Travel Guide to Muslim Europe

With travel writer and European Muslim heritage specialist Tharik Hussain

The ‘Aunt’ of Muslim Europe

According to Cypriot Christian mythology, the stunning Larnaca Salt Lake was formed by Saint Lazarus when he was thirsty and denied grapes by a mean-fisted local woman. The biblical figure famously resurrected by Jesus is said to have cursed the woman’s vineyard, which once stood where the lake is, by saying “I bless this place to always produce salt.” But it isn’t to find a companion of Isa that Muslims come to this serene little spot in southern ‘Greek’ Cyprus. Nestled in a lush green oasis of palms, on the lower western bank of the lake sits the Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque. ‘Hala’ is derived from the Arabic word ‘khala’, to mean maternal aunt, and Sultan is used to honour the ‘aunt’ allegedly buried next to the mosque. For this is no ordinary aunt. Umm Haram bint Milhan is believed to have died here around 647AD/27AH after falling off a horse or mule and breaking her neck. She had arrived on the island with one of the first expeditions of Muslims into European territories. According to Sunni Muslim scholars, Umm Haram was a maternal aunt of none other than the Prophet Muhammad(s). Exactly how is unclear, but the two popular theories being that either she was his aunt through radaa’ah (breastfeeding) or that Umm Haram was, in fact, his father or grandfather’s maternal aunt. The current mosque dates from the early 19th century Ottoman period. However, the grave is believed to have been rediscovered in the 17th century by a group of dervishes who would come to the serene banks of the salt lake in search of seclusion. These dervishes were led to the grave by Umm Haram herself in visions where she appeared to them. “After these visions, they made a request to the Ulama, the scholars of the time.  They said ‘we are having such a spiritual experience with so and so claimed (in the visions). Would you be able to identify this?” The scholars went through the archives and looked into the books, and found the documents telling about Umm Haram’s place of burial in Cyprus … explains Shakir Alemdar, Imam of the Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque and Representative of the Grand Mufti of Cyprus in the Republic of Cyprus.

The tomb lies directly behind the wall of the mosque where the mehrab is, facing towards Makka. Imam Alemdar’s quaint little mosque, with its distinct pencil-like minaret and large dome, no longer functions like a mosque, though. Listed with the Cypriot government as an ancient monument as opposed to a place of worship, the mosque has the opening hours of a tourist site. This means during the day it welcomes visitors of all faiths who wander about the pretty little complex admiring the wudu fountain, former guesthouses, cemetery and the famous shrine. Then at 6pm, the gates are locked. No evening or early morning prayers are ever performed here. If the traditions are true and the little sand coloured mosque on the edge of Larnaca Salt Lake is indeed the site of the first known Muslim grave in Europe, it would make the shrine one of the most important sites of European Muslim heritage on the continent. It would also be the earliest physical evidence that Islam has been in Europe since the very first generation of Muslims. Whatever the case, says Imam Alemdar, the Muslims of Cyprus have always treated the mosque and the shrine with the utmost reverence. “I’ll never forget my grandmother’s mother, her name was Amina. She said ‘every year we used to come here on donkey back, bringing cheese, olives, olive oil, bread for them (residents of the mosque) as a present’. And they used to leave three o’clock in the morning and they used to reach here 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock this time. So it was about an eight hour journey for them.” And she said it was the most important part of their lives to be able to do this every year. It was like a small hajj for them, a small pilgrimage for them to be able to come and visit the tekke (shrine) of Umm Haram, and pay their respects and do their prayers and go back to their villages afterwards . . .

Where in the world:

The Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque is located east of Cyprus’ premier airport, Larnaca. The salt lake it sits on and comes right up to the airport’s perimeter. You simply need to take the conveniently named ‘Tekke Road’ off the B4 highway next to the airport.

In and out:

Numerousairlines fly direct from London to Larnaca airport. The most frequent carriers are British Airways and Easyjet.

Top tips:

This important site is ideal as a stopover excursion. The mosque is a short drive from Larnaca airport and can easily be combined with a trip to the Middle East, for example, stopping here only briefly. This way you are not paying specifically for a holiday to Cyprus. If you do go for this, be sure to allow at least four hours or so. A lengthier stop will let you see the sight at a more leisurely pace.

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