Gravestones and Sebils of Istanbul

Before visiting Turkey, I had no idea about the importance of either gravestones or sebil in the history and culture of Turkey. However, while strolling on the streets of Istanbul, particularly in Sultanahmet and Eyup districts, I saw a lot of graves with unique tombstones. Similarly, I saw a lot of Sebils, some still functional, some dysfunctional, some broken and some with great design depicting the architecture of their times.

Gravestones

Most schools of legal interpretation in Islam do not look favorably either at concrete grave or gravestones. However, during my recent visit to turkey I found out that gravestones are an integral part of Turkish culture. In turkey there is a whole culture and tradition of tombstone art. Most of them are like a mini biography of the diseased. According to the French Novelist, Andre Malraux, Ottoman tombstones make “death warm up to life”

One of the most iconic is the tombstone of Ibrahim Pasha who died in 1725. He was a Kaptan i Derya (Naval Captain). His tomb shows a captain with an anchor, rope and broken mast. It is symbolic of captain entering a ship that will take him to his destination in next life the way it took him to his destination in this life.

The graves of different Sufi orders and their dervishes can also be distinguished from different colour of clothes and coverings on the grave. For example, round hat on the gravestone signifies Sufi of Bektashi order. Different colours are also used to signify different professions such as green colour is used for scholars and leading scientists. Similarly, broken rosebud signifies a young female.

It’s not only the design of the gravestone and the art on it but what is written is also important. Sociologists and historians can decipher a lot from the writings on gravestones. Here is a small sample of some of written words on the gravestones of Istanbul.

  • See, what these gravestones tell you,

          One lie ended here and one truth has begun

 

  • “Oh visitor, this young women lying beneath this stone was one of those cleanest, purest and smartest. The fate laid her on the soil that you are beholding now. This rare flower, which death picked when she was young, was one of the finest examples of intellect and chastity. Recite Al Fatehah for her innocent soul. 26 January, 1910. Wednesday.”

 

  • “It is He who is permanent

         Come, oh my Effendi, fix your gaze on my gravestone

         If you are smart enough, act wisely

        I used to wander all around, see what happened to me?

       I died in the end, a gravestone erected upon me”

 

  • I hid, I didn’t say, I secretly put my trouble to sleep

          Every life shall taste death”

 

And the best one which I liked a lot is this one:

  • “WHY! Are we killing each other? If we wait for a while, we’ll all die!”

 

Most of the gravestones not only mention the name of the deceased but also the date of birth and date of death. And yes, please don’t be confused when you find that according to their birth and death dates on their tombstones you end up calculating the age of the departed soul as 200 years or more. This confusion is because on many tombstones different calendars are used for writing the date of birth and date of death. It is common to find the date of birth mentioned according to the Hijri Calendar while the date of death mentioned according to the Gregorian Calendar and vice versa. This creates confusion regarding the age of the dead. I asked my guide but he could not give me any satisfactory answer. Newer gravestones don’t have this confusion.

 Sebil

Turkey has a long tradition of Sebils (in Urdu also the word sabil or sabeel is used for the same meaning. It may be one of the many Turkish origin words in Urdu). A sebil is a kiosk where drinking water is distributed to the passerby for the purpose of getting sawab. Sometimes sweetened drinks are also distributed. The earliest of example in Istanbul is Efdalzade Sebil constructed in 1496. Sebils were traditionally constructed at the gate of the Mosques or at important road crossings to help the travelers. It is said that Istanbul had well over 1000 sebils before piped water was supplied to the residents. Sebils served an important social function as the whole neighborhood gathered to collect water from them. Once piped water was supplied, sebils lost their importance.

Sebils were constructed either by Sultans or their viziers or their mothers, wives, daughters and sisters. Rich people and their household also participated and contributed generously in the construction of sebils. Despite losing their utility over the years, still some beautiful sebils are present all over Istanbul. These sebils not only supplied clean drinking water to the residents but are also great pieces of architecture in many cases. Their architecture reflects the changing styles over the centuries. Some of the more well-known and beautiful sebils (cum fountains. Fountains are called selsebil or Cesmesi) of Istanbul are:

  • Uskudar Ahmet III: It was constructed by Sultan Ahmet III in the year 1728 situated at Uskudar square of Istanbul. It is made of marble. It is decorated by calligraphy of verses from famous Diwan poets.
  • German Fountain: Also known as Alman Cesmesi (does it sound like urdu word chasma for fountain?). It was gifted by the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, to mark his visit to Istanbul to meet Ottoman Sultan, Sultan Abdulhamid II in October 1898. It was actually built in Germany and transported to Istanbul piece by piece and reconstructed in 1900. The interior is covered with the tughra (symbol) of Sultan Abdelhamid II and Wilhelm II.
  • Ahmed III Sebil: It is situated in front of the Bab-i.Humayun of the famous Topkapi palace and has really unique architecture. It was built in 1728 by Sultan Ahmed III. It has floral motifs and calligraphy on it.
  • Tophane Square Sebil: This is another historical sebil with beautiful architecture in Beyoglu District. It was constructed by Sultan Mahmut I in 1732. It was restored in 2006.
  • Saliha Sultan Cesmesi: This fountain was built by Saliha Sultan, wife of Sultan Mustafa Han. It was built in 1732. The story of Saliha Sultan and the building of the fountain is stuff of fairytale.

Besides these there are many small sebils at many places. Most of them are nonfunctional but each one has a story to tell of the years gone by.

For references and more information please see:

  • Sumner-Boyd, Hilary; Freely, John (2010). Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City. New York: Tauris Parke Paperbacks.
  • Kahraman, M. (2018). The causes of the formation of sebil and fountain in Istanbul and the effects of these constructions on the city of Istanbul. The Journal of International Social Research, Vol. 11, Issue 59, October. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/37628292/THE_CAUSES_OF_THE_FORMATION_OF_SEBIL_

AND_FOUNTAIN_IN_ISTANBUL_AND_THE_EFFECTS_OF_THESE_CONSTRUCTIONS_

ON_THE_CITY_OF_ISTANBUL. Accessed on 22 November 2019.

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