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It was visited by medieval travelers, and noted by nineteenth-century explorers like the Survey of Western Palestine and Victor Guérin, who described the “ruins of a small mosque.” But despite the implications of this description, the building continued functioning within the religious and cultural life of the region.Tawfiq Canaan, in his classic study Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine (1927), described a large maqam (shrine) with a column fragment marking the spot of the burial of the head, and still the site of an important mawsim or annual festival.Sharing a story from my own experience may help, I think, to illuminate issues of cultural heritage, to bring the past into the present, to deal with the “ancient Near East today.” It involves the Mashhad al-Nabi Hussein (or Mashhad Sayyidina Hussein), “the Shrine of the prophet (or our lord) Hussein”.Hussein ibn Ali was the grandson of Muhammad and an important figure in Sunni and especially Shi‘a Islam: he was the second Shi‘a imam, or communal leader (after his father Ali).Yeivin objected to Dayan’s blowing up the building given its historic nature (it was covered by antiquities law, which protected any building constructed before 1700 CE), and noted that it was only one of a series of such buildings Dayan destroyed at the time.These also included mosques at the villages of Yibna (Yavneh) and Isdud (site of ancient Ashdod).
A mere five years later came the establishment of Israel, war, and the flight and removal of the local population.
The new building was remarked on by several medieval travelers to Ashkelon in their accounts, and reputed to be the most beautiful building in the city. In 1153, with Palestine in turmoil from the Crusades, the Fatimid dynasty of Cairo – then rulers of Ashkelon – was afraid that the head would fall into Crusader hands.
To prevent this, they transferred it to Cairo, where they built another mosque to house it.
(This is the main event behind the important Muslim holiday of Ashura.) Hussein and his followers were decapitated, and their heads were brought to the Umayyad caliph Yazid in Damascus.
What happened to Hussein’s head afterwards, however, is debated.