Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Shah Jahan Mosque.

Woking is the home of the Shah Jahan Mosque. Built in 1889 by the Orientalist Dr. Gottleib Wilhelm Leitner, the mosque was the first purpose built mosque to be built in Northern Europe. Leintner surprisingly, was a Hungarian Jew who as a child had studied at madrassah schools in Istanbul and who memorised large parts of the Quran. Later he worked as an interpreter for the British Raj (he could speak eight languages) and became a Professor at Kings College London before moving to the University of the Punjab.

He came back to England and in 1883 began the Oriental Institute in Woking.  The mosque was built to cater for the worship and spititual needs of the Muslim students at the institute and quickly played a vital role in the establishment of Islam in Great Britain. It also became world famous on account of its publications and missionary work in the early part of the 20th century. Up until the 1950's the Shah Jahan was the major Islamic centre in the United Kingdom and welcomed famous dignitaries from around the world on official visits, but by the 1960's the mosque's status had declined, and instead served as a place of worship for Woking's and neighbouring Muslim populations.
Today, the Shah Jahan mosque is the cultural and spiritual centre for Surrey's Muslims. Hundreds of followers visit the Shah Jahan to pay homage to their faith and to accommodate this, the mosque's 70 person capacity has been supplemented with two nearby prayor halls, which can hold up to 600 people each if necessary. Now a grade two listed building the mosque is very welcomong to visitors and offers guided tours for groups and schools.
I think the mosque is one of the most beautiful buildings i have seen. Its traditional Indo Saracen design has a dome, minarets and courtyard. Geometric patterns and Arabic calligraphy are used for decoration. On my recent visit i was unable to go inside the mosque as prayers were almost due to start, but i have been invited back by the very friendly Imam and will do another post with photographs. I can't wait!

Monday, 8 February 2010

The Muslim cemetery

Last Sunday i was a bit bored and restless and in need of some fresh air so i decided to re-discover an old haunt of mine - The Muslim Burial Ground on Horsell Common. This disused cemetery occupies the most unlikely of locations being surrounded by trees and set well back from the main road into Woking. I used to take my chidren when they were young to this part of the common and was surprised to find this relic of Woking's past. Not many people visiting Woking are aware of it's existence or historical significance.

The domed entrance to the burial ground.

The Muslim Burial  Ground was built in 1917 when many troops from the Empire were fighting in France during the First World War. The site was chosen because of it's close proximity to Britain's only mosque at that time, the Shah Jehan Mosque in Woking (more of which in my next post), and it's structure emulates many of the mosque's features, including the minarets, arches and the majestic dome.

Hidden from public view by the trees of Horsell Common.

Indian army soldiers wounded fighting in France during 1914-16 were treated in England in special hospitals along the south coast including the famous Brighton Pavillion. Those who died received burial rites according to their religion. There were special cremations for Hindu and Sikh soldiers. After concerns were raised that Muslim soldiers were not being buried according to their preferred religious customs - most importantly facing in the direction of Mecca, the sacred city of Islam, the War Office stepped in and purchased the site as a special burial ground. On completion, the burial ground received 19 burials of Indian Army soldiers and a further five during World War Two. The soldiers served in different regiments but most were recruited from small villages in what is now Pakistan.

Part of the original wall showing the arches and corner minaret.

In 1921 the War Graves Commission took over its upkeep. Local people remember it had a yellow gravel path, iron gates at the entrance and two inside seats for visitors. Unfortunately by the 1960's the cemetery was suffering vandalism due to its isolated location so reluctantly the decision was taken in1968 to remove the bodies to the Military Cemetery at Brookwood.

Now a grade two listed building the burial ground is an overlooked memorial to the Indian Army soldiers who gave their lives during the two world conflicts. In need of much work and attention it is now under the care of Horsell Common Preservation Society which is working with Woking Borough Council and the local Muslim community to find ways of funding its restoration and preservation. Lets hope they succeed.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Moss and Fungi.

Whilst i was out walking the other day in a local wood i came across these trees which had some type of moss growing up them. I thought how attractive this was. A little later i discovered a tree with fungi growing from its trunk and later a stump with a different fungi sprouting from it. It occured to me how much we miss when we are out on our day to day business, It's surprising what's out there when we look hard enough. Nature truly is wonderful.