Java’s oldest mosque
Published/Last edited or updated: 2nd June, 2017
Mesjid Agung Demak is Java’s oldest mosque, at the heart of Java’s first Islamic kingdom established in the late 15th century, and instrumental in the spread of Islam throughout the nation.
Demak’s history is rich with legends of nine Islamic saints, known as the wali songo—one tale recounts that the mosque was magically built in one night. Although little is known of their origin, the mystical form of Islam they evangelised was more akin to Sufism, an easy move from the former Hindu and Animist traditions, and along with the new beliefs a fresh wave of creativity in literature, the arts and architecture followed. The wali songo’s graves form important pilgrimage sites for Javanese.
Mesjid Agung Demak has undergone several renovations, but in its present guise is not far removed from the original: constructed from wood with a triple-tiered pyramid shaped roof supported by four principal pillars known as the soko guru, influenced by earlier Hindu architectural forms. Some historians speculate that the architects were indeed Hindu, the predominating religion at the time of its construction. In front of the mosque, a 22-metre minaret with metal open stairways added in 1932 looks strangely like a telephone signal tower.
A small onsite museum documents the history of the mosque with miniature models, some original pillars and beautiful elaborately carved teak doors along with other architectural elements. Also on display are large drums used for the call to prayer and huge Ming Dynasty jars in the past filled with water to perform ablutions as well as some hand inscribed Korans. All labels are in Indonesian, but the artefacts themselves are still interesting to view.
Behind the museum, to the side of the mosque a graveyard that includes tombs of the Sultan of Demak is the main reason, not just for pilgrims, but for travellers to visit the mosque. This holy site is considered so sacred that some Javanese believe seven “ziarah” or pilgrimages here are equivalent to a pilgrimage to Mecca and it’s quite moving to watch the faithful chanting and meditating in front of the mausoleum.
The mosque is the only real reason the visit Demak, some 30 kilometres northeast of Semarang and unless you have a particular interest in Islam or Islamic architecture in these parts is probably not worth a standalone trip, however if you are travelling towards Jepara, it’s defiantly worth a stop on the way, along with the fascinating mosque in Kudus. Respectful dress is required—long pants and sleeves, and headscarfs for women (menstruating women are not permitted).
Buses from Terboyo terminal in Semarang will drop you near the mosque (5,000 rupiah, 40 mins). For travel between Semarang and Jepara, consider hiring a car and driver (around 650,000 rupiah) to visit the sights at Demak and Kudus along the way.
Address: 30 kilometres northeast of Semarang
Sally spent twelve years leading tourists around Indonesia and Malaysia where she collected a lot of stuff. She once carried a 40kg rug overland across Java. Her house has been described as a cross between a museum and a library. Fuelled by coffee, she can often be found riding her bike or petting stray cats. Sally believes travel is the key to world peace.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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