Today’s UP CLOSE trips and travels post comes from Melanie, who lives and works in the Washington, DC area. She loves planning trips almost as much as she loves taking them, and sometimes she has trouble remembering where she’s actually been and where she’s just dreamed of going. Most recently her travels took her to Egypt and Turkey. Next she hopes to visit Niagara Falls, Peru, and Puerto Rico. She publishes her random thoughts and ideas at mel-bel.blogspot.com.
Allah u Akbar, Allah u Akbar
Ash-hadu al-la Ilaha ill Allah – Ash-hadu al-la Ilaha ill Allah
Allah is Great, Allah is Great
I bear witness that there is no divinity but Allah
I experienced my first call to prayer in surround sound. The song burst forth from one mosque and then bounced and echoed from tower to tower in Cairo, the city of a thousand minarets.
This summer several of my friends traveled to Jerusalem. I, on the other hand, used my hard-earned savings to visit the Muslim world–Egypt and Turkey, to be exact. I fell in love with Islamic art as a humanities major at BYU, and ever since I have longed to see the Shah (Imam) Mosque in Iran . . .or perhaps the more accessible mosques of countries a bit more friendly to Americans. I’ll admit, there were moments in the months leading up to the trip when I felt a bit ashamed of my desire to see the sacred spaces of another religion over the places where my Savior walked and worked miracles. Yet experience has taught me that truth underlies all real beauty.
The Mosque of Sultan Hassan in Cairo is one of the largest mosques in the world. Built on a four-iwan plan, there are four iwans— or niches—surrounding a large, open courtyard. I was there on a hot June afternoon when the mosque was practically empty. Careful to walk along a worn strip of carpet so as not to scorch my bare feet, I took refuge from the heat in the shade of an iwan and marveled at the scale of the mosque.
The twenty-foot depth of the niche seemed miniscule in comparison to the expanse of the white marble courtyard, which was blindingly bright under the rays of a two o’clock sun. Above me lamps hung in straight rows on long chains; I wondered how long it would have taken to light all of them back in the 14th century, when the mosque was built. I noted with a smile that a small metal water dispenser had been set up for actual use beside one of the pillars of the grand ablution fountain. An example of modern utility over beauty, I guess. Within the main iwan–the one which indicates the direction to Mecca—I identified three of the main characteristics of Islamic art. Muslims do not believe in depicting images of people in their sacred spaces, but the decoration of mosques is highly symbolic. Geometric patterns represent the harmony and order of the universe; arabesque, or patterns of vines and flowers, evoke images of paradise and the infinite nature of God; verses from the Quran are written in artful calligraphy, which Muslims believe to be the literal word of God. I liked the block-like calligraphy, which was different than the more slender, elegant writing that I had seen in other mosques. I felt comfortable in this and all of the mosques that I visited. The open courtyard and heat created an atmosphere of sleepy serenity. The simplicity of the design put me in a contemplative mood; I would liked to have sat and pondered and written for an hour. I had to settle for a leisurely look around and then move on to more sights, tastes, and sounds of Cairo.
Ottoman-style mosques are distinct from others in that they are covered by one or a series of domes. And the interiors are breathtaking. The Sultan Ahmed mosque in Istanbul is also known as the Blue Mosque, for the more than 20,000 blue tiles which adorn the interior. This mosque is an array of color. Surrounded by blue and red and gold, I felt like I was inside a jewel box.
My eyes, and the eyes of the many, many other visitors surrounding me, were lifted up to the heavens by elegant vines and patterns which crawled up the walls to the undersides of the domes. Yet perhaps even more impressive than the colors was the light. During my first visit, at about 10 a.m., I was bathed in light. Each of the domes and half domes is set upon a crown of windows; as the sun rises, glittering light streams through the colored glass. I’m not sure that anyone could be in a space such as this and not think of the divine. Despite its grandeur, and the fact that the space was crowed with tourists, there was a feeling of coziness to this mosque. Perhaps this was due to the feel of the carpet on my bare feet; I think that there was not only symbolism, but a physical reason that God commanded Moses to remove the shoes from his feet. Or maybe the low hanging chandelier created a sense of intimacy, which also served to highlight the smallness of man in this sacred space.
I don’t purport to know the intentions of those who built these mosques. Maybe they were pure in heart and were seeking only to glorify God. Maybe they built these grand structures as monuments to gratify their own ambitions. Perhaps, as is characteristically human, it was a combination of the two. I also can’t make any blanket statements about those who worship in these and other mosques today. Religion and culture in the Muslim world is a tricky thing to separate. But I do know that I met some wonderful people who were kind and helpful and sincerely interested in hearing about what I believe. I also know that despite the difference in religion, these mosques are sacred spaces.
One day I would like to travel to Jerusalem to see the Western Wall, the Sea of Galilee and the Garden Tomb. But on my last night in Istanbul, as I sat in front of the Blue Mosque listening to the day’s final call to prayer, I felt grateful for my experience in the Muslim world.