Oldest UAE mosque holds onto its secrets

Al Bidya Mosque has served the faithful of Fujairah since 1446. But little more is known about the mud-and-brick building. Today it is as popular with tourists as it is with the devout.

A worshipper leaves Al Bidya Mosque on the mountainous coast of Fujairah. Antonie Robertson/ The National
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FUJAIRAH // The country's oldest house of worship, Al Bidya Mosque on Fujairah's mountainous coastline, goes so far back in time that much of its early history has been forgotten.

The centre of spiritual life for generation after generation of Al Bidya people was built in 1446, but the riddle of who constructed it remains.

"We don't know who built this mosque," says Badria Mohammed, who is in charge of the mosque and its tourism office.

"Even fathers' fathers don't know who built this mosque. There were no books or historical studies on who built it."

Its structure has been kept true to its past. Apart from the welcome introduction of two air-conditioning units and four fluorescent lights, and some restoration work a decade ago, the mosque of mud and bricks remains much as it did in the mid-15th century.

A team of archaeologists from Australia took samples from the site in 1998 and carbon-dated them to find out how old the building was.

The only other historical evidence for its age are the towers of a Portuguese fort, built behind the mosque more than 200 years ago.

"We have the ruins of walls of many houses around the mosque [dating back to the same period]," says Ms Mohammed, who interviewed locals for a television programme.

They told her no one lived within a kilometre of the mosque until a few generations ago.

The size of the Al Bidya population and the number of worshippers when the mosque was built are unknown, she says.

"There would have been a few people but after time families got bigger," Ms Mohammed says.

The mosque is unique to the UAE but not the region. It was built about the same time as similar mosques in Yemen, Oman and Qatar.

The only difference is the number of domes. Al Bidya has four, while the others have between seven and 12. They all have a central pillar inside and the domes are of the same design.

"I asked some Omani people and they've heard about their mosque," Ms Mohammed says, adding that mosque is in eastern Oman, also has no minaret and the windows are similar to those at Al Bidya.

"Maybe there could have been an Islamic opening in that time and they could be the first mosques, and [the builders] were travelling from area to area."

The Portuguese who built the fort behind it included drawings of Al Bidya Mosque in historical documents.

Al Bidya is thought to have always been a fishing community but with residents also tending to small livestock, such as goats.

In 2003, Al Bidya Mosque's importance was officially recognised after Dubai Municipality began restoring the site.

Apart from the faithful, the site attracts thousands of tourists every year, who stop off for the daily tours.

"It starts to get busy after September," says Ms Mohammed.

The peak season is winter, when the tourists' buses jostle for parking space among worshippers' cars. But officials only allow visitors to go inside after midday so the devout can pray undisturbed.

The mosque is nearly 50 square metres. Some rocks used in its construction were taken from the sea.

The minbar, from which the imam delivers his sermon, is small and worn smooth by decades of use.

Before the air conditioning was installed, small windows set within the domes helped air to circulate and keep the interior cool. The circular domes help sound travel around the room.

Ms Mohammed says she is eager for further investigations to help unravel the mosque's history.