Syria Mosque

By Sai Koros

February 2020

The Syria Mosque and its members played a powerful role in shaping Oakland as a neighborhood and Pittsburgh as a city. Though fraught with cultural exploitation, its presence had a lasting impact.

“Shriner Mosque Dedication Week,”
The Gazette Times, 1916

Remarkably, the Syria Mosque is neither Syrian nor a Mosque. This misnomer derives from the group who established it: the Shriners. In 1872, a group of Freemasons in New York established an appendant Masonic body called the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (AAONMS, an anagram for “a mason”). Known today as Shriners International, founding members appropriated Islamic styles and sayings after one of them attended Ottoman diplomat’s “Arabian-themed” party in France. They sought to create “a fun fraternal order for men who had completed their requirements in the Scottish or York Rite Masonic organizations.” As an exclusively male organization, Shriners formed in response to the increasingly “stodgy” and sober central Freemason lodges. To this end, Shriners created temples (later rebranded as auditoriums) to host rituals, concerts, parades, and other events. Built in a “faux-Middle Eastern style” adorned with sphinxes, members wear red fezzes and greet each other by saying, “As-Salaam-Alaikum,” which is Arabic for, “peace be upon you.” Founders designed these rituals and aesthetics because they were “exotic” and “fun,” flaunting their orientalist framework that distorts Islamic civilizations as bizarre and outlandish.

Despite these glaring flaws, the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh hosted countless momentous occasions. Seating 3,700 people, Syria Mosque staged events by everyone from Louis Armstrong, to Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Richard Nixon, Bruce Springsteen, Robin Williams, and the Bangles. In 1949, it became the birthplace of network television via KDKA-TV. As a result, the Syria Mosque was a vital centerpiece in Pittsburgh. 

As the building fell into disrepair and the University of Pittsburgh expanded, Syria Mosque’s survival became a contentious issue. Many people felt that it was too historically and communally valuable to sell. Ultimately, Pittsburgh’s Syria Temple decided to sell the land to the Presbyterian University Health System––known today as the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). In 1991, UPMC demolished the Syria Mosque, paved over the land, and converted it into a tax-exempt parking lot where it remains today. 

“UPMC parking lot on site of former Syria Mosque,” photo by author, February 2020.

Featured images

Paul Russell Photography. “Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.” Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center, MSP285.B003.F22.I03. Pittsburgh, PA, 1935?

Shourek, Edward J. “Syria Mosque.” Edward J. Shourek Photograph Collection, University Library, University of Pittsburgh, 9119B.XXIV.3.SH. Pittsburgh, PA, 1916-1920?

Westinghouse Electric Corporation. “KDKA radio crew outside Syria Mosque.” Westinghouse Electric Corporation Photographs, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center, 20170320-hpichswp-0068. Pittsburgh, PA, 1927?

Further Reading

The Gazette Times. “October 16, 1916 (Page 3 of 10).” The Gazette Times (1905-1926), Pittsburgh, PA, 16 October 1916.

Hamill, Sean. “Two decades later, razing of Syria Mosque still a sore topic.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh, PA, 23 September 2012. Business Insider: Global. https://bi-gale-com.pitt.idm.oclc.org/global/article/GALE%7CA303141187?u=upitt_main&sid=summon#

Hodapp, Christopher. Freemasons for Dummies, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2013.

Syria Shriners. “History of Syria Shriners.” Syria Shriners. Syria Shriners, Cheswick, PA, 2020. https://www.syriashriners.org/history/

How to Cite

MLA: Koros, Sai. “Syria Mosque.” ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh, 27 Feb. 2020, religyinz.pitt.edu/syria-mosque/

APA: Koros, Sai. (2020, February 27) Syria mosque. ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh. https://religyinz.pitt.edu/syria-mosque/

Chicago: Koros, Sai. “Syria Mosque.” ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh, February 27, 2020. https://religyinz.pitt.edu/syria-mosque/