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72 - The beard of the Prophet...

TURKEY | Monday, 10 December 2012 | Views [989]

Old tombstones near the Eyup Sultan Mosque

Old tombstones near the Eyup Sultan Mosque

I have always been fascinated by the preserved bits and bobs of holy people or sacred events.  There is something very Indiana Jones about them.  Like the Ark of the Covenant which is said to be in Ethiopia.  (And maybe you have read the rumours that the Ark will be opened next year!  But what about the plague that will descend on all of us??).  In Istanbul, there is a treasure trove of holy relics.  The beard of the Prophet Mohammed for one seems to have been widely dispersed - one specimen is in the Eyup Sultan Mosque mosque and several others in the Topkapi Museum.  I couldn't actually see the shred of hair of course for they are all kept in beautiful little carved boxes.  

Other than the Prophet's beard, his tooth, his cloak, his bow and his arrow are all kept in Topkapi Museum.  The cloak (more properly called the "mantle" in the Museum) seems to be considered to be particularly sacred and it is kept in a gold box in a special room behind a metal grille.  Like the beard, one would have no idea what's inside the box unless told but I would suppose they are taken out every year during religious days?  Still, Mohammed lived in 7thC AD so it isn't surprising that we have relics of his.  But the Topkapi also contains more ancient relics such as the staff of Moses (yes, I imagine it's the one used to part the Red Sea...) and the sword of David (used to kill Goliath...).  One wonders how they were found and identified, and how they made their way to Istanbul.   It's not just for believers but the stuff of ancient adventures. 

On a more prosaic level, the Suleimanye Mosque and the Topkapi display items from Kaaba - Kaaba is of course the black stone around which faithful Muslims are supposed to visit at least once a lifetime (the Hajj).  Now, I had always thought the black stone was a piece of natural meteor, carved into a cube shape, and is solid.  It transpires that it is actually hollow inside.  That is, the Kaaba is composed of 4 walls and a roof and there is a door and in fact a water drainage pipe leading from the top of the stone to ensure that water doesn't fill up inside the hollow cavity.  The construction is covered with a piece of cloth and is regularly maintained.  So every few years, the door, drainpipe and the cloth are replaced and the old items are sent to important mosques - my understanding is that they are sent to the country which funds the replacements.  Given the Ottoman Sultans were also the Caliphs (ie the religious leader of the Muslims), it was natural for them to fund much of the Kaaba upkeep and as a result, many of the old Kaaba items are kept in Istanbul. 

The Eyup Sultan Mosque is famous not so much for its relic of the Prophet's beard but for the fact that Eyup Sultan is buried there.  He is said to have been Mohammed's companion and some books say his "standard bearer" (the standard is kept in the Topkapi too).   Turkish Muslims consider the Eyup's mausoleum to be the holiest site after Mecca and Medina.  And dear readers, as you know, I have a bit of an obsession with holy shrines and have visited the two most holy ones for Shi'ites in Iran as well.  The Eyup's mausoleum is in the standard Muslim form of an iron grille behind which is the coffin. The iron grille itself is kept within a glass casing.  It may be the Turkish personality or it may be a Sunni feature, but the faithful gathered in front of the glass didn't seem half as emotional as the semi-hysterical pilgrims at the Imam Reza shrine in Iran.  My guide told me that there isn't even solid evidence that the Eyup Sultan is in fact buried there as the revelation only occured in a dream to one of the Sultan's men....

The area around the Eyup Sultan Mosque is considered a holy area and Turkish Muslims apparently vie to be buried in that vicinity.  The entire hillside is as a result filled with tombs dating back to the 19thC.  In fact, from what I can see, the tombs are rather haphazardly located and there aren't necessarily clear paths or stairs to reach all of them.  It could be quite a tricky hike over other tombs (and if there is rain - mud and wet foliage) to reach the one's destination.   But the older tombs are interesting - the tombstones are crowned with different designs to denote the dead - a turban for a member of royalty, a fez for a government official, flowers for ladies etc.  The Pierre Loti cafe up on the hill (reachable by a short cable car ride) seems to be a rest stop for both tourists and cemetery visitors alike.


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