Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Mosque of Habib-i Neccar II

In tourist brochures written about Antakya, the authors take it for granted that the Mosque of Habib-i Neccar was built by Abu Obayda after the city fell to the Muslims in 636 A.D. In one of these brochures called Hatay we read: "The Habib-i Neccar Mosque was built in 636 when the Muslim Arabs conquered Antakya."[i] In another of them we read: "In the year 636 A.D. Antakya was conquered by Abu Obayda Ibn Jerrah, one of the generals of Omar. This was the year when the Habib-i Neccar Mosque was built."[ii] In the book Antiocheia we read on page 237: "The Habib-i Neccar Mosque and the mausoleum was built for the first time by Abu Obayda Ibn Jerrah in the year 638." [iii]

The author Zafer Sarı, however, is more exact. He writes: "The story goes that originally there was a Roman temple on its present spot. After the spread of Christianity in Antakya, this temple was turned into a church. When the Muslims took over the city, the present mosque was built on the same spot. ... The building, which has an architectural style reminding of the Baroque, was erected by Abu Obayda Ibn Jerrah after the Muslims conquered Antakya in 638." [iv]

The observation by Zafer Sarı is in harmony with the way things were done in the Middle East years ago: temples were turned into churches and churches eventually into mosques. There may even be an evidence for this claim.

In the courtyard of the mosque, a lonely pillar is standing that evidently has no business at that location. It is overwhelmingly doubtful that Abu Obayda Ibn Jerrah put it there. It very likely belongs to something much older.
There used to be very many Greek and Roman temples in old Antioch, but most of them were either pulled down or turned into churches. This especially happened after the decree of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I (379-395).[v] Speaking about the aggressive destruction done by the monks, the pagan philosopher Libanius (d. ca. 393), who was a native of Antioch and living there, gives this description of the situation:

"But those black-garbed people, who eat more than elephants, and demand a large quantity of liquor from the people who send them drink for their chantings, but who hide their luxury by their pale artificial countenances, - these men, O Emperor, even whilst your law is in force, run to the temples, bringing with them wood, and stones, and iron, and when they have not these, hands and feet. Then follows a Mysian prey, the roofs are uncovered, walls are pulled down, images are carried off, and altars are overturned: the priests all the while must be silent upon pain of death. When they have destroyed one temple they run to another, and a third, and trophies are erected upon trophies: which are all contrary to [your] law. This is the practice in cities, but especially in the countries." ( Libanius, Oration 30: For the temples (Pro templis) (1830) pp.72-96, accessed August 13, 2011,

According to Libanius, destruction was especially widespread in the countryside. It is therefore reasonable to expect that pagan temples in town were largely allowed to stand, although turned into churches.

Therefore, the sarcophagi we find in the Habib-i Neccar Mosque today were probably already there when Abu Obayda turned the place into a mosque. That would also explain why at least three persons who according to the Muslims are Christian saints have their shrine in the mosque: John the Baptist, Shem'un al-Safa and Habib-i Neccar.

One thing is certain: when the Mameluk Sultan Baybars took Antioch in 1268, he did not leave many Christians in the city, if any at all. Their church close to the former Cherubim Gate on what used to be the Colonnaded Street became the Mosque of Habib-i Neccar. The title of Baybars, al-malik aZ-Zâhir, is still to be seen in an inscription in its courtyard.


[i] Hatay City Directorate of Culture and Tourism, Hatay (Antakya: (no year)).
[ii] T. C. Hatay Valiliği İl Kültür ve Turizm Müdürlüğü, Habib Neccar Camii (Antakya: (no year)).
[iii] Uysal Yenipınar, Antiocheia (İzmir: Etki Yayınları, 2010).
[iv] Zafer Sarı, Hatay'da tarihi ve turistik yerler, (Antakya: Hatay Expres Gazetecilik Matbaacılık, 2009), 47.

[v] Glanville Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria from Seleucus to the Arab conquest, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 437, 439.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011


This article was printed in the internet edition of the Turkish newspaper Zaman on August 8, 2001 about an incident that happened 2-300 kilometers northeast of Antakya:
Five dead as adults join children's fight in Turkey's southeast
08 August 2011, Monday / TODAYSZAMAN.COM,
"Five people died and 12 others were injured when a fistfight among a group of children grew larger after their families got involved on Monday in the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa.

Reports said children from the Şahin and Pesen families, which reportedly have a long-standing dispute, in the Suruç district got into a fistfight in the morning. While the fight seemed to have ended, some members of the Pesen family went to the home of the Şahin family and reportedly insulted them.

Following this, members of the Şahin family took out weapons and opened fire on them, killing five people from the Pesen family.

Reports said three of the victims are women. The clash continued for hours and another 12 people were injured. Riot police were sent to the area to end the clash.

Strict security measures were taken at Suruç State Hospital, where the injured individuals were taken, to prevent any further violence. An investigation into the incident has also been launched."

The story is sad but trivial. Incidents like the one described are not unusual along the frontier between Turkey and Syria. What makes the story unusual is that it puts back on the map a city that the world forgot centuries ago: the city of Serug.

In the Bible book of Genesis we read in chapter 11 verses 22 – 26 we read:

"And Serug lived thirty years, and begat Nahor: And Serug lived after he begat Nahor two hundred years, and begat sons and daughters. And Nahor lived nine and twenty years, and begat Terah: And Nahor lived after he begat Terah an hundred and nineteen years, and begat sons and daughters. And Terah lived seventy years, and begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran." (King James Version)

Thus Serug was the great-grandfather of the patriarch Abraham and he had a city called by his name.

This was not unusual. Also Abraham's brother Haran had a city with his name, and also this city still exists at its location about 40 kilometres south of the big city of Urfa (or Şanlıurfa).

The account in the book of Genesis tells us how Abraham's grandson Jacob later settled with his relative Laban in Haran (Harran) where he worked as a shepherd. Eventually he had to run away because of serious differences with Laban about wages. According to Genesis Laban only refrained from doing Jacob harm after divine intervention.

The newspaper story from Suruç (Serug) indicates that not everything in that area has changed since the time of the patriarchs nearly four thousand years ago.

Jacob probably acted wisely by avoiding a confrontation.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Mosque of Habib-i Neccar (Habib al-Najjâr)

Nobody seems to know who Habib al-Najjâr was. However, his name has been given to a mosque situated in the central part of Antakya.

Originally this mosque may have been a church and perhaps previously a pagan temple. In ancient times, its location was close to the Cherubim Gate, the western gate of Antioch. Some members of the local churches believe that it originally was the Church of John the Baptist. Whatever the case, in a side chamber to the present mosque there are two sarcophagi, one with the name of the prophet Jonah and one with the name of John the Baptist on it.

It is somehow a riddle what connection the prophet Jonah should have had to Antioch. When it comes to John the Baptist, however, things are easier to explain. 

The first place designated as the burial place of the body John was in Sebaste, a small city close to Nablus on the West Bank in Palestine. The saying goes that eventually his bones were taken to Alexandria in Egypt.

It will be remembered, however, that John was decapitated. What became of his head is a lot more obscure. Today the head of John the Baptist is kept in the Topkapı Museum in Istanbul, in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, in Church of Saint Sylvester in Capite in Rome, in the Residenz Museum in Munich and a couple of other places, so why not in Antioch? (To readers who would like to know how things like this are possible, I will recommend the book with the title Baudolino by Umberto Eco.)

If we leave the side chamber in the Habib-i Neccar Mosque and descend by the stairway to the crypt under the mosque, things get even more interesting. In a small room there are two sarcophagi, one with the name of Habib-i Neccar (Ottoman for Habib al-Najjâr) and one with the name of Sham’un al-Safa. If we proceed one flight of stairs down to the crypt under this crypt, we find two more sarcophagi with the same names on them. Who are the persons with these names?

Habib-i Neccar

According to Muslim tradition, Habib-i Neccar was the man mentioned in the Qur’an (Sura 36).[i] This man had been sent by God, but was put to death in a certain city (ﻗﺭﻳﺔ). The city is supposed to be Antioch (ancient Antakya). A problem with this interpretation is that the word ﻗﺭﻳﺔ (qarya) according to the dictionary Al-Mawrid has the meaning of “village, small town, hamlet.”
[ii] Ancient Antioch can hardly be called a hamlet. It was, in fact, one of the three most important cities in the Roman Empire. Some Muslims claim that the incident described took place in the first century. During the first four centuries of the Christian era, Antioch had about 250.000 inhabitants. It was no “small town.”

Some have tried to identify Habib-i Neccar with the Christian prophet Agabus from the first century. According to “several hagiographic texts,” Agabus suffered martyrdom, but Antioch is not mentioned in this connection.
[iii] It should be remembered that there is no mention of any persecution of Christians in Antioch until the one ordered by Trajan in the beginning of the second century.

Sham’un al-Safa

Sham’un al-Safa is even more evasive. The epithet al-Safa (ﺍﻠﺻﺎﻓﻰ) carries the meaning of somebody who is sincere, loyal or devoted,[iv] but the fact that the place of his coffin is regarded by Sunni Muslims as a shrine already indicate that he – by them, at least – is venerated for his devotion and religious loyalty. But who was he?

The name Sham’un is neither Arabic nor Turkish. The word is Hebrew (or Aramaic) and was originally pronounced Shim’on while its Arabic equivalent is Sam’an. This has made some Muslims , especial some with Shiite, Ismaili and Nusayri background, believe that Sham’un al-Safa is Simon Peter, the apostle of Jesus.

This automatically makes us ask two questions: How did the apostle Peter end up in a mosque in the centre of Antakya without the knowledge of the local Christians? And what is he doing in a Sunni mosque when it is Shiite related groups, as the Ismailis and the local Nusayris, who regard him as important? Would you not have expected to find his tomb in one of the shrines (ziyaret) of the Nusayri Alawites?

In answering the first question, it should be kept in mind that there is a very old tradition of Peter visiting Antioch (Antakya). In his letter to the Galatians the apostle Paul describes a controversy he had with the apostle Peter in Antioch (chapter 2 verses 11-13, KJV): "But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation."

However, Peter did not stay in Antioch. According to the Bible, he later on wrote a letter from "Babylon" which may refer to Babylon in Mesopotamia or Babylon in Egypt.
[vi] According to Catholic tradition, he died in Rome and was buried there.[vii] To our knowledge there is  no tradition that places the tomb of the apostle Peter in Antioch.

So what is the coffin of Sham’un al-Safa doing in the crypt of a Sunni mosque? We do not know. Whoever he may have been, his name indicates that he was not a Muslim.

When you read Turkish books about Antakya (as for example Uysal Yenipınar, Antiocheia (İzmir: Etki Yayınları, 2010), you get the impression that the Habib-i Neccar Mosque was first built in 638 by Abu Ubayda Ibn Jarrâh who had conquered the city from the Byzantines. It is not likely, however, that Abu Ubayda chose an empty spot for his project. The usual procedure in antiquity was that Christians converted pagan shrines into churches and the Muslim later turned these into mosques. The spot where the mosque is located was within the walls of the original Seleucid city and close to the centre of the Byzantine city taken by Abu Ubayda. There was hardly any empty plot of land there.

Thıs leads us to believe that the mosque was originally a church, and perhaps the local Christians are right when the claim that it was the Church of John the Baptist. That would also explain why a sarcophagus with his name on is kept there. If this is the case, we may also draw the conclusion that some ancient Christian saint is hiding behind the name of Sham’un al-Safa.

Sham’un was very likely a common name among the Aramaic speaking Antiochenes. We know at least two local stylites with that name. The first is Symeon the Stylite the Older, who eventually moved up to the plateau between Antioch and Aleppo where he sat on his pillar until his death. He was buried in Antioch.
[viii] The second is Symeon the Stylite the Younger who had grown up in the quarter just beside the church that was later on turned into the Mosque of Habib-i Neccar.[ix] This Symeon was not buried in Antioch, but besides his pillar on the "Miraculous Mountain" at Samandağ. What happened to his bones later on, nobody knows. [x]


[i] Marmaduke Pickthall, trans. The Glorious Qur’an (Istanbul: Çağrı Yayınları, 1999), 440 – 442.
[ii] Rohi Baalbaki, Al-Mawrid (Beirut: Dar al-Ilm lilmalayin, 2005) 858.
[iii] G. Vajda, “Habib al-Nadjdjâr,” The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. 3 (London: Luzac & Co., 1986), 12.
[iv] Baalbaki, Al-Mawrid, 686.
[v] "The Ismailis view history as a progressive cycle, which advances through seven major cycles, each inaugurated by a natiq (speaking prophet; pl. nutaqa’) or ulu’l-‘azm (endowed with resolution) who brings revelation and promulgates law in its external form. Adam, (Adam), Nuh (Noah), Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), ‘Isa (Jesus), and Muhammad were the six nutaqa’. Each succeeding natiq abrogates the law of his predecessor and brings a new law. Natiq is followed by asas (foundation), or samit (one who remains silent) who promulgates the batin through ta’wil, Shith (Seth), Sam (Shem), Isma‘il (Ishmail) or Ishaq (Isaac), Harun (Aaron), Yusha‘ (Joshua) the son of Nun, Sham‘un al-Safa (Simon Peter), and ‘Ali were the six usus of the aforementioned six nutaqa’." – Ismail K. Poonawala, "Ismaili Literature in Persian and Arabic" (The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2008), 4, 5, accessed August 4, 2011, See also and, accessed August 3, 2011. Henry Corbin, Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis (London: Kegan Paul International, (no date)), 96, accessed August 3, 2011,
[vi] Wikipedia, "Babylon Fortress," accessed August 4, 2011,
[vii] New Advent, "St. Peter, prince of the Apostles," accessed August 4, 2011,
[viii] Glanville Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria from Seleucus to the Arab Conquest (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 481.
[ix] Ibid., 553-555.
[x] M. Grazia Zambon, Domenico Bertogli & Oriano Granella, Antioch on the Orontes … where the disciples were first called Christians … (Parma: Edizioni Eteria (no date)), 97.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Back in town

After a hectic spring and early summer, it is nice to be back in Antakya. After too much action, Antakya may seem a little dull, though.
Especially our trip to Damascus was interesting. The bus company had informed us that they were going from Antakya to Damascus and back every day and they had not met with any problems. Friends in Syria informed us that they went to work and back every day without any unpleasant experiences. If we should believe the press all Syria would look like the front in Libya. On the other hand, if you were to believe that what is shown on Turkish television is a true reflection of what is going on here in this country, you would never leave your home.
On the way to Damascus nothing happened. We saw some tanks parked somewhere, but that is not unusual. In Damascus everything was as usual. The only difference to notice was the very limited number of tourists in the streets.
On the way back in bus from Damascus to Aleppo, we met a big group of people on motorcycles demonstrating for or against something or somebody. Some of them carried a picture of a man. It was not clear if it was the president or somebody else.
Fortunately, Antakya is more predictable. Some may call it a dull city, but it is a good place to work.