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.

Old-Style Resort
Until the opening of nearby Khalde airport, intensive development of the beach area, and unmistakable southern expansion of Beirut toward the red sand-dunes in back of the beaches, al-Awza'i remained a sleepy summer resort for Beirut's who still preferred traditional ways of the country to the foreign styles set by St. Michel and St. Simon.

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.

Modern encroachments
With the encroachment of Beirut and its bathing beaches, it is only a matter of a few years until the new will have supplanted the o]d and only the mosque will remain of the al-Awza'i of former days. Even now the increasingly frequent yellow storefront with its red polka-dot cola signs has made its appearance on the little shop in the outer arched wall of the mosque compound. Also, in addition to the late Prime Minister's streamlined mausoleum area, a new cement school-building has gone up inside the compound itself.

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
The Imam Abdurrahman ibn 'Amr abu 'Amr al-Awza'i (707-774 A.D.), Baalbek-born world-famous .Moslem jurisconsult of the first and second centuries of the Hijra, was extremely fond of Hantus village. In fact he often expressed the wish to be buried beside the tiny single-domed mosque in which he taught and which still forms the nucleus of the mosque compound today.

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.).

Hantus Renamed
Subsequent to these events Hantus was virtually destroyed by an earthquake and when reconstructed and reinhabited it took the name of its late holy man and benefactor, al-Awza'i.

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.

Original Building
The original mosque building is the small room with a low dome which adjoins the minaret on the east (mountain) side. Allthough it has undoubtedly been repaired and rehabilitated many times since the earthquake which destroyed Hantus, it is essentially the structure al-Awza'i knew during the second century of Islam, over 1,200 years ago.

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
The white marble slabs covering the tomb proper are gifts of a prince of the then-ruling House of Chehab, the Emir Yunis alQassim, more than 200 years ago, placed here at the time the Emir built the large mosque room, with its thick arches, high dome and its own mihrab, to the west (seaward) side of the original room. It is on the heavy foundations of the northeast corner of this structure that al-Awza'i's present tall, ground minaret, built in 1937 by Maustafa Ramadan, rests. Other structures of the rambling courtyard buildings are also attributed to the Emir Yunis, but the entire area has been so often modified and coated with whitewash that it is difficult to fix any definite age for the rest of the enclosure.

Faith Cures Reported
The visitor will be more impressed by the fervor of the many pilgrims who come to the Imam's tomb seeking faith healings, however, than by the scanty remains of historic interest. It is impossible not to be struck with the similarity of this feeling of confidence in the healing powers of al-Awza'i to that visible around the tomb of Lebanons other, but more recent, holy figure of international repute, Father Charbel Makhlouf, at Anaya. In both cases persons of Lebanon's three principal faiths Moslems, Christians and Druzes - are represented, and similar testimonials of unusual healings are offered as evidence of the belief of the pilgrims in supernatural intervention. A well-worn cream-colored stone cylinder, similar to the white marble one formerly at al-Khadr, is still employed here to roll on portions of the bodies of those afflicted with rheumatism.

Honored by Statesmen
Affection for al-Awza'i knows no class distinctions either, and although mosts of the pilgrims are of the humbler people, distinguished citizens, princes and even government leaders of this century have given every evidence of their esteem, even to the extent of seeking the rare privilege of being buried near the Imam. Some old stone tombs are to be seen on the south side of the Imam's tomb chamber, while the more recent marble ones are in the courtyard. No less a national figure than the late Prime Minister and independence leader, Riad Bey es-Sulh, rests in a large, canopied white stone tomb, well landscaped, at the east end of the compound.

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.

Rifai Custodians
Sheikh Tewfik, once a court official in the old Turkish judiciary, went to Constantinople to get his bar'aqa, or custodial authorization, from the Sultan Rashad. His father, Sheikh Mustafa, held a bar'aqa signed by Sultan Abdul Hamid II as Caliph of Islam. The first Rifai to assume custodianship of al-Awza'i in the fifteenth century under the Mamluk sultans of Egypt, was Sheikh Ahmad ibn-Saad who was originally appointed to the now-hereditary post by the Qadi Bahjot of Beirut.

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



Created 972205