Rome, Sacred Ground for Nearly 3,000 Years, and Counting

The Islamic presence in Italy dates to the eighth century, but it wasn’t until 1995 that the officially recognized Great Mosque of Rome opened in Parioli, a neighborhood that’s a short hop by taxi from the Borghese Gallery. The mosque, the largest in Europe, is a gleaming, low-slung modern structure that artfully bridges East and West. A fountain near the entrance refreshes a plaza whose pavement echoes the dazzling geometry of Michelangelo’s Campidoglio, and the rows of twinned pillars leading to the travertine-clad sanctuary recall Bernini’s monumental colonnade at St. Peter’s Square.

The interior is a study in curving lines, with low-hanging circular chandeliers ringing the central dome, intricately tiled walls and a rich Persian carpet swirling across the floor. You enter to the sound of bird song, you pray in a luminous rotunda, and you emerge from the compound into a pine and cypress grove at the edge of upscale Parioli. Except when a train rumbles by, it is a lush, hushed precinct.

Maybe too hushed. Rome’s fast-growing Islamic community, many of them immigrants from Morocco, Bangladesh, Albania or Senegal, resides on the other side of town in gritty, bustling piazzas near the Termini rail station. For most Roman Muslims, attending Friday services in the Great Mosque would require taking a day off from work.

“The Great Mosque is a showpiece, a symbol, a place of pride,” notes Imam Yahya Pallavicini, president of COREIS (the Italian Islamic Religious Community). “But the city’s Muslim residents are more likely to pray at smaller unofficial neighborhood mosques, often located in private homes or garages.” On a typical Friday at the Great Mosque, hundreds gather in a space built for thousands.

The difficulty that contemporary Muslims have in finding state-sanctioned Roman houses of worship brings to mind the plight of Rome’s first Christians. Unlike Jews and adherents of Mithras and Isis, Christians were violently persecuted — and some of Rome’s earliest churches, including St. Peter’s, are martyriums: sites where saints were slain for their beliefs. The churches of Santa Sabina, Santa Prassede, Santa Pudenziana and Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura were also sanctified by suffering. With their crystalline mosaics and thin, pure light, these humbly elegant basilicas conjure the time when a strange, fervent, unyielding new cult rose from the ashes of empire.

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