I just got back from a day trip to Ajlone and Jerash today, expecting to be sitting here writing about the unique experiences I had today. And yes there were unique experiences: We got offered dinner with our taxi driver, a tour around the locked side of the castle by the supervisor, and free tea from a Bedouin man. However instead of writing an in depth discussion about how important these two cities have been throughout history, I decided to write about a special site visit that more pertains to the culture of this part of the world. I’ve traveled to 5 different Middle Eastern countries now (if you count Palestine as a country) all of which have a high percentage of Muslim population. I went out of my way to, in each of these 5 countries, visit at least one major mosque and one smaller mosque. And to my surprise prayer, the call to prayer, and the Friday sermon differed from place to place.
I want to pause for a second and put into context how much religion is infused with daily life in these countries. 5 times a day, from every mosque all over the Middle East the call to prayer goes off. In the more westernized locations you may not hear it over the roaring sound of cars on the road. In Jordan I’ve heard there are 5,700 mosques with over 100 new ones being built in the second half of 2013. So they are a prominent presence. You’d think that hearing the call go off at 4am in the morning would be infuriating, but it’s really quite the opposite. In an activity we did with my study abroad program, several of the students said what they’re going to miss the most from this country is the call to prayer. It is beautiful, and if you’re on top of one of the hills in Jordan when one goes off you can hear several mosques going off all at once, and there are very few sounds in the world that are more powerful.
Abu Dhabi: Sheik Zayed Mosque
Call from Galata Tower; Istanbul
Sultanahmet, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia; Istanbul
From the Citadel; Amman, Jordan
And my personal favorite....
JERUSALEM. Wait till the end, the call to prayer and the church bells start going off at the same time. It's beautiful.
If using Jordan as the benchmark the only country with similar prayer style I have visited is –no surprise- Palestine. Granted praying at Al-Aqsa mosque is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Once you exit the old city and ascent onto the Haram al-Sharif, you feel like you’ve entered a new world. The chaos and the noisiness of the souk are left behind, the Israeli guards at every corner are gone, and you’re left with trees, birds chirping, peacefulness and serenity, and a majestic golden dome in front of you. Other than it being the most powerful and spiritual place I have ever been, the actual athan, prayer, and sermon are all the same as they are here in Jordan. The only difference is there’s a sea of Muslims from all over the world, and after Friday prayer there’s a big demonstration. Al-Aqsa Mosque is also the only place I have ever seen them formally as a group pray Dhuhr and A’sir together since there are always foreigners from far way lands, and if you are traveling you can combine the two prayers.
In Turkey things were a lot different, starting from the call to prayer. The call to prayer in Turkey is significantly longer than in Jordan or Palestine. In the latter two, the call to prayer takes no more than 5 minutes, and then the mosques wait about another 10 minutes before starting the prayer. In Turkey, the call to prayer is elongated twice as long as in Jordan taking a good 10 minutes, and as soon as the call finishes the mosques being the prayer. However the biggest surprise to me was that the Friday sermon before the midday prayer was given in Turkish. Everywhere else I have ever been whether it be an English, Arabic, or Hindi speaking country, every sermon has been in Arabic. This does fit perfectly with the Turkification process, where Ataturk tried to diversify Turkey from the rest of the Arab World, which occurred in the 1920’s and 30’s.
As for the Gulf, thing’s are a little different. In the Emirates, the actual rituals were for all intents and purposes the same as Jordan. However the institutions- meaning the mosques themselves- are much more commercialized. In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, every mosque –whether it was the iconic Sheikh Zayed Mosque or any random corner mosque, they had visiting hours and unlike Turkey –which had many more prominent mosques (Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet Mosque, just to name a few) – the Emirates seemed to deem these institutions as more a tourist site than a religious place. In Turkey the mosques would be closed to tourists during prayer times, whereas in Dubai and Abu Dhabi the mosque was visit-able at all times during the day, and the worshippers would go into a smaller side room to go pray. I managed to visit 4 of the 7 Emirates, and naturally Sharjah and Ras al Kheimeh didn’t have this same touristy feel that the other two did.
The 5th and final place I visited was Oman. I unfortunately wasn’t able to leave Muscat and I wasn’t there long enough to truly understand Omani culture. But what I will say is that of the 3 mosques I entered, all three were Shi’a which was a surprise to me, seeing as Oman is considered a Sunni Muslim country. Shi’a pray a little differently than Sunni’s do.
I leave this country in 20 days and go back to the States for the first time since early June. It’s all winding down…. There’s still a LOT I want to say and write about, so keep checking the blog!