Integration: Historic Place + Fictional Story
Updated: May 8, 2020
A couple of years ago, I took part in a competition where we were asked to shed light on a historic building that was not really recognized. This competition inspired me to come up with a new method of writing about architecture; Integration - Historical Place + Fictional Story. Thankfully, I came first place in this competition.
'And I Stood Atop the Minaret'
It was a beautiful winter morning. I woke up and wore my favorite black sweater and black jeans, tied my dark hair into a ponytail and found my nametag with “Sarah Rahman” written in black bold letters. It took me twenty minutes to drive to the al-Mursi mosque from my hotel. Ten years ago, when I used to live in Alexandria as a teenager, my father and I used to walk to the mosque in ten minutes, but now it is much harder for people to move around the city, since the new post-revolution government had started reconstructing the roadwork. On the surface, things in Alexandria hadn’t changed from what I could tell. People were still listening to cheesy westernized Arabic romantic songs and wasting their days cruising the beach road. Nearly every female I saw, whether a grown woman or a teenager, was veiled. A few still wore skintight clothes that emphasized their curves as they walked in groups of three. However, there was a different attitude present in the Alexandrians, one that I could not put my finger on. It had been a long time since I had visited my hometown. I parked the car and walked to the mosque’s premises nervously. I found a group of people gathered by the mosque’s gate and went to join them. The tour guide smiled at me and checked my nametag. I had my camera ready in my hand. I was not sure what I was doing, but I knew that I needed moral support.
Hello everyone, my name is Kate and I will be your tour guide for the day. In front of us now is one of the greatest attractions in the world, the Alexandrian Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque. The mosque dates back to 1775. We are now standing in front of the grand gate of the mosque, which is located on the southern edge of the city in the Anfoushi district of Alexandria, with a lovely view of the coast. This is the largest mosque in the ancient city of Alexandria. As you can see from outside the premises, the walls of the mosque look like they were carved out of a creamy ivory stone.
While the tourists and I clicked away on that calm morning, my head was starting to bring back memories of the times that I had visited this mosque as a child. People from all over the world traveled long distances just to visit this mosque and admire its beauty. I often watched my father get excited every time someone would visit. He always welcomed them with open arms. “A friend of Al-Mursi is a friend of mine,” he would say. He would sit me down on his lap, on an old wooden bench that used to exist near the mosque’s gateway, and speak to me about the mosque’s brick construction and about how it was a shame that people are more interested in the modern methods of building, using steel and concrete. Bricks gave elegance and history to a place, especially to a spiritual place. This is one of the reasons why he believed that this mosque was one of the greatest buildings in the world, and why he was satisfied with laying his eyes on the building, everyday.
The mosque was named after the immigrant Spanish Muslim scholarly saint, Shahab al-Din Abu al-Abbas al- Mursi, whose tomb this mosque was actually built on. He died in 1286 AD after years of being one of the four main master Muslim scholars of Egypt.
The group and I walked through the mosque’s gate and towards a large courtyard. I managed to take a few good photographs of the wall’s details and the structure. There was a sign erected near the courtyard that had the words “Raham Allah Ro’oh Al Qadees Shahab” written in old Arabic calligraphy.1 I instantly remembered the stories that one of my father’s friends, Youhana George, used to tell me about Shahab al-Din al-Mursi, and how courageous he was to fight for what he believed in, no matter how hard it was. The tour guide continued:
There have been several renovations of the mosque in the past few years to keep it pristine. One of the renovations included building a separate entrance for the women to enter the mosque at their own pace and privacy. Another renovation was done to the exterior of the tall minarets, which was decorated with details that are very intricate and required master craftsmen to do it justice.
One of my father’s greatest characteristics was his spirituality. I remembered when he used to take me up to the mosque’s minaret. No one was allowed at the top of the minaret except the prayer caller, but my father knew him very well and managed to get the keys to the tower’s doors. I remembered the dark, long, windy spiral stairs that led up to the tower. Although I was an energetic child and he was an older, slower paced man, we would reach the top of the minaret’s stairs at the same time and look down at the city of Alexandria together. The people seemed so tiny relative to the thick blue and white strokes of sea behind them. The water’s vastness reminded me that there was more to the world than we could see. There was so much that a person did not know, and that he could discover. It was that day that I knew I wanted to become a photographer, one that would get to travel the world and see different places. When I told my father, he laughed and said that as long as I wanted it and believed in it, I would become whatever I wanted to be. For the past ten years, I would have dreams of this moment. In the dreams, I stood atop the minaret and looked down at the city of Alexandria, but my father was nowhere to be seen.
During the great Egyptian revolution, on January 25th 2011, a tragedy occurred in this very mosque. A few street rebels broke in and stole as many rugs and ornaments as they could. During this riot, one unlucky man, the groundskeeper of the mosque, was caught in the struggle and lost his life. His distorted body was found right here in this courtyard, under the minaret. You can see the results of the struggle. The mosque’s main entrance door was broken and never fixed, and there are missing bricks in the walls…
My arm went numb. The camera felt like it was a hundred pounds heavier. I remembered the revolution days clearly. The sun was up and shining, and the air was ordinary. However, the wide streets outside the mosque were anything but ordinary. Rioters ran around followed by policemen. Gunshots could be heard from a distance. The palm trees in front of the mosque’s gate were decorated with Egyptian flags and signs of protest. By early evening, those very palm trees were on fire and falling down on people, killing them. At night, streetlights were broken so that you wouldn’t be able to see the dead bodies of the men, women, and children that were rotting outside Al-Mursi mosque. During the months that followed, I was forced to flee to live with my extended family in Kuwait. My fifteen-year-old self knew that things were never going to be the same again.
Standing in the courtyard, I, finally, felt an air of hope. Alexandrians had fought hard in the past ten years for their happiness. People had died, but they did not die in vain. The reconstruction wasn’t just of the roads, but included the re-growth of the old palm trees that had fallen ten years ago. I turned my back on the group and silently cried, while they scattered around the courtyard to take more pictures. After a few moments, I felt lighter. I looked up at the tour guide and smiled at her for the first time. She awkwardly smiled back at me and continued to guide the group away from the courtyard and towards the inside of the mosque, on a day that marked the death anniversary of my father, Omar Rahman, the groundskeeper of the Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque in Alexandria.
1. “Raham Allah Ro’oh Al Qadees Shahab” is the Arabic translation for “May God rest Saint Shahab’s soul”