The semicircular niche in the wall of a mosque that faces Mecca is known as the mihrab. Introduced in the Prophet's mosque in Medina when it was rebuilt by the Umayyad caliph al-Walid I (r. 705–715), the mihrab may have been originally intended to commemorate the place of the Prophet, but it soon became ubiquitous and is generally understood to indicate the direction of prayer (qibla). The earliest complete example to survive is believed to be a monolithic marble mihrab dated to the mid-eighth century and reused in the Khassaki Mosque in Baghdad. Later examples were often made of other precious materials, including stone or glass mosaic, carved or joined wood, and glazed tile.
Fehervar, G. "Mihrab." In Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2d ed. Edited by H. A. R. Gibbs, et al. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2002.
Sheila S. Blair Jonathan M. Bloom
Blair & and Bloom (1994);
an indicator of the direction toward which muslims face in prayer.
While the etymology of the word is the subject of some debate, mihrab (pl. maharib ) is the Arabic term used to refer to any object, marking, or architectural feature that indicates the direction Muslims must face (that is, toward Mecca) in the performance of the five daily prayers. Since the mihrab commonly takes the form of a distinctive recess in the wall of a mosque, the word is often translated as "prayer niche." Traditionally crafted in stucco, marble, or tile and adorned with calligraphic scriptural inscriptions, the mihrab is usually the most elaborately decorated piece of architecture in a mosque and in some simpler settings may be the only ornamented part of a mosque's interior.