Saudi Arabia is home to the holy cities of Makkah and Medina, but a pilgrimage route around the country doesn’t have to stop there. Travelers can venture to other holy — and less crowded — spots to enjoy the mosques’ calm atmosphere or pray in peace and to check out other sites of historical significance. Makkah and parts of Medina are accessible only to Muslims; however, other architecturally noteworthy mosques and historic sites across the country are accessible and can provide a firsthand glimpse into the intriguing religious roots of Saudi Arabia.
Jawatha Mosque in Al Ahsa
Constructed in the early days of Islam, the ancient Jawatha Mosque was built nearly 1,400 years ago, and it is thought to be the oldest mosque in the eastern Arabian Peninsula. The Bani Abd Al Qays tribe founded the mosque, and the first Friday prayers outside of Medina were held here. With plain, sand-colored mudbrick walls, Jawatha Mosque is surrounded by squat towers topped with rounded crenellations and appears at first glance more like a fortress, perhaps a smaller-scale model of the Masmak Fort in Riyadh. The mosque was recently restored, with great care taken to match the materials used in the original construction. Inside the thick wooden plank doors, visitors will find a hall divided by walls punctuated by a series of narrow, whitewashed arches under a thatch and timber roof. Jawatha Mosque is located on the northeastern outskirts of Hofuf in the village of Al Kilabiyah.
● Visitor information: The mosque is open to non-Muslims outside of prayer times.
Al Rajhi Grand Mosque in Riyadh
Riyadh’s largest mosque, the monumental Al Rajhi Grand Mosque, is one of the capital city’s most important Islamic institutions. The Grand Mosque is used as a place of worship, with an 18,000-person capacity in the men’s hall and a 2,500-person capacity in the women’s area, as well as a spot for community events. It houses two libraries and an educational center, and Friday prayers are translated into seven languages and shown on digital screens for people with hearing loss.
● Visitor information: Non-Muslims are not permitted inside, but it’s worth stopping to admire the impressive exterior architecture, which glows a radiant orange when lit up at night.
Al Rahma Mosque in Jeddah (The Floating Mosque)
Nicknamed the Floating Mosque, Al Rahma is uniquely perched atop a stack of white concrete stilts on the Red Sea, the first mosque in the world to be built over water. As the gateway to Makkah and Medina, Jeddah is often where Muslims begin their pilgrimage journeys, making the Floating Mosque a common stop before undertaking Hajj or Umrah. The mosque is constructed from gleaming white marble, and inside, a giant turquoise dome is ringed with 56 colorful windows and encircled with Quranic verses written in swirling Arabic script. The mihrab, decorated with intricate tiles and arabesque styling, is flanked by two tall stained-glass windows. Even though the architecture is traditional, the Floating Mosque is not stuck in the past: The light and sound system is state-of-the-art. “It’s a combination of Islamic and modern architecture,” says Samir Komosani, a Saudi tour guide who was born in Jeddah and still lives in the city. “I love to be there because I feel peaceful, secure and safe, and I feel the love of God. It’s a place where people come together from different cultures and nations. It’s a place where I can clear my mind.” Al Rahma Mosque can accommodate 2,100 worshippers, with a separate raised wooden musalla (prayer hall) for women.
● Visitor information: Open daily, 24 hours. The mosque is open to non-Muslims outside of prayer times. Prime times to visit are sunrise and sunset.