You have to go on a package tour (as there is no other way) to Mecca at least once in your life. But we recommend that you take the once in a life-time recommendation literally. God knows how many Muslims take everything else about their religion literally. There is not much to see in the Holy City except the Kaaba, which on first sight ought to send a spiritual tremor through your very being. But there is no history, no cultural property, no culture, no museums, no galleries, as you would expect in any great city. Absolutely nothing but plenty of shopping, luxury hotels and ugliness that has to be seen to be believed. Ditto Medina, which you should visit as part of your hajj or umra package. We can thank ‘the Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques’ for this plight that leaves the eyes only to weep with.
But don’t be a tourist, a slave to packaged tours. Tourists go on holidays. Travellers go to explore, discover, relate to others as human beings (instead of taking pictures), and soak themselves in their history, culture, cuisine and worldview. Tourists are after a quick fix; travellers take their time. Tourists return unchanged (as many do from a quick ziyarat from Mecca and Medina). Travellers come back enriched, more knowledgeable, more experienced, more spiritually elated – and hence, more aware, more tolerant, more open-minded and more enlightened. This is why the Qur’an asks the believers to ‘travel throughout the earth’ (29:20) and see why God has given His Bounty more to some than to others (17:21), how many lofty towns He has ‘destroyed and left in ruins’ (22:45), and learn the histories and stories of other people which contain ‘lessons for those who understand’ (12:111).
Incidentally, the Qur’an also tells us why Mecca and Medina are the way they are now: ‘have these people (of Mecca) not travelled through the land with hearts to understand and ears to hear? It is not the people’s eyes that are blind, but their hearts within their breasts’ (22:46).
So open your hearts, sharpen your vision, refine your hearing and travel to these cities before your return to the bosom of the earth.
There is only one city that can be on the top of your travel list: Fez. After the destruction of Aleppo, it is the only Islamic city that not only retains its original character and cultural properties but still functions as a viable, living, thriving city. Established in 789 by Idris 1, Fez was built on a river bank with brilliant insight into the use and abuse of water. The carrying capacity of the city was determined by the amount of water available; the water supply for the city was taken from upstream, and used water was then flushed downstream. A wall around the city was built to ensure that the carrying capacity of the city was not exceeded. If you look closely at the size of the pipes taking water into the dwellings you can guess how big is the inside of the house and how many people live there! The houses are modelled on Dr Who’s Tardis: they look small and unimportant from the outside, but step inside and the huge interior transports you to another place. Every house is a true marvel of beauty. There are other fabulous architectural monuments, including the oldest functioning madrasa in the world: al-Qarawiyyin, built in 859. And, by the way, the old leather, carpet, ceramic and tile industries are still there – be ready for an obligatory tour, good natter, endless cups of mint tea, and make sure you have a stuffed wallet.
2. Granada and Cordoba
Two cities with a single tale: the rise and fall of Muslims in al-Andalus. When the Umayyad were crushed by the Abbasids in Baghdad, they escaped to Hispania and established one of the most intellectually exciting and pluralistic cultures in world history. Granada is, of course, the site of Alhambra, an architectural wonder that mesmerises you the moment you walk in. In Cordoba you can walk in the footsteps of ibn Arabi, ibn Tufayl and ibn Rushd, whose statue stands in one of the squares of the city. And admire the Great Mosque (though you will not be allowed to pray in it). You need to spend several months in each city to truly appreciate their histories and cultures.
It is the city of Ibn Sina, Imam Bukhari, Al-Beruni, Al-Khwarizmi—and of course a place that was home to thousands of Jews for centuries as it had been for Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists and others for such a long time. Bukhara’s Ark (Fort) once prized itself with a huge library that Ibn Sina and Al-Beruni claimed to have absorbed in their early years. The city was once the Oxbridge of the Muslim world and visiting those madrassas even today takes one into ‘a lost horizon’. Even after spending weeks in the old city next to its three ancient bazaars and surrounded by older buildings, mosques and seminaries, your quest will remain unquenched. Next to the Imam Bukhari Museum and not too far from the ancient city walls, and facing the Ark, is Chashma-i-Ayyub, the spring of Prophet Job reminding visitors that the city was once called Bukhara Sharif – the sacred. Our favourite building in Old Bukhara is the Kalan Minar (Kalan Tower) which is the only monument spared by Ghengis Khan when he destroyed Bukhara in 1212 during his stampede across Central Asia. At the height of 46 metres, this brick-built circular tower overlooks the charming Madras-i- Mir Arab and Kalan Mosque.
Further down right in the heart of old Bukhara there is another architectural gem – Chahar Minar – that reminds one of Taj Mahal and similar monuments in South Asia. Do remember to spend some time at the shrine of Bahauddin Naqshband, the founder of the Sufi Order of the Naqshbandis. Sit by the old hauz and watch the warmth, simplicity and devotion of Uzbek men and women rushing to offer their prayers.
Like Granada and Cordoba, Samarkand and Bukhara are essentially twins. One of the oldest cities in Central Asia, Samarkand was the first Islamic city to manufacture paper, which it supplied to the rest of the Muslim world, and from where it found its way to Europe. Its prosperity was based on its location on the Silk Road, and even Genghis Khan could not dent its reputation as a world-renowned centre for scholarship. Whatever Genghis and his Mongol herds destroyed was lovingly restored by Timurlane, and his mausoleum, Gur-Amir, is one of the main architectural sights of the city. But the city is most famous for the Ulugh Beg Observatory, built by the astronomer Ulugh Beg in 1420, where astronomers of such distinction as al-Kashi, Ali Qushji, and Ulugh Beg himself came close to discovering that the sun and not the earth was the centre of the solar system. To discover what the madrassas really looked like in Islamic history, visit the Ulugh Beg Madrasa, the Sher-Dor Madrasa and the Tilya Kori Madrasa – given their architectural splendour and beauty, one can only imagine the quality of education these madrassas provided. Dream about listening to one of Ulugh Beg’s lectures and then reflect on what the madrassas are doing to our young today.
Not much may remain of Timbuktu once the psychotic Jihadis are finished with the city. Of course, there are other hurdles to reaching the fabled city – desert, disease, killer bees, an odd charging hippo, lack of roads and not least any direct route from Bamako, the capital of Mali.
Maybe you will be better off travelling by water on the Niger River. But true travellers should not give up for this may be your last chance to stand in front of the Sankore Mosque and Madrasah, a true wonder of Islamic history. It is built of mud, with the courtyard that has the exact dimensions of the Kaaba in Mecca, and was financed by (alas unknown) a wealthy lady of the city. Then there is Ahmed Baba, the sixteenth/seventeenth century Songhai scholar who was appalled by how the Arabs justified slavery and denounced many classical jurists – some we worship – for using fabricated, manufactured hadith to defend the most brutal exploitation by humans with a superiority complex of other less fortunate humans. The Ahmed Baba Institute is home to countless invaluable manuscripts and a testimony to the scholarly heritage of Timbuktu. Go and rediscover Timbuktu and grasp the true meaning of learning.
Alexandria has to be on any discerning bibliophile’s Bucket List. Perhaps after Beirut, Alexandria’s old center has more bookshops per square inch than most comparable cities in the Arabic-speaking world. Arabic-speaking, however, is a misleading term because the world of Alexandria with its centuries-old hotels, squares, statues and its bookstores is a fading facsimile of Europe in the East. One of the oldest bookshops is Dar El Mostakbal, on Safya Zaghloul Street, opposite the old Metro Cinema. Here you’ll find a small selection of new and used books, all with some connection to Egypt and the Arab world. A larger selection of newer books can be found in Egypt’s book chain, Diwan, on the campus of the magnificent Bibliotheca Alexandrina, built adjacent to the site of the original library and in the city’s old Hellenic quarter, Chatby. The Bibliotheca, too, has a well-stocked selection, including the works of E. M. Forster and Lawrence Durrell, the two empire-era authors who made the city their home and propelled it far into the orientalist imagination. Sadly, beyond their words, the city has no memorial. In contrast, fans of the poet C.P. Cavafy can visit his apartment, now a museum, where he lived from 1898 until his death in 1933.
The perceived difficulty of pronouncing ‘Saskatchewan’ – derived from the Cree for ‘swift flowing river’ – contributes to many non-Canadians’ impression of the province’s second city, Saskatoon, as a remote, tongue-twisting mirage, but learning how to rattle off ‘SAS-ka-toon, Sas-KAT-chuh-won’ will be only the first benefit of visiting this small prairie city. Named for the misâskwatômina, or saskatoon berries, that grow wild and sweet along the city’s verdant river banks, Saskatoon, though not yet a postcolonial Mecca, offers rich encounters with First Nations history and culture. At Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a ‘gathering place’ for over six millennia, you can view the site of a bison jump, stand in the presence of a 1,500-year-old Medicine Wheel, and experience contemporary expressions of Aboriginal spirituality, art and cuisine. Saskatoon’s many nicknames, including the Science City, Saskabush, Toontown, City of Bridges (there are eight), and POW City (for potash, oil and wheat), also speak to its human dynamism and natural beauty. Our favourite, Paris of the Prairies, spans not only the aforementioned bridges, but the city’s thriving arts scene. Long known for its theatres, galleries, bistros and live music scene (bands on cross-country tours prefer to stop here rather than the province’s staid capital, Regina) Saskatoon now boasts over forty public art installations. You can take a tour online – but there is no substitute for travelling to the city and experiencing it personally.
Malaysians know Melaka as the ‘historic city’. As the capital of Melaka, the first Peninsula-based Malay-Muslim Sultanate founded in the early fifteenth century, it exemplifies the everyday cosmopolitanism of Southeast Asia. UNESCO designates it, along with George Town in Penang, as a World Heritage Site. The city’s cuisine provides the liveliest testimony to this centuries-old cosmopolitanism. Feast on Portuguese-inspired curry devils, Nyonya (creolised Chinese) cakes, cendol, sate celup (dipped satay), chicken rice ball, oyster omelette and other mouth-watering delights. Melaka’s architecture also embodies the multiculturalism that infused pre- and early colonial life in the Straits of Malacca. Government buildings, houses of worship, squares and forts are legacies of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial rule. Melaka is also home to creolised Arab, Chinese and Indian communities which trace their origins to the glory days of the Sultanate. ‘Harmony Street’ is home to three houses of worship nestled beside each other – the Kampung Kling Mosque, the Sri Poyatha Moorthi Temple and the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple. The Mosque is especially charming – originally built by Indian traders in the mid-eighteenth century, its minaret resembles a pagoda. The hall contains English and Portuguese glazed tiles, Corinthian columns, a Victorian chandelier, a wooden pulpit with Hindu and Chinese-style carvings, and Moorish cast iron lamp-posts in the wudu (pre-prayer ablutions) area. Melaka reminds us of the disconnect between politicised, aggressive expressions of Islam and everyday Islams that absorb, blend and play with a dazzling range of diversity.
According to official chatter only the most fearless traveller would attempt the journey from Moscow to Makhachkala. Dagestan is not a recommended tourist destination with numerous military checkpoints seemingly illustrating the region’s potential for volatility. More’s the pity, for any visitor to this beautiful region’s capital city will be handsomely rewarded in cultural wealth, culinary delights and an intoxicating collection of traditional textiles, jewellery and armoury. The city boasts some of the most celebrated wrestlers of the Soviet era, a prized sport in a society that is unapologetically machismo. Men gather on a Saturday night to watch cars racing along the main public highway, a natural progression from the Dzhigitovka, a traditional horse-riding technique to demonstrate bravery and valour practised during the Caucasian War before being adopted by Russian Cossacks. Over thirty ethnic groups, each with their own language, reside here, yet it is not without consequence that, nestled on the south-western shores of the Caspian Sea, Makhachkala was built as a fortress city, isolated by its breath-taking mountains and valleys punctuated by wistful waterfalls. The idyll belies the reality of a Muslim population standing at the cusp of modernity as competing forces of national government, imported Wahabbi influences and capitalism vie to replace the ebbing post-Soviet socialist experience.
10. Ciudad del Este
Crossing the bridge from Brazil over the River Parana into Paraguay you would think you had wandered into a Wild West frontier town occupied by a distinctly Asian population. The second largest city in Paraguay boasts a thriving community of Indians and Arabs, as well as some Japanese and Koreans, who haggle and sell everything from electronic equipment to Iranian rugs in shops imaginatively called Shopping Mina India, Beirut Market and Korea Mall. You are more likely to be greeted by a ‘salaam’ than an ‘hola’ in this hive of commerce. Ciudad del Este is famed for its ‘enterprise zone’ located on the outskirts, attracting Brazilians from across the border who venture over to buy a dizzying array of exotic as well as everyday tax-free items. On their return journey to Brazil the practice is to throw their newly acquired ‘contraband’, wrapped tightly in bin bags and cardboard, over the side of the bridge. Fifty feet below, multitudes of young men, scurrying like worker ants, carry their booty up the hill. Walking around this part of the city, visitors will encounter bustling mosques, Bollywood music blaring from shops and the waft of Arab and Indian food aromas. Paraguayans wander in and out of stores buying products that would cost double the price in the centre of town. If you want to visit South America, continue walking for a further ten minutes. This part of town is truly Asia.
(Thanks to Iftikhar Malik, Naomi Foyle, Burhan Khan, Samia Rahman, Ehsan Masood and Shanon Shah for their contributions to this list.)