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Prayer is better than sleep

Sailor's Mosque, an important landmark of Ulcinj, Montenegro

Sailor's Mosque, an important landmark of Ulcinj, Montenegro

Whenever I travel through countries which have mosques, I always stop for a moment when I hear the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. Five times a day it is called by the muezzin to alert the faithful to prayer.

I must have heard this the first time in Morocco in 1980. I don't remember though. What I do remember about this first Muslim country I encountered, was the incredible hospitality shown to us by a young Moroccan when we were stuck in no-man's land crossing the border from Ceuta (Spain's toe hold in northern Africa) into Morocco. We shared a taxi into Tetouan with this young doctor who was returning home for a visit and he brought us into the bosom of his family unannounced. They fed us, invited us to sleep the night then set us on our way the next morning with an indelible legacy of kindness marked forever in my memory.

Throughout my travels in the middle east, I was amazed by the sheer beauty and tranquility of mosques, no more so than the Blue Mosque or Shah's Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. I didn't enter, it was an active place of worship and unbelievers were not permitted. It was also 1980 and the American hostages were still holed up in Tehran. Yet as an Australian I was treated with respect and asked about my thoughts on politics and our country's position in world events. I was twenty two years old, I knew nothing about Australian politics other than who the prime minister was at the time (Malcolm Fraser).

Isfahan was the capital of ancient Persia, it was the most cultured city I had been to. I don't remember being particularly interested in the adhan, I was more interested in the architecture, fascinated with geometric designs on tiles and rugs, the hammams where you washed communally with other women and the souks (bazaars) in the old towns throughout Syria, Jordan and Pakistan. 

The next time I heard the adhan, was opening my window in Addis Abbaba, Ethiopia's capital, more than ten years ago. The sound of the prayer drifted in with the morning's noises, dogs barking, cars starting up, somewhere a rooster crowing. Hazy first light. A song curling its way through the buildings and working its way into windows and people's sleep.

In the seven stanza prayer, this twice repeated line is inserted into the pre-dawn (fajr) prayer: 

As-salatu Khayrun Minan-nawm
Prayer is better than sleep

This is the prayer I hear in the stillness of the predawn morning coming clearly through the windows of our hotel room in Ulcinj, Montenegro. It comes at 3.30 in the morning in the still dark, as the sun rises early here. The party goers down in the beach have gone home, the music thumping from the cafes and bars has finally stopped and there is nothing in the stillness except this sound. 

Most mosques these days have recorded azhans, this is definitely a human voice. The prayer words are standard, but like any song, it is the singer who brings their voice to make it special. This muezzin or prayer leader, has the most exquisite baritone, allowing the standard words to find a flight note, trailing and dipping, almost whispered at the end of each line. We lie here enthralled at its exquisite musical beauty, like having listened to a nightingale or a birdsong of great majesty.

There are 6 mosques and three churches in Ulcinj, one of these being the church-mosque in the old town, originally built as the Church of Saint Maria in 1510, turned into a mosque in 1693, now the archeological museum. I love the fact that it is called the church-mosque. It gives the impression that they are blended together, which in this building they are. If there are many paths to God (goddess/goodness etc) then a blended history of archeology and name would surely indicate that whichever path you travel, it is important to pause sometime in the day for reflection, for prayer, for meditation. Prayer is better than sleep.

Sailor's Mosque at night, close up of the lit up minaret.

Sailor's Mosque at night, close up of the lit up minaret.

Heather Matthew