The Bo-Kaap Museum has opened a new chapter with an exhibition that retells the story of the early history of the building in which it is housed, thanks to University of Cape Town (UCT) historian Dr Halim Gençoĝlu.
The Turkish scholar's research reveals that the 'real story' of the Bo-Kaap Museum at 71 Wale Street involves a case of mistaken identity.
Gencoĝlu, a PhD scholar in Hebrew Studies, says the original property belonged to Ottoman Muslim scholar Mahmud Effendi and not Abu Bakr Effendi, to whom ownership is ascribed in the museum's own history and other archival material.
The museum, at 71 Wale Street, is a Cape Town cultural landmark and is housed in the oldest building in the Bo-Kaap.
The original property belonged to Ottoman Muslim scholar Mahmud Fakih Emin Effendi. He lived in the house until his death in 1914. When his son Muhammed Dervish Effendi’s widow, Mariam, and her family were evicted from their home by the apartheid government in the late 1970s, all evidence of their lives there was erased.
In 1978 the house was transformed into the Bo-Kaap Museum, a satellite of the South African Cultural History Museum.
But for years the museum displays indicated that the house had belonged to another Effendi: Abu Bakr Effendi, the first Ottoman scholar dispatched by the Ottoman Caliphate in Istanbul to the Cape, in 1862. The ownership was wrongly ascribed in both the museumʼs own history and other archival material.
Fourteen years after Abu Bakr died, the Ottoman Caliphate appointed a Shafi'i scholar of Ottoman descent to the Cape, where most Muslims followed the Shafi'i madhhab sect. He was Mahmud Fakih Emin Effendi of 71 Wale Street.
The ownership misunderstanding was caused in part by misleading newspaper articles promoting the museum as the home of Abu Bakr, as well as by the display of certain objects connected with him.
While Abu Bakr Effendi and Mahmud Effendi shared a surname and even a neighbourhood (Abu Bakr Effendi owned another property at the corner of Wale and Bree streets, which was an Islamic school until 1899), they were not related.
“The title 'Effendi' was a former Turkish title of respect given to a man of high education or social standing, so both these Ottoman Ulama at the Cape became known as 'Effendi'.”
Gençoĝlu earlier undertook two years of painstaking research into the matter in the Turkish and Cape archives. He then published an article “The forgotten Effendi ... and real story of the Bo-Kaap Museum” published in New Contree, the history journal of North-West University, which led to Iziko Museums expressing an interest in redesigning the Bo-Kaap Museum.
A front room in the house has been devoted to the exhibition. Gençoĝlu convinced the descendants of Mahmud Fakih Effendi and Muhammed Dervish Effendi to donate vintage documents and items that had once belonged to the house at 71 Wale Street, on loan.
These tell their story – before and after they were forcibly removed from the house – and include old photographs, artefacts and old Arabic books from the family and the Ottoman archives.
The exhibition was curated by the Effendi family, assisted by Nathri Effendi, in collaboration with Iziko Museums.
“We are pleased to share the overlooked narrative of the house and family that lived here. We remember and honour the lives of these two Ottoman scholars, Mahmud Fakih Emin Effendi and his son Muhammad Dervish Effendi, and their family,” Gençoĝlu said.
“Thus we do not only clarify a misconception about the property, but also give credit to an Ottoman scholar who served Cape Muslims his entire life, and died in Cape Town. He was one of the few scholars to write in Arabic-Afrikaans language.”