Procrastination is the thief of time and I have idly spent the last few hours disappearing down different rabbit holes following odd facts and bits of useless information. I'm sure many of you will have spent hours looking for one thing, only to be led way off track and find another. On this occasion, all was not in vain, because I have come to learn about a remarkable Turkish man whose sense of duty to God and Al-Aqsa needs to be shared with everyone.
I have often said that the only reason that the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa Mosque is still standing is because of the heroic resistance of the Palestinian people who've given their lives to protect Islam's third holiest site from the Israeli occupation forces.
However, there is at least one other person who should be singled out for helping in this noble cause. Corporal Hasan Al-Aghdarli devoted more than six decades of his life guarding Al-Aqsa and protecting it from those who would do it harm. I came across his inspirational story in a news item on TRT World which I think deserves a much wider audience.
Corporal Hasan was the last soldier from the Ottoman Empire deployed to guard Al-Aqsa Mosque until his dying days. The First World War veteran from Turkiye's Igdir province was part of the heavy machine gun team of the Ottoman Army that was deployed to guard Jerusalem. The last orders he received from his senior officer were obeyed to the letter, and he stood guard at Al-Aqsa Mosque for 65 years until his death in 1982.
We would never have known about his remarkable service had it not been for the curiosity of the late Turkish journalist Ilhan Bardakci, who accompanied Turkish officials and businessmen on a courtesy visit to the sanctuary in 1972. "I felt thrilled while climbing to the upstairs of the sacred mosque. They call the upstairs courtyard '12,000 chandelier courtyard' where Yavuz Sultan Selim lit 12,000 candles in chandeliers. The magnificent Ottoman Army performed isha prayer by candlelight, the name refers to it," wrote Bardakci at the time of his historic visit to Al Aqsa.
When he saw a very old man in the mosque courtyard, the journalist went over and exchanged Islamic greetings with him. He asked who he was and was astonished by the reply.
"I am Corporal Hasan from the 20th Corp, 36th Battalion, 8th Squadron heavy machine gun team," said the then 90-year-old soldier. Speaking like a true serviceman giving a debrief about his mission, the old man with a long, white beard continued: "Our troops raided the British on the Suez Canal front in the Great War. Our glorious army was defeated at the Canal. To withdraw was requisite now. The heirloom lands of our ancestors were about to be lost one by one. And then, the Brits pressed upon the gates of Al-Quds [Jerusalem], and occupied the city. We were left as rearguard troops at Al-Quds."
There were 53 soldiers in the rearguard who were told that they would be discharged from duty once the Mondros Armistice was signed. "Our lieutenant was leading us. He said, 'My lions, our country is in an arduous situation. They are discharging our glorious army and calling me to Istanbul. I have to go, if I don't I'd be in defiance of authority, failing to obey the order. Anyone can return to the homeland if he wills, but if you follow my words, I have a request from you: Quds is an heirloom of Sultan Selim Han. Remain on guard duty here. Don't let the people worry that the Ottomans have left; what we are going to do now. The Westerners will exult if Ottomans left the first qibla of our beloved Prophet. Don't let the honour of Islam and the glory of Ottomans be trampled on.'"
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So, Hasan and his comrades duly stayed in Al-Quds. "And, almost suddenly, the long years vanished. My brothers from the troop passed away one by one. We weren't mowed down by the enemy, but by the years. Only I am left here. Just me, Corporal Hasan in grand Al-Quds."
Reading this sent a shiver down my spine. The stories of these heroes of our Ummah are sadly not often written down. They pass into legend by word of mouth.
And what a legend. When you compare these totally selfless, God-fearing soldiers to the rabble deployed by the so-called Israel Defence Forces and Border Police, you just know that there's a huge difference in terms of their sense of duty. These honourable men would never have gone charging into a mosque or any other place of worship and beaten unarmed worshippers with batons, as uniformed Israeli thugs did in a display so savage that the international community felt compelled to protest.
When Bardakci returned home he tried to track down Corporal Hasan's commander, Lieutenant Mustafa Efendi, to let him know that his soldiers followed his orders and one was still on duty at Al-Aqsa Mosque. However, the once young Ottoman officer had passed away years earlier.
Ten years after meeting Corporal Hasan, Bardakci received a telegram in 1982 that read simply: "The last Ottoman guardian at Al-Aqsa Mosque passed away today."
Corporal Hasan had finally left his post, but he must never be forgotten. He is a symbol of the courage and sense of duty that we should all hold for Al-Aqsa Mosque; a duty that is needed today more than ever before, because Al-Aqsa has become a trigger for violence by the latest occupiers of Palestine which has sparked even more violence across the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Jerusalem.
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I fear that the tension will not dissipate any time soon, not least because 2,000 Jewish leaders and representatives from around the world are heading for the region to hold an Extraordinary Zionist Congress marking the 75th anniversary of what Palestinians call the Nakba — the creation of the State of Israel and ethnic cleansing of the people of Palestine — as well as the 125th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress held in Basel.
After the end of the First World War, Corporal Hasan thought that he just had to defend the Noble Sanctuary of Al Aqsa from the invading British Army. He could never have imagined that the day would come when undisciplined Israeli thugs would bring such disrespect, death and destruction to this tiny patch of ground, the value of which Corporal Hasan Al-Aghdarli placed above his own freedom. Turkiye should be proud of the Ottoman soldier and his colleagues; Palestine should hold them in high esteem; and the rest of the Muslim world should emulate them in our devotion to Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.