From Hagia Sophia to Aya Sofya Cami

Just read the news that Hagia Sophia Museum has been reconverted into a Mosque through a Presidential order in Turkey. Hagia Sofia or “Holy Wisdom” is also known as Ayasofya Cami or Aya Sofya Mosque in Turkish. It is one of the most prominent cultural and religious landmarks in Istanbul or perhaps whole of Turkey. My mind raced back to 9 August 2019 when I along with my family visited this historic building along with my guide Serkan. We were part of small group which had only two families, mine, and a British couple. The British couple were with us during the first half of the tour which included visit to Ayup Sultan Turbesi, Pierre Loti, Spice Bazaar and Cruise on Bosphorus Strait. In the second half was included the Blue Mosque, Hippodrome and Aya Sofya. However, the British couple had already been to Aya Sofya earlier, so they decided to give it a skip effectively making my tour a private one. We had a very knowledgeable guide entirely for us. The queue outside Aya Sofya was serpentine but one of the privileges of having a guide in Turkey is that you jump queue, hence we were inside within 2 minutes.

It is one of the oldest standing religious structure in the world. It was the pride of Nova Roma or Constantinople and was a church for whole of Christianity for almost half a millennia before the divide between Eastern Orthodox Church and Catholic Church. It was founded in 537 which makes it almost 1000 years older to St. Peters Basilica in Vatican.  It was built in 537 during the reign of Emperor Justinian I. For centuries it was the largest dome in the world and the largest interior space in the world. It is justifiably considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. It is said that on the completion of the Hagia Sophia when Justinian visited the Hagia Sophia for the first time he exclaimed with pride that “Solomon, I have outdone thee”.

Hagia Sophia was constructed first as a Church in 360 A.D by the Roman Empire. It was burned and reburned several times during uprisings. The present structure was constructed by the Byzantines in the 6th century on the orders of Emperor Justinian I. Over the years it was destroyed several times due to earthquakes and by Crusaders and was rebuilt several times. The structure is witness to the changes in history and its fortunes have also changed with the changes in power structure. It was a Byzantine Christian Church from 537 to 1054. From 1054 to 1204 it was Greek Orthodox Church. In 1204, it was converted into a Roman Church. In 1261 it was reconverted into Greek Orthodox Church and remained so till 1453 when it was converted into an Imperial Mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottomans who also renamed the city from Constantinople to Istanbul. It was given the name of Ayasofya Cami (Mosque of Ayasofya) by the Ottomans and minarates were added to it. It remained a Mosque from 1453 to 1935 when it was converted into a Museum during the time of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. It has been converted back into a Mosque on 10 July 2020. Today it is also a final resting place for 5 Ottoman Sultans and their families.

After its conversion back to Mosque the entrance fees has been cancelled. It will still be open to all faiths. According to Erdogan “Like all our Mosques, its door will be open to everyone, Muslims or non-Muslims. As the world’s common heritage, Hagia Sophia with its new status will keep on embracing everyone in a more sincere way”. The first prayers in the Ayasofya Cami will be Friday prayers on 24th July 2020. It would not be out of place to remember that it was 24th July 1923 when the treaty in Switzerland’s city of  Lausanne ended the hostilities between the Allies and the Turkish state.

However, the debate continues whether this is a right decision or not from religious point of view and whether this was the right time for this decision? Those who know their history and have sense of today’s geo-politics can only be amused at the assertion of those who believe that the next step is the establishment of Ottoman Caliphate.

For references and more details, please see:

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.

The tomb of Hazrat Abu Ayyub Al Ansari (RAA) at Eyup Sultan

Istanbul has lot to offer to a tourist. Very few cities in the world can claim history and display history the way Istanbul does. There are innumerable places of historical importance from Byzantine era to Ottoman era. One such place is Eyup Sultan or Eyup (that’s how Ayyub (RAA) is written in Turkish). Eyup Sultan is a municipality and a district of the city of Istanbul extending from Golden Horn all the way to the shores black sea. It is an historically important district for Turks. It is also one of the important stop on the itinerary of most tourists to the city of Istanbul. Eyupsultan district derives both its name and importance from the presence of turbe (Turkish for grave) of Hazrat Abu Ayyub Al Ansari (RAA). In Turkish it is called Eyup Sultan Turbesi (meaning the grave or tomb of Abu Ayyub). I realised that the Urdu word turbat meaning grave or tomb has come from the Turkish word turbe. Allama Iqbal’s poem “Syed ki lohe turbat” is a good example of that. Here Syed refers to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. During my recent visit to Turkey, I visited the Eyup Sultan on 9 August 2019.

Hazrat Abu Ayyub Al Ansari (RAA) was a companion of the Prophet Mohammad (SAW). His name is Khalid ibn Zayd ibn Kulayb. He was a prominent Ansar (Helper) who hosted the Prophet (SAW) after Prophet’s Hijra (Migration) from Mecca to Medina. The story of Hazrat Abu Ayyub Al Ansari (RAA) becoming Prophet’s host is interesting one. When the Prophet (SAW) migrated from Mecca to Medina, it was the wish of every Ansar to host Prophet (SAW) at his house. While the companions were eager, the Prophet (SAW) declared that he will stay in that house where his She Camel (Qaswa) will sit. Qaswa stopped and sat in front of the house of Hazrat Abu Ayyub Al Ansari. Thus he became the Prophet’s host in Medina till Prophet (SAW) got his own house built.

Hazrat Abu Ayyub Al Ansari (RAA) participated in the campaign to capture Constantinople. It was the first Arab siege of Constantinople. The year was 670. He died during the campaign. At that time his age was about 80 years. During that campaign Muslim armies were unable to capture Constantinople. It was later captured and renamed Istanbul. On his deathbed Hazrat Abu Ayyub Al Ansari (RAA) wished to be buried as near to Constantinople as possible. As per his wish the Muslim army buried him deep inside enemy territory near the walls of the then Constantinople city.

Today his trube is an important place for many in Turkey. The words “EYYUB EL ENSARI (Hz.) TURBESI” are written above the entrance door. There are dresses available for ladies to cover themselves before entering the turbe. On entrance one finds a glass enclosure which contains the hair of the Prophet (SAW). I am not sure about it. There are many places all over the world which claim something similar. I saw something similar at Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar also. After the Prophets (SAW) relics is the turbe and next is the exit door. I saw lots of Turks, particularly, standing and praying in front of the turbe. 

Once the Ottomans captured Constantinople, the turbe of Hazrat Abu Ayyub Al Ansari (RAA) became an important place in the Ottomans scheme of things. It is outside the city walls near the Golden Horn. A mosque was built next to the tomb and it is called Eyup Mosque. The Eyup Mosque was built by the famous Ottoman Architect Mimar Sinan during the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror. The main entrance to the Mosque carries the Quranic Verse “The Mosques of Allah shall be visited and maintained by such as who believe in Allah and the Last Day” (9:18, Al Qur’an). There is a courtyard in between the mosque and the tomb. The mosque of Eyup was used to host the coronation ceremony of the Sultans. Today the area surrounding the tomb and the mosque is called Eyup district. I was told by my tour guide, Mr. Serkan (True Blue Tour) that every Friday, a marching band plays Ottoman military music. It would not be out of place to mention that Ottoman military bands are thought to be the oldest version of marching bands in the world. I was also told that during the month of Ramadan people from various parts of Istanbul come to the Mosque for prayers and lot of shops come up and whole place becomes lively.

Besides the tomb and the Mosque, the Eyup district is also known for its graveyard. The graveyard is in the vicinity of the tomb. It was the ardent wish of those higher up in Ottoman hierarchy to be buried near the companion of the Prophet (SAW) thus making it the most sought after cemetery not only in Istanbul but in the whole of Turkey. Today it is not only the oldest but also the biggest cemetery in Istanbul. One peculiar feature of graves in Turkey is the tombstone which is specially carved according to the profession and the position of the dead. There are different types of tombstones in the cemetery. The path behind the mosque leads to the cable car. A 2-3-minutes ride of the cable car will take you to another important Istanbul landmark – Pierre loti hill.

Note: I personally don’t visit individual graves. However, this was the grave of one of the most important Sahabi e Rasool (SAW). I do visit graveyard as per the hadith of the Prophet Mohammad (SAW). The visit allowed me to understand the importance of the place for Turks and its importance in the history of Turkey.

For reference and more details see:

Azaan in Istanbul

One of the highlights of any visit to Istanbul is to listen to the Azaan (Muslim call to prayer) or Ezan, as they call in Turkey. Istanbul is a city of Mosques with their distinct architecture. The city has more than 3000 Mosques.

Different places have different traditions of Azaan timing. Some cities, Azaan is given at the same time in all the mosques. Some cities there are differences of 10 or 15 minutes between different Mosques. Istanbul has a tradition of giving Azaan in continuity. Azaan will start in a Mosque and before it finishes, it starts in another Mosque and before that finishes it will start in some other and this continues reverberating the atmosphere for long time. This can be experienced in any part of Istanbul. However, the two most sought after places to experience Azaan in Istanbul are the Galata Tower and the area between Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia or Haagia Sofia. Many tourists to the city define these as their most memorable moments of their visit to Istanbul.

Azaan from Galata Tower

Azaan at Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia

Listening Azaan from Galata Tower

Galata tower is a medieval nine story tower in the Istanbul’s Galata / Karakoy district near the junction of Golden Horn with Bosphorus. The tower was built during the reign of Emperor Justinian. At that time, it was known as Christea Turris or the tower of the Christ and was also called Melagos Pygros or the Great Tower. At present the tower has a restaurant and café at the top from where one can enjoy the skyline of Istanbul. Listening Azaan from Galata Tower is a unique experience. Azaan comes from different directions and then there is Golden Horn on one side with sun setting in the distance in the waters. Tourists wait for long time to climb the tower to be there at right time to experience the magic.

Listening Azaan at Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia

Istanbul has lot to offer to a tourist. There is plenty to choose from Blue Mosque to Aya Sofia to Princess Island to Hazrat Ayyub Mosque to Pierre Lotti Hills. I had no idea that there is a sort of synchronized Azaan between Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia (Aya Sofia was a church built by Emperor Justinian I, later Ottoman Mosque and presently museum since 1935). Presently Aya Sofia is a museum and no prayers take place there but Azaan is still given five times a day. However, Azaan is given from a place just outside the Aya Sofia and not ftom inside. It was my tour guide Mr. Serkan ( True blue Tour) who drew my attention towards it. First the Muezzin at the Blue Mosque started the Azaan and stopped after first line. Immediately after the Muezzin at Aya Sofia started the first line and waited for the Muezzin at Blue Mosque to say second line. This continued till the complete Azaan was said. Because both are synchronised with each other and both the Muezzin’s wait for each other, the Azaan continues for many minutes. There were literally hundreds of tourists between the two historical places just waiting for the Azaan to start. I was there at time of Maghrib Azaan (Azaan given for prayers offered at sunset). Somehow that time lot of seagulls also came flying all over the place. Maybe because they get leftovers from tourists to eat. Seeing them circling over the Blue Mosque while listening to the beautiful Azaan was like seeing Angels descending on the Mosque to pray. It was a beautiful and surreal experience. This was, no doubt, one of the highlights of my tour of Istanbul.

On the lighter side, me and my family did pray Maghrib in Blue Mosque afterwards.