February 08, 2010

Minaret: Stone poetry

Shame on Switzerland. The Swiss finished up 2009 by banning the construction of new minarets. Switzerland is arguably the world's purest democracy -- every person's individual vote counts, and it's those votes that effectively determine policy. So the people really do rule, which makes this sad decision all the sadder: it is truly the Swiss people who have spoken.

I'm glad I've been to Switzerland several times and have taken in its astounding physical beauty, as I'd be hard pressed to book a trip to that Alpine land now. I'd feel I was supporting or at least turning a blind eye to intolerance -- not just random acts of intolerance that exist wherever there are humans, but mass, premeditated intolerance that will be written into the Swiss constitution. (France, please don't ban the burka or I will have to put you on my bad list, too.)

I've gazed at hundreds of minarets around the world -- in cities of all sizes, in dusty villages, desert outposts, mountaintop hamlets and seaside towns, in diverse countries on four continents. Many have been small and simple, some towering and ornate, and their age has ranged from just-built with funds collected by the citizens of a village to a thousand years old. They are invariably elegant.

I feel a quiet rush of peace when I see a minaret, and, when I've been lucky enough to hear the call to prayer that is a minaret's reason for standing tall and pointing heavenward, I feel doubly blessed.

I'll never forget the morning in Izmir, Turkey when Adam and I were awakened in a purple pre-dawn by multiple, simultaneous calls to prayer emanating from the dozen minarets we could see from our hotel room balcony. We stood on the balcony and tried to connect each call to the minaret that owned it. Izmir, site of ancient, biblical Smyrna, is built across broad hills, and the muezzins' calls bounced off the hillsides and reverberated through the city. It was a sublime moment, alone worth traveling halfway across the world.

Here are photos of a few of the minarets I've met: At top are the slender fingers of Istanbul's Blue Mosque and the Koutoubia in Marrakesh, Morocco.

At left, an Ottoman-era mosque sits in central Sofia, Bulgaria, and below, a richly-tiled prayer tower rises from the floor of a valley in Morocco's Atlas Mountains.

And here, the Qutb Minar, built in 1199. Rising 238 feet above the streets of old Delhi, it is the world's tallest brick minaret and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.