Sun, 19 Jan 2003

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, Brunei's national treasure

Jason Volker Contributor Bandar Seri Begawan

In 1951, something very auspicious happened in old Brunei Town. The newly crowned monarch of Brunei Darussalam, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III, initiated the construction of a holy edifice destined to enchant the world with its overwhelming elegance.

A globe-spanning quest for the world's finest materials yielded Italian white marble, Shanghai granite, English chandeliers and stained-glass windows, and Belgian and Saudi Arabian carpets. No expense was to be spared in the creation of the Grand Mosque, a majestic monument to the highest aspirations of a nation still convalescing from the ravages of World War II.

As the structure slowly took shape over several industrious years, it became obvious this glittering architectural jewel was designed to be the centerpiece in the capital's crown; a sumptuous sanctuary of spiritual peace in a town that, thanks to the Sultan's visionary five-year development plan, was steadily growing into a noble city.

On completion of this pious project in 1958, the twin-storied edifice was officially named Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, in honor of this progressive and popular ruler who is justly hailed as the architect of modern Brunei. The nation's capital, later renamed Bandar Seri Begawan in further tribute to the 17- year reign of Sultan Saifuddien, had gloriously signaled its arrival on the world stage.

Nearly half a century on and my arrival in Brunei is the realization of a traveler's dream.

A few years ago I wrote a story titled The Treasures of Southeast Asia, in which I heralded the foremost cultural landmark of each of the region's 10 nations. After days of detailed research and consultation with well-traveled friends, I eventually selected the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque as Brunei's representative. As I was personally yet to visit this intriguing land in the north of Kalimantan, I duly added it to my bulging list of must-see destinations.

So now as I make my way through the spacious boulevards of Bandar Seri Begawan, as I catch my first golden glimpse of the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque shimmering in the brilliant equatorial light, a burst of excitement overcomes all extraneous thoughts. I had flown 7,000-kilometers for this very moment. I had waited two long years to behold Brunei's national treasure.

There are certain structures, certain man-made masterpieces dotted throughout the world that possess such an aura of perfection they don't seem to belong on earth. They are too dazzling to the eye, too beautiful to encompass in words, too sublime to be the work of mere mortals. Illustrious examples that spring to mind include Bangkok's Grand Palace, Beijing's Temple of Heaven and Agra's Taj Mahal.

I propose we should now add Bandar's Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque to that lofty roll of distinction. Wondrous as the mosque is, the greater wonder is that so few travelers know of this magnificent marble monument, despite Lonely Planet describing it as "one of the most impressive structures in the East".

Passing through the front gate, I am immediately humbled by the mosque's sheer size. The scope of the scene causes me to shuffle back slightly, temporarily awestruck by the palatial surroundings.

The crowning 520-square-meter golden mosaic dome, alluringly twinkling with three million pieces of fine Venetian glass, uplifts my vision heavenward. Accompanying this spellbinding cupola is a 50-meter, gold-topped minaret from which the muezzin summons the city's faithful to prayer.

My first inclination is to admire the building's exterior from all directions before entering its holy sanctum. Rows of gilded peaks poised atop steep towers compliment the mighty central dome, like radiant petals of a numinous flower. A fountain-filled ablution area reminiscent of an ancient Roman bath sits picturesquely in one corner of the structure.

To layer further splendor upon the site, the building is bordered by a crescent-shaped lagoon decorated with a replica 16th-century royal barge.

This ornate, three-pavilioned vessel hosted vibrant religious ceremonies such as Koran reading competitions during the 1960s and early 1970s. Today, as I admiringly gaze upon its slender hull, it is silent, serene, almost transcendental.

Blissfully wandering throughout the grounds, my appreciation of the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque deepens with each fresh angle of view. Two full hours after arriving, I excitedly make my way to the building's arched entrance. Pausing at the threshold, beholding the marvelous interior for the very first time, I feel like Aladdin about to enter the mystical cave of treasures.

Magical Arabian carpets cover the cool marble floor. Tall glass bookcases housing tomes of timeless wisdom line the walls. Rainbow-colored lead-light windows blaze bright with sunlight. Giant incense burners crafted by local master silversmiths sparkle by the door.

It is a sight that demands superlatives. Exquisite. Regal. Divine.

If Brunei Darussalam is the Abode of Peace, then the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is the fountainhead of that national tranquility.

I-box If you go

Where: The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is located on Jl. McArthur in the heart of Brunei's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.

Getting there: Royal Brunei Airlines (phone 21-521 1842, email, has regular flights from Jakarta to Bandar Seri Begawan.

When to go: Brunei's equatorial climate remains fairly constant throughout the year -- it's always warm and humid.

Lodging: Budget accommodation can be found at the Brunei Youth Center (aka Pusat Belia, on Sungai Kianggeh Rd, phone 673-2-229 423) where air-conditioned dorm rooms cost B$10 (Rp 51,100) a night.

If you're after a little more luxury try the Brunei Hotel (95 Pemancha Rd, phone 673-2-242 372, fax 673-2-226 196) where comfortable rooms start at B$114 a night.

Dining: For cheap eats visit the Padian Food Court in the Yayasan SHHB shopping complex in downtown Bandar. Or for tasty hawker food, try the night market in front of the Sheraton Hotel. In fact, food stalls pop up all over town after dark.

Getting around: This city is built for walking. Attractions in the downtown area are easily accessible by foot. If you're short on time, take a bus to anywhere in the city and surrounding suburbs for B$1. The main bus terminal is beside the Yayasan shopping complex.

Currency: One Bruneian dollar is equal to Rp 5,110.

Reading: Lonely Planet Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei is highly recommended. On the Internet check out and

More information: Embassy of Brunei Darussalam (Suite 1901, Jl. Sudirman No. 28, Central Jakarta 10210, phone 21-574 1437, fax 21-574 1463).

In Bandar Seri Begawan visit the new Tourist Information Center by the post office on Elizabeth Dua Rd (email