Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 September 2012
Issue No. 1113
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The youngest son

Can the tomb of Benjamin, brother of Joseph and youngest son of Jacob, be found within the foundations of a very small, neglected mosque in Mediaeval Cairo? Nevine El-Aref looks at the evidence

Click to view caption
photos: Sherif Sonbol

Last Wednesday, Al-Azhar Street was as crowded as usual, and as it always will be. Vehicles of various sizes were pushing their way along the street; pedlars were calling out their wares and pedestrians wove in and out of traffic as they crossed the road. I gazed up at the awe-inspiring Mamluk dome of Al-Ghouri, and set off on my exploration to find Benjamin's tomb.

My guide was tour agent Ehab Malek, who found out about the tomb by chance. The noise in Al-Azhar Street followed us as we walked into the alleyway beside the Al-Ghouri dome. After almost 20 minutes of stepping out of one alley into another, a modest, honey striped building with three long mashrabiya (woodwork) windows appeared. On top of one of the windows was a wooden plaque engraved with Kufic characters spelling out that this was the mausoleum of Mohamed Sudon Al-Qasrawi. On a second window was another plaque labelling it as the mausoleum of Mohamed Shehabeddin, while the third window, painted green, bore a plaque with these words: "The mausoleum of Benjamin, brother of the Prophet Joseph."

I went around the building and stared through the windows, trying to catch a glimpse of what lay inside. Would I see Benjamin's tomb or sarcophagus? Through the holes of the broken mashrabiya I realised that the building was in a very dishevelled state. Heaps of rubble and sand were piled on the floor, and the walls and decorated wooden bars engraved with Islamic texts were scattered all over the place.

According to Malek, Benjamin's tomb is typically an ancient Egyptian tomb with a treasured collection of pharaonic objects and gold coins depicting Joseph's name and facial features, and these would help Egyptologists uncover the mystery of an era referred to in the Torah, the Bible and the Quran but never, ever mentioned in ancient Egyptian history.

Now I know that the first coins were not minted until about the seventh century BC, and that the ancient Egyptians did not use them in their financial transactions and instead exchanged goods, but Malek's enthusiasm and his belief in his story led me for a moment to doubt my own wisdom.

I asked lawyer and local resident Mohamed Diab what he thought about the tomb.

"What a great loss!" he said. "I feel sorry that our only mosque is being neglected like this when it actually houses Benjamin's tomb."

Diab said that nothing had happened there in five years. The mosque was closed to worshippers and was in a very bad condition. "I have made several complaints to both the Ministry of State for Antiquities [MSA] and the Ministry of Endowments and asked them to rescue and restore the mosque and mausoleums, but nothing has happened."

Both ministries, he continued, were fighting each other to decide who would fund the restoration work, and the victim was the building.

"I locked the mosque and kept the key with me so as to prevent a robbery," I was told by Hussein Diab, who owns a barber's adjacent to the mosque. He says that three years ago a contractor, Adel Orabi, came on site and claimed that he had been assigned by the Ministry of Endowments to restore the mosque and mausoleums. "Orabi came several times to inspect the site and started removing the ground floor of the mosque and some parts of the ceiling and columns," Diab, the barber, told me. "One day, while I was admiring the restoration that had been carried out, I realised that the minbar [pulpit] was missing. When I asked Orabi where it was, he said he had taken it along with other parts of the mosque because it was scrap and all the pieces would be replaced with new ones."

The pulpit was previously used in the Hussein Mosque on Al-Azhar Street, and was renovated eight years ago with a budget of LE36,000 financed by wealthy local residents. It was a decorated wooden pulpit inlaid with ivory.

Diab agreed to open the mosque to show me the extent of the damage. The interior of the mosque is totally ruined. Most of the columns are inclined or broken; the ceiling almost does not exist; while the floor is covered with rubble and sand which make it hard to tread on and walk through the rooms. The mosque consists of an open colonnaded court surrounded by four side rooms, three of which are empty while the fourth houses the mausoleum of Mohamed Ibn Sudon Al-Qasrawi, a top government official during the reigns of the Mamluk sultans Inal and Qayet Bay.

The mausoleum, or the dome as the MSA calls it, was built in 1468 AD to be the burial place for Al-Qasrawi. It consists of a tiny lobby leading to a small square room with a vaulted ceiling and a dome. The dome's 16 windows are decorated with foliage decoration. Inside the room is a marble sarcophagus with two tombstones inscribed with Kufic calligraphy. The texts consist of Quranic verses, the name of the deceased, his various titles and the date of his birth and death. The room is a real mess; full of dust, broken windows and book shelves as well as engraved wooden plates that have fallen off the walls.

The secretary-general of the MSA, Mohsen Sayed, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the mosque and mausoleum had been restored twice; the first time during the reign of Khedive Abbas Helmi II and the second in the 1970s by the Arab Antiquities Committee. Three years ago, Sayed said, the MSA "consolidated the mausoleum and dome" as they were an Islamic monument registered on Egypt's Islamic heritage list, but not the mosque, which came under the umbrella of the Ministry of Endowments because it was not a monument. According to official regulations, Sayed explained, the endowments provided the budget and assigned the restoration contractor, while the MSA supervised the work, especially the restoration carried out at the mausoleum and dome of Al-Qasrawi.

But where was Benjamin's tomb? I searched all over the building and found nothing except the coffin of Al-Qasrawi, damaged walls and floors and empty rooms. I was disappointed. Then Diab pointed to a very small, empty room and said, "Here it is." I went inside and saw nothing. Diab laughed and told me that the room was known as the clergymen's room, and the tomb was under the floor. He went on to say that every sheikh during the last century had spent a night in the room had reported hearing voices speaking to him at night and had noticed a very pleasant aroma of incense, which supported the idea that the tomb of Benjamin lay beneath them. Diab had told me that residents of the area said that all the treasures in Benjamin's funerary collection had been stolen except for the body and the sarcophagus, because some people wanted to hide important historical evidence that could, he said, change the record of ancient Egyptian history.

"This is totally untrue," Sayed said. He insisted that there was nothing under the mosque apart from the foundations -- and the stories concerning Benjamin's tomb were mere "imagination and fairy tales".

So why this "legend" is so popular and well known, and why do people in the neighbourhood believe the story? By searching on the Internet and asking Egyptologists, I found a study published in 2007 by professor of gynaecology Said Thabet, head of the Antiquities Lovers Association at Cairo University. This research seemed to be the source of the stories of Benjamin's tomb.

Thabet's study claimed that the tomb of Benjamin, the youngest brother of Joseph, had been located underneath the foundations of an Islamic mosque called Al-Doaa at Al-Batneya behind Al-Azhar Mosque.

He explained that he had reached this conclusion through an ancient Egyptian papyrus named "Land of Peace", which pinpointed the area where the Jews lived after they arrived in Egypt, at about the time of Joseph and Moses. He claimed that the area mentioned in the papyrus was in Al-Batneya behind Al-Azhar Mosque, and ran towards the Rum and Jews' alleyways.

Thabet claimed that Joseph's palace once stood in Al-Hidan Al-Musely Street in Al-Batneya, where the Tudors Monastery, the Church of the Virgin the Rescuer (Al-Adhra Al-Moghitha), Al-Doaa Mosque and Al-Qasrawi Mausoleum stand now. He said that the imam of the mosque told him that the tombs of both Benjamin and Joseph were inside the mosque, but that Joseph's tomb did not contain a body. Benjamin's tomb, he said, was similar to those of ancient Egyptians and contained funerary objects such as amulets, scarabs and "gold coins". This piece of information, the imam claimed, was written in hieroglyphic text on a wooden plaque in the mosque, but for unknown reasons it had vanished after excavation work was carried out in 1994.

In the study, Thabet wrote that the coins found within the tomb of Benjamin were amulet shaped and depicted the face of Joseph -- whose ancient Egyptian name was Zafini -- on one side and his cartouche on the other.

"All this is nonsense and has no historical or archaeological basis," Ahmed Said, professor of ancient Egyptian civilisation in the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University told the Weekly. He went on to say that, moreover, "we don't have, from near or far," any document, papyrus or even a tomb scene that mentions the name of Joseph or Moses or any prophet of the Torah, Bible or Quran. The individuals who wrote down ancient Egyptian history were from the royal palace, and they were too loyal to their pharaohs. "They would never, ever dare to write what contradict their kings' will or religious concept," Said said.

"What supports my point of view is that the monotheistic pharaoh Akhenaten was removed from the kings' list engraved on a wall at Pharaoh Seti I's temple in Abydos because he called for the worship of one god, Aten," he added.

Akhenaten's successors also destroyed his capital city of Amarna and erased all documents and papyri in relation to his religion and culture. Queen Hatshepsut's name was also removed from the kings' list, as well as the Hyksos kings who ruled Egypt for some length of time. "We only learnt about Akhenaten when Egyptologists came across very few statues of him and his family, as well as stelae," Said said.

He insisted that no such coin had ever been found bearing the name of Zafini or Joseph, as it was claimed. The ancient Egyptians never used coins in their transactions, they only bartered goods for goods. "They didn't know about coins until the 29th Dynasty of the Late Period when they had extensive trade with Cyprus." These coins, Said explained, were very simple and plain. The name of the king was on one side, and his likeness on the obverse. "According to the Bible and the Quran, the 29th Dynasty was presumably a very distant period from that of Joseph and Moses," he said.

Said said people should not believe any studies or research on such an issue unless there was archaeological and scientific evidence.

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