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How Indonesian mosques survived the tsunami

Architectural experts say the mosques in Banda Aceh survived because they were sturdily built and had stronger foundations than surrounding structures, many of which were likely constructed of poorer-quality materials. But many survivors believe the mosques were spared by divine intervention.
In this photo from january 20, 2005, the Rahmatullah Lampuuk Mosque stands intact after the 2004 tsunami hit the area in Lhoknga, near Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Greg Baker, File/AP Photo
In this photo from january 20, 2005, the Rahmatullah Lampuuk Mosque stands intact after the 2004 tsunami hit the area in Lhoknga, near Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Greg Baker, File/AP Photo

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia // When a powerful tsunami smashed into the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh ten years ago, the only structures left standing in many neighbourhoods were mosques. For the hundreds who found refuge within their walls, the buildings’ lifesaving role has not been forgotten — and for many, that experience strengthened their faith.

Architectural experts say the mosques in Banda Aceh survived because they were sturdily built and had stronger foundations than surrounding structures, many of which were likely constructed of poorer-quality materials.

But many survivors believe the mosques were spared by divine intervention.

“It’s because the mosque is the house of Allah, the creator of such a tsunami. It’s protected,” said Ahmad Junaidi, a survivor who fled to safety in the majestic Baiturrahman Grand Mosque, a major landmark in the city with its 35-metre-high minarets, white walls and seven black domes.

The mosque, built by Dutch colonisers and completed in 1881, was virtually unscathed by the December 26, 2004 tsunami, which devastated the city and killed more than 230,000 people in more than a dozen nations around the Indian Ocean.

As an 18-year-old, Reza Nasir found refuge from the disaster by climbing onto one of the Grand Mosque’s black domes. From there, he saw the ocean flood into the city and over the mosque’s outside walls, leaving hundreds of bodies in the courtyard. He had never seen so many corpses.

That was also when he started to pray five times a day, one of the five pillars of Islam.

Many residents of Aceh, the most dominantly Muslim province in all of Indonesia, viewed the disaster as punishment for their lack of devotion to God. The tsunami has actually made many more devout, said Faisal Ali, a prominent cleric.

“It encouraged Acehnese to renew their dedication to their faith,” Mr Ali said.

With the renewed religious fervour among many in Aceh, the region on the northern tip of Sumatra has also become the only region of Indonesia governed by Sharia — part of a peace agreement with the government to end a decades-long separatist war that granted the region some autonomy.

Mirza Irwansyah, an architectural expert from Banda Aceh’s state-run Syiah Kuala University, said that at least 27 mosques in the city survived the tsunami, often the only buildings in their neighbourhoods to do so. Photos of the structures standing amid the debris circulated on the internet after the disaster, with many calling their survival a miracle.

But they stood firm mostly because of their solid construction compared to surrounding buildings, said Mr Irwansyah. The Grand Mosque, he explained, was built by Europeans with a sturdy foundation.

In many cases, mosques and churches are built by charities, Mr Irwansyah said, and are therefore less likely to be cheated by corrupt contractors who use lower quality materials in houses and ordinary buildings to cut costs.

Now 28 years old, Reza Nasir — who watched the tsunami rush in from the rooftop of the Grand Mosque — recently awoke before dawn to join dozens of others for prayers at the same spot. Together, they bowed their foreheads to the white stone floor that was once covered with bodies.

“I feel like I have a second chance in life after surviving the tsunami,” Mr Nasir said. “I’m grateful. It created a momentum for me to change to be better.”

* Associated Press

Updated: December 23, 2014 04:00 AM

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