The mosque was built in 1736 by the Ottoman governor Rizvan, for whom the mosque is named. Restored in 1993, the mosque is built to showcase the Lake of Abraham. In the front is the large and quite ornate men’s mosque, and immediately opposite in the courtyard is the much smaller women’s mosque.
The rooms lining the courtyard would have been classrooms and dormitories in the former madrasa. The wooden door of the mosque is the original door, and it is an excellent example of an intricate Ottoman woodworking technique called kundekari. In this art form, octagonal, stellate and lozenge-shaped panels carved with arabesque decoration are joined without pins or glue in grooved frames. This is an immensely intricate and time-consuming craft, which was gradually replaced by the cheaper technique of false kundekari (in which glue or pins are used to hold the wood pieces together). True kundekari is more resilient and less likely to warp and split because the pieces are individual and can make microadjustments, expanding and contracting, without losing their integrity.
This site has an impressive Christian past, built on grounds of what used to be the Church of St. Thomas (also known as ‘doubting Thomas’). This was, in terms of ritual and pilgrimage, the most important site in Christian Edessa with a church in this site as early as 52 AD. It was twice destroyed by floods and rebuilt. In 393, the church became associated with the disciple Thomas, an important figure in spreading Christianity in the East, away from the Roman Empire toward India and the Parthian territories. From Edessa, Thomas traveled to India, where he founded a community of believers in Kerala. He was martyred there, and his remains were brought back to Urfa and interred here in this church, which became Thomas’s martyry. The saint’s relics were said to work healing miracles, and for this reason the church became an important site of pilgrimage (as is widely attested in Syriac literature).
After the Muslim conquest of Urfa in 636, the Church of Thomas was dismantled, with no discernible remnants of the church in the present mosque (unlike the Halil-ul Rahman mosque, which possibly converted the bell tower to a minaret). Shortly after the Muslim conquest, it’s written that the church was being used as a stable. This can be a little misleading, implying that the Christians of Edessa were uniformly mistreated by their Muslim rulers. In fact, the fate of Edessa’s Christians and places of worship was really subject to the whim of whoever happened to be in charge of the region at the time, which changed frequently. So, depending on the particular Muslim ruler, he could be very tolerant or totally unscrupulous. In any case, the Christian community in Edessa survived for centuries under Muslim rule, until the very late Ottoman Empire and the beginnings of the modern nation state.
Despite the importance of Urfa/Edessa to Christianity, the city’s Christians did not share the tradition that associated the city with Abraham’s birth, the mentioning of which is nowhere to be found in the ample Christian documentation on Urfa and its surroundings.