Brussels’ Oriental Gem

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

Amidst the urban sprawl of Belgium’s capital city, Brussels, there is a large patch of pristine greenery in the city’s European quarter. There, perched on the very northwestern edge, peering out from behind tall oak and beech trees, sits a little slice of late 19th-century Orientalism.

The building that is now the Great Mosque of Brussels was built in 1879, predating the construction of the oldest mosques in northern Europe (in Liverpool and Woking, England). However, this stunning round structure designed by architect Ernest Van Humbeeck was not meant to be a mosque at all. It began life as the Oriental Pavilion for the National Exhibition, the 50-year anniversary celebrations of Belgian independence from the Dutch, and was one of several monuments built in the Parc du Cinquantenaire for the fanfare event, which much like the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, reeked of imperialism.

Held at the bequest of King Leopold II, the second King of the Belgians (1865-1909), all the structures built for the Exhibition were made out of iron, glass and stone to represent the economic and industrial prowess of Belgium, and the 30-hectare park was landscaped with gardens, water features and trees.

As successive exhibitions and festivals took place at the park, further monuments were added, including the park’s centrepiece, the Arcade du Cinquantenaire, a mammoth triple arch built in the neoclassical style and topped by a bronze quadriga. This was paid for using funds from rubber exports from the Congo Free State (modern-day DR Congo) – a ‘state’ personally controlled by Leopold II for his own financial exploitation.

Humbeeck’s original Oriental Pavilion was a quintessentially colonially imagined ‘oriental’ building. It was designed to aesthetically resemble a mosque but was not intended to serve as one. Surviving images of the original design show a large ‘roundhouse’ covered by an understated dome with a small turret in the centre of the apex. This was flanked by a minaret in the North African, Fatimid-style. Meanwhile, the entrance had a much more pronounced but smaller dome, beneath which three gothic windows sat under an arch on the first level. On the ground floor, the entrance was marked by a typically North African Moorish arch and wooden door. Several elegant archways with slim pillars sat to the right of the entrance.

At the 1880 event, the Oriental Pavilion housed a monumental fresco by Charles-Marie-Emile Wauters called ‘Cairo and the Banks of the Nile’, a 114-metre work of art that took six months to paint and was displayed in dramatic 360 degrees to a great reception.

Sadly though, by the middle of the 20th century, having served its main purpose, the Oriental Pavilion was slowly neglected. This was exacerbated by the impact of the two world wars. In 1967, when the then King of Saudi Arabia, King Faysal Ibn Abd-al Aziz, visited Belgium to negotiate oil contracts, the beautiful oriental building had been neglected for so long it had fallen into disrepair. To save it from complete disaster, the Belgian King Baudouin decided to gift it to the Saudi monarch. King Faysal, in turn, proposed to pay for its renovation and conversion into a mosque for the fledgeling Brussels Muslim community. Founded in a small rented building in 1963 and made up of mainly Moroccan and Turkish immigrants, Brussels’ Muslim community was grateful and saw the new mosque building as a welcome gift.

Work led by Tunisian architect Mongi Boubaker began to convert the central space into a functioning prayer hall, tastefully decorated and featuring a mihrab for the imam to stand in the direction of Makkah.

The modern incarnation of the Oriental Pavilion was officially opened in 1978 – almost a hundred years after its original construction. Both kings, Baudouin and Khalid Ibn Abdal Aziz of Saudi Arabia, inaugurated the new Great Mosque of Brussels.

Today the stunning building is also the home of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Belgium, which facilitates Islamic teaching for young and old and regularly hosts various community and cultural activities. The building is open to members of the public outside of the five daily prayer times, allowing visitors to appreciate the richly decorated interior which features an ornate wall housing the mihrab, a huge central chandelier of glistening crystal pendants, and slimline pillars running through the central prayer area. At the heart of Belgium’s Muslim community, the Great Mosque of Brussels is also an oriental gem at the heart of the country’s capital.

Where in the world: The mosque is in the east of Brussels. It sits in the north-western corner of the Parc du Cinquantenaire, just where the busy
N23 meets Avenue de la Renaissance.
In and out: Bus 15 is the easiest way to get to the mosque from Brussels Airport, which sits northeast of the mosque. Alternatively, lines 1 and 5 on the Metro stop at Schuman, which is a mere five-minute walk from the mosque.
Top tips:The mosque sits close to the southern tip of Schaerbeek, a neighbourhood of Brussels where halal food and services are plentiful. Pop along to meet local Belgian Muslims and eat some of the finest shawarma this side of central Europe.


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