With heat so hot it pressed like a physical weight all around me, I stepped into the cool of the bright white, fight white Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, neighbour to Saudi, capital of Oman.
White to reflect the heat, white to fight the heat, white, bright, dazzling white, sunbeam white in a disorienting bright blue sky.
Pregnant, and more than a little lightheaded, I needed the sanctuary of the cool.
And I entered, dressed in white.
I feel a flutter of something, I’m not sure what, whenever I enter a house of religious worship. A sense of the divine? Uncertainty at not belonging? A slight anxiety, perhaps, of causing inadvertent offence, no matter how modestly I dress, no matter how hard I try.
I take my cues from people around me, as all good travellers tell me I should, but still the nuance eludes, the risk remains high.
I stand mystified by the way different stories have taken hold in different places – and how different interpretations of these have led to such bloodshed over the years.
But mostly I marvel at the vision and talent expressed by human eyes and hands in service to their gods.
If the artefacts of gold in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt are among the oldest I have seen, perhaps the Sultan Qaboos Mosque in Oman is one of the newest.
Commissioned in 1992 and involving more than 300 000 tonnes of Indian sandstone, it stands as modern as a temple can be, letters curling in gold to reflect words spoken nearly 1500 years ago.
And it is beautiful.
Truly, genuinely, awe-inspiringly beautiful.
Catholic cathedrals often intrigue me but they rarely soothe my eyes.
But here, in the heat, in a place where I will never belong, the blues and the golds, the ceruleans and sapphires reach into a part of me and seem to touch my soul.
I’ve had nothing but happiness on the ground in this country and now I stand on its soil filled with nothing but hope.
Hope that the baby inside me will grow happy and strong. And hope that the world does the same.
Update – I’m no longer in Oman (!) and did in fact go on to have the baby :-) But I wanted to share how I felt at the time. As for the rest of the world, well, events don’t look too promising at the moment, do they? But let’s live in hope anyway!
What do you think? How do you feel when you visit religious sites?