Luccia Gray posts some lovely pictures (amongst loads of other great stuff) but the one that caught my imagination recently was on the Mosque in Cordoba. Initially it was the pictures that got me; the quality of the light in Spain makes a Brit with grey-sky-phobia, well, green with envy. Actually it’s more sepia with sadness but that’s another matter.
Then I read the post, about the chequered history of the conversion of the Church/Mosque/Church. Fabulous. And it put me in mind of a curio of a building on the borderline between the wealthy City of London and its down at heel neighbour, Tower Hamlets, which has as bizarre a history as the Cordoba Mosque. It too is a mosque. Now. But it hasn’t always been. This building has a history that speaks of a tolerance, which is, or at least seems to be, at odds with the world we are told exists, especially in this part of London.
First a little warning; this blog will become a tad political here. It pigeonholes me, I know, but I hope the context helps you understand why I enjoy the fact that this little brick box exists.
Today, the headlines appear to make one or other religion the source of most of today’s major flash points. Before that it was the cold war and a clash of economic ideologies; further back it was fascism v communism v democracy; before that the Colonial powers slicing up the globe and arguing over the size of the slice.
I have long thought that today’s focus on faith (or indeed the lack of it) when analysing conflicts is missing the point. Most conflicts aren’t principled: they are about power. Gaining it, keeping it, rarely but occasionally sharing it. Was the cold war about ideals, about which way of life was better or was it about maximising the areas of influence of each side to ensure the continuance of the prevailing elites? The Colonial powers? Were they in it to ensure a freer, fairer world, to ensure free trade would benefit all? Or were they, in truth, just arguing that their method of subjugation was better than someone else’s? Whatever the wrapper, the ideal, it’s all about power. Today’s convenient wrapper is religion; and still it is about power.
Today the area around Brick Lane and Mile End Road is predominantly Muslim – largely of Bangladeshi/Pakistani heritage. This area, which backs hard onto the City’s high rises via the gentrified Spittalfields market, is now famous for its curry houses, the gaudy fabric market and some of the worst urban poverty in London. It is a pot pourri of humanity, an edgy area that keeps you thinking as you walk around. It also houses some fantastic artistic communities. It is febrile, volatile and mobile. It always changed and adapted, save for the one sad constant of poverty.
That has been, of course, the burden of the eastern parts of Northern hemisphere cities; a function of geography and meteorology – the westerly winds that circle the earth make living in the east the poor relation to the other areas around the cities. They have always been the smelliest, the most polluted areas – foul miasmas prevail and, of course, miasmas were long thought to carry the worst diseases.
London is no exception and the East End has as rich a history of the poorest, usually the immigrant groups, starting out there until they move on.
In the East End there were the Huguenots (of whom I am proudly a descendant), turfed out of Catholic France following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes or some such; then the Jews, displaced from Eastern Europe, the Irish escaping the infamous famines; and now the Subcontinent’s diaspora, with many and varied others mixing in with the Fagins, the Krays and other low-lifes – a trend that continues right up to today (I won’t mention names but there is this particularly gobby, self aggrandizing politician, who, a few years ago, sought to exploit the discontent here for his own grubby ends, displacing the existing Labour MP in a real dirty tricks campaign: *sigh*).
Generally whoever moves in rubs along with the then current incumbents; even when the Oswald Mosely thugs sought to smash the Jewish groups in the 1930s they couldn’t – the local community spirit was too strong. To me this melting pot of people, cultures, races, languages and skin tones is what makes London the best city in the world. There is nowhere else like it.
It’s not perfect – far from it – how could it be – but it says a lot (to me at least) that when Nigel Farage’s UKIP are gaining a toehold elsewhere, the one place – where you’d think they’d be massive support, giving the mixture of races, the strain on local resources that immigration can bring etc – to send him and his kind packing was London.
And this tolerance, uneasy as it can be with the range of nutters that you find everywhere spouting their nonsense, is best exemplified by the Brick Lane Mosque on the junction of Brick Lane and Fournier Street.
It’s not a grand building; in fact it’s a bit of a brick shed and it’s been tinkered with over the years but I love its history. It was built in 1743 as a Huguenot church, one of the new churches that sprung up after the Huguenots arrived – Spittalfields was the centre of the silk weaving industry.
By the nineteenth century the Huguenots were moving on, replaced by the influx of Jews. Meanwhile the Protestant chapel was changing, first to the HQ for the Society for Propagating Christianity amongst the Jews and then as a Methodist Chapel. The propagation failed and, by the end of the nineteenth century, it had become a Synagogue and school run by a Lithuanian sect, displaced by the Tsarist pogroms.
It stayed a Synagogue and Torah school until the 1960s by which time the Jews had moved out, principally to North London and the Synagogue was abandoned. By the 1970s the East End was filling with immigrants from the former colonies in the Indian Subcontinent and the building converted to a Mosque – The London Jamme Masjid (‘Great Mosque’).
Who knows what’s next. Trekkies, perhaps? A place for Jedis? Or the followers of Dudeism?
Over time the building has seen many physical changes, too – now it boasts a rather stunning minaret – but one constant has been its sundial with the inscription: UMBRA SUMUS
We are but shadows
Somehow that seems to sum things up: the building is a beacon of light compared with we fickle and inconstant humans as we bumble around in the shadows; it has found a way to survive and get on – so should we.