I have often struggled with words while writing an article but the difficulties I feel today are mainly due to the fear that what I say will never do justice to Wahbi Al-Hariri-Rifai. I cannot recall exactly how and when I met this extraordinary man for the first time but I do know that once I heard him talk about his work, his words left an indelible impression. I interviewed him several times on television and radio. He spoke with a most engaging passion about his books: "The Traditional Architecture of Saudi Arabia," "The Heritage of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia" and "Asir: Heritage and Civilization."
"After I finished my books, I felt I had to do another one and I thought that if I were to choose a subject, it had to be mosques," he told me during one of our meetings. As he spoke, his eyes lit up and I sensed that I was about to hear something unique. I can still remember that most of the time the stories he told were so interesting that I felt compelled not to write but to listen to him wholeheartedly.
My last meeting with him was one month before his death. Each time I looked at my notebook, I remembered the unique journey which took him from Spain to China, looking for the most significant mosques in the world. Many times, I wondered if the book — "Spiritual Edifices of Islam" — would ever be published. I was both relieved and deeply moved when I learned that the drawings of the mosques were part of an exhibition at the National Museum in Riyadh.
That spring afternoon when Wahbi Al-Hariri-Rifai spoke to me about his travels and his drawings, he had a gaze simultaneously so deep and distant that he seemed to be in those faraway places he was talking about: "In 1958, I went to Al-Quds, Jerusalem, and made a small sketch of the Dome of the Rock so when I decided to begin this book, I looked at that sketch and decided to complete the drawing. I realized then that I had a memory which enabled me to recall the architectural details."
The truth is that the artist could rely on perfect sketches representing not only the exact proportions but also all the architectural details, such as columns and cornices necessary for completing the drawings later. He never used a camera and that is one of the reasons that Wahbi Al-Hariri-Rifai is called the "last of the classicists." He chose to concentrate on mosques with a certain character and originality. There is no standard architectural mosque design but it is true that the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah provided a basic model for later mosques throughout the Islamic world. The basic elements were — and are — a rectangular, walled enclosure with a roofed prayer hall on the qibla side (indicating the direction of the Holy Kaaba), a mihrab (which also faces the Holy Kaaba), an open courtyard in front of the prayer hall which contains the minbar from which the khutba (the religious address during Friday prayers) is delivered, the minaret and finally a place for ablutions.
"I first look at a mosque to see if it is well preserved and I try to discover its original elements which one can usually find in the entrance, the facade and certain interior details," he explained. "In the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the prayer hall is near the courtyard and it is lined with marble columns supporting double-tiered horseshoe arches. When I arrived at the mosque, there was very little light. I worked a whole day without achieving anything. A whole week passed and I still hadn’t sketched anything. The following day, as I entered the mosque, I caught a glimpse of sun rays filtering through a window, thus lighting up a portion of this magnificent building. I was racing against the sun, desperately trying to finish my sketch before the light disappeared. I knew I had only an hour and a half before sunset."
In China, the artist drew the Grand Mosque at Xian with a style reminiscent of old palaces. In the old city of Malacca in Malaysia, he visited the Kampung Kling Mosque and decided to concentrate on the facade. In Egypt, he sketched the Al-Azhar and the Ibn Tulun Mosque the minaret of which is modeled on the Mosque of Samarra in Iraq; Ibn Tulun had fled to Egypt from Iraq. Wahbi Al-Hariri-Rifai remembered the minaret in the Mosque of Samarra with its exterior staircase.
"In Tunisia," explained Wahbi Al-Hariri-Rifai, "I chose to draw the minaret of the Mosque of Oqba Bin Nafeh. It was the first rectangular-shaped minaret in North Africa. Then, I went to Turkey and I remembered a trip I made to the southeastern part of the country when I was a child. Towns like Diarbaqar and Marrach have beautiful mosques. The Turkish tribes of Central Asia built their mosques according to Central Asian ideas but when they arrived in Constantinople, they marveled at the beauty of Hagia Sofia and gradually added minarets and rooms for students."
He continued, "As an example of Ottoman architecture, I chose the rectangular Mosque of Sultan Ahmad flanked by four minarets, its courtyard dominated by the presence of two more minarets which brings the total number of minarets to six." Wahbi Al-Hariri-Rifai also included the extraordinary Mosque of Djenne in Mali, West Africa’s grandest monument. Its massive, pointed towers symbolize the West African Sahel, the vast savanna, south of the Sahara.
It was only at the end of our meeting that Wahbi Al-Hariri-Rifai told me that shortly after he began working on the "Spiritual Edifices," he began a struggle against cancer. The battles notwithstanding, his last years were prolific ones as he completed some 100 paintings and drawings in only four years.
I still marvel at his incredible energy and passion, traveling across the planet drawing mosques for endless hours. I admire his modesty; he acknowledged that he only mastered graphite in the last years of his life. And I am deeply touched by these drawings so full of life and serenity at the same time.
("The Spiritual Edifices of Islam" can be viewed at the National Museum in the King Abdul Aziz Historic Center in Riyadh. The drawings are on display for another four weeks.)