The Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures that opened recently in the Ottoman-era mosque in Beersheba aspires to serve as a bridge between cultures.
> by ERETZ Staff
Drought struck the Negev desert in 1891. Among the Bedouins, 1891 became known as “the year of the lemons,” because they wandered north to rob caravans of lemon merchants in order to sustain themselves. These forays prompted the governor of Gaza, the main Turkish official responsible for dealing with the Bedouins, to establish a police fort in the heart of their tribal area in the northern Negev, right on the main track leading from Beersheba to Gaza. This attempt to bring order to the unruly Negev ultimately led to the establishment of modern Beersheba in 1900. It is worth noting that it was not only the Bedouins that the Turks had in mind when they built a new administrative center in the heart of the Negev. France and Britain had gained a footing in Egypt thanks to the Suez Canal and so the Turks wanted to create a Bedouin buffer between Egypt and Palestine.
The Ottoman city was established on the remains of Byzantine Beersheba, which had been located at this spot due to the availability of water. There is a series of shallow wells along the banks of Wadi Beersheba.
The new city was planned by two local engineers, both of them scions of Jerusalem’s influential Nashashibi family, together with a Swiss and German architect. The first stage of its construction lasted from 1900 to 1903. It involved building an official center, which included army barracks and the saraya, the local seat of government. In the next stage, between 1904 and 1906, a proper municipal building was constructed, together with a mosque and a two-story schoolhouse for Bedouin children.
The Ottomans constructed the saraya so that its windows overlooked the city’s main street, which actually was a segment of the foremost route connecting Hebron and Gaza. This meant no one could pass through the city without being seen from the windows of the governor’s office.
The mosque was inaugurated in 1906, with a great banquet that all the Bedouins leaders in the Negev attended. Its minaret, according to the governor of Beersheba in the 1930s, ’Aref al-’Aref, was built of stones brought from the ruins of Halasa, one of the ancient Nabatean cities of the Negev. The building was an architectural marvel – even though, according to local Bedouin lore, the initial structure did not please the governor, who had it demolished and rebuilt.
Following the conquest of Palestine by the British during World War I and the establishment of the British Mandate, Beersheba retained its status as the capital of the Negev and the mosque was the central religious building in the entire Negev. In October 1948, the IDF conquered Beersheba and in 1950, Beersheba became a Jewish city. At first, until 1953, the mosque served as a jail and magistrate’s court. Then, in 1953, the building was turned into an archaeological and ethnographic museum with displays on Bedouin life and culture in the Negev.
In 1992, almost a century after the Ottomans built it, the building was showing its age. It was declared unsafe, the museum closed, and extensive conservation and construction were performed to reinforce it. Once the work finally was completed, the Beersheba municipality wanted to use the building as a museum again. However, the Association for the Assistance and Protection of Bedouin Rights, the Moslem Committee in the Negev, and other groups felt the building should return to its original purpose as a mosque. The struggle over this swelled, taking on nationalistic and political connotations. Bedouins rallied round the fight for the mosque, seeing it as a symbol of their long pent-up frustrations with the way Israeli authorities treat them.
The use of the mosque in Beersheba is not only a local municipal issue or even solely an Israeli issue. How to deal with religious buildings in an area where the population has changed is a sticky issue around the globe. Athens, with 200,000 Moslems and a city that once had a myriad of mosques, does not allow the construction or reuse of any of its mosques. Religious authorities in Greece thwarted a plan to build a mosque near the airport. The same issue is relevant in Cairo, which is home to many old synagogues. The dilemma becomes even more complex when mosques have been converted into churches, like in Spain, for example.
In Israel, there are 16 mosques located in the heart of predominantly Jewish towns that are closed. The main reason is that there is not a Moslem population living in the area of the mosque or in the city. In Beersheba, for example, a city with a population of 120,000, only 3,000 residents are Moslems and none of them live in the vicinity of the mosque. The Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs’ regulations regarding religious structures in places which do not have a Moslem population is that the building cannot be used or only can be used as a cultural institution that will highlight its Moslem character. In many cities, Tiberias and Safed, for example, these regulations are not respected.
The struggle around the mosque in Beersheba eventually made its way to the Israeli High Court, which ruled that the structure only can be “designated [as]a museum devoted specifically to Islamic and Near Eastern cultures.”
The final word in this struggle has yet to be said, but in the meantime, the fascinating Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures opened its doors in the mosque in December 2014. This continues the municipality’s efforts to transform the original kernel of modern Beersheba into a cultural and arts compound; the old saraya building, next to the mosque, now houses the Negev Museum of Art.
The Mosque as Museum
The concept that the Ottoman-era mosque itself is the first and foremost exhibit at the new museum guided the staff throughout the process of establishing the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures. The Beersheba mosque was built in the tradition of Ottoman mosques, with a large central dome, many windows, a tall “pencil” minaret with a balcony, an enclosed central prayer hall, and a courtyard surrounded by service rooms. A roofed balcony in front of the prayer hall opens up to the courtyard.
The building is decorated with Islamic motifs, such as stalactite-like graduated stone elements adorned with a shell motif typical of Turkish architecture. Above the entrance to the building is the tughra, the Ottoman sultan’s calligraphic signature, in this case that of Abdul Hamid II, during whose reign the mosque was built. (Coins, stamps, correspondence, and other official documents all bore the tughra as well.)
The Courtyard Exhibition
A fountain surrounded by fruit trees sits in the center of the mosque’s courtyard. Fountains are a key element in this type of courtyard, though the one here is a modern addition. Arman Darian, an Armenian ceramic artist from Jerusalem, designed and built it in 2013. Since Armenian ceramic art has its roots in the Ottoman ceramic tradition, with colorful tiles decorated with arabesques, the new fountain has a traditional appearance that suits its location.
The courtyard also is the venue for a display of archaeological finds from the Moslem periods. They include five stone artifacts decorated with vegetal motifs that were discovered in the excavations of the Umayyad palace at al-Minya on the Sea of Galilee.
Along the wall opposite the al-Minya finds are five items bearing inscriptions in Arabic calligraphy. Inscriptions like these, usually artistic renderings of proverbs and passages from the Koran, are found frequently in Islamic art.
One of the most intriguing items on display is a pillar which is actually a tombstone that was found in Ashkelon. It records the date of death as the fourth day of the month of Rabi II in the year 490, which is March 21, 1097. Another inscription on display in the courtyard alludes to the pillar, relating that it was installed at the command of the vizier ’Al Mamun al-Bathiti, who instructed his servant, whose name is not given, to build a tomb for the tenth Fatimid caliph, al-Mansur Abu Ali Al-Imam, who was known by his title al-Amir bi-ahkam Allah and ruled from 1101-1130.
The discovery and deciphering of the pillar and inscription is intriguing because the vizier mentioned in it rebelled against the caliph and was executed in Cairo five years before the caliph’s death. The question of why the inscription was engraved and how it reached Ashkelon has yet to be resolved. It also raises the question of whether this inscription is connected to the Shiite belief that the head of the grandson of the prophet Mohammed was buried in Ashkelon. The site where it was found, today near the parking lot of the Barzilai Medical Center, attracts hundreds of Shiite pilgrims from Israel and abroad every year.
The other inscriptions in the courtyard exhibition are foundation stones of Moslem buildings in places such as Jerusalem and Jaffa.
The prayer hall is devoted to changing exhibitions that emphasize the distinctive aesthetic language of Islamic culture. The first and current one, “Knots,” is dedicated to the art of rug weaving in the Moslem world. It features different kinds of Moslem rugs: prayer rugs; garden motif rugs; and medallion motif rugs. These rugs were crafted in a variety of countries from the eighteenth to early twentieth century and are on loan from private collectors, museums, and Moslem families from around the country. Alongside the rugs are works of modern art that relate to the rug’s cultural significance.
The Hebrew word for knots is ksharim, which also means connections, the museum’s curator, Dr. Sharon Laor-Sirak, explains. This is logical since a knot connected pieces. The rug, which often is formed by tying a series of knots, can be seen as an object that connects east and west. The opening exhibition at the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures thus aspires to bring about a better understanding of Moslem art and culture, fulfilling the museum’s aim to serve as a bridge connecting different communities in Israel.
Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures
Tel.: (08) 699-3535
60 Ha’atzmaut Street, Beersheba