Baiturrahman Grand Mosque, a beautiful if not imposing building in central Banda Aceh, has come to symbolize Aceh's greatness, its people's strong devotion to Islam, and now, as the province recovers from the devastating earthquake and tsunamis last month, it has come to represent hope. On Friday, the mosque will be the focus of the celebration of Idul Adha (Islamic Day of Sacrifice), with morning prayers being attended by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Undoubtedly, Muslim Ibrahlim, chairman of the Aceh Ulama Assembly who is to deliver the sermon, will use the occasion not only to reflect on the disaster but also to look ahead at the reconstruction of Aceh. Today, even after the disaster, Baiturrahman remains a major landmark in Banda Aceh. No visit to this town would be complete without a tour of the mosque. The jewelry shops and houses around the mosque have not been restored, but they have been cleared of debris and mud, as have the roads leading to the mosque.
For residents, the 32-pillar mosque, measuring more than 1,500 square meters, is the pride of the people of Aceh. The building itself can sit 5,000 people, and many more thousands can fit into the huge compound surrounding the building for Idul Adha prayers. Eight giant minarets make the mosque visible from a distance and from the air.
A 35-meter tall tower stands close to the main gate. It is slightly tilted to the right and cracks have appeared in parts of the structure, testimony to the power of the earthquake prior to the tsunami. The pond in front of the mosque is bare of the flower pots that used to line it. Residents said the pond was filled with bodies when the water from the tsunamis receded.
An icon and symbol of hope, Baiturrahman has a controversial past. Historians are still debating whether the mosque was built in 1612 during the reign of Sultan Iskandar Muda, or earlier in 1292 by Sultan Alaidin Mahmudsyah. Records say that the mosque was razed to the ground in 1873 when the town was raided by Dutch forces in their attempt to colonize the sultanate. Aceh was the last territory of what is now Indonesia to be conquered by the Dutch East Indies.
Gen. Kohler, who presumably led the assault, was slain by Acehnese fighters and a plaque in recognition of this fight remains to this day. "The plaque is a must-see for visitors to the mosque," says Tengku Azman Ismail, the grand imam of Baiturrahman. In March 1877, East Indies Governor General Van Lansberge offered to rebuild the grand mosque. More than two and half years later, construction of the mosque began with the laying of the first stone by Tengku Qadhi Malikul Adil.
The mosque was eventually rebuilt using stone and cement. Much of the design, blending Arabic and European architectures, is what stands today. Many Acehnese initially refused to pray at Baiturrahman, knowing that the Dutch's real intention was to take control over their territory. "They considered the Dutch infidels," Azman Ismail says.
Eventually, however, Muslims began to pray in the mosque, and Malikul Adil became the first grand imam since its restoration. From a single minaret, later rulers or administrators added more each time the mosque underwent renovation. The last time was Aceh governor Ibrahim Hasan, who added the last two minarets in the 1980s.
On Dec. 26, many Banda Aceh residents found sanctuary from the tsunamis in the mosque, and many displaced persons temporarily took shelter in it. Two weeks after the disaster, and after a lot of cleaning and repainting, the mosque reopened for prayers. Teuku Syamsul Bahri, a resident, says irrespective of its Dutch history, the mosque is an icon for the people of Aceh. "This mosque is our pride," he said after afternoon prayers on Wednesday.