Dear fellow travellers
Tromsø has many charms, though they may not be quite evident at this time of the year when deep winter darkness still shrouds the town in Arctic Norway. The island town can pop a few surprises, however, for it turns out that Tromsø has a small Islamic community. Ramadan is edging ever closer to the longer summer days. This year it starts in mid-September, and next year it will commence about a fortnight earlier. Doubtless the faithful at the world's most northerly mosque have some special arrangement when it comes to agreeing the times of sunrise and sunset once Ramadan slips forward into that summer season when the sun never sets in northern Norway.
That Tromsø has a flourishing Muslim community is explained in part by its status as a university town. A bit out in the wilderness perhaps for a centre of learning, but a little like Llanbedr Pont Steffan (Lampeter) in mid-Wales which has, for almost two centuries, been home to one of Europe's smallest university colleges. Created in the eighteen-twenties to offer a university education to trainee clergy, Lampeter's founding fathers would probably be surprised to find that nowadays their university campus is home to what must surely be Britain's remotest mosque. It is the student population which has brought Islam to the banks of the River Teifi, abetted no doubt by the fact that the university's well respected theology department hosts a research centre in Islamic studies. The Lampeter masjid is a modest affair, housed in a simple building on the edge of campus. No golden domes, no lavish tile work, but nonetheless a spot held in great affection by the Muslim staff and students who live and work in a valley more noted for its male voice choirs than for the recitation of the shahadah.
One of Russia's remotest mosques is in Norilsk, a nickel mining town way up in the Arctic (though Tromsø is actually a tad closer to the North Pole). The mosque at Norilsk is a fabulous building, painted in a vibrant blue colour, and features as it happens in the next issue of hidden europe magazine, when we report on the environmental catastrophe that is Norilsk. It is a desperately polluted place where the mosque is one of the few bright spots in town.
Plans are afoot to build a mosque in another northern outpost at Murmansk, Russia's busy port on the Barents Sea. Touted wrongly by some news agencies (who clearly haven't heard of Tromsø or Norilsk) as being the first mosque in the Arctic Circle, the Murmansk mosque, if ever it comes to pass, will sport a tower that will dwarf the city's Russian Orthodox churches and its famous war memorial, an armed watchman nicknamed Alyosha. "I am sure that the residents of our multi-ethnic city will support the idea of building a mosque," Murmansk mayor Mikhail Savchenko told journalists last autumn. Others in Murmansk are less certain. Already there are mutterings about the height of that tower, and seven years ago, when earlier plans for a Murmansk mosque were aired, there was a firestorm of protests from the city's famously conservative populace.
the Mezquita in Córdoba
Mosques old and new seem to be making the headlines across Europe nowadays, and particularly in Córdoba in Spain, where the Catholic authorities seem to be peculiarly oblivious to the history of the Mezquita, once the grandest of the Moorish mosques but now housing a Catholic cathedral. The ceremonial focus of the Mezquita is the fabulous mihrab. No simple prayer niche this, but an exquisite bejewelled arch. Requests that Muslims might be permitted to pray at the mihrab have found little favour from the local bishop.
The Córdoba Mezquita was once the largest mosque in Europe, a world apart from the tiny masajid at out of the way spots like Tromsø and Lampeter.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)