Australia’s oldest surviving mosque is a strange building; built much like an Adelaide stone house with a hipped roof, it also features four 20-metre tall minarets. Built in 1888, Adelaide Central Mosque was a meeting point for early Muslim migrants and stands as a monument to diversity.
It was privately funded by a local Afghan leader, Abdul Wade, after the government refused to pay for the land or the building.
At the end of the 19th century, a mosque surrounded by enclosures of camels must have been quite a sight in one of Australia’s most genteel cities.
Many of Australia’s most iconic buildings are more about social or cultural change than architectural expression, and Adelaide’s Central Mosque is a prime example.
It was built in 1888, and like many buildings in Adelaide it’s a simple stone structure with a hipped roof. The mosque, however, had unusual arched windows and doorways, and a water tank outside that was used for ablutions prior to prayer.
In 1903, four 20-metre tall minarets were erected at each corner of the building and from then on there could be no doubt as to its purpose.
The need for a mosque had emerged as a small Muslim community became more established in the region. This community was formed from cameleers from northern India and Afghanistan who had been recruited in the 1860s to aid expeditions to the centre of the dry and dusty continent.
They were a diverse group who spoke different languages and had differing cultural beliefs, but their camels were the perfect way of transporting goods between far-flung mining camps. Others followed, setting themselves up as traders, and by the end of the 19th century Australia had a Muslim population of around 4,000.
The mosque in Adelaide wasn’t the first to be built, although it has been the most enduring. It was privately funded by a local Afghan leader, Abdul Wade, after the government refused to pay for the land or the building.
For the growing Afghan population it was a symbol: they were here to stay. Over the years a guest house was added, along with a school and a walled garden with a fountain. Gradually it became an important social hub, as well as a retreat for the hard-working camel drivers, especially during Ramadan.
This early community survived until the use of camels diminished in the 1930s. The trading routes were replaced by trains, the most famous of which—the Ghan, which runs between Adelaide and the north—commemorates the importance of the camel drivers. The camels remain, however, as an enormous feral population. In a surreal twist, we now export them to the Arab world.
The Central Mosque in Adelaide remains, too, and is used daily by a small local community of families and students. While it may not be a building of great architectural merit, it serves as an example of the diversity that is so often lauded as one of Australia’s major strengths.