Honouring Heritage

Lions Head and Signal Hill, with Robben Island in backgrond- Andrew Baxter

Did you know about the Cape’s Sacred Circle?
I feel so grateful to be living in the shadow of a beautiful little kramat or shrine situated along the rump of the road from Lion’s Head that crests Signal Hill, in which lie the bones of a revered holy man.
Because this shrine is an essential link in a holy chain of kramats dotted around the Cape Peninsula, which, by ancient tradition, protects the entire Peninsula from national disasters like famine, plague or earthquakes.

Is that a number of these shrines have just been proclaimed National Monuments
(10 out of 31).
This declaration is a tribute to the Muslim community’s contribution to the history and traditions of Cape Town where much of the social and cultural uniqueness that we see today is because of their  important role through the centuries.
Their shrines bear testimony to the impact they have had on multiple facets of what Capetonians now proudly see as their own Cape culture. 
And the legacy of the Saints of Islam has played a large role in creating present-day Cape Town.
They introduced Islam to Southern Africa, influenced the development of the Afrikaans language, had suburbs named after their place of origin, and created socio-religious boundaries.

In 1652 the Dutch East India Company (VOC) set up shop on the tip of Africa to ensure a regular supply of fresh food to ships making the arduous voyage out from Europe to the lucrative spice islands that they then monopolised around Indonesia / South Asia.
The Dutch soon found out that the locals here were reluctant to be turned into their workforce, so for the next 150 years they followed in the footsteps of what the Portuguese had pioneered – slavery, and brought 65,000 slaves to the Cape, many originating from the Indonesian islands of Java (then Batavia).

By 1700 there were more slaves were colonists. And many were Muslim.
Some were political dissidents. Exiled trouble-makers. Prisoners banished here because they had resisted the tyranny of Dutch occupation of their lands in the East. Deported to the remotest colony the Dutch VOC administrators in Amsterdam could think of: The Cape.
Others were religious leaders. But the Dutch weren’t big on religious inclusivity, so it was only under the English colonisers (from 1806 onwards) that worshipping in a Mosque was permitted.
Some were simply slaves. Others, sultans whose ancestors established the first Malaysian Empire. Irrespective, all arrived in chains.

From the get-go, Robben Island was used as a prison.
Now it is a museum – and reminder of the injustices and ill-treatment afforded prisoners over the centuries.
But the shrine on Robben Island, which ironically was constructed by the Apartheid prison authorities in the 1960s, is a symbol of the struggle for the establishment of Islam, and completes the circle that starts on Signal Hill.
This kramat is an expression of Islam’s power, having survived all kinds of restrictions, prejudices, imprisonment and oppression in the land called ‘The Fairest Cape in the Whole Circumference of the Earth’ by Sir Francis Drake in 1588 as he circumnavigated the globe.

Here’s to Honouring Circles!

Kramats of the Western Cape

Credits: Top picture – Andrew Baxter; Middle photo: The kramat of Mohamed Gasan Galbie Shah; Bottom map courstesy of Willem Steenkamp: Kramats of the Western Cape 

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