with us to meet another FXFOWLE team member, Nick Garrison, in Cairo, Egypt. Over a thousand years ago, the Fatemi Imams forged a far reaching kingdom that spread out from this capitol city. In recent decades, the Dawoodi Bohra leaders who trace their heritage to the Fatemi Imams known as Dais, have dedicated plentiful resources to renovating important cultural sites and monuments (established under their patronage), which had fallen into disrepair over the centuries. Of these sites, the mosque complex at al-Jaame' al-Anwar was one of the most memorable. With its thick walls, powerful minarets, and expansive central courtyard, the clamor of Cairo's two million cars seemed to dissipate into the subtly reflective surface of the stone floor, with the shadows of the arches above.

Our excursions to monuments in Egypt, much like our tours of the sites in Surat, were organized with great care by our client and went far beyond the average tourist experience. At al-Anwar, I felt like an archeologist as we wound through the restoration scaffolding surrounding the minaret. Among our hosts were several of the experts charged with the difficult task of restoring this ancient structure and its finer graphic details.

At al-Jaame' al-Azhar I was struck by the broad volume, stoic simplicity, and depth of shadow of the formal prayer space, which stood in stark contrast to the more informal patterns established by the similarly structured arcade of the courtyard.


The variations of light sources, textures, and colors, which occur within a relatively shallow progression of spaces at al-Jaame' al-Aqmar, elevated the experience from mundane to celestial, both during the day and at night.

Visits to other mosques, including al-Juyushi, al-Lulu, and Ibn Tulun, brought further philosophical depth, definition, clarity, and a heightened attention to detail. Our immersion experience was also influenced by the random, the haphazard, and the informal. For example, from atop the minaret at al-Anwar, a work yard storing what was perhaps a traditional fabric dying workshop came into view.

While the essential qualities of these mosques and their complexes have made an indelible impression on our design thinking and sensibility, the suggestion of variegated light, shadow, and liminality of these crimson curtains might also inform the simple ways in which we shade, screen, and create thresholds in our new Fatemi institution in Nairobi.

All images courtesy FXFOWLE Architects

This post first appeared on FXFOWLE’s blog, click here to read more.



Jonathan “Jack” Coble, LEED AP BD+ is a designer in FXFOWLE's Cultural/Educational Studio. He is currently part of the team working on a new educational campus in Nairobi, Kenya for the Al Jamea Tus Saifiyah School. Jonathan prefers to be called “Jack” because of his fondness for jack arches, jack hammers, deep end jack knives, Jack Rabbit Slim's, and Jack's wife Freda.

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