The fifth arrondissement serves a wide range of people. It is home to the Sorbonne, the original buildings of the University of Paris, and to the city’s greatest concentration of universities and private grandes écoles, with a corresponding array of bookshops and stationery boutiques. It is a tourist magnet, the site of the Latin Quarter, Shakespeare and Co and (less charmingly) a stretch of restaurants between the boulevard Saint-Michel and the rue Saint-Jacques that should be avoided at all costs. It is home to major national monuments such as the Panthéon, to underappreciated museum treasures like the Musée de Cluny du Moyen Age, and to tiny specialised museums like the Musée Curie.
The fifth arrondissement, at once so quiet and so rowdy, so commercial and so residential, is many things to many people. But you may not know that the fifth is a special place in particular to the city’s Muslim population.
On the museum front, the Institut du monde arabe, situated on the southern banks of the Seine, is the most obvious place to learn about Islam and Arab cultures- though, of course, the two are far from one and the same. However, the cultural heart of Muslim Paris is located a couple of blocks from the IMA, opposite the Jardin des Plantes, at la Grande Mosquée de Paris.
Both the oldest and largest mosque in metropolitan France, the Mosquée was built in the 1920s, near the Place Monge metro. The building has a rich history, including as a place of refuge for Arab Jews during the Nazi Occupation of 1940-44. As in any active place of worship, you should not ogle, however visitors are welcomed. Beyond the prayer space itself, the building also includes a hammam (Turkish-style baths) where you can while away the day in mosaic-tiled rooms, a high-ceilinged central salon and tiny chambers filled with steamy air and icy baths.
But what draws most visitors to la Grande Mosquée de Paris is the sweet courtyard filled with olive trees, where you can sip on very hot, very strong, very sweet mint tea from little lace-patterned glasses. For a moment, you could be far from the French capital, at a terrace café in Marrakech. It may not sound terribly Parisian, but it actually is. For the Grande Mosquée de Paris, much like the fifth arrondissement in general and the city at large, is a place of cultural richness, beauty and diversity.