BY ERTAN KARPAZLI
Dresden, the capital of Germany’s eastern state of Saxony, has been associated with the surge of neo-Nazi, anti-Muslim sentiment as of late. The city is the birthplace of the PEGIDA movement, founded in October 2014 to protest what its self-proclaimed “Patriotic European” supporters describe as the “Islamisation of the West.”
In the September 2017 elections, the far-right, anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) almost dethroned Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling conservatives in the region. In Dresden, the party came in a close second to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and it won three districts in the east of Saxony.
But amid the rising Islamophobia in the city, a 109-year-old building — inspired by Dresden’s one-time love affair with the Muslim world — stands as a monument to its once-booming tobacco industry.
Distinct from the Baroque architecture that runs along the banks of the Elbe river, the so-called “Tobacco Mosque” towers 62 metres (203 ft) over the Friedrichstadt neighbourhood by the city’s main railway line.
The building incorporates both oriental and occidental influences, as seen in its iconic emerald green and ruby-coloured stained-glass dome complete with Art Nouveau designs. Yet, despite appearances, the building is not actually a mosque. On the contrary, it is a former tobacco and cigarette factory.
Built by Jewish entrepreneur Hugo Zietz in 1909, the factory was named “Yenidze” after the Ottoman town in Western Thrace — nowadays Genisea in Greece — from which the tobacco was imported. The word Yenidze, originating from the word for “new” in Turkish, is still visible on the dome.
Zietz first set up Oriental Tobacco and Cigarette Factory Yenidze in 1886, but due to architectural restrictions on building factories in Dresden’s town centre at the time, he faced difficulties acquiring a suitable premises for production.
So, in 1907 he hired 29-year-old architect Martin Hammitzsch to help him bend the rules. Hammitzsch designed the factory after the Mamluk tombs in the Cairo Necropolis, using red and grey granite blocks to recreate the stripes of ablaq masonry commonly used in traditional Islamic architecture.
The colourful mosaics and Moorish geometric patterns also brought a taste of the east to the west. He even disguised the chimneys as minarets.
But not everyone initially welcomed the oriental design. Hammitzsch, who later went on to marry Adolf Hitler’s half sister, was excluded from the chamber of architects after he submitted his draft. But Zietz got his way when he threatened to pull his business out of the city.
“Consequently, the building would not only meet the requirements of the city council but also become a distinctive advertising monument for oriental cigarette brands,” the yenidze.eu website, which is run by the factory’s current proprietor, explains.
The building was completed two years later, with the illuminated words “Salem Aleikum” — “peace be upon you” in Arabic — fixed on its side to greet train passengers commuting between Prague and Berlin.
The factory’s “Salem Aleikum” and “Salem Gold” cigarette brands quickly became popular with smokers all over Germany. Until the 1930s, Dresden produced 60 percent of cigarettes in the country.
In today’s Dresden, attitudes towards the architecture of Yenidze have changed somewhat, as the building has become an integral part of the city’s landscape.
“Yenidze belongs to the sequence of buildings that form the famous silhouette of Dresden’s old town,” Diana Petters of the City of Dresden municipality told TRT World.
“Its function as a landmark depends on being part of this familiar aesthetic image, irrespective of any religious connotation of the building,” she explained.
“In the public consciousness, Yenidze is an essential part of the visual identity” of Dresden, she said, dismissing any kind of negative stigma being attached to the building due to its Islamic design despite the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in the city.
The words “Salem Aleikum” were illuminated on the side of the building to greet passersby. The Arabic phrase proved to be an excellent marketing gimmick for the Yenidze factory’s cigarette brand. (Public Domain)
But the building, which between 1924 and 1953 was owned by the Reemtsma tobacco company, almost didn’t survive to see modern times, having been severely damaged in an air strike during World War II.
Following a series of restorations, however, the building was reopened in 1996 as an office facility. A restaurant is also found inside the glazed dome that provides a 360 degree view of the city.
Today, the building is owned by the Berlin-based EB Group, whose Turkish-born chairman Enver Buyukarslan bought it in 2014 from Israeli millionaire Adi Keizman.
Press officer for the EB Group, Susanne Schneider, told TRT World, the “distinctive oriental style and the central location” of Yenidze makes it not only a great representative office for tradesmen, but also “moves many visitors who enjoy the view of Dresden from the roof terrace of the dome restaurant.”
“In 2015, we launched the website www.yenidze.eu in order to offer everyone interested in Yenidze a central online platform. With the new homepage, prospective tenants receive detailed information about the office location, available space or the current tenants,” Schneider said.
“Tourists and Dresden visitors can familiarise themselves with the eventful history of the former tobacco factory,” she added. “The website is visited monthly by more than 2,000 users, 90 percent of whom come from Germany.”
Visitors to Yenidze also attend regular storytelling sessions and plays organised by 1001 Märchen GmbH. The name means ‘1001 Fairy Tales’. The theatre inside the factory specialises in performances based on oriental themes in line with the spirit of exotic mysticism the building’s founders hoped to inspire over a century ago.
“The theatre is open every evening for performances, including oriental music and belly dancing. Both locals and tourists come to see the dome, and see and experience oriental culture,” Paula Schiereck, the assistant managing director of 1001 Märchen, told TRT World. “There is a lot of demand, especially around the Christmas period.”
Asked if she had ever experienced any opposition to the architecture of the Yenidze factory, Schiereck replied, “No, not at all.”
Schiereck said she hopes 1001 Märchen helps to build cross-cultural bonds in her community, but feels visitors generally tend to be people who are already “culturally curious.”
“There are people who have been living in Dresden for 60 years and have always seen the tobacco factory from outside, but they’ve never been inside it,” she said, adding “those who attend the PEGIDA rallies are usually not interested.”
Germany’s century-old ‘Tobacco Mosque’