By: Michael Press, Research Fellow at the Center of Advanced Spatial Technologies
University of Arkansas
In recent years archaeologists have sounded a nearly continual warning about threats to cultural heritage, from artifacts to buildings to sites, in the Middle East. This began with Iraq and now, after the events of the Arab Spring, continues especially in Egypt and Syria. But this warning is often narrowly focused on monuments. A thoughtful reader might ask, “What about the threat to the people who use and work and live in those buildings – for whom cultural heritage is not a matter of academic study but of everyday life?” Since my area of study is Israel, I have no direct connection to these unfolding events. But issues involving cultural heritage arise repeatedly in my own research. Sharing a story from my own experience may help, I think, to illuminate issues of cultural heritage, to bring the past into the present, to deal with the “ancient Near East today.” It involves the Mashhad al-Nabi Hussein (or Mashhad Sayyidina Hussein), “the Shrine of the prophet (or our lord) Hussein”.
Hussein ibn Ali was the grandson of Muhammad and an important figure in Sunni and especially Shi‘a Islam: he was the second Shi‘a imam, or communal leader (after his father Ali). His lifetime saw the events that led to the split between Sunni and Shi‘a Islam and his family were the major rivals to the Umayyad caliphate based in Damascus, which was trying to consolidate its hold over the expanded Islamic empire in the second half of the seventh century.
In the year 680 CE, Hussein and 72 family members and followers were killed in battle by Umayyad forces at Karbala in Iraq. (This is the main event behind the important Muslim holiday of Ashura.) Hussein and his followers were decapitated, and their heads were brought to the Umayyad caliph Yazid in Damascus. What happened to Hussein’s head afterwards, however, is debated. Syrian Muslims believe that the head remained in Damascus and that it is kept to this day in the Hussein shrine within the Great Mosque there – incidentally, the scene of the earliest demonstrations against the Syrian government in 2011. Iraqis believe that Hussein’s head was eventually returned and buried with his body in Karbala. However, several traditions state that the head ended up in, of all places, Asqalan – Ashkelon in what is now Israel.
Exactly how and why the head would have ended up in Ashkelon is unclear. In fact, this tradition itself is a later one that cannot be traced back to the seventh century. It was only in the eleventh century that Hussein’s head was said to have been rediscovered, after having been buried and forgotten, and a shrine built for it. The new building was remarked on by several medieval travelers to Ashkelon in their accounts, and reputed to be the most beautiful building in the city.
However, Hussein’s head was not long for Ashkelon. In 1153, with Palestine in turmoil from the Crusades, the Fatimid dynasty of Cairo – then rulers of Ashkelon – was afraid that the head would fall into Crusader hands. To prevent this, they transferred it to Cairo, where they built another mosque to house it. That mosque, the al-Hussein Mosque, still stands in Cairo today, and it too claims to have Hussein’s head within.
Meanwhile, the minbar (the shrine’s pulpit) of the Ashkelon mosque was removed to Hebron (al-Khalil in Arabic), taken perhaps in the late twelfth century by Salah al-Din (Saladin) when he destroyed Ashkelon to keep it from being recaptured by the Crusaders. Today it can be found in Hebron, in the building known to Muslims as the Sanctuary of Ibrahim and to Jews as the Cave of Machpelah, the burial place of the Patriarchs – a flashpoint in recent conflict between the Palestinian and Jewish settler communities.
Even with the removal of the head, and the final destruction of the city in the thirteenth century, the shrine in Ashkelon continued to stand. It was visited by medieval travelers, and noted by nineteenth-century explorers like the Survey of Western Palestine and Victor Guérin, who described the “ruins of a small mosque.” But despite the implications of this description, the building continued functioning within the religious and cultural life of the region. Tawfiq Canaan, in his classic study Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine (1927), described a large maqam (shrine) with a column fragment marking the spot of the burial of the head, and still the site of an important mawsim or annual festival. This is vividly demonstrated in a wonderful series of photographs from the Matson collection (available from the Library of Congress), taken in April 1943, showing part of a large festival procession for the mawsim of Hussein. The procession went from the town of Majdal (now the Migdal neighborhood of Ashkelon), about 3 kilometers (2 mi) inland, to the Mashhad al-Nabi Hussein and the coast at the site of ancient Ashkelon. In the photographs, thousands of participants crowd around and into the shrine. A mere five years later came the establishment of Israel, war, and the flight and removal of the local population.
The building itself was destroyed in 1950 by a military unit under the command of Moshe Dayan (as documented by Meron Rapaport in Haaretz in 2007). There were protests at the time, namely from Shmuel Yeivin, head of the new Israeli Department of Antiquities. Yeivin objected to Dayan’s blowing up the building given its historic nature (it was covered by antiquities law, which protected any building constructed before 1700 CE), and noted that it was only one of a series of such buildings Dayan destroyed at the time. These also included mosques at the villages of Yibna (Yavneh) and Isdud (site of ancient Ashdod).
But even this destruction is not the end of the story; memory of the sacred location persisted. As reported by the LA Times in 2008, thousands of Isma‘ili Sh‘ia Muslims from Pakistan and India would visit the site every year – now on the grounds of Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon. Eventually, after demonstrating to the hospital administration that the site of the shrine was indeed there by digging up part of the wall foundations, the group was allowed to build a small marble open-air mosque, which continues to be used for worship at the site.
Heritage is a complicated issue that runs across ethnic, national, religious, and other boundaries. The story of Hussein’s head alone involves what are now Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Israel, and the West Bank. A variety of persons and states have been involved in the destruction and preservation of buildings – but the basic challenges are shared across time and place. While archaeologists are to be commended for calling attention to these challenges, repeated calls for the protection of monuments, and monuments alone, become empty. What is most important about heritage is not that a building is beautiful, or old; what is important is how it has functioned – and may continue to function – in the lives of people. The people who built it, have prayed in it, have lived in it – they are the ones who give the monuments their very meaning. They are the real victims of conflict. Cultural heritage is not something frozen in time, but continues to be a living part of a culture. For me, it is present vividly in the case of the shrine of Hussein in the 1943 photographs of worshipers at the shrine of Hussein, and resonates in my own experiences researching the settlement history of the region, excavating at Tel Ashkelon, and living in the city for three years. We as archaeologists, as historians, as scholars of culture, can provide a unique perspective on this living aspect of culture – the human context of the situating of historic buildings within the lives of communities up to the present day. This is a responsibility and a challenge that I hope we can successfully meet now and in the future.
Michael Press is a Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies, University of Arkansas. He blogs on issues of archaeology as well as ancient and modern culture at textualcultures.blogspot.com.
Other links to check out:
Tour inside the Imam Hussain Mosque (Cairo)
Inside Iraq’s Imam Hussein mosque
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