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10/19/2010 09:19 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Beauty We Fear: The Great Mosques of the World As Seen Through the Eyes of the World's Great Writers

This is the first in a series of posts that G. Roger Denson wrote on mosques as seen through the eyes of the world's great novelists, poets and journalists. The complete collection is available with photographs of the great mosques as an eBook @ Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke called beauty "the beginning of terror," a consumption of the spirit by which "we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us." It is a declaration to which we immediately retaliate for its audacity. Beauty equals terror? Can anything be more absurd? We think we know beauty. It is that simultaneously ubiquitous yet elusive quality so many of us chase after or strive to achieve. If not the beauty of the physical, certainly the beauty of human character and ideals inspires us. Then there is the beauty of nature that impels us to love, to procreate, to carry on with life's endeavors, to defy all the obstacles we encounter along the way. How could anything so compelling and productive as the beauty of the world possibly be counted a terror?

Democracy, Christianity, Islam, America. These are the ideological states I either grew into or studied closely enough to learn of the beauties each held out. Yet all seem today to be colliding in ways that show there are dark sides to beauty. And then there is the issue of the placement of a mosque two blocks from Manhattan's Ground Zero -- or for that matter the entry of a mosque in any given American neighborhood -- that has people squaring off over ideals in a way that conveys one man's beauty is indeed another man's terror.

But need beauty be so polarizing? And is this even what Rilke meant when he entwines beauty and terror? I know from having traveled over a good part of the Muslim world, and as a student of world art and architecture, that there are few man-made things as amply possessed of the beauty we deign to call sublime as the many great mosques of the world. And yet for many average Americans, mosques are not things of beauty. They are sites of terror.

About that terror. At heart, it's not really the mosque near Ground Zero, or any other mosque, that's at issue here. It's much more a matter of what's missing for the majority of Americans who oppose and fear mosques -- an image of some real, concrete mosque to counter the stereotype so many harbor of the Islamic place of worship as breeding ground for the most appalling terror. All of which brings me to wonder what Americans would think if they immersed themselves in any one of the great mosques of the world long enough to learn something life-transforming about the beauty, harmony, and humanity that Islam has brought to civilization in the course of its 1400 years.

No doubt to the hardened Islamophobe, the fact that the great mosques of Islam count among the most beautiful architectural achievements the world has ever known is irrelevant. But it's anything but irrelevant to world history. The enlightened traveler of Islamic nations knows this; as did the Western poets, novelists, critics, and historians who began penning praises of the great mosques with the beginning of the Enlightenment. It was in the 18th century that adventurous citizens of the West first felt freed from the constraints of Christian dogma to publicly express their awe -- and terror -- at seeing "heathen" edifices whose artistic grandeur, organic variation, and intellectual complexity stood without equal in the West. Of course the premise of all great sacred architecture is that its designs should inspire awe upon its visitors to the point of leading them to conversion. And herein lies one terror that the great mosques held for the Christians who knew them -- that they were so beautiful as to convert even the followers of Jesus to the beauty of Islam.

The travelers and writers of the Enlightenment and Romantic movements of the 18th and 19th centuries also initially feared the mosque's power to convert. But by then the conversion in question was aesthetic and cultural, not religious. For the last three centuries, it's been an aesthetic and cultural conversion that keeps the secular minds of the West returning to the sacred architecture of Islam. One of the earliest such secular conversions is recounted in The Turkish Embassy Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montague, an English aristocrat whose husband served as British Ambassador to Turkey between 1716-18. Not only does Lady Montague show remarkable freedom from the Christian prejudice of her times toward the sacred architecture of Islam, she writes of a kind of aesthetic conversion disposing her away from the churches with which she grew up. Of her visit to the Mosque of Sultan Selim in Istanbul (see slideshow), Lady Montague writes, "dressed in my Turkish habit, and admitted without scruple ... I thought it the noblest building I ever saw ... that it is not divided with pews and encumbered with forms and benches like our churches; nor the pillars ... disfigured by the little tawdry images and pictures that give the Roman Catholic churches the air of toy shops ... in point of magnificence to this I have described, is infinitely beyond any church in Germany or England."

A century after Lady Mary Montague's 1718 publication of The Turkish Embassy Letters, with its rhapsodic accounts on the great mosques of Turkey, the Middle East drew the most celebrated writers and scholars the European continent was to produce. Although it was a largely secular movement eastward, it was no less a conversion in aesthetic sensibilities of elite travelers as any religious pilgrimage produced. François-René Chateaubriand the French author of such exotic novels as Les Natchez (1799), Atala (1801) and René (1802) was so transformed by his tour of Palestine, Egypt, Istanbul, and Moorish Spain in 1806-7, he would come to habitually see the architecture of Islam before his eyes even when traveling through Christian Europe. Twenty-six years after his sojourn to Egypt, on a journey through the heartland of Bavaria, the Frenchman would remark in his memoirs, "Leaving Bayreuth ... slender trimmed pine-trees recall the pillars of the Cairo mosque, or the Cathedral of Cordoba," that "cathedral" being the converted mosque left behind by the Moors in Spain. There is of course more than just a visual resemblance at work here: Chateaubriand has within him an ideological lodestone perpetually inclining him toward the sacred grandeur of the East. Then, too, Chateaubriand had long before congratulated himself for what he believed was his discovery of the source of the mosque's pleasing effect. Having come upon the earliest mosques of Cairo, Chateaubriand proclaims not the Muslim caliphs nor their architects to be the origin of Islamic architectural grandeur; rather he romanticizes a legacy stretching back four millennia.

I can perceive in the [ancient] Egyptian architecture, so heavy, so majestic, so vast, so durable, the germ of this [Islamic] architecture, so light, so cheerful, so delicate, and so frail: the minaret is an imitation of the obelisk: the arabesques are raised hieroglyphics, instead of engraved hieroglyphics. As to those forests of columns which compose the interior of the Arabic mosques and support a flat roof, the temples of Memphis, Dendera, Thebes, Meroue, still exhibit patterns of this kind of building ... the imagination of the descendants of Ishmael could not help being struck by the wonders of the Pharaohs: they borrowed nothing of the Greeks, with whom they were unacquainted, but they strove to copy the arts of a celebrated nation which they had continually before their eyes. Whether vagabonds, conquerors, or travelers, they imitated immutable Egypt in their course.

Chateaubriand is doing something more than tracing the history of architectural designs and motifs. Because of the history of antagonism between Islam and the West, Chateaubriand cannot bring himself to proclaim Muslim civilization to be Europe's foreign and fearsome sibling without first anchoring Islamic culture in the far more benign (if extinct) Egypt of the pharaohs--what Chateaubriand came to see as their common parent. Unfortunately, what Chateaubriand and other travelers of his time discovered to be common to the West and Islam has not resonated in American culture today, largely because Americans haven't made the excursions necessary to know. Since air travel first made the Middle East accessible to the middle class, American tourists have shown an eagerness to fly thousands of miles to swarm over the tombs and temples of the pharaohs. Yet, Egyptians complain that most Americans won't travel the few blocks from their Egyptian hotels to visit the most beautiful and historically significant mosques in the world. If they did, they might, like Chateaubriand, no longer be able to see the West without also seeing the East. "I am therefore inclined to consider all kinds of architecture, not excepting the Gothic, as being of Egyptian origin," writes Chateaubriand, "for nothing ever came from the North but the sword and devastation." If words ever conveyed a thorough aesthetic and cultural conversion, these surely count among them.

French journalist and novelist Theophile Gautier in his 1845 book, Wanderings in Spain (1843), not only professes an aesthetic preference for the architecture of Islam, he goes further than Chateaubriand in culturally deferring to the Islamic entities that produced it. "I have always regretted," Gautier confesses, "that the Moors did not remain in possession of Spain, which certainly only lost by their expulsion." Upon arriving at the Mosque of Cordoba (see slide show), Gautier writes of the chambers left unspoiled by Spanish proprietorship as composing "one of the most marvelous buildings in the world ... an instance of a state of civilization which has reached its greatest development, of art arrived at its culminating point; all beyond it is nothing but a retrogression."

Such high praise for mosques is voiced in any number of the eastward travelogues and treatises on art written in the 19th and 20th centuries. Julia Pardoe, an English poet and writer of such Orientalist novels as The City of the Sultan and Romance of the Harem, was permanently transformed in 1836 when she accompanied her father to Istanbul. In The Beauties of the Bospherous, the writer of romances accounts for her entry into the great Mosque of Sultan Ahmed (see slide show) with the accommodation of masquerading as a Turkish man. "I stained my eyebrows with some of the dye common in the harem; concealed my female attire beneath a magnificent pelisse, lined with sables, which fastened from my chin to my feet; pulled a fez low upon my brow; and I sallied forth on my adventurous errand." This despite being advised by a lady friend that she should be torn limb from limb in the event of her discovery as both the "first infidel" to enter the great sanctuary (an unlikelihood given the Ottomans' extensive 19th-century project of Westernization), and entry into chambers forbidden women of the Muslim faith by the gender-separatist law of hijab. In fact, upon her entry to the mosque, Pardoe finds only the calm space of contemplation to reflect on the many historic narratives "that throw a halo around the Mosque of Sultan Ahmed and which greatly enhances its actual beauty; and the traveler loiters willingly amid its dim magnificence, calling up visions of the past which stamp an extraneous value upon every detail of the edifice."

No doubt because G. K. Chesterton was a writer highly attentive to the form of writing, in his 1920 travelogue, The New Jerusalem, Chesterton lingers over the details of Arabic script painted into tiles on the walls and dome of the Temple Mount's Mosque of Omar, better known today as Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock (see slide show). Such painted script Chesterton finds "at once so elegant and so exact that it can be used as a fixed ornament," with phrases "repeated again and again like ornamental stars or flowers ... like the chorus of a song. This is the impression everywhere produced by this spirit of the sandy wastes; this is the voice of the desert the muezzin cries from the high turrets of the city. Indeed one is driven to repeating oneself about the repetition, so overpowering is the impression."

The ever more sociologically-minded Edward William Lane, who visited Egypt in the years 1833-35, was more interested in the effect produced by the mosque on Muslims. In his Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians (1836), Lane relays, "The utmost solemnity and decorum are observed in the public worship of the Muslims... The pride and fanaticism which they exhibit in common life, in intercourse with persons of their own, or of a different faith, seem to be dropped on their entering the mosque, and they appear wholly absorbed in the adoration of their Creator--humble and downcast, yet without affected humility or a forced expression of countenance."

No less self-absorbed a figure than Lord Byron, who died while siding with the Greeks in their war against the Ottoman Turks, took to comparing the architecture of mosques to the poetry and poets he esteemed. In his letters to more than one acquaintance back in England, Byron analogizes the poetry of the 18th century with his beloved and perfectly composed Parthenon of Athens, while the poetry of the 19th century he compares to Turkish mosques. Although finding the Parthenon superior, Byron is by no means slighting mosques, considering that the poet could place only one architectural icon from the West above an entire class of Islamic monuments. Byron then accords the architectural genius of Islam the greatest respect when he compares Alexander Pope, whom he regards as the greatest of English poets, to be both gothic cathedral and mosque in his captivating force of expression. By the end of the 19th century, mosques become so esteemed in intellectual culture, they become lyrical, escapist, and hallucinogenic motifs for writers who never set sight on them. This includes poets whose influence would have deep reverberations throughout the twentieth century--Arthur Rimbaud shutting his eyes to envision mosques in place of factories; Comte de Lautremont making mosques a motif of supernatural power.


Read more of what European, American, and secular Muslim writers of recent centuries wrote about the great mosques of Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, India, Jerusalem and more in G. Roger Denson's eBook, The Beauty We Fear: The Great Mosques of the World, now available on Kindle and The Nook @ Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. The writers discussed include Naguib Mahfouz, Khaled Hosseini, Salman Rushdie, Shahrnush Parsipur, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Paul Bowles, Malcolm X, and Edward Said.

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Read other posts by G. Roger Denson on Huffington Post in the archive.

The Beauty We Fear: The Great Mosques of the World