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Published: March 5th 2019
There is something about the beauty of a mosque that seems to really catch my attention. I don’t know if it has to do with the majestic domes or the sophisticated use of color or the identifying minarets, I just find myself drawn to them.
I caught a ride outside of Almaty into the countryside and found many of the mosques to be real head turners. Gorgeous greens, inviting blues and sparkling gold domes dotted the road sides and city corners in a way that I did not expect.
Near the Greeen Bazaar is the Central Mosque. It is well known in Almaty because it is the largest mosque in the city and seems to be a busy location for daily prayer. Religion in Kazakhstan is an interesting study since the people of this country spent more than seven decades of being under official atheist communist rule. This means that attendance and observance rates are low, but steadily rising.
Ethnic Kazakhs have historically been Sunni Muslims and Islam constitutes the largest religious group of the country with Russian Orthodox being claimed by one-third of the population.
always get a little nervous when I visit a religious site worried that I will inevitably bungle up some protocol and cause some international incident and this was no different. I walked around the outside of the mosque several times soaking up the beauty and admiring the way the gold architecture was catching the bright sun, but I was also spending my time noticing how the locals were interacting with the building.
I wanted to go inside, but I didn’t want to offend anyone or get thrown in jail. Ok, really it was just about offending someone. Language was a real barrier on this trip, as I did not know even one word in Russian or Kazak and English was a hidden gem, so I did not feel comfortable approaching anyone with questions. This mosque catered to locals and was not set up to deal with nosey tourists such as myself.
I watched a bit more and realized there was a steady stream of activiting going into one room along the side of the mosque and traffic entering the mosque was both men and women. So, I slipped to the side, fashioned a scarf
over my head and acted like I knew what I was doing (that always seems to be the best approach).
I entered a small room just in time for prayer. I had read that many of the mosques in the area were ok with both men and women praying together and not as concerned with gender segregation which is exactly what I found in this particular moment.
The process was very different from what I have observed in Middle Eastern mosques. Both the men and women sat together in the same room on benches, not kneeling on carpets. Women’s heads were covered, but not as deliberately as I am accustomed to seeing. Many of the women simply had on warm hats without a scarf. No one removed their shoes.
The leader, sat a a table at the front of the room and read prayers. Devotees listened and then toward the end of the service repeated words back to the leader while also engaging in a practice of holding their hands like a book and then touching their faces.
Once that prayer session ended, another one began only moments
later very unceremoniously. There was no call to prayer and no real announcement. As people left, they put money in the collection box and a few people stopped to make a comment to the prayer leader. I sat through two services just to be sure I was soaking it all in and noticed a few other attendees did the same.
I realized after the moment had passed that I did not find my way into the main large prayer room of the mosque where I had noticed a section for men and women to enter separate doorways and prepare themselves for prayer.
I am disappointed I did not keep pursuing how to enter the other sections of the mosque, but I am thankful there was not an international incident.
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