Thursday 4 August 2011

04.08. The Prophet's Mosque

I have just seen an interesting series of programs from BBC2 which I recorded over the last few weeks, but only watched the last few days. The title of the series was ‘The Life of Muhammad’ and the three-part series, presented by Rageh Omaar, charted the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Apart from being very interesting history and important background facts, the programs were also beautifully filmed in a part of the world where I have never been and where I will never be able to visit.

I was especially impressed by the footage from the mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia; the Al-Masjid al-Nabawi (‘Mosque of the Prophet’), it made an impression on me for several reasons. The mosque was originally built next to Muhammad's house; he settled there after he emigrated to Medina from Mecca, his place of birth. The mosque was originally a rather small place with Mohammad’s house in one end, but over the centuries the mosque has grown and been renovated many times. One of the many striking features which I noticed was the canopies, or umbrellas that cover the courtyards and open spaces at day time. The 17m x 18m retractable umbrellas create the effect of a translucent ceiling and provide protection from the desert sun. At night, the umbrellas can be closed to promote the natural cooling of the court floor. This first movie shows the umbrellas opening at sunrise, the process being very slow takes nearly 2 minutes.

These umbrellas have been in continuous service since 1992. More umbrellas have been added over the years, covering the entire masjid's exterior marble floor. The umbrellas were made by the same company that made the fabric retractable roof on Centre Court at Wimbledon in London.  Anyone even remotely interested in tennis will remember that it usually would rain every year during the Wimbledon games, resulting in endless postponing of matches. With the new roof, light pass through while offering reliable protection from the elements. Play at Centre Court still feels like it is outdoors, even when the roof is closed. Here is another movie showing many more of these fantastic umbrellas at the mosque in Medina:

And below is an almost 3 min movie showing the umbrellas closing at sunrise. There is no music, no commentary, just the hubbub of people talking in the background - a fantastic sight, as people are walking under them. The process is so slow you can almost not see it in the beginning. You also have to remember how big these umbrellas are; 17m x 18m is huge!

The Prophet's Mosque, as the final resting place of the Prophet Muhammad, is considered the second holiest site in Islam by Muslims (the first being the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca) and is one of the largest mosques in the world. The mosque is under the control of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and is the second mosque built in history. It became the first place in the Arabian Peninsula to be provided with electrical lights. As it stands today, the mosque has a rectangular plan on two floors with the Ottoman prayer hall projecting to the south. The main prayer hall occupies the entire first floor. The mosque enclosure is 100 times bigger than the first mosque built by Muhammad and can accommodate more than half a million worshippers. At night time, when the umbrellas are folded down, they look like columns and the lights on each of them shine on the polished marble floor. Here is a 4:30 min movie by someone who experienced several days and nights in the Al-Masjid, and he filmed the umbrellas both at daytime and night time. The mosque looks even more spectacular at night time.

When I saw the programs on BBC2 and saw this mosque featured, I instantly thought to myself; those umbrellas – or canopies look familiar! I know where I have seen them before! I have actually seen them many times before, although the ones I have seen before are slightly less impressive, less decorated and smaller in size, but look here, this is Stratford Bus Station, just a couple of miles from where I live here in London. Look at the roof of the station, does it look familiar?? Well, this station opened on 16th November 1994, and Stratford Bus Station serves the Stratford area of the London Borough of Newham, London. The canopies at the mosque in Medina has been in use since 1992….I wonder if the architect of the Stratford Bus Station was at all inspired by the umbrellas in Medina? :-) Can you see a place like the Al-Masjid and NOT be inspired?! (Click on the photo to get a larger version, click on your ‘Back’ button to get back here.)

It is at times like this I wish I still could travel; I would have liked to have travelled to Medina, although as a non-Muslim, regrettably I would not have been allowed in to the mosque. According to the law in Saudi Arabia, non-Muslims are strictly prohibited from entering Central Medina. The penalty is deportation from the country. Documentation is checked upon entry and anyone not showing proof of being Muslim is denied entry. However, many parts of the city, particularly the outskirts and the Medina Airport, are open to all. So I suppose the best view of the Al-Masjid I can get is through TV and Internet then, and as a woman, even if I had been a Muslim, access to the Al-Masjid would still have been restricted, both to what time you can enter and where women are allowed to go. I really enjoy my ‘travels’ via TV, and I often go online afterwards to find more information, but what I can’t get via TV is to take my own photos where I ‘go’. Unfortunately, I would have to travel for real then :-)

The basic facts in my article tonight are borrowed from Wikipedia, thanks to them and thanks to those who uploaded the movies I have embedded. If you can’t see one or several of the movies it might be because you are visiting this post a long time after I wrote it. I am sorry if some of the links no longer work, that would be beyond my control. I hope you are enjoying the movies, any annoying ads popping up, just click the X inside the ad. Oh, and the photo from Stratford Bus Station, that’s mine, I took it when I made the book about East London in 2010, and made a chapter about Stratford. Incidentally, I will be writing a lot more about Stratford in the future, as it is now exactly 1 year till we are hosting the 2012 Olympic Games here. Yes, here, right here on my doorstep, in my borough, and 4 of the arenas, including the Olympic Stadium are at Stratford, in the Olympic Park, currently Europe’s largest building site! Ooooh, better not start on that theme, I will talk about that some other time – just say that there are pros and cons with all new developments, and when you create developments on this gigantic scale; the pros, and the cons can be enormous. Not sure which side we in general (the people in Newham) and me in particular will fall on eventually. But as I said, that’s a theme for a different post; better not start that one tonight! In fact, I think I will round up now, if you have been to the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and have sat under the umbrellas I really hope it was as spectacular as it looked as on the movies, I wish I could have experienced it and filmed it myself. Until next time we meet; take care.

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