There is something almost mesmeric about mosques for me. I love the graceful, curved domes juxtaposed with the thin, spiky minarets and the haunting call of the muezzin conjures up an instant flavour of the exotic. Beirut is crammed with mosques, but the one I couldn’t get enough of was the Muhammad Al-Amin mosque.
Day, night or dusk, it sits implacably to one side of Martyr’s Square, its warm stone walls dusted in the light of the sun, bathed in rain, or glowing under a gentle night sky. Its cupolas are topped with jaunty blue skull caps, a blue reminiscent of the sea, an architectural reminder that the Mediterranean is less than a kilometre away. Inside, those same skull caps are lined with intricate geometric patterns in glowing reds, blues and golds. Implausibly sparkly chandeliers dangle from the ceiling. Thick carpet underfoot slightly muffles sound but can’t compensate for the vast echoing space between floor and roof, which reverberates loudly with silence.
Tripoli in the north and Sidon in the south are equally packed with mosques. Some squat boldly on main roads and squares, while others nestle shyly in the twisting alleys of age-old souks and have to be sought out, like pearls from oysters, or discovered by chance, like shells thrown up haphazardly on the beach. They all have their own distinct character – plain, ornate, cramped, airy, hemmed in, or edged with spacious courtyards. Even the newest mosques capture a certain sense of timelessness along with a stale, sharp smell of bare feet. In contrast to the ageless air are the glowing red digital boards displaying prayer times: this is Islam in the 21st century, after all.
In Tripoli, I visited a roll-call of mosques and madrasas with Ali, a uniquely eccentric Lebanese guide in a loose cream suit. He spoke excellent English, had lived in London, and had been married to (and divorced from), a Dutch woman. Ali knew all the mosques, the shortcuts to get to them, and the keepers of the keys to open them up if they were closed. He found me in the courtyard of Jami al-Kabir, or Great Mosque, and I spent an afternoon darting around after him as he whisked me round the sights of the old town. Slightly obsessed with finding and categorising by nationality every tourist in town, Ali would occasionally leap off unannounced and race after an unsuspecting foreign visitor. Thankfully, there weren’t many around, so I never completely lost my guide. And all the tourists we bumped into were staying in the same place I was, so I met them all later! Ali was charming if exhausting company. To restore our energy, we finished our tour with a well-earned beer in a backstreet off licence, with me practicing my Spanish with a Venezuelan fisherman and Ali chatting to the shopkeeper across a counter made of slabs of lager.
We took a more laissez-faire approach in Sidon, in the south of the country. After a few failed missions to locate buildings we’d read about in the guidebook, we reasoned that if we just walked around, we’d eventually stumble on most things. This seemed to work, and along the way we had several heartwarming encounters with the legendary Lebanese hospitality. Wandering through the shadowy early morning streets of the souk, for instance, my travel companion Mathias and I ventured into an unassuming café for a quick drink of tea. We waddled out hours later, having feasted on delicious flat breads dripping with olive oil and cheese and piled with juicy olives, vibrant tomatoes and bushes of fresh mint, washed down with orange juice from the citrus groves that surround the town. Our generous hosts included a retired fireman and a 1972 Olympic weight lifter who’d lived in Germany, had nine children by three wives and now ran a successful garage business.
Back to the mosques. On a rainy Friday morning the small mosque crouching amongst the shops of Shakrieh Street was packed to the gills. The voice of the imam screeched out over the wet roofs and the crowds jostled in, filling the pigeonholes of the cupboards in the doorway with shoes and taking their place on the worn red carpet inside. Peeking over their heads, we got a glimpse of the routine of worship, but it didn’t feel right to linger, so we went off to find the soap museum, before hopping off to more mesmeric mosques once prayers were over.
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