A shrine to intolerance

Because it has always been in a predominantly Jewish area, the Muslim compound that was defaced last week has suffered from tensions in the past.

Nebel Akasha tomb 521 (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Nebel Akasha tomb 521
(photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
On Saturday hundreds of children gather at the playground near Straus Street between Mea She’arim and Zichron Moshe. The children, and their parents, seem oblivious to the minaret towering above them, the ancient olive trees and the Muslim mausoleum. Based on talks with several parents, they also don’t know that a “price tag” attack was recently carried out on the site.
Sometime during the night of Tuesday, December 13, two Muslim holy buildings were defaced. “Muhammad is a pig,” “price tag,” “Kahane was right,” and “death to Arabs” were among the graffiti. By Wednesday afternoon, city workers, who use the building with the minaret as a warehouse, were working to remove the paint with hoses.
A lot of the reports about the attack in this central Jerusalem neighborhood have confused details about the two buildings involved. One building contains a relatively short minaret and is named Nebi Akasha (sometimes ‘Ukasha) for Akasha ibn Muhsein al Sahabi al-Asdi, a companion to Muhammad who appears in the Hadith. Across from this structure, which is often called a mosque even though it is not, is another, older-looking square building with a dome. It is called “el-Kameriya,” after a Jerusalemite Arab family and contains the graves of two men who died in 1251. The two buildings are enclosed in a courtyard by a stone wall with two entrances, one from Straus Street and the other from Yeshayahu street. In the courtyard is a playground.
The foremost expert on the structure is Tawfik Da’adli. A native of Lod, Da’adli currently lives on Mount Scopus where he is working on his PhD. From 2001 to 2007 he worked for the Antiquities Authority and in 2003 he was in charge of a salvage expedition at the site.
“The minaret is one of the most recent additions and was built in 1892. The square building is a mausoleum for two army leaders or emirs who fought against al-Mu’iz Aybak, an Egyptian leader. They were brought to Jerusalem and buried there,” he says.
Many reports have falsely identified these men as being connected to Saladin, when in fact they were leaders in in the army of Saladin’s grandson, an-Nasir Yusuf.
“Nebi Akasha seems like it is more modern than the Ayyubid Mausoleum. It could have replaced another, older building. In 1987 the authority did some work there and they found graves around the building, which is typically what you find at Muslim holy shrines. Now there is a playground that is paved over the area where the graves are.”
In 1927 when Tewfik Canaan, a Lutheran Arab intellectual, was completing his work Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine, he mentioned the tomb.
“Although it is known that ‘Okaseh [Akasha] did not die in Jerusalem, his shrine here has a tomb. Is it said that he appeared to a person praying at this spot and ordered him to erect a maqam [shrine] for him,” he wrote.
In the 19th century the place was not marked on European maps. Ruth Kark, a professor of geography, and co-author Michal Oren-Nordheim mention in their book how the adjoining property was purchased by Jews in 1904.
“Jews who were British subjects and represented the Moses Montefiore Testimonial Fund bought land through their agent, David Yellin,” they wrote.
The land was acquired from the leading Jerusalemite Muslim Khalidi family and a deed was signed.
“The sale includes all the parcels of land with the wall built at the southeastern side of this land, that is near the [mosque] of...
‘Ukasha outside the walls of Jerusalem.”
The tomb and mausoleum became a green area sandwiched between Orthodox Jewish communities that were established on three sides of it. On the fourth side was a row of houses separating the site from Hanevi’im Street and the Bikur Cholim Hospital.
Kark and Oren-Nordheim mention that a “Sheikh al-‘Ukasha neighborhood” was founded in the 1920s by Muslims. According to Da’adli, however, there was probably only one Muslim family that lived in the area.
“There was a family that lived there and took care of it, cleaned it and guarded it in the [British] Mandate,” he says.
According to Adar Arnon, an expert on Ottoman Jerusalem, the tiny neighborhood around the Muslim shrines was still called “Akasha” into the 1990s.
“Since it is situated in an inconspicuous location in the heart of Hebrew-speaking Jerusalem it is known to only a few,” he says. According to his research on Ottoman census data the neighborhood had 124 Ashkenazi families and one Moroccan Jewish family in 1915.
Because the site was in a Jewish part of the city it suffered during the tensions that characterized the Mandate. In 1929 the minaret was attacked by Jews during Muslim-Jewish riots. In 1948, during the War of Independence, the building was “badly damaged” according to a report compiled by Leo Mayer for the Ministry of Religious Affairs’ Committee for the Preservation of Muslim Religious Buildings.
“About the graffiti, when you talk about an old building, like the mausoleum, you need to use water; if you use air and sand to clean it, it will cause some damage to the stones because it is an old building,” explains Da’adli. “When we excavated my workers cleaned the place, but now it is unclean and not restored. Erosion at the southwest of the mausoleum may cause it to collapse in the future.”
Da’adli understands that the building is not being preserved because few people in the country would care about it. “The authority should care but it is not the fault of the AA [that it is not cared for]; it is part of the Palestinian heritage, so it is not a heritage that this state cares about. This is normal, every nation has its own monuments and neglects the others. I’m not saying it is OK but we see it around [the world].”
On Saturday a metal pole near the minaret still bore some graffiti in English: “Let the love back in.” Down the street haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews were gathering to protest traffic on Hanevi’im Street. Two American yeshiva students from Boro Park were arguing about the meaning of the protest but were clear about their feelings on “price tags.”
“That isn’t something these people did, that is someone else, not from this neighborhood. Who cares about the mosque – it is abandoned, there is a playground there, right?” •