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My first encounter with the Islamic world was a corker: Istanbul, that seductive, worn-out city poised between east and west, whose skyline is punctuated with the exclamation marks of elegant minarets. Its Ottoman pleasure palaces glow with stained glass; porcelain-painted tulips erupt in mosque interiors; hubble-bubbles burp and backgammon pieces click in coffeehouses. I was a university student and beyond Europe (or almost) for the first time. I was smitten.
Istanbul is one of the world's great Islamic cities, and even its individual sights could jump-start a love affair. The Topkapi Palace is an Arabian Nights of pavilions, splashing fountains and harem quarters. The Grand Bazaar introduces bazaars with a bang: 65 covered streets, 4000-odd shops, the smell of wool, spices and apple tea. The city also has some of the world's greatest mosques: Sultan Ahmed Blue Mosque in aquarium-like beauty; the gloomy, ancient magnificence of Aya Sofya; Suleymaniye Mosque, whose mausoleum to sultan Suleyman the Magnificent has a fabulous dome studded with glittering diamonds.
Since that first supersized, fantastical foray into the Islamic world, I've travelled to many Muslim countries, among them places that rarely get good press in the Western media, such as Iran, Lebanon and pre-war Syria. None has disappointed. The Islamic leitmotifs that wowed me in Istanbul were repeated again and again: glorious mosques and palaces, wander-worthy bazaars, the sonorous beauty of sunset calls to prayer, eateries tempting with skewered lamb or honey-oozing pastries. Most of all, I encountered a spontaneous friendliness and hospitality to strangers that is virtually defunct in the Western world.
It's puzzling, therefore, that so many travellers write off the entire Islamic world as a no-go zone of hostile inhabitants and uncertain politics. To do so is to ignore a fifth of the world's population and about 50 Muslim-majority countries. (Other nations such as China, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Philippines and Russia have Muslim minorities numbered in millions.) Nor is Islam confined to the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, more than 60 per cent of Muslims hail from our Asia-Pacific region. Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population.
You can hardly overlook Islamic history either. Powerful dynasties such as Fatimids, Seljuks, Mughals and Ottomans profoundly influenced world affairs, and during the medieval golden age the Islamic world was an intellectual centre of science and medicine, architecture, philosophy, literature and education. Islamic scholars assimilated knowledge from China, India, Persia and ancient Greece and Rome, transmitting much of it to Europe.
The Islamic world has always had myriad religious practices, cultures and languages. That makes it a diverting and diverse place to explore. Here is just a taster of its highlights.
IMAM SQUARE, ESFAHAN, IRAN
WHAT One of the world's largest public squares, laid out in the early 17th century when Esfahan rivalled Constantinople as a centre for trade and theology. It's surrounded by perhaps the greatest Islamic architectural ensemble anywhere.
WHY VISIT Imam Mosque is a stunning creation in blue and yellow patterned tiles. Compact Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque has a quiet intimacy and is exquisite. Other remarkable buildings are Ali Qapu Palace and labyrinthine, covered Bazaar-e Bozorg. The square is a sociable evening hub for carriage rides and ice-creams.
NEED TO KNOW Australian passport holders are granted a visa on arrival in Iran but must observe modest dress and accept an alcohol-free holiday.
ESSENTIALS Adults pay $8 for entry to most historical monuments in Iran. See isfahancht.ir
CAGALOGLU HAMAM, ISTANBUL, TURKEY
WHAT Turkish hamams were once ubiquitous, sociable neighbourhood bathhouses centred on a domed, octagonal steam room. Today many cater to tourists. Patrons are massaged and vigorously exfoliated with a coarse mitten that sets the skin tingling.
WHY VISIT Built in 1741, this hamam was designed by the Ottoman court architect and is one of Istanbul's largest. It incorporates baroque European influences not often seen in Ottoman architecture, and features splashing fountains and light-filtering domes.
NEED TO KNOW Men and women use separate halves. Men wear a loincloth, women underwear. BYO soap and towel for self-service visits, and stay as long as you like.
ESSENTIALS Do-it-yourself entry $42, service with Turkish massage or exfoliation $70. See cagalogluhamami.com.tr
MUSLIM QUARTER, XIAN, CHINA
WHAT Several old-town blocks centred along Beiyuanmen Street, home to some of Xian's 70,000 Hui, a Muslim ethnic minority. Islam arrived along the Silk Road, and the Hui are among the world's oldest Muslim communities.
WHY VISIT This is a delightful neighbourhood on a more human scale than the rest of the city, thanks to wandering alleys and jammed bazaars. Its Grand Mosque, founded in AD742 (current architecture dates to the 18th century) is striking for its disconcerting Chinese architecture.
NEED TO KNOW The Muslim Quarter is popular for street food and restaurants, many dishing up skewered meats (but no pork), mutton and beef soups, and endless varieties of noodles.
ESSENTIALS Entry to Grand Mosque costs $1. See en.shaanxi.gov.cn
JANTAR MANTAR, JAIPUR, INDIA
WHAT The most impressive of five 1730s astronomical observatories built across northern India by maharaja and scholar Jai Singh II, who brought an Islamic scientific sensibility to the Hindu study of astrology. In its day, it was world famous.
WHY VISIT Instruments determine the latitude and longitude of the sun, the planet's positions in relation to Earth, and the time to within two seconds. Beautiful sundials banded with white marble look like contemporary sculptures.
NEED TO KNOW Structures are still used by Hindu astrologers to plot auspicious dates for weddings and journeys. Displays in the palace museum showcase hand-held astronomical devices.
ESSENTIALS Entry for adults costs $6. Signboards aren't informative: use an audio or human guide. See jantarmantar.org
ALHAMBRA, GRANADA, SPAIN
WHAT The greatest monument of Islamic Spain, this sprawling crag-topping palace and garden complex was begun in the 9th century and extended by Spain's monarchs for a millennium. The last Moorish ruler departed in 1492.
WHY VISIT The Alhambra's medieval courtyards, reflected in pools, are the apogee of Islamic architecture. The Generalife summer palace is surrounded by glorious Islamic water gardens. Everywhere, views are splendid.
NEED TO KNOW Granada isn't all about the Alhambra. The medieval Moorish Albaicin quarter is a huddle of cubist white buildings. Palacia de la Madraza (lamadraza.ugr.es) has sumptuous Islamic decoration.
ESSENTIALS Visitor numbers are restricted by timed tickets which must be bought in advance with admission for adults costing $21. See alhambra-patronato.es
ARAB STREET, SINGAPORE
WHAT Designated a Muslim quarter from the colonial Singapore's early days, Arab Street is really an entire quarter whose other street names (Muscat, Ophir and Haji) reflect Muslim trading influences. It centres around Sultan Mosque (sultanmosque.sg), designed by an Irishman in British-Mughal style.
WHY VISIT This remains one of Singapore's most atmospheric ethnic enclaves, with Middle Eastern restaurants and shops hawking Persian carpets and prayer rugs, leather and batik, sandalwood perfumes and marzipan-stuffed dates. The area's newfound hipster renewal provides chic boutiques and cafe hangouts.
NEED TO KNOW During Ramadan, streets come alive after dark as vendors sell cakes, barbecued chicken and Indian food.
ESSENTIALS Friday evenings after main prayers are lively. See yoursingapore.com
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK, US
WHAT Only 15 per cent of visitors make it to this museum's Islamic section, which features 1200 objects across 15 galleries. It's one of the US' premier Islamic art collections. Highlights are the ornate Damascus Room, classical carpets, court miniatures and exceptional calligraphy.
WHY VISIT The galleries highlight the diversity, shared heritage and cross-fertilisation of artistic ideas from across the Islamic world. Objects are mostly secular, making them accessible to those not conversant with the Muslim faith.
NEED TO KNOW A good "Dazzling Details" family guide invites children to explore. An exhibition of Iranian carpets runs until August 27.
ESSENTIALS Admission for adults costs $33; free "Arts of the Islamic World" guided tours run at 3pm weekdays. See metmuseum.org
WHAT The capital of Morocco until 1925, Fez reached its peak between the 12th and 15th centuries. Its fortified, pedestrianised medina (old town) is the world's most intact, and the spiritual centre of Morocco.
WHY VISIT The medina's crowded, claustrophobic alleys are jammed with crumbling palaces, mosques, madrasas (Koranic schools), decorative-arts workshops and market stalls. The infamously smelly Chouwara leather tannery has just been renovated. Blue-tiled Bab Boujloud, a monumental gateway, is overlooked by cafes from which to people watch.
NEED TO KNOW Disappointingly (and strangely), liberal Morocco bans non-Muslims from visiting the interiors of most mosques.
ESSENTIALS A stay in a ryad (traditional courtyard house) adds to the experience of Fez's medina. See visitmorocco.com
ARAB WORLD INSTITUTE, PARIS, FRANCE
WHAT A Paris organisation jointly founded by France and 18 Arab countries to promote Arab culture and ideas to native Parisians and immigrants.
WHY VISIT The museum traces Arab history and culture and runs changing exhibitions on everything from contemporary Arab art to African Islamic treasures. Arabic movie screenings and performances might include Syrian jazz players, Egyptian rock bands and Lebanese dance troupes.
NEED TO KNOW Rooftop Le Zyriab restaurant has stunning views across the river to Notre Dame. If you speak French or Arabic, the institute hosts literary discussions, poetry recitals and current-affairs debates.
ESSENTIALS Open daily. Weekend guided tours and family workshops in English or Arabic on request. Admission for adults is $11 with entry to special exhibitions costing $17. See imarabe.org
AGA KHAN PARK, TORONTO, CANADA
WHAT A gift to Canada by billionaire philanthropist Aga Khan IV, hereditary leader of 25 million Ismaili Muslims. The cultural hub consists of a park based on traditional Moghul and Persian landscaping, the Ismaili Centre and Aga Khan Museum, all in striking contemporary style that updates traditional Islamic design.
WHY VISIT The museum presents Indian miniatures, illuminated Korans, hand-woven rugs, stunning Persian ceramics and rare early manuscripts, including a page from the renowned 9th-century Blue Koran.
NEED TO KNOW The museum hosts educational sessions, movie screenings and music programs highlighting the traditional and contemporary music of the Islamic world and Asia.
ESSENTIALS Entry for adults costs $20 for the museum with admission to the park free. Park tours cost $10. See agakhanpark.org
WHAT Visitors fascinated by pharaohs overlook Cairo's long Islamic legacy, but the city has superb mosques, madrasas and souks. Fourteenth-century Khan al-Khalili souk, crammed with teahouses and market stalls, fulfils every Aladdin fantasy.
WHY VISIT Ninth-century Ahmad ibn Tulun Mosque is the first of the city's splendid, dilapidated mosques; Sultan Hassan Mosque and its madrasa are vast. Cairo's citadel was begun by Saladin in 1176 and features centuries of Mamluk and Ottoman architecture. The recently revamped Museum of Islamic Art (sca-egypt.org) is impressive.
NEED TO KNOW L'Orientaliste Bookshop (orientalebooks.com) is a superb source of out-of-print books, lithographs and maps of the Middle East.
ESSENTIALS Adult entry to Citadel costs $5 with Sultan Hassan Mosque costing $3. See egypt.travel
FOUR AUSTRALIAN MUSLIMS ON ISLAMIC WORLD MUST-SEES
WALEED ALY: OMAN
"Oman is a scandalously ignored gem. It's stunning: titanic desert cliffs meet the sea, freshwater wadis that look like something from a film set, the desert is serene yet forbidding, and strikingly clear water teems with dolphins. It has a wonderful, organic culture, something you don't always get in the Gulf. Oman is also home to something very rare in the Muslim world: an Islamic denomination that's neither Sunni nor Shia but of the Ibadi school, so it remained relatively isolated from the rest of the Muslim world, leaving it to develop a unique culture."
Waleed Aly is a journalist, author, host of Network Ten's The Project and Monash University lecturer in politics.
TASNEEM CHOPRA: ZANZIBAR, TANZANIA
"My father was my family's fourth generation born in Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous island group off Tanzania. When I visited in 2012 I found it incredibly beautiful. Stone Town's heritage is especially interesting as you zigzag through narrow, cobbled and car-free streets, passing imposing wooden doors whose carvings indicate whether their former owners were merchants, bankers or slave owners. Zanzibar has a subtle and confronting colonial legacy and fusion of indigenous, Omani-Arab and Indian culture – my family originated in northern India – and so is unique in presenting a blend of Africa, Asia and the Middle East."
Tasneem Chopra is a Melbourne-based cross-cultural consultant, author, activist and chair of the Australian Muslim Women's Centre for Human Rights.
TAHMINA RASHID: LAHORE, PAKISTAN
"Lahore is a cultural hub, centre for Sufi Islam and one of Pakistan's oldest cities. Its shrines to Sufi saints are testament to the tolerant religious practices that flourished before more conservative practices became influential. Many locals believe that a visit to the Mausoleum of Daata Gunj Baksh, in particular, brings good material luck and spiritual rejuvenation. I like that it's both a spiritual place and a centre of community life. Lahore's notorious red light district is nearby, part of the paradoxes of the city's cultural coexistence over the centuries."
Tahmina Rashid is Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of Canberra, and an expert in foreign policy and global politics.
AZAHN MUNAS: JUMEIRAH MOSQUE, DUBAI
"I visited this Dubai mosque on a family holiday and it was a highlight. In contrast to the ultra-modern architecture of Dubai's skyscrapers and malls, the mosque is a refreshing throwback to a different time. I loved the cultural and family-friendly experience it offers. It's one of only three mosques in the UAE that can be visited by non-Muslims and women, so my whole family could take in the incredible architecture. I highly recommend taking a guided tour for an in-depth background on how the mosque was built, and its cultural significance."
Azahn Munas is the Melbourne-based founder and creative director of MOGA, a fashion brand in women's shawls and headscarves.
FIVE OF THE WORLD'S GREAT ISLAMIC ART COLLECTIONS
MUSEUM OF ISLAMIC ART, DOHA, QATAR
The collection in this cubist, IM Pei-designed building ranges from the 7th to 19th centuries, featuring religious art and secular textiles, metalwork and furnishings. Highlights include Persian watercolours, Indian jewellery and glazed Syrian vases. See mia.org.qa
THE DAVID COLLECTION, COPENHAGEN, DENMARK
The Islamic collection here is one of the most important in Europe, and nicely presented in three ways: by geography, artistic medium and cultural context. A useful audio guide takes you around the highlights. See davidmus.dk
TAREQ RAJAB MUSEUM, KUWAIT
Jewellery, textiles and musical instruments form the core of this ethnographic museum. However, its calligraphy collection, housed in a building along the street, is particularly outstanding, with illustrated Korans and exquisitely embellished manuscripts. See trmkt.com
LOUVRE MUSEUM, PARIS, FRANCE
Avoid Mona Lisa crowds in the Islamic art wing, whose precious objects and decorative arts, including ceramics, glass, textiles and carpets, reflect the depth and quality of Islamic creations from Spain to south-east Asia. See louvre.fr
MUSEUM OF ISLAMIC ART, BERLIN, GERMANY
This museum focuses on Egypt, Iran and Syria; its Aleppo Room has ornate wood panelling. The facade of a Jordanian desert palace from AD743 links the architecture of late antiquity with early Islam. See smb.museum
FIVE MUST-SEE MODERN MOSQUES OF THE WORLD
HASSAN II MOSQUE, CASABLANCA, MOROCCO
This gigantic mosque sports the world's tallest minarets (120 metres). The interior, strongly influenced by Moorish Spain, is delicately patterned in cedar, granite and marble. Its setting on a wave-pounded promontory is inspired. See visitmorocco.com
ŞAKIRIN MOSQUE, ISTANBUL
The interior of this Uskudar district masterpiece was created by Zeynep Fadillioglu, noted for her Ottoman and cutting-edge fusions. The dome is aluminium, the striking minbar (pulpit) acrylic, the interior flooded with patterned light. See howtoistanbul.com
SHEIKH ZAYED MOSQUE, ABU DHABI
One of the world's largest mosques fuses Arab, Mughal and Moorish architecture in white marble inlaid with patterned semi-precious stones. The interior has soaring columns, gigantic chandeliers and knotted carpets vast enough for 40,000 worshippers. See szgmc.ae
NATIONAL MOSQUE, KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA
This mosque introduced a new Islamic architectural style for independent Malaysia and has a distinctive 1960s (now retro) appeal. White latticework recalls Arabic calligraphy. Its wonderful low, pleated blue roof resembles a half-folded fan. See visitkl.gov.my
QOL SHARIF MOSQUE, KAZAN, RUSSIA
This squashed-up, blue-roofed mosque with its delicate minarets looks disconcertingly like a fairytale Russian castle. It adds brilliantly to Kazan's kremlin, especially when floodlit. One of Europe's biggest mosques, it also incorporates an Islamic museum. See kazantravel.ru
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