KARACHIWALA , A Subcontinent within a City – Part II

By Shahran Asim

Just recently , I had chance to review some interesting excerpts from a book titled “Karachiwala, A subcontinent within a City”.

Written by Rumana Hussain. Rumana, is well known art critic, who grew up in Karachi during the days when there was more tolerance and interaction among various communities. In writing this book she conducted 60+ interviews with the families of various communities.

See: KARACHIWALA , A Subcontinent within a City – Part I


Buildings in Karachi designed by Moses Somake

Moses Somake was perhaps the first known architect of Karachi, who designed many buildings in the city. His family was from Spain but had lived in Iraq for some time.

Moses always placed his signature in a secluded spot on all of his buildings.

The following buildings were designed by him in Karachi:

Flagstaff House

The Flagstaff House on former Bonus Road, now Fatima Jinnah Road, was built in the 1890’s. It was initially owned by the Parsi magnates Mr Sorab Kavasji and Dina Katrak. In March 1944, it was bought by Mohammad Ali Jinnah. After the Partition of the subcontinent, Jinnah became Pakistan’s first Governor General, and the house was furnished with his belongings which he brought over from his Delhi and Bombay residences. The Flagstaff House remained neglected until 1985, when it was acquired by the Government of Pakistan under representation by the Heritage Foundation. It was declared a national monument as the Quaid-e-Azam House Museum. It displays relics and furniture belonging to Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

Bai Virbaiji Soparivala Parsi High School (BVS)

The school began as the Karachi Parsi Balakshala in Mr Paymaster’s Bungalow in 1859. In 1904, construction of the present building started and, in 1906, BVS shifted from the Soparivala House where it was located, to the new building on Victoria Road (now Abdullah Haroon Road).

North Western Hotel

The North Western Hotel was designed as one of four railway hotels of the city. The others were the Bristol, Carlton, and Killarney Hotels, all built close to the railway line to provide accommodation to visitors arriving in Karachi by train. The Bristol Hotel was the first three-storey building built in the prestigious Civil Lines Quarter. The North Western and Carlton no longer exist, while the Killarney Hotel was converted to house the Russian Consulate. It has now been restored and is being used by the Bay View School.

The Edward House

The Edward House, built 1910, is located on Abdullah Haroon Road. This building used to house the famous Cafe Grand, operated by Herbert ‘Bertie’ Cumper, then known to be one of the best bakers and confectioners in the city.

Edward House was named after the Somake’s son Ellis, who later became a well known architect in England.

The Karachi Goan Association Hall 

The Karachi Goan Association Hall is located near the Karachi Grammar School in Saddar. The building was designed in stone masonry. The Goan-Portuguese Hall has a pedimented centre and semi-circular window openings as well as striking pilasters that highlight its English Renaissance style. The building was renovated from the inside in 2006.

Mules Mansion  

This is an imposing building, built of rugged stone masonry. Built in 1917, it is known as Mules Mansion after Charles Mules, the first full-time Chairman of the Karachi Port Trust. This particular building, situated in Keamari, is more ornate and vigorous in character than Somake’s earlier buildings. Mules Mansion served as the first Naval Headquarters of Pakistan.

The Jewish Community: No More in Karachi

According to estimates, there were about 2,500 Jews living in Karachi before 1947. Most of their ancestors had migrated to Karachi from Persia (Iran) in the nineteenth century, and lived here as tradesmen, artisans, poets, philosophers, and civil servants. The native language of this group of people, known as Bene Israel, was Judeo-Marathi.

See More: I Love Karachi

According to one account, the Magain Shalome Synagogue on Lawrence Road (now Nishter Road) in Karachi was built in 1893, by Shalome Solomon Umerdekar and his son Gershone Solomon. Other accounts suggest that it was built by Solomon David, a surveyor for the Karachi Municipality and his wife Sheeoolabai, although these may be different names for the same people. The synagogue soon became the centre of activity for the small Jewish community. Abraham Reuben, who became a city councillor in 1936, was one of the leaders of this community.

A number of associations existed to serve the Jewish community, among them the Young Men’s Jewish Association founded in 1903. Its aim was to encourage sports, and to promote religious and social activities among the Bene Israel in Karachi. In addition, the Karachi Bene Israel Relief Fund was established to support poor Jews in Karachi. The Karachi Jewish Syndicate, formed in 1918, continued to provide homes for poor Jews at reasonable rents.

Relations between the Jewish community and others in Karachi continued to be harmonious immediately after the establishment of Pakistan in 1947. However, incidents involving violence against Jews began to occur some time after the creation of Israel, leading to feelings of insecurity within the Jewish community.

The synagogue in Karachi was set on fire, and several Jews were attacked. The frequency of attacks on Jews increased after each of the Arab-Israeli wars, i. e.  1948, 1956 and 1967. The decade-long period under President Ayub Khan saw the gradual disappearance of Jews from Pakistan. They migrated to India, Israel, or the United Kingdom. The Jews also had a small community in the northern city of Peshawar that was served by two synagogues. By the 1960’s, this community too had ceased to exist, and both the synagogues were closed.

Reportedly, several Jewish families remained in Karachi beyond this period, but out of concern for their own safety, and as a reaction to increasing religious intolerance, many of them concealed their Jewish identity, sometimes passing themselves off as Parsis or Christians.

The synagogue in Karachi became dormant in the 1960’s and was demolished by property developers in 1988 to make way for a commercial building. Reportedly, the last custodian of the synagogue, Rachel Joseph, lived in Karachi in a state of destitution. She also acted as the caretaker of the Jewish graveyard in Mewa Shah, an old locality of Karachi.  Parts of this graveyard have now been absorbed by another graveyard. Rachel Joseph, until her death, claimed that the property developers had promised her and her brother Ifraheem Joseph an apartment in the new building, and also space for a small synagogue. Unfortunately, both Ifraheem and Rachel.

Joseph passed away before they received any compensation. Many of the Jews who left Karachi now live in Ramale in Israel and, in remembrance of times past, have built a synagogue there called Magain Shalome. Karachi, their former home, seems to have conveniently forgotten all about them and their contribution to the history and architecture of this city.

For more information on the book and the author, please visit  www.jaal.org/karachiwala

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