The Masjid Sidna Ali is one of the oldest surviving mosques in Palestine. Built on the site of a bloody battle between the armies of Saladin and Christian Crusaders, it is one of the last remaining 13th century Mamluk constructions in the region. It is also the location of the tomb of Al-Hasan ibn Ali, a direct descendent of Umar, the second caliph. After being abandoned for years, the Masjid Sidna Ali has recently undergone a massive restoration, and it is once again in use as a mosque by the small remaining Muslim community.
The village of Al-Haram where the Masjid Sidna Ali now stands has been around since early Arab times. Despite its small size, Al-Haram occupied a strategic hill along the coastal road from the major port cities of Jaffa and Haifa. It would later become a minor prize during the Crusader period. In 1081 AD, Al-Hasan ibn Ali, a distant descendant of Umar ibn Al-Khattab, died in Al-Haram and was buried in a small tomb there. His shrine became a popular local Islamic holy site for the next two decades, until 1099, when the Crusaders showed up and seized Al-Haram as part of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Al-Haram spent the next century living quietly under Crusader rule. However, in the year 1187, the Ayyubid general Saladin reconquered Jerusalem, and set about reestablishing Muslim rule over the area. Among the subsequent battles fought was a skirmish between Saladin’s forces and the Crusaders at Al-Haram. The Muslims fought ferociously, not only for command of the strategic hill, but also for the Shrine of Al-Hasan ibn Ali. The Muslims carried the day, though their commander, a favorite of Saladin, was killed in the battle.
In the early 13th century, when the Crusaders were no longer a significant threat to the area, the local Muslims erected the Masjid Sidna Ali, largely to commemorate their victory. Saladin’s officer was laid to rest within, and the mosque became a popular local pilgrimage site. The village, and the mosque, remained an important Islamic site in Palestine for the next seven hundred years, during which time it was regularly maintained. During the Ottoman period it became a popular stopover point for Muslim pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.
In 1948, Israeli forces seized the town of Al-Haram, and most of the local population departed. Most of the area was incorporated into the town of Herzliya, and the Masjid Sidna Ali largely abandoned. For the next four decades or so the mosque was neglected. Local authorities had intended to tear down the mosque to make the land available for new development. However, local Arab protesters, with support from liberal Jewish groups, saved the mosque from the wrecking ball. The Masjid Sidna Ali was renovated in the early 1990s, and for the first time in decades is once again being regularly visited by Muslim tourists. Unfortunately, the mosque also represents to many Palestinians what they have lost, but is perhaps all the more beloved because of that.
The Masjid Sidna Ali is the last surviving remnant of the old Muslim village of Al-Haram. However, thanks to recent restorations, the mosque is in excellent shape. Surrounded by palm trees and overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, it has a particularly exotic feel. Enclosed in a sand-colored brick compound, the mosque is more western in architecture and appearance. In fact, if it weren’t for the beautiful minaret and the low blue dome, the Masjid Sidna Ali could probably be mistaken for a Crusader-era monastery.
The mosque interior has also been restored, and the prayer hall is once again used, if infrequently, for worship. For those just coming to look around, stairs in the courtyard provide access to the mosque walltops and excellent views of the sea. Sadly, the gravesite of Al-Hasan ibn Ali, is now paved over by a nearby parking lot. An ancient well outside of the mosque is still in use.
The Masjid Sidna Ali is located on the outskirts of the modern town of Herzliya, a suburb of Tel Aviv about ten miles to the south. The mosque is an open site. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.oldjaffa.co.il (official tourism website of Jaffa)
Virtually nothing is left of the old Muslim town of Al-Hasan besides the mosque. However, there are still a few remnanst of the old community in Jaffa, a few miles to the south. Jaffa’s most popular Muslim site is the Masjid Hassan Bek, a late Ottoman-era mosque which was spared destruction during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.