CONSERVATION OF THE ACHEEN STREET MOSQUE,
GEORGETOWN, PENANG

The Location of Acheen Street Mosque
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  • Introduction

  • Historical Background & Architectural Significance

  • Building Conditions

  • Scope of Work

  • Conclusion

    1.0 Introduction

    The Acheen Street Mosque in Georgetown, Penang; also known as Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh (Malay Mosque) was founded by Tengku Syed Hussain Al-Aidid in 1808. The mosque is surrounded by rows of shophouses, a cemetery including the mausoleum of Syed Hussain and his family, mid-19th Century town houses and an octagonal minaret. The entire complex is historically and architecturally important as it reflects the earliest Muslim urban community in Penang comprising of the Malays, Indian Muslims, Arabs and the Achehnese. It was also a hub of various activities for pilgrim brokers, ticketing agencies, bazaar traders, hotel, shops and printing presses. Today, the Mosque as well as the surrounding properties have been endowed for religious and cultural purposes; and it is administered by the Penang State Religious Council.

    In mid-1994, the Federal Government had allocated RM3.5 million to the State Government through the Prime Minister's Department, Penang for the conservation project of the Mosque and its surrounding properties. The project is divided into two phases. Phase One, which commenced in June 1995, involves the restoration of the roof structures of the Mosque and the mausoleum. Phase Two, which will begin in early 1996, covers the restoration of the Mosque and its surrounding properties including the minaret, shophouses and the town houses. In Phase Two, some of the surrounding buildings including the town houses and shophouses will be converted into a gallery, Haj Museum, souvenir shops, Koranic School and culture centre.

    return To monitor the progress of the Project, a steering committee has been formed consisting of the Penang State Religious Council, Prime Minister's Department, Penang; Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang Development Corporation, Public Works Department, National Museum, State Finance Department and the Acheh Mosque Heritage Group or Badan Warisan Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh. This article highlights the historical background of the Mosque and the architectural significance, building conditions; and the scope of work covered in Phase One.

    2.0 Historical Background and Architectural Significance

    Being one of the oldest mosques in Penang to survive largely in its original form, the Acheen Street Mosque was founded at the turn of the 19th century by Tengku Syed Hussain Al-Aidid, a member of the Achenese Royal of northern Sumatra. The Mosque is historically important as it is the focal point for the spread of Islam in Penang island. It was built complete with an octagonal minaret, an ablution area, a pool, a verandah and a cemetery.

    Architecturally, the Mosque is essentially hybrids; with a taste of the Moorish influence, oriental forms and Neo-Classical features. The styles can be seen from its arches, windows, columns, hipped roof and other elements on the minaret. The Mosque is a good example of masonry building that is rich in architectural details and vocabulary as well as the adaptation of building elements to the local climate. The external walls are made of bricks which were plastered and painted with lime wash. There has been a succession of colour coatings on the plastered walls starting from white, light blue, yellow to the present colour of ivory. Decorative plastered renderings are featured on the capitals of the interior columns and cornices. Besides plaster and bricks, timber and marble floor tiles are widely used in the building. Timber is used for the roof structures, casement windows, fanlights, grilles and ceilings. Granite can be seen mainly around the pool and the verandah steps. The hipped roof, which resembles most of the Chinese temples, uses asbestos sheets and mortar located underneath the ridges. Later constructions made in the Mosque include metal awning above the verandah, cemented floors, toilets and a modern ablution area.

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    3.0 Building Conditions

    Several building inspections were carried out before works in Phase One began. The building conditions are discussed in the following aspects:
    3.1 Roof Structures
    This is a major problem to the Mosque, for water can easily penetrate into the interior; particularly into the main prayer hall. The roof structures, which consist of asbestos sheets, mortar, roof ridges, timber ceilings and trusses, have shown signs of decay. Some of the roof structures such as timber trusses and rafters are badly attacked by termites. Such condition may result in roof sagging or structural collapse. Hence, an urgent renovation work is carried out in order to prevent further decay to other parts of the building. This includes removing existing asbestos sheets and introducing new roof tiles, fixing new timber trusses and rafters before placing insulation of aluminum sheets in the roof for water proofing and heat reduction. It is also desirable to replace the existing mortar underneath the roof ridges. In addition, all harmful growth found on the roof, parapet, walls and minaret will be carefully removed.
    3.2 Walls and Columns
    Plaster is widely used on the existing brick walls, columns and minaret. Some of the original plaster renderings are peeling off and debound, exposing the bricks and mortar joints. This can be seen on column bases, interior and exterior walls; and minaret. There are also signs of pollution and fungal stains or mould on the exterior surfaces which will be removed during the renovation work. This includes the cleaning of walls using either mechanical tools, scrappers or the dry-cleaning method.

    Lime wash had been used on the existing plaster. One may see layers of coatings from the broken plaster. New lime wash will be applied to the existing walls in order to allow the building to 'breathe'. Two coatings of lime wash will be used on the walls including a white coating for the first layer followed by lime wash with pigment (colour to be decided) for the second. Most of the columns in the Mosque are still in good structural condition.

    3.3 Rainwater Goods and Drainage System
    All rainwater goods including gutters and down pipes will be replaced to allow proper drainage and to avoid water penetration especially at roof joints. In addition, proper drainage system is needed in this area as the water table is high.

    4.0 Scope of Work

    The scope of work in Phase One, which is the restoration of the roof structures, covers many aspects including:
    1. Conducting a building survey including inspections and analyses of structural conditions, ceilings and rainwater goods such as gutters, down pipes and drainage systems.
    2. Preparing measured drawings for the Mosque including building plans, sections and elevations.
    3. Documenting photographs for future reference.
    4. Removal of existing asbestos sheets and metal awning roof. Canvas sheets (canopy or 'umbrella') are needed to cover the roof structures during the renovation works. It is important to remove any objects and carpet in the main prayer hall and verandah prior to this job.
    5. Removal of any rotten timber trusses and ceilings.
    6. Fixing new timber roof beams, trusses and rafters. All timber structures are chemically treated for termite resistance.
    7. Laying new clay tiles of V-shape to roof (mosque and mausoleum).
    8. Fixing water proofing membrane to roof.
    9. Fixing new rainwater goods (e.g. gutters and down pipes) and providing proper drainage system.
    10. Laying new mortar to roof ridges at the main roof above the prayer hall.
    11. Painting the timber ceilings.
    12. Removal of unwanted materials and debris on the site.

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    5.0 Conclusion

    Building conservation in Malaysia is a relatively new practice in the local architectural scene. Presently, there are practically no skilled labourers and technical experts in conservation methods and techniques. This is a major problem because almost all conservation projects involve both repair and maintenance stages requiring an understanding of and analysis of building defect diagnoses. There is also the question of testing and treating building materials, choosing appropriate tools and specifications, introducing new technologies and so forth as well as meeting contemporary regulations and attitudes. As such the conservation of the Acheen Street Mosque poses a great challenge to many, particularly project manager, architect, structural engineer, contractor, quantity surveyor etc.

    The conservation of the Acheen Street Mosque in Georgetown, Penang portrays a good example of the State Government efforts of not only restoring the Mosque and its surrounding properties but also reviving the traditional and historical lifestyle and activities which used to govern the area. It is hoped that once the entire project is completed, more business opportunities will be injected into the area, reliving its rich historical and cultural past. The conservation of the Mosque and careful adaptive re-use of the surrounding properties into appropriate new uses such as a gallery, Haj Museum, souvenir shops, Koranic School and culture centre may help to promote tourism industry in Penang Island.

    by Dr. A. Ghafar Ahmad
    School of Housing, Building and Planning, USM, Penang

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    Copyright 1996 HBP of USM
    Last Updated on 14 January 1996