Written by Secrets of Paris guide-in-training Philippe Maillet
Paris is not only a romantic city, it’s also a real melting pot of cultures. And nothing is stranger than when your steps lead you to an exotic architectural site right in its heart. That’s what happens in the 5th district, at the foot of the Saint Geneviève hill, where a white wall hides a mysterious building, flagged by a colorful tower and a massive wooden door. This monument is actually the Great Mosque of Paris, a little piece of Morocco hidden in the French capital.
This sanctuary built between 1922 and 1926 was built as a tribute to the Muslim soldiers who died during World War I fighting for the French Republic. One hundred thousand volunteers from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia perished during the war, far from their native lands. Afterwards, the French people wanted to give the Muslim community a place to commemorate this tragedy. Thus a project was launched, including a mosque, a Muslim Institute, several reception rooms, and a library. A restaurant and hammam (steam baths) completed this Moroccan haven in the heart of the Latin Quarter.
Nowadays, visitors and prayers go together in this quiet atmosphere of the Great Mosque. A peaceful garden welcomes you to this reconstituted paradise, with its fountains, palm trees and roses. Beyond that is the courtyard of the mosque, decorated in the tradition of Fez, the spiritual capital of Morocco. Ceramics, engraved plaster, sculpted wood, and calligraphy running all along the walls and beneath the arcades evocate the North African heritage. At the end of the corridors and terraces a huge door opens onto a majestic reception hall reminding us of the Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights.
But the mosque is above all a meeting with Islam. And it seems important in these troubled times to try to understand this religion, its rituals, and its differences. The mosque of Paris is a good place to lift the curtain on this often misunderstood culture, where we can find an open-minded aspect of Islam, welcoming to visitors. By learning about the history and cultural heritage of this religion we can better understand how it relates to our own heritage.
Free Tours of the Great Mosque and Islamic Culture in Paris
Philippe grew up in western France, in the area of Nantes. He came to Paris in 1999 to study art history at La Sorbonne. After specializing in Islamic architecture he went on to the Paris-Belleville School of Architecture where he acquired a diploma in traditional heritage restoration and in the Ecole du Louvre for a degree in museology. What characterizes Philippe’s background is a passion for North Africa, its arts, its history, its cultures. Eager to follow his family’s steps, he moved to Morocco where he worked on research projects for the Moroccan government concerning the conversion of traditional buildings into guest houses in the old city (medina) of Marrakech. After many stays in Morocco and Algeria, he is now an expert on North African architecture, from the Middle Ages up to now. Having embraced the Arabic culture in all its aspects, he knows not only history of art but also traditions, music and food. As a guide-in-training, he's offering free tours with a focus on Islamic architecture and culture in June and July 2016. Contact us for more information.