‘Discover untold stories’, reads the slogan emblazoned on the back of our tour guide’s t-shirt. With a microphone in hand and a fez on his head as red as the bus we are sat in, Abdul Malik attempts to help us do exactly that. Sitting on an open-top bus, a group of around 30, mainly Muslim families, tour through London, listening eagerly to tales about Muslims in the capital, centuries ago.
We started the day at the meeting point on the corner near East London Mosque. Bright red against the grey sky, our traditional London bus awaited our arrival. Departure was scheduled for 10am, but we left 45 minutes after planned, waiting for latecomers to join us. Late start aside, our guide, Abdul Malik, keeps us interested, asking us questions such as ‘When was the earliest Muslim connection to England?’ which, in hindsight, was perhaps rhetorical, as I don’t remember him actually giving an answer- or maybe I missed it entirely!
As we pass over Tower Bridge, we are entertained with stories of the Royal Navy once capturing a Turkish ship that was sailing by, and another of a Muslim being convicted of treason and imprisoned at the Tower of London. The bus stops on the side of a road and we walk through St. Michael’s Alley to Todd’s Wine Bar. A little bemused by our location, it is soon revealed that this is the site of the first ever coffee shop in London. Opened in 1652, it was established by a Turkish merchant. Amusingly, Englishmen once saw coffee as the ‘practise of the infidel’ and were warned against drinking it out of fear of turning ‘Turk’!
Back on board, the downside to sitting on an open-top bus on a windy day becomes more apparent; along with the standard noise pollution of city life, the wind makes the task of listening more difficult. As we journey further into the City of London, the bells of St. Paul’s Cathedral can be heard and our guide relates more tidbits and anecdotes, including one about a Muslim ambassador who walked past the cathedral when it was first being constructed.
Our next stop is the Horse Guards Parade. As we filter into the open space, Abdul Malik tells us how a Turkish canon ended up here. We are also told about a Moroccan ambassador, who, along with twenty other Muslims, was a resident at The Strand and came to discuss trade agreements and establish treaties with Queen Elizabeth I. The ambassador, a man over six feet tall, with a long beard and elaborate clothing, would come here to the watch the horses at the parade.
Boarding the bus, we pass by Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament to reach the site of London’s first mosque. We are told, contrary to popular belief, that East London mosque was not the first mosque in London. It was, in fact, a house mosque, located on Albert Street and established in 1895. We move into the residential area and stop near a row of houses (Abdul is currently trying to persuade the man who now owns the house to get a plaque placed on the building to acknowledge the site as a small landmark).
Our final stop, a Turkish bathhouse dating back to the Victorian period, is hidden amongst towering glass buildings in Bishop’s Gate. Established in 1894, the building, shaped like a traditional mosque, survived two world wars and modernisation. It was used as a bathhouse until the 1950s, after which it was converted to a storage space, followed by a pizza place, an entertainment place and now, a venue for weddings and events. The side of the building shows the direction of the Qibla.
Three and a half hours after setting off, the bus arrived back at the starting point. Though the norm for London sightseeing bus tours, (and the least you can expect driving across London and back) taking into account the delay at the start, I was pretty tired by the end. That said, I learned a lot- far more than I had expected to! I was a little dubious at the beginning, wondering how much Muslim history there could possibly be in London- quite a lot, it turns out (I’ve tried not to give too much away here)! It was informative and entertaining, and Abdul Malik was an engaging guide. The tour serves an important purpose in today’s Britain, particularly in making young British Muslims more aware of their history and connection to this country. And the chocolates handed out along the way weren’t bad either.
For details about the next tour, as well as prices and other tours offered, check out Muslim History Tours.