I’ll remember Putrajaya not only for its eerie emptiness… but also for my first-ever visit to a mosque. Seen plenty of ’em from afar, never been in one.

Our host, Rozi, skillfully timed our visit so it wouldn’t conflict with afternoon prayers about an hour later. We walked through the imposing arch into a courtyard.

Beautifully imposing

Step one: cover up. I’d thought I might wind up in a mosque today, so I was sporting long pants. To preserve her modesty, Karen needed to be a lot more covered than that, in this case by a fashionable pink robe.

On our way in

Unlike the historical artifacts I saw in the Islamic Arts Museum in KL or the Islamic Museum in Kuching, the striking thing about this mosque is its newness. Sunlight gleams on the pink marble, the intricate carvings showing nary a scratch.

We made our way into the massive main hall, which can accommodate over 8,000 people. Men and women separately, of course, with the men on the main floor and the women in the balconies.

The dome

Men down here, women up there

As we lingered in the entrance and had a few of our questions about Islam answered by Rozi, I began to feel a certain sterility in the space- it’s a little too shiny and new. Even though I’m a modernist- love those clean lines and smooth surfaces- I couldn’t help but imagine the Blue Mosque in Turkey (I hope to see it on this trip, too). How much character and history are embedded in its walls. Having been finished in 1999, this building has a long way to go to build up that sort of ambience, though I’m sure the sterility I’m seeing as a tourist is stripped away when you get a few thousand living, breathing worshippers in there for prayers. That’s what this building is for, after all.

Our first mosque

As Karen and I posed for that photo, the Muslim women minding the door came over and asked where we were from. When we said “the USA”, there was a burst of excited murmuring in Malay, which Rozi translated for us. It seems they do not have many visitors from the US and wanted us to be sure and sign the comment book at the exit. Throughout Malaysia, when we talked to workers at museums or restaurants, they often told us that they don’t see many tourists from the US. It’s a good bet that a light-skinned visitor is an Aussie, a Kiwi, or perhaps a Brit.

Heavenly glow

Our fabulous host Rozi and her daughter Arwen pose with Karen in front of the Steel Mosque, thusly named for obvious reasons

For the record, I’m not crazy about religions (or governments or employers, for that matter) that treat women differently than men, and I’m also not someone who thinks all Muslims are insane terrorists. I don’t know many Muslims, nor do I know much about the religion (which was somewhat addressed by the sternly-worded brochures Karen was handed for further study).

The final revelation

We do want to learn more about the religion practiced by something like 20% of the world’s population and so famously misunderstood by many Americans. Our window into the history, architecture and culture of Islam will be its mosques. And it all started here, at Masjid Putra.