It was years ago, the year of 1972. I was a young journalist than. Some politicians and businessmen from Turkey were in Israel for courtesy visits. We were there to observe developments. The down of a hot May... You see, it was an ordinary job as in every formal visit.
On the fourth day of the visit, they led us around in historical and touristic places and we arrived at Al-Aqsa Mosque in the cortege. I felt thrilled while climbing to the upstairs of the sacred Mosque. They call the upstairs courtyard ‘twelve thousand chandelier courtyard’ in where Yavus Sultan Selim lit twelve thousand candles in chandeliers. The magnificent Ottoman Army performed isha prayer by candle lights, the name refers to it.
Someone in the courtyard has drawn my attention. A man in late 90’s.
The uniform on him was even older, it was all patched, and evenly the patches were sewed again. As if, they were there act as a witness of the time just like the rings of centenarian trees. The man was standing; he could have stand erect if there weren’t the hump that looks like it is gummed on his back. He was old but solemn as well, with almost two meters height. I was baffled.
I passed through ‘why is he standing under the sun’ wonderingly. Asked to our travel guide, and he said ‘ever since I could remember he comes here. Waits until sunset. He doesn’t speak or listens to anyone. He just waits, he’s some lunatic I suppose.’ I was old enough to know no one would glower at a courtyard without a good reason. What I couldn’t get, was the shimmer at white beard of his because of the breeze or the heavy burden of the years. He was erecting like a dove, about to flush away with an old calpac on his head.
I was irresolute about talking or not. He realized that I was getting closer but he didn’t budge. I said in Turkish “Selamun Aleykum baba (father)”. He moved his head slightly to me, hesitantly replied ‘aleykumselam ogul (son)’ with a wobbling rusty voice. I asked ‘what on earth are you doing here, who are you?’ Replied with wobbling voice again, “I…I am Corporal Hasan from the 20th corp, 36th Battalion, 8th Squadron heavy machine gun team. His voice wasn’t wobbling anymore. Continued as if he’s giving an oral report: “I am Corporal Hasan from Igdir region of Anatolia. Our troop raided to British on Suez Canal front in the Great War. Our glorious army defeated at the Canal. To withdraw was requisite now. The heirloom lands of our ancestors were about to lost one by one. And then, the Brits pressed upon the gates of Quds, occupied the city. We were left as rearguard troops at Quds.”
Ottoman Army left a rearguard troop to prevent the sacred city from possible pillages until British troops enter. Erstwhile, when a state takes over a city, the defeated soldiers to maintain the order and safety in those lands weren’t treated as war captives. British wanted a small Ottoman troop to stay in the city to avoid from the public reaction when they invaded Quds after all.
He continued: “My rearguard troop consisted of fifty-three privates. We got the news that after truce (Mondros Armistice) the army was discharged. Our lieutenant was leading, 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 defiance the authority, fail 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 the guard duty here. Don’t let the people worry about ‘Ottomans have left; what we are going to do now”. The westerns will exult if Ottomans left the first qiblah (direction to face while praying) of our beloved prophet. Don’t let the honor of the Islam and glory of Ottoman trampled on.”
“Our troop stayed in 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 the years. Only I have left here. Just me, a corporal Hasan in the grand Quds” he continued.
The sweat from his forehead mingled with her tears and found a way to flow in his deeply wrinkled face. He kept speaking: “I have to give you a trust son, something that I have been hiding for years. Would you hand it to where it supposed to be?” “Of course,” I said. He was like awaiting someone to send news to Turkey.
“When you arrive in Anatolia, if you happened to pass Tokat Sanjak, please stop by to Lieutenant Mustafa, the commander who deployed me to guard Al-Aqsa Mosque and trusted these sacred places to me. Kiss his hands for me and tell him: “Corporal Hasan from Igdir Province of the 11th Machine gun team still remains at Quds as you deployed him to... He didn’t abandon his duty and wishes your blessings, commander”.
I said “Okay”, while trying to note what he said and hide my tears.
I grabbed his callused hands, kissing over and over… “Farewell father,” I said. He replied “thank you, son. It is impossible for us to see those lands before death arrives. Give my best regards to everyone.” I went back to the crew, felt like all the history revived from books and erected in front of us. I told the situation to the tour guide and he couldn’t believe. I gave him my address and asked: “please inform me if anything happens”.
When I return to Turkey, went to Tokat region to keep my words. I traced down Lieutenant Mustafa Efendi from Military records. He was passed away many years ago. I wasn’t able to abide by the promise I gave. And years passed, one thing led to another… On 1982, they told me I had a telegraph at the agency I work. There was a single line written: “last Ottoman guardian to wait Al-Aqsa Mosque has passed away today”.
Journalist İlhan Bardakci told the story of Corporal Hasan of Igdir who he encountered in Quds. This last Ottoman troop had pursued to stay in Quds until the bitter end without known.
After a century IHH named the mosque they built in Al-Aqsa Mosque after Ottoman soldier, Corporal Hasan. In the days when Israel was trying to band adhan in Quds, the first adhan sound was heard from minarets of “Onbasi Hasan Mosque” (Corporal Hasan), Gaza.