Al Awza'i - Old and New
Bruce Condè, 1955 and 1960
Al-Awza'i's slender white minaret, rising from a picturesque
cluster of multi-colored house groups on the bluffs, beckons invitingly
to swimmers at the St. Michel beaches &and to motorists emerging from
the pine forest north of Khalde on their way to the beach.
The tiny town's central point of interest and principal structure is its arched, whitewashed compound of the Imam al-Awza'i Mosque, adjacent to which is the ornate tomb of the late Prime Minister Riad es-Sulh.
A few old (but not ancient) beach villas of bygone days, best represented by the pink house with a brown sandstone garden wall (at the foot of al-Awza'i hill on the St. Simon side) - which in better days belonged to the Saghir family - are making their last amid new cement structures.
The silhouettes of dozens of "erzals" - rustic platforms raised on four poles, in which families sleep during the summer season - are still etched against the sky on al-Awza'i's hillside, while ancient wells of fresh water along the beach itself continue to provide water for domestic purposes.
Since a number of excellent Byzantine mosaics, Roman antiquities and coins have been turned up in the process of excavations for buildings at al-Awza'i, it is known that the ancients also favored it as a site for their beach villas. Nothing is left above the surface of the ground, however, to show occupancy before the first few centuries of Islam, at which time the place was known as the village of Hantus.
The Imam AI-Awza'i
Tradition tells us that an attempt was made to bury him in Beirut proper but that unseen forces prevented the bearers of his coffin from advancing within a number of yards of the prepared grave. Likewise, says the same tradition, when the Imam's body was placed on the ground just east of the protruding mihrab, or Mecca-oriented niche, outside the south wall of the mosque, it became a heavy stone and could not be moved so that a stone tomb was built over and around it in A.H. 157 (77i A.D.).
Astonishingly little data has been accumulated in published form on the remaining buildings, customs or history of this place. Modern guide-books, for the most part, either ignore it completely or make only passing reference to its connection with the Imam. More substantial archaeological works seem not to have taken place at this site. For these reasons, the data presented in this article is advanced with caution, for it is chiefly based on verbal tradition of the family which, for the past four hundred years, has cared for the mosque, and on examination of the site in its present condition.
Since al-Awza'i is Lebanon's second holiest and most ancient Moslem exceeded in age and importance by the Qubba of the Sitt Kholat, granddaughter of the Prophet, at Baalbek, it is probable that either the Department of Antiquities or the Wakfs Administration or both will eventually preserve and restore the most ancient structures on the site, clear away unsightly modern accretions and beautify this spot, whose namesake's fame and influence made Lebanon known throughout the ancient Arab empire.
Passing through a small doorway in the south wall of this room, next to the mihrab, one enters the tomb chamber of the lmam... The door is of richly carved wood, said to be more than 500 years old and the gift of a princely admirer of al-Awza'i. The room, allegedly dating from the time of the Inam's burial, has also been renovated beyond recognition, with an eastern extension added by Mohammed Jamil Beyhum about the year 1920.
Over the marble-encased tomb is an elaborate wooden structure reaching to the ceiling. Once painted in bright colors, its carved and gilded woodwork, now faded, is mostly covered with tapestries, banners and religious inscriptions. The woodwork is said to be of three centuries ago, after the coming of the present custodial family of Rifai.
Gift of Prince
Faith Cures Reported
Honored by Statesmen
The late Emir Chekib Arslan, whose attachment to al-Awza'i dated from boyhood memories as a close frined of the present octogenarian custodian, Sheikh Tewfik er-Rifai, managed to locate a rare Arabic manuscript book on al-Awza'i in Berlin in 1938 or 1939 which he had photostated at his expense and reprinted in Lebanon for popular use.
The Sheikh's son and heir, Abdurrahman, is in somewhat of quandary about his own succession to the custodial duties, since he will be the first Rifai in four hundred years to have neither Sultan nor Caliph to confirm him as guardian of the mortal remains of Lebanon's greatest figure of the early Arab empire and first distinguished legalist since the days of Beirut's famous Roman Law school of antiquity.
From See Lebanon, Bruce Condè, second edition, Harb Bijjani Press, Beirut, 1960