Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
The Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddin is one of the great mosques of the 20th century. Built by the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei, it is one of the most popular and visited mosques in the Islamic Far East. It has also been acclaimed by many to be one of the most beautiful mosques in the world, a claim that is not without merit. A modern-day structure, the Masjid Omar Ali Saiffudin rejected all of the architectural conventions that generally made almost every 20th century religious structure, Islamic or otherwise, so unattractive. Its towering white marble walls and gold sheathed dome dominate the skyline of Bandar Seri Begawan, one of the most modern of Islamic cities. Because of its proximity to Malaysia and Indonesia, the Muslim behomeths in the Far East, the Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddin attracts more pilgrims and visitors than any other mosque east of India.
Islam spread to the Island of Borneo in the late 14th century from the nascent Muslim kingdoms of nearby Malaysia. The first sultanate was established near the northern coast of the island at this time. Brunei, as it later became known, would come to mark the unofficial southeastern-most point of the civilized Islamic world for many years to come. By the 1400s, the Sultan of Brunei ruled over an Empire that incorporated all of Borneo as well as parts of the Philipines and Indonesia.
Brunei largely enjoyed a quiet existence in this distant corner of the globe. However, in the mid-16th century, Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the area from their bases in the Americas. A series of wars ensued betweent the Spanish and Brunei. While the Sultan managed to defend Borneo from European encroachments, Spain was successful in seizing the Philippines as a colony. Brunei continued to maintain its independence until the early 1800s, when large portions of Borneo were seized by the Dutch and English.
Throughout the colonial period Borneo was fought over by a variety of European and Asian powers. Strife continued even after World War II, as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philipines and New Guinea each sought to dominate the region in the wake of the departing colonial powers. By the 1960s Borneo had been divided up, and though Brunei was decimated, it continued to survive as a tiny independent state on the north coast. Although it had been a British Protectorate during parts of the 19th and 20th centuries, the tiny core of Brunei managed to survive the colonial era as one of the very few places in Asia to remain more-or-less culturally independent of the Europeans.
The current Sultan of Brunei is part of a dynasty that can be traced back to the 15th century, making it one of the world’s oldest continual royal dynasties extant. It is also considered to be the world’s most stable Islamic government. When Brunei became a major oil producer in the 1950s and 1960s, the country’s economy soared. Vast sums were spent on public works, and the country became one of the most prosperous in the Muslim world. In dedication to Islam and as a symbol of the country, Sultan Omar Ali Saiffudin personally financed the construction of the great mosque which would later bear his name. It has gone on to be much more than a symbol of Brunei, however, and is now one of the world’s most famous icons of Muslim religious architecture.
The Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddin is spectacular. The facades are dominated by brilliant white marble brickwork, minimally adorned by tile mosaics or scrollwork writing that covers almost all other major Islamic shrines. A single towering minaret soars from the heart of the mosque, while a full half-dozen smaller minarets adorn the sides and corners. The chief and most magnificent feature is the massive gold dome which reaches to a height of seventeen stories. The dome is coated in a thick layer of gold that is rumored to be the most gold ever used in a single exterior architectural imbellishment.
The mosque offers fantastic views, both of itself and of the surrounding city. An elevator, largely unheard of mosques elsewhere, whisks visitors to the top of the main minaret for an enticing view of the city. The view of the mosque and its reflection in the river is second perhaps only to that of the Taj Mahal and its magnificent reflecting pools. It is flanked by stone quays that line the riverbank, upon which stand exotic palm trees and other flora. A causeway extends out from the mosque over the water to a dock where the Sultan’s ceremonial ship is usually moored. Massive fountains complete the setting.
The Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddin juts out on a small plat of land in the Brunei River, just outside of Bandar Seri Begawan on the northern coast of the island of Borneo. The mosque is open to Muslims and non-Muslims, though there may be restrictions for the latter. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.bruneitourism.travel (official tourism website of Brunei)
After the Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, most of the sites of Bandar Seri Begawan pale by comparison. However, there is also the Royal Ceremonial Hall of Lapau, which serves a political-religious function as the location where sultans are periodically crowned.