Based on a show of hands, it was almost everyone’s first time.
After a morning trip through Coptic Cairo – the capital’s ancient, spiritual hub – our group took final instructions from Dennis on how to conduct ourselves inside a mosque. Africa’s first mosque, actually, called Amr Ibn Al As. It was built in 642 A.D.
Women could sit, but not lay down. Men could do as they pleased. (This double standard governs much of Egyptian social culture.) Women would use their scarves to cover their hair. We would also enter through a separate entrance than men, a tradition in the loosest sense of the word since the policy emerged last year. Since then, it’s drawn tons of tourist attention, though, which says a lot about the Western psyche and how it will rubberneck at anything “authentic.”
Anyways. We would finally take off our shoes on a big, red rug outside the aesthetically modest, yet mammoth, mosque, then step inside.
These instructions failed to mention the ethereal, overwhelming sense of spirituality and repose that would basically commandeer the entire group for a half-hour as we wandered silently, and wide-eyed, through its open air and across a giant slate of pristine white marble at its center, completely exposed to the sun.
I’m not a religious person, by any stretch of the imagination. And I don’t usually advertise the fact that I’m a life-long atheist, but in this context, it seems important: no service has conjured up some secret, latent spirituality that my heathen exterior was hiding, let alone a building. But my parents raised me Roman Catholic, so the only holy spaces I’ve visited seemed more concerned with opulence, conversion and fund-raising than plain-faced divinity.
Amr Ibn Al As didn’t shake the foundations of my belief, but it calmed me, and made me feel, for perhaps the first time in my life, a real sense of appreciation for religion. It was absolutely simple. It was architecturally modest, and large, but spacious – not full of opulent stuff like gold inlays or icons (which we saw en masse in Coptic Cairo’s series of hanging churches, chaplets and synagogues). It muted the sounds of the city to a dull hum; even birds were chirping louder inside the mosque than cars could honk outside. And it encouraged an individual experience: Muslims knelt to pray or meditate in solitude.
There were no gimmicks, and I liked that.
Clarice took some stunning photos inside. Check them out here.