The Life and times of Masjid Jamek

A century ago, the only way to reach Kuala Lumpur was by sampan from Klang. The journey upstream would take upwards of three days, and those who survived through starvation and malaria were welcomed by the sight of Masjid Jamek, guarded by a fortress of swaying coconut trees.

A postcard of Masjid Jamek Mosque, labelled here as Malay Mosque. Photo courtesy of Mariana Isa

The city gets its name from the kuala of the long forgotten Lumpur River, which flowed into the mighty Klang River. The early settlers were the Mandailings, and later the Chinese, prospecting for tin. From a small settlement on the river bank of the confluence, mining enclaves were soon connected by road, giving birth to Kuala Lumpur. The city was then governed by the Chinese Capitans, and later the British. Up until the turn of the 20th century, the confluence remained the landing point for boats from Klang, people coming in, and tin ore going out.

The masjid was the jewel of Kuala Lumpur, admired by all who called it home. As the city prospered, the meddling hands of development entombed the grassy river banks in concrete, and piled the foundations of skyscrapers ever deeper into the earth. The sampan faded away, replaced by air planes, highways, and trains. For a few decades, one would think KL had forgotten about the masjid.

Today, the masjid is at the heart of Presint 7, one of 11 similarly named segments along a 10.7km stretch of the Gombak and Klang river corridor identified to be part of the River Masterplanning and Beautification works, under the River of Life(ROL) project. Spearheaded by the Department of Irrigation and Drainage (JPS), the project aims to clean the river and rejuvenate its surrounding areas for the well-being of the people.

Andre Kadarusman, Construction Director of the ROL project, sketches a vision of future KL. "Approximately 60% of work around the area is complete (November 2016), excluding the pedestrian bridge. Upon completion, pedestrians will be able to walk or cycle from PWTC to Mid Valley. Guiding lights will be installed at regular intervals, as well as information and a brief history of the area. Collapsible weirs will be installed along river to raise the water level to conceal the unsightly concrete berms. In heavy rains the weirs would be collapsed to ensure flooding does not occur."

More than just reworking the landscape and facilities around the area, another major component of the project is heritage conservation. The concrete embankment was stripped away, revealing the original grand-stair where the faithful drew water for ablution, immortalised in photographs, faded postcards and paintings.

"The most important principle is minimum intervention, maximum retention. The grand-stair was restored the best we can to maintain its authenticity.’’ explains Junn Ng, a heritage consultant for the ROL project. The stairs were restored with lime, the original material used to construct the mosque.

Perfectly symmetrical, the mosque was designed by A.B.Hubback, then the assistant architect of the Federated Malay States’ Public Works Department. Construction was completed in 1909 and officiated on the 23rd of December the same year by Sultan of Selangor Sultan Alauddin Sulaiman Shah. At the Persatuan Arkitek Malaysia (PAM) office, a small piece of history hangs on the wall, a watercolour painting of the masjid by Hubback himself. Washed in light pastel colours, the white stairs crowded with sampans, and men in sarong.

"In all early plans & early sketches of the mosque, the staircase is featured prominently” says Mariana Isa, committee member of International Council of Monuments and Sites Malaysia. "A concrete wall was constructed around the steps, around the same time the LRT was built, and all the steps, except a few at the top, was covered with earth and turned into a small raised garden plot."

Staircase aside, excavations had other surprises for the ROL contractors. More than 45 gravestones, mostly granite and a few marble as well as sandstone ones dating back almost 200 years were found buried near the construction site from December 2015 to March this year (The Star, 13th April 2016). The exact date of the first burial is unknown, but by 1870 the site was already a burial ground.

Between 1906 and 1907, Java Street (today Jalan Tun Perak) was widened and the mosque within nearby Kampung Rawa had to be relocated. Parts of the cemetery were shifted to a new plot on Jalan Ampang and plans for a new mosque were set in motion. The gears of redevelopment and change never stopped moving.

Gazing at it from the adjacent bank, it's easy to drift back into Hubback's century, imagining Muslims chatting while they prepare for prayers, the confluence shimmering in warm, evening light. Kuala Lumpur is, and will always be, a perpetual work-in-progress; A palimpsest of history, identity, and ambition. And the masjid will always be there, as witness, a tribute to those who dared to dream of boarding the first sampans, to building our tallest skyscrapers.