Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 July 2008
Issue No. 906
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In the grip of Al-Mursi

Jailan Halawi has a spiritul moment

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Clockwise from top: Al-Mursi Mosque in its first structure; swings set up for the moulid celebrations; Abul-Abbas as it stands today with its four domes and graceful minaret

It was eight o'clock in the evening and my friends and I had a very long day full of fun and sun touring the city of the two harbours. We needed a break, and since so far we had been roughing it in Alexandria, we sought the once Royal Al-Salamlik Palace (see pages 1&2) for a brief interlude of luxury.

We had two hours to bask in the comforts of royal living before heading to our next destination, and I had just settled into a plush armchair in the hotel lobby when my friend Hazem asked: "Have you done your ablution?" Before I could even ask why, came: "it is of course impossible to be in Alexandria and not pray at the mosque of Sidi Al-Aref Billah Al-Mursi Abul-Abbas."

Many thoughts ran silently through my mind; with a wide smile I nodded in agreement, gathered my things and along with the group made a swift exit to where our car was parked. Despite the fatigue and need to rest, everything paled in comparison to the excitement of being in the presence of one of the Muslim world's most prominent imams.

On the Corniche in Anfoushi, it stood gracefully with soaring minarets and fine ivory-coloured domes: Abul- Abbas Mosque. It was a deep and intense feeling to stand before such a spiritually stimulating symbol.

The building was first constructed in 1775, atop the tomb of the 13th Century Sufi saint Al-Sheikh Al-Imam Al-Aref Billah Shehabeddin Abul- Abbas Ahmed Ibn Omar Ibn Ali Al-Khazragi Al-Ansari Al-Mursi Al-Balansi -- aka, Al-Mursi Abul-Abbas. Born in 616 Hijra (1219 AD), Abul- Abbas was originally from Andalusia and grew up in Murcia, from where he got his title Al-Mursi. He had blood ties with the distinguished sahabi (Prophet Mohamed's disciple) and head of the Al-Khazrag tribe, Saad Ibn Obada Al-Ansari. Al-Mursi's great grandfather, Qayys Ibn Saad, was prince of Egypt in the year 36 H before the rule of Amir Al-Moemenin Ali Ibn Abi Taleb.

Abul-Abbas was a student and successor of Sidi Abul-Hassan Al-Shazli, founder of the Sufi Shazliya sect, and he met his spiritual mentor in Tunis in the year 640 H. After finishing his studies in fiqh (jurisprudence), tafseer (interpretation of the Quran), sunna (Prophet Mohamed's teachings), logic and philosophy, Abul-Abbas mastered Sufism . In 642 H, along with his imam or preacher, Abul-Abbas arrived in Alexandria and resided in Kom Al-Dekka for 36 years until his death.

The site of the current mosque has a long and interesting history. Originally only his tomb, which still remains on the original site, the mosque was built in a small building close to the eastern harbour following Abul- Abbas's death in 678 H. It was not until 1307 AD when one of the richest traders of the time, Sheikh Zeineddin Ibn Al-Qattan, visited the tomb and, awed by Abul-Abbas, ordered his men to construct a mausoleum and a dome for the tomb.

Al-Qattan also built a mosque with a small minaret and funded an imam for the newly built mosque. The tomb was then placed under the dome to the right hand side of the entrance where thereafter, the mosque became something of a pilgrimage destination for Muslims from Egypt and Morocco passing through Alexandria during their hajj journey to and from Mecca.

Before becoming what it is today, the mosque was renovated at least three times until finally in 1775 Sheikh Abul-Hassan Al-Maghrabi ordered the building of what we see today. In 1863, one of Alexandria's most influential constructors renewed the mosque and expanded the plot by removing the houses built around it. When the mosque came into the hands of Awqaf (religious endowments), an eight-day moulid or Islamic religious festival celebrated the birth of Abul-Abbas every year starting on 17 July. Another celebration of the imam is held for one day during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

In 1927, King Fouad I sought total refurbishment which included a restructuring of the building, as well as more space for the religious scholars buried in the vicinity. Hence, the allocation of 43,200 square metres for what is currently known as Sahet Al-Masaged or the Square of Mosques, where Abul-Abbas stands in the centre surrounded by four other mosques where his disciples are buried, among them Al-Bosiri, Ibn Atallah Al-Sakandari and Yaqout Al-Arsh, all of whom have mosques named after them.

However, for logistical reasons work was not completed until 1943 during the reign of King Fouad's son King Farouk, who expanded his father's mega project further. He ordered the building of an annex where women can also perform their prayers in the company of this unique assembly of holy men. Alexandrians revere this square as a most blessed spot since it is the resting place of 40 Muslim holy men, whose mortal remains are marked by graceful shrines and domed mosques.

The interior of the mosque is made up of eight massive granite columns and a colonnade of elongated arches. Its walls stand 23 metres high adorned by artificial stone, while the minaret, situated on the southern side, rises to 73 metres. Adopting the Ayyubid style, it has four sections where the top of the minaret is covered with brass, festooned with the classic Islamic moon finale.

There are two main entrances to the mosque, both facing the square. Unlike the one on the east side, the northern gateway faces the street leading to the once royal palace of Ras Al-Tin. The stairs of the entrances, although made of granite, are not so impressive compared to the grace of the entire construction.

It was not until 1943 that women had access to the mosque through a special entrance. Today's female visitors who don't want to mistake Abul-Abbas's entrance with another mosque's, should not go to the left side of the mosque but walk across a small garden up 40 steps on the right side of the centre mosque, then walk through a narrow passage leading to the second floor housing the library and the women's quarters section.

The directions are very specific if you want to fare better than my female friends and I did on that day. We were misled by our male companions who, in a hurry to catch the maghrib (sunset) prayer, guided us to the wrong mosque. We needed to quickly make up our minds as to which of the many entrances we should take. Meanwhile, we were quickly donning on our prayer scarves and taking off our shoes. Mine was the most challenging prayer costume, because I had insisted on bringing along my esdal (a dress covering the entire body from head to toe), which was not the easiest thing to have on when running up and down stairs.

We finally arrived at the women's area, prayed, but then found ourselves wondering why we were at a different mosque from the men. To the amusement of other female worshippers, we ran down the steep stairs of what we realised was Al-Bosiri Mosque in an attempt to catch the esha (night) prayer at Al-Mursi -- whose call for prayer had few minutes to go.

Finally, we were in luck, running from the left side of Abul-Abbas Mosque to the right, up the stairs and through the passage. Of course, anywhere can serve as a prayer spot, but it would have been a shame to be only a few steps away from Sidi Al-Mursi and not worship there.

Many worshippers frequent the mosque not only for prayers but to find spirituality in the memory of such a pious man. But today these moments can be difficult to come by, especially when overcrowding and noise can spoil it for those who might have travelled many miles for this experience.

After prayers were over, our party strolled around the square passing by street vendors and children playing while their families lounged in the square's modest garden. But the beggars were a nuisance, aggressively approaching visitors and even poking one of our friends in the back.

While a significant religious site, Abul-Abbas Mosque stood as a symbol of popular resistance during the French expedition in 1798 and the 1919 Revolution. In October and November, 1919, the entire country was immersed in the events at the mosque. For four weeks, mass demonstrations launched from there after Friday noon prayers, and related revolutionary activity were a constant irritant for British occupiers.

The tales and wonders of Al-Mursi Abul-Abbas are endless in a city already rich with heritage. I was grateful for the inspirational encounter, which urged the traveller in me to begin a new quest in search of more adventures around the country.

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