The end of Ramadan is fast approaching and there’s excitement in Singapore’s humid air. Hari Raya Puasa (also called Eid al-Fitr) is a holiday about generosity, charity and reflecting on one’s past actions. Since practicing Muslims conclude a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, it’s no surprise that food is also a huge component. Every year, a night market chock full of regional food stalls can be found at the foot of the gleaming Sultan Mosque.
Located at the heart of Kampong Glam, this site has been a pillar for the local Muslim community since 1824. In pure Singapore fashion, the mosque’s history is a collage of cultural influences. The original Sultan Mosque was born out of the accord between Sir Stamford Raffles and Sultan Hussein Shah, Raja of Johor. This agreement, which permitted the British to establish a trading post on the island, is largely considered to be the founding of modern Singapore.
By 1918, however, the mosque had fallen into disrepair and couldn’t fulfill the needs of the Islamic community, which had grown significantly over previous decades. Swan & Maclaren, the British architecture firm that designed and built Raffles Hotel, was tapped to plan the new building. Founded in 1887, it is one of the country’s oldest architectural firms and remains in business today. (Cool side note: since the firm was open to take on various religious projects, they also created the Sri Mariamman Temple and St. Andrew’s Cathedral.)
The architect at Swan & Maclaren commissioned to design the Sultan Mosque’s reincarnation was Denis Santry, an Irishman from Cork who attended the Royal College of Art in London. Santry worked as an architect in Cape Town, South Africa, where he also drew cartoons for newspapers and magazines. He even left architecture behind to be a cartoonist full time in Johannesburg for several years before moving to Singapore in 1918. During World War I, his drawings were reproduced all over the world and, appropriately enough, he was called upon to design The Cenotaph in Esplanade Park, Singapore’s first major war memorial.
Santry’s artistic sensibilities are readily visible in the Sultan Mosque, an elegant structure in the Indo-Saracenic style that’s crowned with two gold ogee domes. What many visitors miss, however, are the belts of glass bottles that encircle the base of each dome. The mosque’s construction began in 1924 but in the years of global recession that followed, the funds to finish the building came from the generosity of the local Muslim community. The bottles were collected and donated by those who couldn’t afford to contribute money.
Today, the Sultan Mosque continues to be deeply involved in the community and in social outreach programs. How fitting that this institution, built with donated funds in a multicultural city by a secular firm, is at the center of Hari Raya Puasa festivities.
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An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.