Tucked between the famed Herod’s Gate and Al-Aqsa Mosque, there is a little corner in the old quarters of Jerusalem that has been indelibly tied to India for more than 800 years.
This is the Indian Hospice or Zawiya al-Hindiya, set up at the site where Sufi saint Khwaja Fariduddin Ganjshakar, popularly known as Baba Farid, reportedly prayed and meditated when he visited Jerusalem in the 13th century.
The narrow cobbled alleys behind Herod’s Gate are full of hustle and bustle, lined with shops selling fruits, groceries and mobile phones while a group of old men play cards at a tea house. Armed Israeli soldiers are deployed all over but step though the green gates of the hospice and you enter an oasis of calm.
For more than 90 years, the hospice has been cared for by members of the Ansari family, which traces its roots to Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh. Though members of the family have married local Palestinians, all of them continue to hold Indian passports and the small mosque within the hospice is adorned with an Indian flag.
“This is a guesthouse for Indian pilgrims of all faiths. For centuries, it has been a resting place for Indians who came to Jerusalem to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” says Nazeer Ansari, the son of Muhammad Munir Ansari, the current custodian of the hospice.
“Baba Farid came here from India and he stayed in this very place for 40 days, meditating and being near the Al-Aqsa Mosque. This was the beginning of the Indian Hospice, and since then, Indians would come through the years and they stayed near where Baba Farid stayed,” he tells Hindustan Times.
Over the centuries, some Indian pilgrims even bought land in the area and donated it to the hospice when they left. This allowed the hospice to grow to the 7,000 square metres it now covers.
Watch | Nazeer Ansari talks about the history of the Indian Hospice in Jerusalem
The Indian hospice has seen many ups and downs. After the end of World War I and the end of the Ottoman Empire, which was a major source of donations for shrines and religious institutions in Jerusalem, the hospice fell into decline.
It was at that time that Jerusalem’s Supreme Muslim Council, then headed by Arab nationalist Mohammed Amin Al-Husseini, turned to the Khilafat Movement of British India to nominate someone to care for the hospice.
In 1924, Nazeer Ansari’s grandfather, Sheikh Nazir Hasan Ansari – who was part of the Khilafat Movement – was chosen to go to Jerusalem to take charge of the hospice. He later persuaded the rulers of several Muslim states of British India, including Hyderabad, to make contributions for refurbishing and operating the hospice.
Many Indians made their way to Jerusalem in the 1930s and 1940s to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. And many of them stayed in the hospice. But the flow of pilgrims dwindled with the outbreak of World War II and the creation of the new state of Israel.
For many years, the hospice became the camp for the Indian 4th Infantry Division of the British Army. During the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the hospice was damaged by shelling and later served as a refuge for homeless Palestinians.
In 1952, Muhammad Munir Ansari – the son of Nazir Hasan Ansari and his Palestinian wife Musarra – took over as the custodian. Just 15 years later, the hospice was again damaged during the Six Day War. Munir Ansari’s mother and sister were among three people killed when Israeli shells hit the shrine.
Despite extensive damage, Munir Ansari rebuilt the hospice and made sure it was open to the few Indian pilgrims who still travel to Jerusalem.
“Once there were many other hospices like this one in Jerusalem. But this is a troubled place and it is difficult to maintain and protect such places. One by one, all the others closed down,” says Nazeer Ansari.
“This is the only hospice that is still functioning and intact. We have six rooms that can still accommodate at least 15 people.”