Constantia’s revered circle of shrines
In the leafy suburb of Constantia and nearby areas, Richard Holmes discovers a little-known corner of the Cape’s history
The green dome stands stark against the bare boughs of the oak trees. In the stream below, water gushes along, and the pastures of the far bank are lush with winter grass. The place is surrounded by some of the most expensive real estate Cape Town has to offer, and is bordered by the clipped vineyards of Klein Constantia — perhaps an unlikely location for the grave of Sheikh Abdurahman Matebe Shah. It’s also a very long way from his homeland of West Sumatra.
Shah’s resting place reflects just one piece of the story of how Islam came to our shores. And, unsurprisingly for SA, it’s a story that starts with forced removals.
The resting place of Shah is one of 24 kramats — "tombs of saints" — that surround Cape Town.
While some are merely simple graves of piled stone, identifiable only by their covering of a colourful chaadar cloth, others are elaborate structures occupying commanding positions. Also known as mazaars, these are the burial sites of spiritual leaders exiled to the Cape in the early days of the Dutch colony. Today, they are revered as some of the city’s holiest Islamic sites, with a handful under consideration for listing as national monuments.
Unlike the shiploads of slaves that would later make their way to the fledgling colony, these were men of influence in Malaysia and Indonesia in the late 1600s and 1700s. They were vocal opponents of colonialism, and to shut them up the Dutch authorities shipped them out to the Cape, where they were banished to the farthest outposts of the colony.
"These were the first political exiles to arrive on our shores," explains Mogamat Kamedien. A civil servant during the week, he is, after hours, the historian for the Cape Mazaar Society, which is tasked with maintaining and conserving the kramats. "Within 15 years of the founding of the colony it wasn’t used only for agriculture, but also for banishment. That already set the scene for the SA struggle."
We’re sitting on a bench in the bright winter sunshine at Islam Hill, also in Constantia. Behind us is another kramat, perhaps the most impressive of those found in and around the Cape Peninsula. Through a small arched entranceway impressive water features frame the path up a short hill to the glass-walled kramat. Pomegranate trees line the border of the 0.5ha property, and the Constantiaberg mountain towers beyond.
This is the tomb of Sayed Mahmud, a spiritual leader from the Malaccan empire and one of the first to be exiled to the Cape. On the walls of his kramat — rebuilt in 1927, but recently expanded and modernised —are four stone tablets carved in English and Dutch. One tablet sums up the sorry tale:
"On 24 January 1667, the ship the Polsbroek left Batavia and arrived here on 13 May 1668 with three political prisoners in chains. [They were] Malays of the West Coast of Sumatra who were banished to the Cape … They were rulers [orang cayen], men of wealth and influence. Two were sent to the Company’s Forest, and one to Robben Island."
While Shah and Mahmud lived out their days in the "Company’s Forest" of modern-day Constantia, Sayed Abduraghman Motura was sent to windswept Robben Island, the first in a long line of political prisoners to be banished to the cold sweep of Table Bay.
Today his kramat lies just beyond the walls of the prison made famous, 300 years later, by Nelson Mandela.
While these were the earliest orang cayen banished to the Cape, the most influential would only arrive a quarter of a century later.
Sheikh Yusuf was born into a noble family in Makassar, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, in 1626. In 1683 he led a rebellion against the Dutch, was captured, and held in the castle at Batavia, modern-day Jakarta.
Fearing a rescue attempt, the Dutch booked him a one-way ticket on the ship Voetboeg, and he arrived at the Cape in early 1694. Together with the 49 followers and family members banished with him, he settled on the sandy shores of False Bay, near the mouth of the Eersterivier. Windswept, remote and dangerous it may have been, but it also marked the foundation of SA’s first Muslim community.
When Sheikh Yusuf died on May 23 1699 he was buried on a hill at nearby Faure, where his kramat stands today.
"He, his family & 49 followers were the first to read the Holy Koran in [SA]," a plaque on one wall reminds us, celebrating his pivotal role in bringing Islam to our shores.
Part of everyday life
Sheikh Yusuf’s is one of the most popular kramats in the Cape, visited by a regular stream of the faithful and the curious. Kramats are open to people of all genders and religions. They are rarely locked, and the larger kramats often have a caretaker on hand to show visitors around and answer any questions.
All that’s asked in return is for them to remove their shoes before entering the kramat, and to act respectfully and modestly. Loud talking or crude language is frowned upon. Traditionally visitors would leave the kramat walking backwards, to show respect to the grave of the auliya or "friend of Allah".
While the graves tell a remarkable chapter of SA history, they are equally a part of everyday life for the Cape’s Muslim community. Visit a kramat in the weeks leading up to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and you’ll find throngs of visitors paying their respects and offering prayers.
"These graves have become sacred, and they are places where the blessings of God are always descending," says Mahmood Limbada, chair of the Cape Mazaar Society. "But people don’t come here to pray to the dead; they come to pray here in the presence of the saints, to be granted their wishes."
While these three sites are among the best-known kramats, there are many more.
Tourists looking for a bird’s-eye view of the city from Signal Hill often drive straight past the kramat of Imam Abdullah Kadi Abdus Salaam, also known as Tuan Guru. Banished to the Cape in 1780, he spent 12 years on Robben Island before being released. He is famed for transcribing the Qur’an from memory, and the madrasah (Islamic school) he established on Dorp Street in the city centre would in 1794 become home to the first mosque in SA. Today, more than 220 years later, Auwal Mosque remains a cornerstone of the city’s Muslim community.
Other kramats take a little more effort to discover. On the Atlantic coast above Oudekraal you’ll find that of Sheikh Noorul Mubeen. He was banished to the Cape in 1716, and was for a time imprisoned on Robben Island. His serene kramat lies at the top of 99 stone steps leading up from Victoria Road.
In the quaint village of Simon’s town, home to a small but vibrant Muslim community, the kramats of Tuan Dea Koasa and Tuan Ismail Dea Malela gaze out over False Bay. Alongside a curious pyramid, the kramat of Sayed Abdul Kader lies outside the Overberg town of Caledon. On the eastern reaches of the Bain’s Kloof Pass above the winelands town of Wellington, the grave of a man known only as Sheikh Suleiman —all other details lost to time —lies amid the fynbos near the rushing waters of the Witte River.
Viewed on a map these 24 sites together form a rough ring around Cape Town.
"It’s always been part of the oral history of the Muslim community that this sacred circle of shrines provides protection for those communities who live within it," says Kamedien.
The Dutch authorities of the 17th and 18th centuries may have had little respect for these spiritual leaders, who lived out their days on our far-flung shores, but today the kramats are a cherished element for the large Muslim community of Cape Town.
And well worth discovering for locals and curious visitors alike.