The day begins an hour earlier than we had planned
because Muhyidden and Famelia, through a friend, has managed to arrange
an opportunity for Lisa to meet with the Imam of the Great Mosque and
Banda Aceh to request permission to enter the mosque to take
This rather amazing honor has a few of our hearts pounding in our chests
as we are led up the marble steps with carved rosewood railings and
seated in a receiving area with the mosque’s head of security. Not more
than a few minutes pass when the Imam, a unpreposing man of about 60
comes down the steps. We all rose to greet him and first Muyhidden’s
friend, then Muyhidden explain our purpose. I asked Famelia to please
explain my desire to see the place of worship where so many people were
saved during the tsunami and then asked Famelia to explain that people
in America need to understand both the importance of the mosque to
community life in Aceh as well as the fundamental role that faith plays
in their lives.
A great deal of discussion ensued, not all of which was translated for
the non-Bahasa speakers. The head of security seemed to speak most
vehemently with the Imam offering a word or two. Finally it was agreed
that I would go up to the top of the steps to take pictures in the
mosque –which I did. Although I was disappointed not to see the inside
of the building which was literally a lifesaver for so many, I
appreciated the spirit of compromise and particularly appreciated the
effort Muyhidden and Famelia put forth. It was an honor to be able to
present my case to the Imam and in retrospect, it was also a good
learning experience for a white resident of the first world to face
first hand the type of discrimination (no non-Muslims allowed in the
mosque) that so many people in the world face in countless ways every
With Famelia we roamed the grounds of the mosque and posed like tourists
asking others to take our pictures. I climbed to the top of the minaret
and found the city spread out before me with the sea, canals and rivers
looking so calm and benign it was hard to believe a tsunami could occur.
Children learning the Holy Quran outside the Great Mosque in
On the steep stairs of the the Great Mosque’s Minaret.
Our next stop on our last day is a quick visit to Dian’s
lovely mother to say goodbye. She gives us a quick tour of the wonderful
pre-kindergarten and kindergarten school that occupies a part of her
house, including the immense room in which her mother used to live. The
children are busy at work in miniature tables and chairs but are giddy
with excitement at the luck of unexpected guests.
A room full of children in rapt attention in school.
A few children noticing the guests in their classroom.
We set off to do sightseeing we’ve meant to get to all
along. We visit the museum that was first built by the Dutch during
colonial times. Before we enter the building, we visit the traditional
Acehnese house that is the first exhibit. The house is beautifully
decorated on the outside and inside the long rectangular building is
divided into three parallel levels that ingeniously break down living
space and incorporate a simple but effective system of ventilation. The
museum is presently home to a special exhibit of letters and documents
sent by Acehnese Kings and Sultans across history to various dignitaries
in other parts of the world. There is also a display of old photographs
(copies) that catalog the history of Dutch colonialism and the fierce
resistance of Acehnese heroes and heroines who refused to give up their
fight. It isn’t until we consider the photographs and read the captions
that we comprehend the extent of the Acehnese resistance and the bravery
of people fighting against a superior war machine. This also provides a
context for a better understanding of the recent GAM and government
A stunning photograph hangs in the Banda Aceh Museum depicting
an Acehnese heroine shortly after her capture by the Dutch. She
died shortly thereafter.
In another building of the museum are three or four
models of the Great Mosque that show the evolution of the place of
worship. The first model is the mosque before the Dutch burned it down
in the middle of the 19th century after hosting some fierce battles with
the Acehnese It is almost unrecognizable as a mosque and strikes us as
bearing far closer resemblance to a pagoda. Less than ten years later,
the Dutch rebuilt the mosque in a style, although beautiful and grand,
utterly unrelated to its original manifestation. Since then it has been
added on to a few times before becoming the majestic place of worship
that saved so many lives during the tsunami.
Details of a famous tomb in the Banda Aceh Museum.
When we tell Gordon Smith, the engineer we met that we are planning to
visit the Dutch cemetery, he offers us a great tip. Upon his suggestion,
we stop at the newest hotel in Aceh to leaf through the coffee table
book in the lobby. As promised, the book, “Visitor’s Guide Military
Cemetery of Honour Peutjut” tells the stories of various Dutch soldiers
buried in the ground, thereby, provides a brief but expansive history of
the Dutch presence in Aceh. But neither the book nor our visit to the
museum prepares us for the cemetery where the legacy of colonialism is
inescapably on display.
The entrance to the cemetery is an imposing gated entrance that
chronicles in stone the names of the dead according to year of death or
year and name of battle. Inside, the graves do not only belong to
soldiers. We see plenty of children’s graves and the graves of the
mothers who lie beside them. We wander through the wet grass in the
light rain, trying to discern the layout of the cemetery. Many of the
graves are hidden inside carpets of weeds. Older gravestones have
crumbled and fallen apart, and the writing on most tombstones has worn
away and is difficult to read.
Broken graves in the Dutch cemetery a short distance from the
Great Mosque in Banda Aceh.
Other graves are faceless, as if someone has
intentionally removed the inscribed plaques and carried them away. We
wonder if, instead, the gravestones have been intentionally scraped
away, defaced or covered. In between, a trishaw driver is cutting and
gathering bundles of grass to take home with him. The city of Banda Aceh
has grown up against the cemetery walls and surrounds the graveyard on
all sides with the bustle and reality of city life. We’ve forgotten to
ask whether the cemetery was affected by the tsunami.
The Dutch cemetery is filled with the graves of soldiers and
civilians. The city of Banda Aceh has grown around it.