By Kaamil Ahmed
Missing historical narrative on centuries of Muslim civilization heightens Palestinian anxiety over Jerusalem heritage
A dark archway and an old uninspiring plastic plaque are all that mark the entrance to the residence and mosque of Salahuddin Ayyubi, the iconic 12th century Muslim general who retook Jerusalem during the Crusades, then went on to rule the city.
Inside are various nods to that history; his name inscribed below the words Allah and Muhammad on the mosque’s metal window grates, a hatch that guides to an old cistern and a green door, now locked, that leads to the top of the neighboring Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
It was from those roofs of the holiest site in Christianity that Salahuddin used to observe Jerusalem’s Christian population, according to Imam Ahmad Shalhoub and other locals.
Despite the historical significance of the Khanqah Salihiyya, as the mosque is known, it has few worshipers and rarely hosts visitors. The only other mosque in the city’s Christian quarter was built in honor of the early Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab – Jerusalem’s first Muslim conqueror – who did not pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in respect for its importance to Christians.
Shalhoub, who opens and closes the mosque immediately before and after prayers, said it was once bigger. He and other worshipers point to blocked archways they say show where parts have been lost to Christian groups and other neighbors.
That the Khanqah Salihiyyah – an active Sufi convent until the British took over Palestine in 1917 – has faded from Jerusalem’s memory, is a symptom of the weak modern documentation and narration of the city’s Muslim heritage.
While Israel makes weekly announcements on the discovery of ancient Jewish artifacts and Christian tour groups regularly line through Jerusalem’s cobbled streets to visit a succession of churches, the Muslim historical narrative is less obvious outside of Al-Aqsa Mosque.
For some, the contrast is most obvious at the Western Wall tunnels, a complex of underground walkways that run beside the walls of the Al-Aqsa compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and considered exceptionally holy by followers of both Islam and Judaism.
The tunnels were opened after Israeli excavations began in the 1980s, leading to them being identified almost solely with Jewish history and even leading to rumors that they were attempts to dig under Al-Aqsa and damage its foundations.
“This is an excavation that, for years, there has been justifiable criticism of what is really being done,” Yonathan Mizrahi, the head of archaeological NGO Emek Shaveh, said.
Mizrahi believes there is reason for Palestinians to be concerned about the ultimate goals of Israeli archaeological digs in the Old City, especially near Al-Aqsa, but emphasizes the Western Wall tunnels show more than just Jewish history.
“Most of the ruins are from different periods: Roman, Byzantine and many are from Muslim dynasties. The history it’s representing to the public is very much from a Jewish point of view. It’s a question of narrative,” he added.
Jerusalem tour guide Hisham Khatib agrees and uses tours of the tunnels to point out how the arches, corridors and stonework evidence Muslim workmanship and the early Roman foundations of the city.
“Did they [Israelis] build the walls? No. It was already there. What the Israelis did was they cleared the debris. Maybe the timing was bad. They opened in 1996 [after the first intifada],” said Khatib, recounting how unsuspecting Old City residents were enraged when they suddenly discovered the openings being made in the ground as an exit from the tunnels.
He said the fears about Israel planning to destroy Al-Aqsa were in part to do with a lack of documentation of Arab and Muslim history.
Khatib bemoans how easily, he believes, Jerusalemites have forgotten many of the structures of the Old City, with seized or destroyed homes being recorded only in the media, but not by officials.
There is no shortage of evidence, according to Khatib, who says he has met many Old City residents who kept eviction documents when their homes were taken over by Israeli authorities or settlers.
“History is transferred orally. The oldest story is what your grandfather told you,” he said. “We are historically illiterate about our past… we don’t have any scholars, professors, intellectuals who can defend our hard lives in the historical context. We have no narrative as Palestinians.”
For many Palestinians, nothing illustrates the loss of their heritage as vividly as the old Moroccan Quarter, which was almost completely bulldozed to make way for the existing Jewish quarter.
Historical homes, mosques and schools that traced centuries of Muslim civilization stretching back to Salahuddin’s rule, were destroyed after Israel took control of the Old City from Jordan in the 1967 war.
“There was an ancient mosque in what we called the Moroccan Quarter. People don’t remember that. That mosque disappeared and I think such an issue should be raised,” said Mustafa Abu Sway, a professor at Al Quds University, who is leading the study of 11th century scholar Al-Ghazali, who was most noted for works he produced in Jerusalem.
“The Palestinian Authority should speak about the specifics of the places that were destroyed [in the Moroccan Quarter],” Abu Sway said. “When you look at all the buildings, it is amazing how all of this was lost.”
The lackluster documentation of Muslim history is accentuated, he says, by the fact that the Muslim period was, bar a Crusader interval, one of the longest continuous civilizations in the city’s history. This goes against Israeli claims that Jerusalem has been a Jewish capital for three millennia, Abu Sway said.
“Most of the narrative is an emotional reaction. The narrative should be prepared by researchers, not in the spur of moment, nor in reaction to a threat,” Abu Sway said. “There is plenty of evidence in documents and manuscripts.”
He does, however, admit that it is difficult for Palestinians who do not live in Jerusalem to study any of its history, including archaeology students at Al Quds University, which is based in the occupied West Bank.
“They study the history of the place but can’t come. How can they have an insight except through books? They are literally [stuck] on the other side of the wall,” Abu Sway said.
To the south of the Old City’s retaining walls lies Silwan, a historical valley considered the oldest civilization in Jerusalem, which has meant it has become a site for numerous excavations, some which have, according to Mizrahi, damaged Islamic history.
The archaeological work has also reportedly damaged homes, but Jerusalem tour guide Khatib said no work has been done to identify the cause of these damages or what has been lost.
The lack of information is something Alaa Saffouri, part of a team at NGO Palestinian Vision, which is building a digital tour guide of Jerusalem’s historical sites, has struggled with.
“It is very significant because our stories as Palestinians are undocumented. It affects our ability to defend ourselves,” she said. “We’re always affected by the Jewish data. Realizing the necessity of documenting our history is becoming more and more important.”
Saffouri hopes that the mobile application, called Ziqaq, can help provide a Palestinian perspective on Jerusalem’s history that can be used, not just by tourists, but also Palestinians from outside Jerusalem.
But while Saffouri says they are working on making the information more comprehensive, she admits that those who the app targets could struggle to make use of it, especially Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank, who are rarely granted permits to visit Jerusalem.
“It’s also about access to East Jerusalem, it’s pretty much isolated. For the rest of the world, it’s just Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. Our story is pretty much marginalized,” Saffouri said.