Biggest Mosque in Europe
Light falls on light, in symbolic Mosque of Rome
Emma Van Dam , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Wed, 08/19/2009 8:52 AM | Features
Courtesy of the Italian Institute of Culture
“Building a mosque in an Islamic country is easy,” says architect Avio Mattiozzi. “But building one in a Western, predominantly Christian country like Italy, is not.”
The name Rome generally conjures up images of the Vatican, the hundreds of churches and cathedrals, the Pope. One does not think of mosques. With the dominating presences of The Basilica of Saint Paul above Roman soil, and the ancient catacombs of Rome below, it may seem surprising to some that this city is now also home to Europe’s biggest mosque. Spreading over 30,000 square meters, the mosque is capable of holding 40 000 people, numbers that allow the place of worship to be considered what Mattiozzi refers to as those “larger mosques that cater to nations”.
When the Mosque of Rome, photographs of which are now being showcased in an exhibition at the Italian Cultural Centre, was built in 1995, there were not many Muslims in Italy. Before its completion, when King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, the custodian of the two most significant mosques in the world, namely those in Mecca and Medina, visited Rome and asked for a place to pray, his adviser even had to inform him that Rome had no mosques, upon which King Faisal reportedly uttered “This is impossible!”.
In 1969, 24 Islamic nations collaborated with the Italian government to set up the Islamic Cultural Centre, which was to both finance the building of the Mosque of Rome, and establish stronger relations between the Islamic and Catholic “worlds”. Indonesia was one of these 24.
Architecturally, the mosque is, in Mattiozzi’s words, “a great achievement by one of the greatest architects of the last 50 years”. Paulo Portoghesi, the mosque’s architect, won a competition out of bids by 40 architects. But can such a mosque, built in Europe according to the design of a European, non-Muslim man, really reflect Islamic ideals? Can such hands really shape the space in which Muslim worship is to take place? Aware of the immense responsibility of the task, Portoghesi undertook research to understand the true purpose of the building he was to construct. He read the entire Koran, studied Islamic tradition and became absorbed in the architectural history of the mosques that had already been built.
Worship: The Great Mosque of Rome, the biggest in Europe, is rich in tributes to Islam. JP/Emma Van Dam
After this thorough preparation, he came up with the concept that was to dictate the modeling of the building. Meditating on the words of the Koran’s “Sura of the Light”, Portoghesi developed the mosque’s lighting system, which draws upon natural lighting, allowing the light to flow naturally into the mosque, like the water that flows around the mosque through the fountains, so that “light” falls “upon light” confirming through both faith and physical presence the Muslim belief that Allah is Light.
The focus on light and water in the design represents spiritual illumination and purification, just as the natural hues of the blue inside and terracotta on the outside represent water and earth.
From the pillars that recall the palm forest of the Magribi, to the concentric circles based on the cosmology of the seven heavens, to the mosaic patterns that grace the upper floors, which were made in the traditional way and honor the rule that no religious paintings or other images should be inside the mosque — the entire structure is rich in other tributes to Islam. The builders were also able to adhere to the traditional preference for mosque to be built with materials from the building site, thanks to the rich reserves of soft marble on site. This attention to the detailed protocol of Islamic culture demonstrates the architect’s close attention to and respect for the purpose of his design and the people he was designing it for.
One visitor to the exhibition, Judianti Isakayoga, mentioned that she and others, including a Catholic Indonesian, were “very surprised” by the presentation, and that, before seeing this exhibition, they could never have believed the presence of such a large mosque in such a country was really possible.
As Italian Ambassador Roberto Palmieri noted, seconded by deputy director of the cultural institute, Livia Raponi, an exhibition such as the one they have collaborated to organize, goes deeper than being just another part of a program commissioned by an embassy.
This was an independent project, a cultural contribution, an exchange intended to further strengthen their participation in the multifaith dialogue between Indonesia and Italy. The organizers state it is intended to change, even if only slightly, the image that most people have stamped in their heads of a strictly divided “Christian West”, and “Muslim East”. It opens up a series of images of an Italy previously unseen but very much a reality – Italy’s now increasingly visible multicultural reality.
As Raponi pointed out, that this deeply symbolic Islamic venue stands “at the very core of a Christian country” reveals that, in addition the obvious commercial trade links and historical connections, there can be contemporary religious ties between countries like Indonesia and Italy and is an example of globalization where religions are no longer separate but migrate with their people.
In November 2006, Pope Benedict XVI called for an “authentic dialogue” between Christians and Muslims, saying that the exchange should be “based on a sincere wish to know one another better”.
At the opening of the exhibition, which will run until Sept. 19, Ambassador Palmieri commented that the fact the mosque was finally completed in 1995 despite various difficulties over 20 years of labor “proves that the dialogue is there”. The mosque of Rome, with its landmark status and reputable size, facilitates this oft-mentioned “dialogue”, and is sure to represent the cultural transcendence that is taking place all over the world, including Italy, which now has a Muslim population of 1.2 million.
The writer is an intern at The Jakarta Post.
La Moschea di Roma.
Images of the Biggest
Mosque of Europe
Until Sept. 19
Italian Cultural Centre
(source : thejakartapost.com )