Top five places to connect with Europe’s Muslim Heritage

As interest in the Muslim heritage of Europe grows, more and more of us are looking for places to connect with the continent’s Islamic past (and present).

This list handpicks the five ideal destinations to do just that. Each entry has been included for its historical significance as well as its ability to offer the visitor something special. They come with a simple and practical explanation of why you would go, where you should go and how to get there.

So whether you want to chase Ottoman Draculas, forgotten Balkan Sufi shrines or Moorish maidens, step right this way …

5. The Baltic – Mosques ‘on the prairie’

Why go: To meet descendants of one of Europe’s most ancient Muslim communities, and one of Europe’s most indigenous; the Baltic Tatars and to stare in awe at the ‘most European looking’ mosques you will ever see. These distant offspring of Ghenghis and Tamerlane were brought from the Crimea to what was then the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, way back in 1398 by Vytautas the Great. Ironically, the Duke sought their help in fending of the aggressive Christian Knights of the Teutonic Order. DSC_0594

As a reward, Vytautas gave the Tatars land in the area which now falls in southern Lithuania, north eastern Poland and western Belarus. Amazingly, many of the descendants have continued to live in the same area for over 600 years and can be found along with the few remaining stunning wooden mosques in villages and towns across the region.

Where to go: The most accessible area is south of Lithuania’s capital Vilnius. The settlement of Nemezis, which more or less falls in Vilnius and the village of Keturiasdesimt Totoriu just 20 minutes drive south west of the city are the easiest to access. Both have the quaint little mosques and a community of Tatars who claim descent from the original Crimean settlers. Further west is also the village of Raiziai, home of Lithuania’s only other wooden Tatar mosque.

How to get there: Budget airlines fly to Vilnius. Nemezis is a mere 8 km east of the airport and takes 10 minutes by car or train from the centre of town. Ketiriasdesimt Totoriu is connected by public bus to the southern edge of the capital.

Further reading: My debut piece for the BBC News magazine tells the whole story including the New York connection.

4. Sintra (Lisbon) – In search of the Moorish legacy

Why go: To visit one of the best preserved Muslim forts in all of Europe in gorgeous rolling green hills rumoured to be frequented by a beautiful Moorish maiden. Once known as Al-Gharb al Andalus, from whence the ‘Algarve’ acquired it’s name, Portugal is (very) slowly coming to terms with the fact that much of what is Portuguese, is descended from Muslim culture. One of the constant reminders, are all the relics that lie scattered about the country. In fact, landing in any region of Portugal it is easy to decipher where the local Moorish connection is, through names, architecture, food, and even music. IMG_8231

Where to go: The easiest place to access a glimpse of this astounding heritage is via Portugal’s charming capital, Lisbon – or ‘Al-Ishbun’ as it was known to the Moors. Moorish connoisseurs will hear echoes of a Muslim past in the melancholic Fado music,  on the tongues of the locals and taste it in the local dishes. Lisbon also allows visitors to connect with the modern Portuguese Muslims, mainly of immigrant descent, at the beautiful new Central Lisbon Mosque.

However, the main reason for arriving in Lisbon is to board the short train ride east into the serene hills of the stunningly quaint town of Sintra, once the summer residency of Moorish aristocracy, and later inherited by the Portuguese Christian aristocracy.  This is evoked by two monuments in particular; the dramatic ruins of the 10th century Moorish castle and the eccentric 19th century Pena palace, which combines Moorish, Mughal, Baroque, Gothic and Manueline architectural styles in what some have described as Hogwarts on acid, but is really an ode to all things Muslim and eastern!

How to get there: Fly into Lisbon all year round and grab the suburban Sintra line train to be whisked into the hills within half hour or so.

Further reading: Go on a visual journey of what to expect here; or read ‘Remembering al-Gharb al Andalus; Portugal’s Muslim past and present’

3. Romania – Muslim Draculas and Ottoman legends

Why go: To literally bump into the descendants of Ottomans and Tatars, still residing all over the nation that provided the inspiration for Dracula, and to unravel the rumour that one of the Draculas was Muslim! A certain Radu Dracul apparently. Then there are the Ottoman ruins, including beautiful old mosques that speak of royal legends.

Where to go: Little in the way of a trail survives for Radu, but he is believed to be buried in the church at Tanganu, east of Bucharest, off highway E81. This is quite convenient if you are driving to the Dobrugea region’s capital Constanta from Bucharest. Constanta is where most of the nation’s 55,000 or so Romanian Muslims live. The city also has two very beautiful and important mosques.

The Mahmudiyye Mosque, built by King Carol I in 1910, is the seat of the country’s Grand Mufti, whilst the nearby Geamia Hunchiar Mosque, was one of the last built by the Ottomans in 1886. However, the earliest and most exciting Ottoman mosque is down south in the little town of Mangalia. There the 16th century Esmahan Sultan Moschee makes all sorts of fantastic claims about royal Princess’, Grand Viziers and even the ‘Shadow of Allah on earth’ himself, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

How to get there: Cheap direct flights used to go to Constanta and may restart. If not head for the capital Bucharest and board a train to Constanta (2.5 hours). Once there cheap local taxi-buses will get you up and down the coast.

Further reading: Read ‘The Christian boy who ruled the Muslim world’ and get a flavour of the legends that abound in this region.

2. Bulgaria – Blossoming Ottoman heritage

Why go: Like Romania, Bulgaria has an ancient community of Muslims descended from the Ottomans, many of whom you will meet all over the country, but also to see the finest example of Ottoman ‘Tulip’ style of artistry anywhere in Europe. In fact Bulgaria is just brimming with Ottoman history; abandoned village mosques, mysterious turbaned tombstones, crumbling Ottoman bridges and hidden hermitages of forgotten holy men all await.

Where to go: One of the most fabulous sights is the Tombul mosque in the northeastern town of Shumen –  inside which, the Ottoman ‘Tulip’ style blossoms like few other places outside of Turkey. This little known style developed in the early 18th century and integrates European Baroque and French styles with classical Ottoman ones. This is also a good place to meet Bulgarian-Turkish Muslims, who are once again flourishing. Opposite the mosque is a newly built madrasah and cultural centre. Shumen sits central to an entire region littered with Muslim heritage sites including the hidden shrines of Muslims saints still revered today, interestingly by followers of both Christianity and Islam.

How to get there: Fly into Varna, and then rent a car to access all the different sites scattered across the countryside. For Shumen, there is a train from Varna that costs the princely sum of £2 (1.5 hours).Demir Baba (5)

Further reading: There is a brief insight into the forgotten tombs at the end of ‘The Bulgarian Good Life’.  More to follow


1. Al-Andalus (Spain) – Home of the European Renaissance

Why go: Andalusia is to European Muslim Heritage what Ancient Greece and Rome are to Western Civilisation, and that is not an overstatement. In fact, Al-Andalus (to give it the Muslim name) was probably just as important to western civilisation. It was here in 929 that Abdur Rahman III declared himself Caliph of the Muslim world, the only time that ever happened in Europe. More importantly, Al-Andalus’ academic and cultural achievements became the impetus for the Renaissance and later Enlightenment, the foundations upon which modern Western society is built upon.

“Many of the traits on which modern Europe prides itself came to it from Muslim Spain. Diplomacy, free trade, open borders, the techniques of academic research, of anthropology, etiquette, fashion, various types of medicine, hospitals, all came from this great city of cities (Cordoba)…”IMG_6022  HRH Charles Phillip Arthur George, The Prince of Wales

Where to go: The three big hitters are the cities of Seville, Granada and Cordoba, with Granada taking the headlines because of the near-mythical palace city, the Alhambra. But as ol’ Charlie boy makes clear, whilst the tourists go to Granada, the purists head for Cordoba. This former capital of Europe’s only Muslim Caliphate is home to the fabulous Mezquita-Cathedral, which directly reconnects you to the founding father of the dynasty, Abdur Rahman I, who made his way here from Syria in the 8th century. The mosque is also the earliest example of what later became known as ‘Islam architecture’ there is no Islamic architecture before the efforts of the Umayyads – the dynasty from which Abdur Rahman heralds. Cordoba is also the loudest declaration that Islam and Muslim have in fact been shaping Europe for almost 1300 years now.

Al-Andalus and all that it achieved will make you realise that many of the things you always believed were ‘European’, ‘secular’, ‘non-Muslim’ and had nothing to do with Muslims is completely wrong.

How to get there: For Cordoba, fly straight into Malaga and grab a train (1.5 hours). For Granada, fly straight to Granada. To see it all, car rental or a combination of trains and buses can be used.


Further reading: This photo journey uses the words of non Muslims to underline the importance of this region to European history.



So what do you make of that?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s