Istiqlal: The work of a
Christian architect

Standing gracefully: This undated file photo shows an aerial view of Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Indonesia. Visiting US President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit the mosque on Wednesday morning. JP/P.J. Leo

 US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are scheduled to visit Istiqlal Mosque on Wednesday.

Some Americans who believe that Obama might be a Muslim due to the four years he spent in Indonesia during his childhood will no doubt closely follow the president’s visit to the largest mosque in Southeast Asia.

Many Indonesians perhaps do not know that the architect of the mosque was a devout Christian.

Friedrich Silaban won a competition to design the mosque in 1955. The contest’s jury included then president Sukarno.

Its construction started in 1961. Sukarno’s successor, Soeharto, officiated the mosque on Feb. 22, 1978.

“I have promised the people that the building will survive a thousand years,” Tempo newsweekly quoted Silaban as saying.

The architect never studied at university; his formal education ended at a Dutch KWS, or senior technical school, in Batavia.

Silaban moved to Batavia after finishing elementary school in his hometown, Tapanuli. He learned architecture during a year-long internship with Dutch architect J.H. Antonisse.

The mosque can accommodate up to 120,000 people. The prayer hall is supported by 12 columns and is covered by 45-meter central spherical dome. It was designed to be cooled without air conditioning by blocking sunlight and ensuring a free flow of winds.

Silaban was also one of the architects of the National Monument, which is located near the mosque. When Obama visits the National Heroes Cemetery, he will pass its gate, which was also designed by the Batak artist.

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