Site-Seeing: El-Jazzar’s Architectural Gem

The Old City of Akko was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001, and rightly so: With layers of Ottoman and Crusader ruins above and below ground, there is much to explore.

Not far from the main tourist parking lot and the entrance to the Crusader Citadel is the green-domed El-Jazzar Pasha Mosque. Completed in 1781, the mosque is named for its founder, Ahmad Pasha El-Jazzar (1730–1804), the regional Ottoman governor who was also buried nearby. Aside from his mosque, El-Jazzar is remembered positively for foiling Napoleon’s siege of the city in 1799 (with British help), and negatively for his brutality (his sobriquet, “El-Jazzar,” means “butcher”). Among his violent acts: gouging out one of the eyes of his Jewish finance minister, Haim Farhi (1760–1820).

El-Jazzar Pasha Mosque. AKKO, ISRAEL

Whatever one may think of the man, there can be no dispute about his mosque. Now that the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa are generally open only to Muslims, the El-Jazzar Mosque may well be the most historically significant and artistically rendered mosque open to non-Muslim visitors in all of Israel.

From El-Jazzar street, you can’t miss the entrance: a small green-domed cupola stands to the right of a raised marble-tiled gate, accessed by a distinctive semicircular staircase of a dozen steps. This gate brings one to the closed courtyard surrounding the mosque itself. The exterior of the main entry is marked by colorful tiles, but the remainder of the building’s walls are whitewashed. The dome is painted in a traditional green. A single minaret rises high above the mosque to its right, capped by a green conical turret.

Visitors to the mosque need not remove their shoes: Non-Muslims who enter the structure remain in a partitioned rear gallery, looking onto the carpeted prayer space within. Muslims perform their ritual washings (wudu) by an outdoor fountain and then make their way past any visitors into the carpeted prayer space itself, walking in on a slightly raised wooden platform.

Following Ottoman (and Byzantine) models, four two-story arches of the square structure support a large central dome. The second-floor gallery, also closed to visitors, is the women’s prayer area. The lower portions of the interior walls are colored like the entryway. Much of the dome and the upper portions of the walls are pure white, with occasional colored stained-glass windows. The juxtapositions of the simple with the ornate leave a powerful impression.

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After we paid the modest admission fee (NIS 10, about $3), a man emerged, who offered to give an impromptu tour. While we stood within the mosque, he relayed, in broken English, a legend I have been otherwise unable to confirm: He asserted that the idea of constructing a mosque with an upstairs gallery for women—atypical of mosques, but quite typical of early modern synagogues—was suggested to El-Jazzar by none other than his one-eyed Jewish minister, Haim Farhi. Our guide was, I think, hoping this legend acknowledging a Jewish influence on the construction of this Muslim monument would win the hearts of his mixed crowd. Judging from their reaction, the modern-thinking women in attendance were not particularly interested in taking pride in, or comfort from, this particular point of impact.

Whatever the truth behind the balcony legend may be, the city of Akko has an undeniably colorful history. This history is illustrated beautifully by this early modern mosque, built by a brutal governor who did indeed have a Jewish minister when Napoleon attacked in 1799. The next time you are in Akko, consider paying a visit to El-Jazzar’s architectural gem, which you can conveniently see before or after touring the Citadel and its Crusader ruins, right around the corner. Modest dress will be required: Women will be asked to cover knees and elbows. Woolen shawls were provided when we visited. If you plan ahead, your own cotton cover-ups may be more comfortable.

JONATHAN KLAWANS is Professor of Religion at Boston University. His most recent book is Heresy, Forgery, Novelty: Condemning, Denying, and Asserting Innovation in Ancient Judaism (Oxford Univ. Press, 2019).

This article was published in the Spring 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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Read more by Professor Klawans in Bible History Daily:

Site-Seeing: Nimrod

Site-Seeing: Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem

Site-Seeing: Archaeological Remains in Holy Sepulchre’s Shadow

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