The Mosque of Geza Kasim Pasha seems to have it all, a central location in Pecs’ Szechenyi ter at one of the highest points in the Belvaros (inner city), an original structure that is largely intact with a fascinating history of conflict and conservation. One thing it does not have is a minaret. Two and a half centuries ago it was pulled down. I would never have noticed this omission if not for a second visit to Pecs. After arriving at the train station on a cold and rainy spring day I had to walk through an intermittent downpour to my accommodation southwest of the city center. There are few things worse than dragging a suitcase through puddles while being pelted by raindrops. I clung to the sidewalk along Rakoczi utca while passing by shops, banks, small scale residences and apartments. Quickening my pace I lamented the weather, my baggage and a strange adherence to an odd personal superstition that does not allow me to use umbrellas.
I kept my head down for long stretches, as if not looking up would somehow keep me dry. This trek would have been an altogether miserable one if not for a startling sight that caused me to pause. On the south side of the street, sandwiched between an ochre colored building that housed a medical clinic and a cream colored four story structure, was a mosque. A minaret pierced the sky just behind it. It is hard to imagine a stranger setting for a mosque. Centuries of development had remade Rakoczi utca time and again, but the Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque was still standing. The mosque looked to be smaller than its counterpart in Szechenyi ter, but it did have the characteristic minaret from where in the 16th and 17th centuries a muezzin sounded the call to prayer five times each day. I made a mental note to visit the mosque before I left Pecs.
“Caravans of camels laden with the merchandise” – Ottoman Pecs
It is rare that a person comes into contact with another world, but seeing the Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque made the distant past suddenly seem close at hand. The building transcended space and time, acting as a portal to Ottoman Hungary. It made me wonder just what Pecs was like during the Turkish occupation. The remains of that time lie scattered in and around the city center offering a few disparate clues, two mosques and a Muslim burial chapel hinted at the role of Islam in Ottoman society. Not long after the Bishop of Pecs handed over the keys to the city in 1543, Ottoman administrators ordered that most of the Christian churches be converted into mosques. The two still standing in present-day Pecs were subsequently converted back to churches soon after the Habsburg conquest. The idea was to eradicate the physical, spiritual and cultural symbols of Ottoman rule. This had been done to the point where a curious visitor has no other recourse but to rely on historical information to gain any idea of what the Ottoman period in Pecs that lasted from 1543-1686 had actually been like.
Prior to the mid-16th century Pecs had been a town organized by its streets. The Ottoman system was fundamentally different, arranging towns around neighborhoods. The Muslim administrators, soldiers and settlers took over the center as well as the area within the city walls. Very few Muslims lived outside the walls. The exceptions were those who lived near the gates that led to roads out of the city towards Buda, Szigetvar and other important cities. The Christian population was pushed into the suburbs. Each of their neighborhoods was centered on a specific congregation with a church in the center. Christians were still free to practice their religion. The Ottomans brought in their own emigrants from the northern Balkans. These settlers transformed the streets, roofing them over and selling goods from stalls.
The inner part of the city center underwent radical change. What is today the heart of Pecs, Szechenyi ter, had been a marketplace prior to Ottoman rule. It was now turned into a bazaar. One historical account described a scene with “caravans of camels laden with the merchandise from India and the Yemen.” The orient had arrived in Hungary. The Muslim emigrants were usually much poorer than the Christian inhabitants. They lived in ramshackle structures of haphazard construction and made their living trading an assortment of goods. The ephemeral quality of their humble homes and market stalls is one of the main reasons why Pecs and the rest of Hungary have so few remnants of the Ottoman presence.
From Conversion To Transformation – Bringing In The Balkans
The most radical transformation of Pecs was in the religious sphere. The centrality of Islam was on full display in the city. Charitable foundations supported educational institutions. There were five madrasah (Islamic religious schools) and at least twice as many mektebs (elementary schools). Pecs was the major Muslim educational center in southern Hungary. Mosques matched schools in both number and importance. In 1663 the Ottoman traveler and scribe Evliya Celebi visited Pecs. His work lists seven large mosques and ten small ones. Several of these had been converted from existing Christian churches. The city’s cathedral was converted to a mosque named after Sultan Suleiman who had led the conquest. Another one, the mosque of Memi Pasha, was built on the site of a medieval Franciscan monastery. The former monastery provided the scaffolding around which the mosque was built.
Both of these would eventually disappear, but the Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque which I discovered on that rainy day managed to survive. Its namesake was the great-grandson of Memi Pasha who had established both a mosque and Turkish bath in Pecs. Hassan ordered his mosque built right next to that of his illustrious ancestor. Visiting the mosque brought me as close physically as one can now get to the era of Ottoman Hungary. The exterior of the building is rather simple in design, square shaped, lacking decoration, with two stone bordered windows close to ground level and a round arched window further up. Atop the structure sits a round dome. From the street side this dome hides much of the minaret on the mosque’s southwestern corner. The exit door onto the minaret’s balcony faces mecca.
The Essence Of An Era – A Deeply Spirtual Place
Inside I saw what was left of the original interior that had escaped the mosque’s conversion to a Christian chapel. It had been restored back to an approximation of its former glory in the 1960’s. There were painted verses from the Koran, floral decoration and three stalactite arches. It was a deeply spiritual place that seemed far removed from the busy street just outside its walls. I felt a pervasive stillness, a quiet reverence. This was a space that transcended the present, transporting me to an eternal past, the essence of an age that in this space could live on forever. The past was no longer just a part of history, it was also alive. I could feel it within these walls. I could feel it within me.