The Lights of Ahmad

The Al-Anwar Mosque of Acre
guest contributor Michael Talbot

[1] Entrance portal to the al-Anwar Mosque, Acre. All photos by Michael Talbot. 

Acre is a picturesque port city on the northern tip of the Bay of Haifa, now in Israel, but once a prominent part of Ottoman Palestine. Indeed, the settlement served as the seat of a significant sub-province (sancak) in the Galilee region. To this day, Acre retains a number of significant architectural features that mark out various stages of its history, which, as with many of the urban centres of northern Palestine, saw struggles for authority between foreign invaders, local elites, and the Sublime State. 

[2] Hammam al-Basha, Steam Room
At Acre’s heart is the Old City, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its superbly preserved Crusader and Ottoman buildings and fortifications. The city has a complex history, particularly in the Ottoman period, but if Acre tourist board’s narrative  is anything to go by, the founding father of modern Acre was Ahmad Pasha (1720-1804), a Bosnian slave who rose to political prominence in Egypt and then Palestine. Perhaps better known by his nickname ‘al-Jazzar’, or ‘the butcher’, Ahmad Pasha is responsible for one of the most-frequented stops on the tourist trail in Acre’s old city: the Hammam al-Basha (originally the Hammam al-Jadid). Probably first built in the 1790s, the hammam continued to function right up until the 1950s, when it was turned into a museum. A large building, it contains several rooms, including the cloakroom and treatment rooms, that are very well-preserved. But the star of the show is the atmospheric sıcaklık (hot room), a hexagonal chamber lined with very nice examples of floral tilework on the walls, beautiful marble floors, and a  fountain at the centre of a marble slab used for massages and relaxation, all under an elegant dome dotted with pieces of glass that bathe the interior in sunlight. [Fig.2]

But before all this, upon entering the hamam, visitors are ushered into the large vaulted and domed room that once served as the bath’s entrance lobby, and are seated on rather precarious wooden stools to watch a film. Entitled Ha-Balan ha-Akharon / Al-Khadim al-Hammam al-Akhir (The Last Bath Attendant), the short film tells the story of Acre through the gossip of five generations of bath attendants, most notably (the fictional) al-Hajj Bashir who regales his clients with tales of the city as he lathers and slaps them. Above all, al-Hajj Bashir favours stories about Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar. In the film’s narrative, it is al-Jazzar who turned Acre into a great city, developed its infrastructure, and, most significantly, defeated the invading forces of Napoleon Bonaparte during the siege of the city in 1799. In the film, his reign also represented a period of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Acre, and the heavy emphasis that the modern municipality places on the eighteenth century as a period of harmony is clearly rooted in their aspirations for the city today. This narrative is helped along by the fact that al-Jazzar’s chief advisor was a Jew called Khayim Farkhi. However, Farkhi’s story also emphasises a concurrent narrative surrounding Ahmad Pasha’s gruesome nickname. The story goes that one day, displeased with the advice Farkhi had given him, Ahmad Pasha ordered one of his eyes to be plucked out, and his ears and nose mutilated. This is not, then, the story of a just and progressive ruler, but of a violent despot. Whether or not al-Jazzar deserves any of his reputations is another matter, but his military prowess, colourful biography, and extensive patronage of monumental buildings makes him, if nothing else, a tourist board’s dream.

[3] Al-Anwar Mosque and complex
One legacy of Ahmad Pasha that continues to dominate the old city of Acre  is a large mosque, now known as the Al-Jazzar Mosque, but properly called Al-Anwar, built in or around 1781-82. [Fig. 3] The mosque’s distinctive green dome is visible across the city, but is by no means the mosque’s most notable feature. It also claims to possess a hair of the Prophet Muhammad’s beard, and purports to be the first mosque to have the women’s prayer area situated on a balcony above the main prayer hall, allegedly modelled on the layout of synagogues and evidence of the influence of Khayim Farkhi on the mosque’s design. What the building certainly does possess are some real gems of eighteenth century design.

[4] The Sebil
The first feature, the sebil (a water dispensary), greets you as you prepare to ascend the steps into the mosque complex. [Fig. 4] It was built, according to its inscription, in the hijri year 1208 (1793/1794), and constructed in the wonderful baroque sort of style found in architecture throughout the Ottoman Empire during this period. With slender columns topped with ornamented capitals, the sebil served as an elegant and functional welcome to the mosque and a sign of Ahmad Pasha’s wealth, generosity, and sophistication. As well as displaying words of piety, the inscription also reminds the reader of the ruler’s infrastructural innovations, notably the construction of water canals to bring water to Acre from the many springs near the village of Al-Kabri, some 8 miles (13 km) away.

The entrance gate to the mosque complex proper has an inscription, which sets the tone for other inscriptions and styles within. Describing the pious intentions of a certain vizier to build a mosque, it concludes by asking who was it that actually set construction in motion? The inscription replies to itself, ‘I say, “Vizier Ahmad al-Jazzar! By him I mean the most noble and exalted of men, the pouncing lion, the mighty lion in the heat of battle’ (قلت الوزير الاحمد الجزار أعني به النشهم المجلل في الورى ليث هزبر في الوغا كراز). This, at the peak of his political power in the nominally Ottoman realms of northern Palestine, was a clear statement of intent and legacy. We see Ahmad Pasha demonstrating his credentials as a ruler: caring for the welfare of his subjects as shown through the sebil, and certainly not afraid to use force. 

[5] The Sundial
Moving through the gate into the carefully maintained courtyard, one gets a true sense of the beauty of the Al-Anwar complex. It contains a number of interesting features, including the tomb of Ahmad Pasha and his son Süleyman, and a number of other türbes, including a very late Ottoman example, dated 1318 (1900/1901). It also houses rooms that hosted the courthouse, medreses (including one that is still used for that purpose), and libraries. Various other monuments dot the space. Looking up rather than down, I almost stumbled over a small marble disc inscribed with the tuğra of Abdülhamid II and the hijri date 1318, almost certainly placed there in commemoration of the Silver Jubilee of that sultan in 1900. The fact that the disc is also situated underneath a tree may indicate that the tree was also planted to celebrate that event. There is also an exquisite sundial, with the inscription dedicated to Ahmad Pasha and dated 1201 (1786/1787). [Fig. 5] The inscription declares that ‘this is the sundial for the communal mosque of the lights of Ahmad’ (هذا مزولة لجامع الانوار الاحمدية) and tells us that the sundial was made by one Ibrahim al-Faradi al-Kurdi.

[6] The Şadırvan
But the real star of the courtyard is the şadırvan, the fountain used for ablutions. [Fig. 6] The octagonal structure is in many ways typical of late eighteenth-century Ottoman architecture, notable for its thin, graceful marble columns headed with carved capitals, and a distinctive cupola. The aesthetic borrowings from eighteenth-century Istanbul are clear,  with design comparable to buildings such as the Zeynep Sultan or Laleli mosques,  which adds an extra architectural element to the political challenge Ahmad Pasha posed to the Ottoman authorities during his period of rule in Palestine. Yet it is also, in itself, an impressive piece of design and engineering.

[7] Façade of the Al-Anwar Mosque
The façade of the mosque itself is quite striking. [Fig. 7] Six columns of granite and coloured marble columns frame the front of the building, behind which there is a dazzling array of marble facings of different colours and grains. Given the quality and type of stone, it is almost certain that they have been taken from nearby ruined Roman towns, with Caesarea the most likely location.  Among the wondrous cacophony of coloured marble is an inscription above the main entrance, a poem in Arabic celebrating the dedication of the mosque in the hijri year 1196 (1781/1782). [Fig. 1] As well as expounding the virtues of visiting the mosque for prayer, it contains reference to Ahmad Pasha’s fearsome reputation, requesting that worshipers pray to God for the mosque’s benefactor, ‘that is, the noble vizier Ahmad who butchers the necks of the enemies as is proper’ (ذاك الوزير الشهم احمد من غدي جزارعناق العداة كما يجب). Once again, Ahmad Pasha does not mince his words when linking his religious patronage with his political authority. Yet here we see that his violence was not arbitrary: being violent, on occasion, was part of his duty as a ruler as a means of ensuring good governance.  

[8] Interior Arcade
The mosque’s interior is lined with more marble, as well as tile-work and Qur’anic verses, both of which the mosque’s custodian believed had been added after Ahmad Pasha’s time. However, as the verses seem to be primarily taken from Sura 48 (Al-Fath), they seem rather appropriate for a conquering hero like al-Jazzar. [Fig. 8] Regardless, the interior is opulent, with a beautifully carved minbar and ornate mihrab set against a backdrop of ancient marble. [Fig. 9] The space of the mosque is light and impressive, and doubtless made a great impression on worshipers when it was completed.

[9] Interior view of the mihrab and minbar. Adapted from a photo by MartinVMtl, Creative Commons License

The city of Acre today certainly seems to have bought into Ahmad al-Jazzar’s propaganda, portraying him as a colourful character prone to outbursts of extreme and arbitrary violence. In terms of his violent reputation, he evidently took great efforts to promote it himself, but always as reasonable violence for the good of societal order and harmony; violence ‘as is proper’, as his own inscription proclaimed.  It is difficult to separate the beautiful Al-Anwar mosque from the man whose name it now bears, or rather, from the reputation that has been built around him.   That said, because it is still a functioning mosque, it has largely escaped the touristification that has befallen Acre's Crusader and Ottoman sites. The mosque, more than the other buildings, perhaps gives us a more nuanced picture of a man whose escapades have become almost cartoonish through the telling and re-telling of his already hazy story. Although he is most celebrated for beating back the French, and to a lesser extent for building on the work of Zahir al-‘Umar in fortifying the urban centres of northern Palestine, this particular example of Ahmad Pasha’s monumental architecture gives us more of an insight into other features of his rule. Many of his buildings, as with those of al-‘Umar, focus on social and economic prosperity and enrichment. The sebil is not only notable because it is beautiful, but alsobecause it represents the end point of a major engineering project aimed at bringing water to the city. The courtyard houses the marble-fronted mosque boasting of the Pasha’s greatness, but it also contains the key social building-blocks of education and welfare provision. The mere achievement of the construction of the great mosque itself, built in part from the ancient ruins of the surrounding region, represented economic and political stability. Ahmad Pasha may have been a butcher, but through Al-Anwar he ultimately served up a nice roast dinner to the people of Acre.

[10] Exterior of the Mosque. Photo from the collection of the American Colony (Jerusalem), ca 1898-1914.
Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

MICHAEL TALBOT is currently a teaching fellow at the University of St. Andrews. 

For more information, see:
--The entry for "Jami' al-Jazzar," at ARCHnet
--The official tourism website for Old Akko
--UNESCO World Heritage Description of the Old Ctiy of Acre

Citation: "The Lights of Ahmad," Michael Talbot, Stambouline (June 14, 2014).

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