Uncovering the links between the West Country and the Middle East over 500 years 

Visit to the Mosque

Saturday, 14 November 2005


This beautiful coin dates from 774 and was produced for Offa, the King of Mercia. As the Arabic script is upside down one can only assume the engraver didn’t speak Arabic ! The existence of this coin suggests that we were trading with the Middle East over a thousand years ago.  


There are references to Islamic scholars in the Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1386) and, by medieval times, Exeter Cathedral Library contained works by Islamic scientists. 


Relationships soured by the 12th century as ships assembled in Dartmouth harbour for the Crusades.  After many years of dreadful carnage an agreement between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin allowed Christian pilgrims access to Jerusalem.

This remarkable oil painting hangs in Okehampton Town Hall and shows Saladin leading a cavalry charge. The Crusader standard lies broken on the ground so this must have been one of the battles we lost.

Queen Elizabeth I

400 years later, relationships had so improved that Sultan Murad of the Ottoman Empire wrote suggesting an alliance between Protestant England and the Ottoman Empire - against the dastardly Catholics!


And Queen Elizabeth even asked him for naval assistance against the Spanish Armada.  I do not know if he helped.  

Travellers’ tales of distant lands were incredibly popular in the West Country.  One of the earliest publications was by Sir Walter Raleigh (from East Budleigh) who produced “The life and death of Muhammad” in 1637 -- though many believe it was not original but just a translation from Spanish.


There were many more: Ellis Veryard, a physician from Plymtree who died in Cullompton, wrote about his travels and of his respect for Islamic culture describing learned men and celebrated sculpture and painting.


Joseph Pitts from Exeter wrote of his pilgrimage to Makka and his depiction of the Kabah is probably the first to appear in England.


Thomas Pellow in 1738 describes the Sultan’s executioner as having:


   “The hands of an Exeter man, whose surname  I have        forgot, though I very well remember his Christian one        was Absalom, and that he often told me he was by trade    a butcher”.


Timothy Le Beau of Exeter wrote of Fez and Morocco (1746 to 1750) and explained that Islamic practice included “prayer and its preparatory washing, alms-giving, fasting and pilgrimage."


James Silk Buckingham from  Falmouth spent his  adult life as a traveller, lecturer, M.P. journalist and wrote about his  Arabian travels.

James Holman  was totally blind and, at a time when blind people were expected to beg on street corners, he  wrote about his travels around the world and In1829 he was entertained on the east coast of Africa by Sultan Abdallah.


John Kitto (1804-1854) from Plymouth, deafened by an industrial accident at 13,trained as a missionary and visited Iraq, Iran, Syria and Palestine. He wrote The Pictorial Bible and The Pictorial History of Palestine.


Richard Ford bought Heavitree House and rebuilt it in Moroccan style, a rare example of influence of Islamic architecture and unique in the South-West.  It was demolished in the 1960s.


Sir Richard Burton, the world-famous explorer, was born in Torquay, expelled from Oxford and in 1856 made a pilgrimage to Mecca disguised as a Pathan.   He was later appointed as British Consul in Damascus and is famed for the Kama Sutra, The Perfumed Garden and all 16 volumes of The Arabian Nights.

In 1857 Henry Clements was lecturing in Sidmouth and Ottery about his travels in the Holy Land.  The Rev Boggis in 1922 published A history of the Diocese of Exeter.  Ten years later he was descending the River Jordan in a canoe, and writing about life in the region


Freya Stark, who died in Chagford in 1993, wrote many books about her travels in Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran, Southern Arabia, Syria etc.   And then there was Agatha Christie (born in Torquay) who wrote of her travels with her archaeologist husband and also set novels in the area, for instance Death on the Nile and Murder in Mesopotamia.

Many Westerners do not realise the great contribution made by Islam to our culture.  Philosophy, science and the arts came from Islam via the Greeks - although over-zealous Christians destroyed books produced by these great minds “to rid the world of paganism”.  Many, fortunately, were preserved in Arabic and, when rediscovered, contributed greatly to the Renaissance.

There is more.  For a start, there are so many words in our language that are derived from the Middle East, for instance: admiral, albatross, alchemy, alcohol, alcove, algebra, arsenal (see list below).


Arabic numbers changed everything.  Roman mathematicians were limited by using letters to express numbers: V for five etc.  It was  the Arabs who came up with the zero.  This changed our world, enabling us to count in decimals.  In Mesopotamia they developed mathematics based on 60 – we still use  their system to measure seconds and minutes.   And of course we have retained Roman numerals in clocks. 


Engineering too …If you’ve ever trailed your fingers in the Granada Alhambra cold water, it is extraordinary to realise this water has been drawn from the top of a mountain twelve miles away and via an aqueduct built in the 13th century.  


I have been unable to find good records of the first Muslims who came to settle in Exeter.  Mostly they were businessmen, and there have been Muslim students at Exeter University for many decades.  Back in the 1970s Exeter University ensured that a hall was available for their Muslim students to worship on Fridays and local Muslim businessmen were welcomed to prayed there.


In 1976 students and businessmen raised funds to worship in their own premises and purchased 15 York Road in 1977.  Then, when the school next door was rebuilt, the Mosque bought their now redundant dining hall, library and swimming pool.  These areas were re-used but then came the decision to rebuild the area as a purpose built mosque.


Planning permission for the new mosque was obtained and in October 2011 this beautiful building that is the Exeter Mosque was formally opened, a real tribute to the Muslim community and the architect, Abdul Salaam.

All talks are now on the second Thursday of alternate months (February, April, June, August, October & December).                                          All meetings start at 7 pm and are held at JURYS INN, Western Way, Exeter EX1 2DB.                                                                  Free parking is available from 6pm in the Triangle Car Park at the rear of Jurys.                                                                                Walks/visits are usually on the second Wednesday of alternate months (January, March, May, July, September November). 

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