Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Grand Mosque is, well quite grand really.

Chandelier in the Grand Mosque
In my last post (only two days ago), I mentioned that it's Eid Al-Adha here and as a result I have a week off work, which gives me a bit of time to go and see some things.

Ever since we've been in Muscat we've driven up and down the Sultan Qaboos Highway and admired the Grand Mosque as we drove past it. Always with a we will go there one day. Yesterday was one day, so we did!

The problem being that the mosque is only open to non-Muslims from 8 - 11 work days, it's that work day thing, doesn't really gell with my schedule, what with having to work on work days...

Abluting Birds
So a couple of minutes past eight we rumbled into the public car park (Chevrolet's rumble - even 6 cylinder ones!) and made our way through the public gate into the gardens.  Beautifully manicured they are, with trees n stuff to boot. We were so early that our arrival disturbed the birds revelling in the numerous fountains, but after a few indignant squawks they duly posed for photo's and let us pass.
Grand garden entrance
Hmmm I don't quite know where to start.  I've visited a few Cathedrals in the past and I have to say there was a sense of that in the Mosque. Obviously places of worship with lashings of decorative art to show devotion. But the difference is that in Cathedrals I get a sense of something from the past and that's not the case with the Grand Mosque. It is very much a building of this time and it is a contemporary with its place.

Beautiful structures, clean and elegant with an army of workers applying spit and polish to keep it all in pristine shape.  And I guess that the European cathedrals must have been kept like that in their early days. As an interesting side light I believe there is a law here that no house can be further than one kilometre from a mosque.  In our case there are at least 4 mosques within a kilometre of our house.

Main prayer room
Anyway back to the Grand Mosque. The central prayer room was truly spectacular a large open prayer space opening up to the central dome rising far above.  Giving an airy and open aspect to the space. The floor is covered by a single prayer carpet, all hand woven and I believe the largest handwoven carpet in the world.  Unfortunately we couldn't see it in all its glory as during opening hours paths of blue fabric are put in place so that us tourists don't damage the carpet.  Still what we could see was pretty good! All this was surrounded with stone walls worked in Islamic art with mosaics, inlay and so on.  The wooden doors were fully carved with repeating patterns (hand done I think - but with a remarkable degree of precision). And the roof was wood panelled - except for the dome which was mosaic/inlay and had the biggest hanging chandelier I have ever seen.

And then outside, apart from the gardens there are two semi enclosed colonaded passage ways. Each of these contains a series of arched stoneworks (mosaic, inlay, carving - but mostly mosaic) giving you a guided tour of Islamic Art. The one at the front of the mosque starts (or ends - you pick) with Omani art and the one on the other side starts (or ends - you pick) with Saudi Arabian art, as the home of Islam.  So I started with Omani Art and ended with Saudi Arabian somewhere around an hour later.
Door carving

All of this fits in with the intent that the Grand Mosque would be a centre of Islamic learning and study, for all forms of Islam.  So it is not surprising that there is an Islamic study centre, an Islamic tertiary institution and an Islamic information centre in the grounds and their surrounds.

Unfortunately being a public holiday there were no guides on hand to explain everything. If you ever come to Oman the Grand Mosque is a must see - Women must have ankle to wrist coverage and a head scarf.  The European woman who tried to get in with a t-shirt tied to head was politely told no, try again. And as with any Islamic place of worship you have to enter bare footed, so there are shoe racks conveniently located outside the entrances, running along the walls for some way.

It is interesting just how much a core part of life religion is for Omani's.  Everyday at work the office goes quiet at prayer time as people gather to pray in formal and less formal prayer spaces. You see the same in any workplace, be it an office or a little stall at the local souk. In some cases shops are left open while the staff go and pray, trusting that their non praying customers will wait until they return.  And it works, although that concession doesn't happen at the big shopping centres.
Omani style

All of this leads me to a history lesson.  The current Sultan - Sultan Qaboos Bin Said came to power in 1970 as a result of a coup. At that time Oman was a closed country, very few outsiders came here, ships crew were often not allowed off their boats when in harbour. City gates were closed at dusk and there was no electric light. There was one bitumen road, which ran between Sultan Taimur Bin Said's palace and the airport. Schools, hospitals and amenities of any kind were few and far between.

Ottoman 16-17 C style
In the south of the country, the Dhofar region, there was a long standing (decades old) insurrection, which the Sultan's army was not really managing to contain. Possibly because the rebels were receiving funds and training from China and Russia, but also in large part because the Sultan did not rule over a unified country with a populace that loved him. A "Vietnam" confrontation in the Middle East if you will, but with the added bonus that victory would bring control of the Straights of Hormuz. Check that one, the petrol in your fuel tank likely transited the Hormuz Straights.

So the long and the short of it is that Sultan Taimur, who had absolute power, but not control of the country was ousted and his only son, who had a Sandhurst military education and time in the UK Armed Forces came to power.

He brought in British assistance and set about quelling the rebellion, building a nation and using the (limited) oil wealth to benefit the populace. In order to quell the rebellion the young Sultan let it be known that anyone who deserted the rebels would be welcomed back with open arms. And then as his army made territorial advances wells were dug, medical aid dispensed, electricity and other advances were provided to the newly liberated area. Of course there was an underlying and I believe unstated message of what we give you we can also take away. Schools, hospitals, sealed roads followed soon after.

And then the Communists made a fatal error, they tried to unify all the rebel groups under the banner of Communism and force people to renounce their religion.  Not a good move, as it alienated many and gave the Sultan and his forces the useful rallying cry of  "Islam is our way. Freedom is our aim."  By the end of 1975 the insurrection was over.

13-14c Persian style
So in a sense Islam played a big part in sowing the seeds of current day Oman and it is not surprising that the Grand Mosque was built and that it attempts to bring Islamic schools of thought together.

As a foot note:
If you want a tale of a modern day equivalent to Rourke's Drift (the battle in the movie Zulu) then read about the battle at Mirbat. It was one of the pivotal moments and fought by small numbers against great odds. Some say it is the greatest battle fought by members of the British SAS.

Arabian style

No comments:

Post a Comment