Cirebon in Four Days (Day One)

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Finding out how the teaching of Islam was spread in Java always fascinates me. It's always interesting to learn that many people coming from different places on earth were involved in it. One of many places in Java that was crucial in the early years of the coming of Islam is Cirebon.

Located in the province of West Java, Cirebon, many centuries ago, was once a major trading port in the north cost of Java. People coming from Central Asia, China, Middle East, and even as far as Europe sailed overseas to this place, brought along their commodities, and also ideology. Those who prevailed in the battle of spreading the ideology became heroes and written in history, and those who lost became enemy and would be soon forgotten.

Last August, my wife and I made a trip to Cirebon. We wanted to see closer what those traders had left behind in Cirebon.

Despite the fact that we can now reach Cirebon with a car within about three hours, we chose to go by the morning train from Jakarta. We arrived in Cirebon at 10 in the morning and were soon picked up by a car we had booked earlier from a rental place. It of course came with a driver. His name was Arif.

He took us to the hotel we had reserved few days earlier before taking us around the city. 

First stop was the Kraton Kasepuhan, the oldest royal palace in Cirebon. Arif advised that we use a tour guide. Of all old palaces in Cirebon, Kasepuhan was the only one who had official tour guides. They even wore uniform.

We were first brought to see the ruin of the oldest layer of the palace. Dating back to the 14th century, the construction was simply dominated by exposed red bricks. This area was called Siti Inggil or Lemah Duwur, literally translated as the elevated ground.

The place was used by the Sultan to receive the guests or to meet the people. What was so interesting about this place was that the surrounding walls, seems like a small fort to me, were adorned with ceramic plates from China and The Netherlands. I didn’t find any ornaments from Middle East, considering that Cirebon was a Sultanate.

Totally, there were five semi open structures at Siti Inggil. Each came with different name and function.

Moving forward, walking through a gate, we were brought to the second layer of the palace. There, we first found a small wooden mosque, called Tajug Agung, or Grand Mosque. Like any other traditional mosque I had seen, this one was located at the west part of the complex.

The main palace itself looked more like European rather than traditional Javanese Hindu. It was established somewhere in the seventeenth century. And yet again, we found many ceramics from China and Holland on the walls.

There were two museums inside the complex of Keraton Kasepuhan. The most popular one was the Museum Kereta or Chariot Museum. Just as what it was named, the museum housed an old sacred chariot called Singabarong. Rationally thinking, this chariot was made by European, considering its style and technical complexity.

The tour guide then carefully showed us a huge painting of Prabu Siliwangi, the most popular reign of Kingdom of Pajajaran, a once major Hindu kingdom ruling West Java before the coming of Islam. He said that no one should play around with the painting as it was sacred.

At the other museum, I was amused with a collection of rusty swords which were taken away by force from the Portuguese. It became more obvious to me that once upon a time, Cirebon was one major sea port where people from many parts of the world came to trade or even to conquest.

Before we left, the tour guide took us to the Chinese section in that complex. The section was dedicated to Prince Ong Tien Nio, one of Sunan Kalijaga’s wife. Sunan Kalijaga was one of Walisongo, nine Muslim saints spreading the teaching of Islam in Java.

To reach the section, we had to walk through a gate named Buk Bacem. It’s a beautiful gate adorned with many ceramics from China.

By the way, in the Keraton Kasepuhan, I also found ceramics picturing stories taken from the old testament. It showed me how open Cirebon was in welcoming people from different races, nationalities, and of course, faiths.

Next, our driver, Arif, drove us to another palace in Cirebon. It’s Keraton Kanoman. The palace was hidden behind a traditional market. There was no way people could see it from the street. Arif said that the market was actually built on the royal property. So it was some sort of grant from the Sultan.

We had to drive passing through a narrow street bisecting the market until we found an open space with a traditional Hindu styled gate in the center. I could say that this Keraton Kanoman, which was younger than Kasepuhan, was beautiful, only less maintained.

At Kanoman, there was no official tour guide, no official admission. We just found a young man who was voluntarily becoming a tour guide. We were taken around inside the main building which was obviously smaller than the one of Kasepuhan.

Just like Kasepuhan, this palace was also adorned with many ceramics from China and Holland.

There was also a small museum inside this complex. To enter it, we had to pay Rp 7.000,00 and it was official! I found nothing amusing in it as they displayed a group of canons which they claimed from the Portuguese, and another sacred old chariot.

The tour guide also brought us to some sacred old wells located behind the palace and in front of a small mosque. I could hardly remember how sacred those wells were. The only thing I remembered was that there were some prominent public figures came to the wells for some rituals.

Not far from the mosque, there was a structure which to me, looked like an old Dutch building. I didn’t know exactly who designed that building. There was no proper information about it. The only thing I heard from the tour guide was that the bell on the top of that structure was a gift from Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British Governor General who ruled Java from 1811 to 1816.

It didn’t take us long to explore this Keraton Kanoman. We were soon brought by Arief out of the complex, and again, passed through the crowded traditional market.

The first impression I got about Cirebon on my first day in that town was this place, once upon a time, somewhere many centuries ago, thanks to the multinational traders coming to its port, was very open and full of tolerance. I wanted to explore more about this town on the following days.

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