A Pilgrimage to the Root of Islam in Java

FEBRUARY 17, 2010

Wahyuni Kamah

Sunan Ampel Mosque and the surrounding Arab quarter is a melting pot where spiritualism meets commercialism, cultures merge, and saints and sinners collide.

It is only four kilometers from Tanjung Perak in Surabaya, the busiest port in eastern Indonesia, and situated near what used to be Kalisosok Prison, where the nation’s founding fathers — including President Sukarno — were once detained.

It is considered a less than safe place to travel, known for its rampant pickpockets. Still, hundreds of people flock there every day in buses and cars, all day and long into the night. More come on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, and in the month of Ramadan. Most are pilgrims from across the country who come to visit the mosque and pray by Sunan Ampel’s tomb.

The story of the Sunan Ampel Mosque began in the 15th century when Raden Achmad Rachmatullah traveled from his native land of Champa, Cambodia, to East Java, then ruled by the Majapahit Hindu kingdom. King Brawijaya V of Majapahit granted Rachmatullah a plot of land at Ampel Dento, now Surabaya. In 1421, Rachmatullah built a school and a mosque which grew to become a center for the dissemination of Islam.

He became widely known as Sunan Ampel, and was recognized as one of the nine scholars who spread Islam across the archipelago. When he died in 1481 he was buried in the mosque courtyard, and his tomb has been drawing a steady stream of pilgrims ever since.

Instead of a dome, the mosque has a three-tiered roof that shows strong Javanese architectural influence. Sixteen teak pillars support the 3,000-square-meter mosque.

The five arched gates around the mosque are named after the Javanese words for the five principles of Islam. Paneksen Arch stands for syahadat , the Muslim declaration of belief in the one god and in the Prophet Muhammad. Ngamal Arch represents amal , or charity. Poso Arch represents fasting. Madep Arch symbolizes the five daily prayers, with madep literally meaning to face Mecca, which Muslims must turn toward for their prayers. Munggah Arch, in the complex’s southern corner, stands for hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The mosque is located on Jl. KH Mansyur in the heart of the Arab quarter of the city. A sprawling bazaar with an Arab atmosphere and a pack of pedicabs mark the entrance to the mosque. Middle-Eastern songs blast from music stores while the smell of incense and perfume scents the air.

Restaurants offer Arabic fare, including mung bean curry with roti maryam , a chapati-like flat bread, and coffee brewed with cardamom that you can enjoy while taking a puff from a hookah. Many shops also sell Arabic souvenirs and traditional snacks, like dates, raisins and pistachios.