Medan: "The Grand Mosque"

The Grand Mosque
North Sumatra
Republic of Indonesia
June 25, 2008

Dear Family and Friends,

Salamat Pagi. Good Morning.

The Mesjid Raya or Grand Mosque in Medan is truly a grand structure. Commissioned by the sultan in 1908, the Moroccan style building has ornate carvings, Italian marble, and stained glass from China.

Since Islam prohibits the artistic depiction of any living creature, Muslim artists and artisans must use their talents to create unusual geometric shapes and forms. Although this mosque is one of the largest in Indonesia, the pastel green and white Italian marble lends a feeling of lightness and delicacy. The enormous black domes are unique and add a feeling of great power to the surrounding buildings and grounds, and to the mosque itself.

Did the sultan order black domes in anticipation of the eye-stinging, smoky pollution and exhaust fumes of this capital city of more than two million? I never went anywhere without my bottle of Insto, the Indonesian version of Visine.

Near the black-domed Mosque is the bright mustard yellow Istana Maimoon, the Maimoon Palace . It was built in North African style by the sultan of Deli in 1888. His descendants still occupy one section of the palace.

The palace also has elegant Moroccan style archways and pillars. There is a large throne room and an extra-large gold throne. Hats and costumes are for rent for aspiring sultans and their consorts. Usually I am first in line to pose in a costume, but since my travel partner had not yet arrived I took my own photos and looked for lunch.

Small restaurants normally have a glass case in front with an assortment of vegetable, fish and chicken items. You can choose what you want; the server brings the food and a large bowl of rice to the table. Or, the staff will bring you about ten or twelve small dishes; you eat what you like, pay for what you eat and the rest is put back in the case. I had a couple of my favorites: fried balls of nicely flavored mashed potatoes, stir-fried greens, and spicy fish - sometimes the whole small fish, sometimes a fish steak covered with red and green chili. I passed on the curried fish head, a local delicacy.

After lunch I saw a sign for a small mosque so I wandered down a narrow street into a residential neighborhood. Ladies were peeling vegetables, wash was hung from the roof tops, kids were playing in the alleys and everyone seemed pleased to say hello or simply ignore me as they went about their business. I sat on the steps of the mosque with an elderly man who wearing his traditional black Sukarno hat. Bunches of kids were curious and all of them insisted on having their picture taken. They giggled when I showed them their image on the digital display.

Many colorful, art deco style buildings still remain from colonial Medan 's mercantile past. The Tjong A Fie Mansion is the former residence of a famous Chinese merchant. The pastel yellow home mixes Victorian and Chinese styles.

Across from the mansion is anther relic of Dutch colonial times, the Tip Top Restaurant. Unfortunately, the expansive interior is dim and depressing, the service slow and the food mediocre. A better choice was the Restoran Simpang Tiga. Utami and I ordered off the menu: spicy cooked water lily greens, broccoli and mushrooms, and sweet and sour chicken. They also serve frothy fruit drinks. I chose fresh green apple.

My "travel partner?" "Utami?"

I met Utami Ardianingrum three years ago. She had just finished her university studies in Yogyakarta , Java. She was working at an Internet café in Bali . She agreed to accompany me for a few days on my trip west into Java. We have remained friends ever since. I invited her to accompany me this year to Sumatra .

Utami now 26 is not a typical young Muslim woman. She explained to her parents that she does not intend to marry any time soon and have lots of babies which seems to be the norm for most young Indonesian women. Instead she is continuing with her studies and pursuing a career in the travel business. She wants to see the world. Fortunately, her sister and brother are married and have given their parents grandchildren so Utami has the freedom she desires.

Utami is still a practicing Muslim. When she arrived in Medan to meet me, we went back to the Grand Mosque where she joined other women in the washing and prayer rituals. She says her prayers every day.

Indonesia with a total population of almost 250 million is the largest Muslim country in the world. Nevertheless, Indonesia is a diverse land with millions of Hindus, and many Christians and Buddhists. All important holidays of the major religions are celebrated as national holidays.

All this diversity is evident in Medan . Utami and I visited a beautiful Chinese Buddhist temple, and a typical Hindu temple with its many multicolored carvings. Constructed in traditional Sumatran style, Catholic and Protestant churches are everywhere.

The natural bio-diversity lies north of Medan in the jungle of North Sumatra . We are off to see the monkeys and the apes.

Selamat tinggal,

Raja Jan



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