07 July 2014 by Kate Turkington

Johannesburg’s Nizamiye Mosque – the biggest in the southern hemisphere

Just a few years ago, a wide swathe of grassy, empty land lined the Old Pretoria Road in Midrand, Johannesburg. Today, the four tall minarets that pierce the Highveld sky proclaim the imposing presence of the first Ottoman-style mosque in the southern hemisphere.

You’ll see it long before you get there. After all, it is the biggest mosque in the southern hemisphere, although it is still not as large as the 11 th-century mosque – Turkey’s World Heritage Site Selimye Camii in Ederne – that inspired Nizamiye’s design.

I’ve been to many of the great mosques of the world, from Casablanca’s Hassan ll Mosque and Delhi’s Jama Masjid, to the Alabaster Mosque in Cairo and South Africa’s first mosque, Auwul Mosque, in Cape Town’s colourful Bo-Kaap district.

But I was not at all prepared for the beauty and magnificence of Nizamiye – I just didn’t expect that a modern-day mosque could begin to equal some of the spectacular ones I’d visited elsewhere in the world.

Mosque interior

How wrong I was! From the moment that you see Nizamiye’s four 55m-high minarets soaring up beside a busy road, and enter the 10ha of land where the house of prayer, a school, a clinic, and a shopping arcade complete with bakery and restaurant are situated, do you begin to realise the full extent of the vision and dedication of the man behind this massive complex.

When Ali Katircioglu (‘Uncle Ali’ as he is affectionately known) was growing up in his Turkish homeland, he vowed that, one day, if he ever made enough money, he would somehow invest it in a worthwhile community project. And so, when he retired as a wealthy property developer, he fulfilled his promise. His spiritual guide, the renowned Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, advised him to site his project in South Africa. And so Nizamiye was born.

It took just under three years to build from start to finish, using 500 highly skilled Turkish workers and Turkish materials.

When I visit, my guide, former teacher Ahmet Coban, ushers me into a grand visitors’ room where I’m offered scented tea and a Turkish delight. 'Everything you see in this mosque came from Turkey,' Ahmet tells me proudly. Uncle Ali was constantly on site, first in a caravan, now today in his modest corner office in the mosque.

My wonderful guide, Ahmet Coban

We walk through the spacious courtyard (beneath is a conference centre) with its gorgeously decorated marble columns, soaring hand-painted 24m-diameter dome (which took eight Turkish artists exactly one year and one month to complete), richly carpeted floor, arched stained-glass windows, and walls covered with Turkish mosaics and calligraphy. It’s an amazing and humbling experience.

The complex also houses a high school with over 800 students, and – because Nelson Mandela especially asked Uncle Ali to build one – a clinic.

The mosque is open to all from 4am to 10pm and visitors are welcome.

My final question to Ahmet, is, 'How much did this all cost?'

He gives me Uncle Ali’s own reply: 'If I do something for the sake of God, I don’t count the money.'

Nizamiye is easily accessible from the Gautrain Midrand stop, or an easy drive from Johannesburg or Sandton.

Put it on your trips-to-do list. You certainly won’t regret your visit.

Breathtakingly beautiful ...

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