A Parisian Paradise

Travel Guide to Muslim Europe with travel writer and European Muslim heritage specialist Tharik Hussain

The Grand Mosquee Paris is in Paris’ Latin Quarter, south of the River Seine, close to the city’s Botanical Gardens.

It is the French capital’s little slice of Moorish magic – its very own Alhambra if you will. Centred around a stunning riyad-like courtyard of arabesque arcades with an elegant oyster-patterned fountain in the middle, the mosque is a magnificent homage to the classical golden age of Islamic art and architectural style known as ‘Andalusian’ or ‘Hispano-Moorish’ – one that matured and thrived between the 8th and 15th centuries in Muslim Iberia. This style is typified by colourful tiles of beautiful geometric patterns, intricately carved vegetal motifs and elegant slimline pillars – inspired by classical Byzantine design, as well as cursive Arabic calligraphy. It is truly ‘European-Muslim’ in both style and content.

All of these features are so faithfully recreated in the Grand Mosquee Paris that when you step inside it is as if you have wandered into a mosque nestled somewhere in the crowded medinas of  Fez or Meknes.

Like its ancient Moorish counterparts, the Grand Mosquee also boasts a towering square, 33-metre high minaret clad in mesmerising patterned blue tiles that soars into the Parisian sky and a central prayer hall topped with a green triangular cone, as opposed to a dome – a feature that came much later. Inevitably, there is also a delightful garden of creeping vines, overhanging palms, and blooming flora complemented by the flow of gently trickling water.

Such mosques first appeared in Spanish cities like Seville, Cordoba and Granada, at a time when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in relative harmony under Muslim rulers. Fittingly, one of the most remarkable tales about the Grand Mosquee Paris describes how it saved descendants of another legacy of that period – the Spanish Jews – during one of Europe’s darkest hours.

Shortly after the mosque’s foundation, Paris was occupied by the Germans in World War II and the city’s Jews faced expulsion and death. Many of those that lived near the mosque and had Muslim friends were Sephardic Jews – Jews who heralded from Moorish Spain. They had much in common with Paris’ North African Muslim community; both were descendants of the ancient Moors, spoke Arabic, did not eat pork and practised male circumcision.

It is believed up to a hundred Jews were provided with false documents by the mosque claiming they were Muslim so they could gain safe passage out of France and survive the Holocaust. It is a remarkable tale that has been dramatised in the acclaimed French movie Les Hommes Libres (Free Men).

The idea of a mosque in Paris was first proposed by the Ottoman Caliph, Abdul Hamid II, who spent many years lobbying the French authorities to provide a place of worship for the Muslims of France. They eventually yielded and on October 19, 1922, at a ceremony attended by Muslim notables from across the world, the first stone for the Grand Mosquee Paris’ mihrab – the niche where the Imam stands – was laid. The building of the mosque was also seen as an acknowledgement for Muslim soldiers who had died fighting for France in World War I.

“We cannot thank our African brothers enough for their fidelity and dedication,” said Paul Fleurot of the Council of Paris on the day the mehrab stone was laid, describing the mosque as a monument to the memory of the fallen Muslim soldiers of France.

The mosque was inaugurated by President Gaston Doumergue on 15 July 1926 and the first prayer was led by the popular Sufi Sheikh, Ahmad al Alawi, founder of the Alawiyya Sufi order. Today the Grand Mosquee Paris is split into four distinct segments, the religious; grand patio, prayer room and minaret – more or less off limits to non-Muslim visitors, the scientific; the madrasah and the library, the garden; 3,500 square metres of green serenity, and the commercial; the cafe and hammam.

Where in the world: The Grand Mosquee Paris is in Paris’ Latin Quarter, west of the Botanical gardens on 2 Place de Puits de l’Ermite 5e, Paris. It is easily identified by the large green cone that covers the main prayer hall and the towering square minaret of stunning geometric tiles.

In and out: The Grand Mosquee Paris is very well served by public transport. There are several Metro stations within walking distance of the mosque, the closest two are Censier-Daubenton and Jussieu, and both are served by the pink 7 line, whilst Jussieu is also served by the yellow 10 line.

Top tips:  For a fully-informed wander, join one of the morning or afternoon guided tours laid on by the mosque. Afterwards be sure to stop off in the delightfully quaint little cafe on the corner called La Mosquee cafe, where you can sit in the shade of fig and olive trees to sip sweet, refreshing mint tea and taste deliciously nutty North African sweets.

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