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Friday, October 27, 2006

Continuing Traditions

It so happened that we pair our visit to the Bazaars during the Festival of Ramadan, and, as, during this season, the Turks fast all day and feast all night, [...] all members of the wealthy class were obliged to keep their doors open and to feed anyone who claimed hospitality during the period from sunset to sunrise.
From "Twenty Years on the Bosphorus" by Dorina L. Neave [1933]

Most senior Istanbulites are united in bemoaning that "the Istanbul of old is no more". This is never more true than when the subject is about Istanbul during Ramadan.

In Ottoman times the month of Ramadan was a festive time when people fasted and prayed by day, and after breaking their fast at dusk enjoyed the sights and entertainments of Ramadan by night.

Held in the highest estimation for the month, most festivities were for the needy. Combined with music, feasting, and performances of the Karagöz shadow play, torch-lit parties in the tulip gardens and moonlit boat trips up the Bosphorus with songs and music were held when Ramadan fell in spring.

All the royal palaces and the mansions of the wealthy would keep their doors open to the public from sunset to sunrise and apparently reigning sultans that would break their fast under huge palatial pavilions during Ramadan, invited subjects to share the royal feast at iftar, where the Ottoman ruler would even serve the food. There was also an enterprise of different faiths uniting to break bread together; Christian churches would prepare evening feasts for the people of Istanbul, out of mutual respect and comity.

Illuminations known as donanma sometimes took place on the Golden Horn or the Bosphorus, but Ramadan in Istanbul was above all symbolised by the mahya illuminations strung from the mosque minarets and lighting up the night sky in beautiful patterns. Although the custom of lighting lamps is common throughout the Islamic world, mahya illuminations are a tradition almost unique to Istanbul, for the simple reason that only mosques which had at least two minarets could be used. The word mahya comes from the Persian, and the person who fashioned them was known as a mahayacı.

A modern version of the mahya artform is seen today with words rendered in light bulbs.These illuminations were created by hundreds of tiny lamps hooked to ropes stretched between two minarets of a mosque in such a way as to write words of religious significance or form pictures, creating visual sentences of fire. There was fierce rivalry between the mahyacıs of different mosques to produce the most impressive display, and each evening's new design was a jealously guarded secret.

Although a modern version of this is seen today with words rendered in light bulbs, the special craft of the mahyacı died out almost twenty-five years ago. Now there is no one left who knows the ancient craft, which had been passed down from father to son for centuries.

Back to Basics

However, in recent years there has been a gradual movement to breathe the old spirit back into Istanbul, restoring traditions of Ramadans past that have disappeared, some more popular than the persistent Ramadan drummer.

The place in Istanbul where the revival is at its highest during iftar is Üsküdar. Ever since the Ottoman period, Üsküdar has served as a staging area for those travelling between Europe and Asia where those on long journeys would take a break. Providing assistance to travellers and those without families has been a tradition for nearly 500 years. Iftar tents set up in modern times by the Üsküdar municipality have been with that tradition in mind. In recent years, two 1500 meters square marquee tents have been provided to serve iftar meals to the needy, those without family and travellers passing by.

Feeding 7,000 people at one time, the tents, heated by stoves set up at various places, host special sections for prayer and free water is distributed to the people from fountains on a symbolic Ottoman street. For the whole of the month, every evening soup, pilav rice with lots of meat, sweets, fruit and soft drinks are made available. With special iftar menus accompanied by Turkish fasil music, hotels and restaurants have also caught on to the spirit of revival by organising traditional Ramadan banquets of the Ottoman era.

Cultural events also take place in the huge marquees, including various theater performances, concerts, poetry evenings, cinematic and whirling dervish performances.

Karagöz & HacivatAnother performing art that spans the centuries, Turkish shadow theatre is also being revived. The plays of Karagöz and Hacivat, two male characters, one whom plays the classic straight role and one who plays the comedic part, has become an integral part of Ramadan.

These historical performances and tent traditions are now revived yearly and gradually being applied throughout Turkey, as part of public celebrations at the end of every day's fast.

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