Pekojan is a historic district or kecamatan in West Jakarta. Considered the city’s original Arab village, it is a prime example of the rich ethnic diversity found in Jakarta and how different communities created their own landmarks and cultural treasures over time.

Pekojan Arab Village in Jakarta

Back when Jakarta was still under Dutch colonial rule, known at the time as Batavia, it was one of the world’s fastest growing cities and very quickly became the epicentre of a global trade network. This international interaction has left a wake of historical destinations in even the most unexpected places. One such place is Pekojan, whereupon a visit today one would hardly guess of its historical significance. It is hardly a tourist destination, densely populated, unruly and disorganised, but behind its chaotic street fronts lie hidden gems of heritage.

This historical quarter is located in the old city of Jakarta, precisely in Tambora, West Jakarta, neighbouring the Chinese enclave of Glodok. Juxtaposed, Pekojan was once home of Arab settlers and Muslim migrants. Through the Dutch policy of Wijkenstelsel, the colonial government enforced ethnic-based settlements, a ghetto-like system in which Arabians and Muslims could only live in a designated area. It is no wonder then that Pekojan was the area with the most mosques during the Dutch occupation, many of which stand today.

There are clues in its very name: Pekojan is derived from the Persian word khoja, a title for merchants and indigenous folk of Hindustan, better known as Indian Moors, who hailed from Gujarat and Suraj, West India. These Koja settlers were believed to be the first inhabitants of Pekojan village back in the 17th century. This early community established Al-Anshor Mosque, marking their arrival as the first Muslim community in the area in 1648. This is considered the oldest mosque in Jakarta.

Pekojan Arab Village in Jakarta: Mosque

It takes some discernment to navigate through the narrow and small alleyways that lead to Al-Anshor, found at the centre of a crowded Jalan Pengukiran II, which used to be known as Gang Koja. It has a humble design, with four straight and unembellished wooden beams on the ceiling that are the original and oldest part of this mosque. Having been restored in 1973 and then again in 1985, its original style has been somewhat lost.

In 1744, the Koja community built the second mosque, Kampung Baru Mosque, on Jalan Bandengan Selatan, around one kilometre from Jalan Pengukiran II. The 1740 Batavia Massacre, in which 10,000 ethnic Chinese were killed by European soldiers, meant the Muslim community expanded its reach and trade within the city borders, seeing a growth in population of the area. As such, the small (10m x 15m) Al-Anshor mosque could not service this now considerably-sized community.

The Koja community’s existence in Pekojan didn’t last long. In the 18th century, the Hadrami immigrants from the Hadramaut of South Yemen came to Batavia and shifted the role of the Koja community through trade and Islamic propagation. These Hadrami were the sayyid (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad) who were rich, highly educated, and influential people in politics. Their presence was supervised by Arab captains appointed directly by the Dutch. History said that these Hadrami people were actually fugitives because the Umayyah and Abayyah dynasties fought the sayyid for fear of them entering politics. Many entered the archipelago via South Africa, Bangladesh, Malabar, and eventually through Aceh. 

The Hadrami were successful traders and lived well in Batavia, attracting the arrival of the masyayikh (descendants of the Prophet’s companions). This new immigration was made possible by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, making travel to Batavia and the Dutch East Indies faster and cheaper. It also allowed for greater trade and thus the further development of plantations.

The Hadrami fully controlled the Arabic community in Pekojan and thus set about building their own landmarks. In 1760, the Hadrami leader Sayyid Abdullah bin Husein Alaydrus built the An-Nawier Mosque, Pekojan Mosque. The mosque stands majestically in the village with an architectural style that is a mixture of Arabic and Western elements, especially neo-classical. The mosque is striking with its towering lighthouse-like minaret that was once used as a watchtower. There are four entrances to the mosque: two western doors, one of which is the main door featuring some ornate decoration, then one door in the south and one door in the north of the mosque.

An-Nawier Mosque was not built all at once but in stages. The main hall — not aligned with the direction of the mihrab (i.e. towards Mecca) — has a dome-shaped roof of Middle Eastern influence, while the pediment points to European influence. The intricately carved wooden pulpit in brown with a touch of yellow gold is said to have been a gift from a Sultan of Pontianak. The interior of the mosque is lined with 33 sturdy white pillars typical of the Indische Empire style symbolising the number praise of Allah SWT.  With an area of more than 1,500 square metres, the mosque can accommodate 3,000 worshipers.

The Hadrami community increasingly formed the collective idea that they were the masters of religious authority in Batavia. This community then established assemblies and da’wah (‘missionary’) centres. This includes the Langgar Tinggi Mosque, which was built in 1829 on the initiative of Abu Bakar Shihab, a Yemeni merchant. Langgar in Indonesian is a small mosque where people study or pray but is not used for Friday prayers. It is located parallel to Jalan Pekojan and the Angke river, stretching from west to east, not far from An Nawier. Angke river was a strategic trade route. 

Pekojan Arab Village in Jakarta: Langgar-Tinggi

Langgar Tinggi is like a house on stilts, two storeys high with a design carrying European (neoclassical pillars according to the Toskan order), Chinese (supporting beams) and Javanese (ground plan) styles. The langgar underwent minor alterations, but its original form is discernible. The pulpit came from Palembang (1859) to commemorate Said Salim bin Na’um, the man who took care of the legacy of Syarifah Mas’ud Barik Ba’aluri who donated two waqf lands for this langgar and the cemetery in Tanah Abang.

Before it functioned as a mosque, Langgar Tinggi was not only a place for religious education, but also a gathering place to talk about the negotiation of space, tradition and modernity. Many multi-ethnic traders travelling along the Angke river would stop here for a while and even stay for two to three days to rest. They would be placed downstairs, while the upper part of the building is for prayer. This place was even used as a getek terminal, a traditional bamboo raft used on the river.

Pekojan had become the Islamic centre of Batavia, experiencing a surge in population. However, due to Dutch rule, they were not granted the same rights: trading and entrepreneurial opportunities were often hindered or made difficult, and access to education was also unequal. Thus, the Hadrami elites took matters into their own hands and created an organisation by the name of Jamiatul Kheir in 1901 in one mosque in a narrow alleyway, the Ar Raudhah Shahabuddin Mosque. 

Jamiat Kheir is, in fact, the oldest Indonesian organisation that started the social awareness of improving the resources of the people and the nation through education. Based on history, the members who took part in this organisation consisted of movement figures, both among the ulama and Muslim scholars who were later designated as national heroes, such as Haji Omar Said (HOS) Tjokroaminoto, Husein Jayadiningrat, and Ahmad Dahlan, known as the founder of the Muhammadiyah Islamic Society. This organisation inspired Indonesian freedom figures, such as Budi Utomo who founded the Budi Utomo organisation in 1908 and Ki Hajar Dewantara who founded Taman Siswa in Yogyakarta in 1922.

Ar Raudhah Shahabuddin Mosque, a relic of a Yemeni merchant, was built specifically for women because most mosques in Pekojan were full of male worshippers. To this day, the mosque prioritises women for tarawih prayers in the month of Ramadan.

During Ramadan is the best time to visit Pekojan especially after the 15th day of fasting. The Arabian community regularly break fast together until night where people can come and enjoy the takjil, Middle Eastern food, and ginger coffee. Free iftar is offered at Az-Zawwiyah Mosque, located opposite An Nawier, built in 1812 by Habib Ahmad bin Hamzah Alatas who was also known as a figure who introduced the book Fathul Mu’in or the yellow book which is still used as a reference among Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia.

Both An Nawier and Az-Zawwiyah are located in the centre of the crowd, close to the legendary Pasar Kambing (goat market). The market still has a pulse of activity to fulfil the goat and lamb meat needs of Pekojan’s Arab community, who love to consume such meat. There is also a Jembatan Kambing (goat bridge) across the Angke river as a means of distributing goats to the market.

On the north side of Pekojan, until the late 1980s, there was a row of old Dutch-style houses. Today, only a few old houses remain that characterise Pekojan. But, don’t expect to see traditional Khoja communities here, as only a handful of old-time Arab descendants remain. The abolition of the ethnic-based neighbourhood system in 1919 fuelled the spread of the Arab community to other regions of Jakarta, such as Krukut, Sawah Besar, Tanah Abang, Kwitang, Condet, Depok, Bogor and across Indonesia. Thus the name Pekojan is not only found in Jakarta but also in other parts of Indonesia, such as in Cirebon, Tegal, Pekalongan, Semarang, and finally in Surabaya.

The Betawi community who filled the vacuum rehaped the face of Pekojan. Betawi-style houses were built as the indigenous community’s role in the Arab community’s trade circle was elevated, which at the time was often subject to internal conflicts. To this day, several Betawi houses in Pekojan are still standing, signalling the role that the local Indonesians played at that time.

The presence of the Arab community was also displaced along with the ethnic Chinese community who also played an important role in trading in Batavia. So, it is not surprising that when we explore Pekojan one will find two temples, Padi Lapa Temple (built in 1901) and Dewi Samudera Temple (built in 1784). Padi Lapa was located in the Toko Tiga area with the original name You Mie Hong, founded by a Hakka businessman and managed by the You Mie Hong foundation. Meanwhile, Dewi Samudera Temple is a private monastery owned by the Lim family, a high-ranking Mazu, until it was later opened to the public.

There is a touch of pity in seeing the Pekojan today, where much of this interesting history is no longer visible. Yet, it is a great example of the ebb and flow of culture in Jakarta over time, how areas are changed by their population, and the diversity of the city and Indonesia.

Source for Further Reading
‘Historical Sites of Jakarta’ by A. Heuken SJ, told by Daan Adraan and Achmad Sophian. Find a copy.

Photographs taken by Des Syafrizal

Sari Widiati

Sari Widiati

Sari has been an arts and culture enthusiast for many years. She has written extensively on the arts, travel, and social issues as Features Writer at NOW! Jakarta.