Bibi-Heybat Mosque

The Bibi-Heybat Mosque was built to honor the sister of the 7th Shiite Imam, Ali, and secondly, when the mosque was destroyed during Stalin’s rule, legends arose about a woman wrapped in white disappearing down into the sea who would return when times got better. The legends that have grown up around the Bibi-Heybat Mosque are examples of how such narratives in the minds of the community can influence reality later on.

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Bibi-Heybat Mosque is unusual in that it is the only religious building that Stalin destroyed, to date, which has been reconstructed. The origins of this mosque go back to 7th century Baghdad. During the reign of Caliph Garun-ar Rashid, a dispute occurred between the caliph and the eighth Imam, Ali ibn Musa. As a result, the Imam’s family and friends were persecuted and fled Baghdad in fear of their lives. The Imam went to the province of Khorasan (Iran) and settled in a small village. After he died, he was buried there as a martyr for the faith. His tomb became a pilgrimage site for Shiite Muslims. Soon the city of Mashad grew up around it which today has become one of the major religious centers for Shi’ites, after Mecca (Saudi Arabia) and Karbala (Iraq).

Allegedly, the Imam’s sister, Okuma Khanim (Mrs. Okuma), fled to Baku and, in order not to attract attention, settled along the shore of the Caspian Sea. There she led the life of a holy woman. After her death, the people erected a small crypt over her grave. Years passed, and rumors about the grave of a holy woman from Mohammad’s family spread throughout the East. The site was declared a “pir,” or holy place.

Legend has it that the thick walls of the Bibi-Heybat Mosque were not easy to destroy. The minaret also caused a lot of trouble. In order to blow it up, they had to dynamite it twice. At least, that’s what they say.

Another strange phenomenon is associated with the mosque. Two nights after it was demolished, the people of the village had trouble sleeping, outraged that their holy place had been desecrated. When dawn broke, hearing shouts and a loud crash, they ran to the mosque. A Red Army soldier, who was supposed to be guarding the remnants of the mosque, stood there with eyes wide open in horror, pointing to the sea and shouting something unintelligible. Where he pointed, the people could see a woman wrapped in a white veil walking down to the sea. The vision of the woman disappeared into the red rays of the rising sun and the glistening water. At least, that’s how the legend goes. An old man whispered: “She is sure to come back! She’ll return in better times.”

The soldier went on to describe how he had been awakened by the sound of stones crashing down on one another. It was as if someone were moving them. Then he had seen the tiny thin form of a woman dressed in white rising from the rubble. When she passed by him, he could detect the smell of fresh roses. (In Azerbaijan, it is customary to wash the hands and face of the deceased with gulab or rosewater.)

Yet another legend says that the soldiers who were involved in Bibi-Heybat’s destruction died in freak accidents. One of them allegedly drowned, another died when a boulder fell on his head, a third one was electrocuted.

The Architectural Digest has listed Azerbaijan’s Bibi-Heybat mosque among the most beautiful mosques in the world.

The magazine has drafted a rating based on the ‘Mosques: Splendors of Islam ‘ book by Azerbaijani interior designer Leyla Uluhanli. The book explores places of both historic and contemporary places of worship from the Great Mosque of Córdoba in Spain to the minimalist Sancaklar Mosque in Istanbul.

Source: Azerbaijan İnternational magazine

Bibi-Heybat Mosque
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