History of Ramadan and the Experience in Istanbul

Ramadan in Turkey (or Ramazan in Turkish) is by far the most famous of the Muslim holidays and definitely the longest. The Muslim calendar is lunar and is about 11 days shorter than the Gregorian Calendar. So, that's why you'll see the dates change every year. Ramadan is one month and is a physically and mentally arduous experience. For some, it's also a spiritually enriching one as well.

Some basic facts about Ramadan:

  • 29 or 30 days every year
  • Culminates in a 3-day long holiday of eating everything you can. In Arabic, this is commonly called Eid. Turks refer to it as Şeker Bayramı (Festival of Sweets) or just Bayram in Turkish.
  • Most famously you cannot eat during the daylight, drink water (or anything else), smoke, or participate in pleasures of the body. This practice is called Oruç in Turkish.
  • There are many exemptions: sickness, old age, pregnancy and breastfeeding, prepubescence, menstruation, or traveling all exempt you from having to fast. Though, I believe some of these only mean you need to make up the lost day later, feed someone less fortunate, or give enough money to charity to afford one day's worth of food. This practice is referred to as fidyah in Arabic.
  • Suhur is your morning meal. You can often expect to be woken up for it by people walking down the street banging a loud bass drum.
  • Iftar is the nightly meal, and you can often get it free at mosques (or Camii in Turkish)
  • Niyetliyim - The phrase you say to those who offer you food or drink during the day. The closest translation I've been told is, "I'm intended."
  • It's the fourth of the Five Pillars of Islam. It is mandatory in some countries with punishments ranging from a small fine to imprisonment.
  • Kaffaraah means atonement and that if you deliberately break your fast, you need to fast for 60 straight days or pay for the food of 60 people for one day.
  • Laylatul-Qadr commemorates Mohammad's revelation of the Qu'ran. While meditating, he allegedly was spoken to by the Archangel Gabriel who motivated him to create the holy book.

"Sultan Ahmed Mosque mahya3" by Uğur Başak - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sultan_Ahmed_Mosque_mahya3.jpg#/media/File:Sultan_Ahmed_Mosque_mahya3.jpg

How To Fast

This year is a rather intense year for fasting as June 20th was the third or so day of Ramadan and also was the longest day of the year. So far the meals have been at approximately 3:30 AM and 8:40 PM this year. So, you have about seven hours to eat and have to go through the lengthy hot hours of the afternoon thirsty and hungry. Personally, I'm trying to do it for about a week until I travel back to the States (using that travel exemption!). I'll let everyone know how it goes. I've known a few non-Muslims who have done the entire month a few times.

Why People Fast

Which kind of brings me to the next point and that's why you fast. You see people from other faiths (or no faith) attempt it and while the holiday is intended for Muslims other religions throughout history have employed fasting, and the meaning is similar.

  1. Achieve taqwa (Turkish: takva), and it's mainly the purification of your soul and mind to be closer to God. By being selfless and fasting for Allah.
  2. Shows self-discipline. It supposedly develops one's mind from the physical to the moral and therefore to the spiritual level by suppressing carnal desires.
  3. To help you empathize with those less fortunate than you. By stripping yourself of indulgences, you are supposed to understand the plight of poverty better and thus make you a more ethical person and help you achieve taqwa.

Ramadan in Turkey

With all that said, Ramazan in Turkey can actually be a normal, if not quiet, time. It's a nice change of pace for a bustling city of 16 or so million people. Many people don't fast or try it for a few days and give up. It's business as usual with a lot of places. Offices remain open, as do restaurants. In more conservative areas you probably want to avoid eating, drinking, or smoking in public. Though no one will say much, you may get some stares either because that person is irritable from hunger or because they are just so hungry that they can't take their eyes off your sandwich.

When Ramadan (the 9th month on the Islamic calendar ends) the holiday begins, and that's when most people leave for vacation. It's a public holiday in Turkey and busses and trains are free. There are often big feasts with friends and family. Before you eat you are supposed to donate food to the poor equal to every member of your household before the Bayram prayer (it's worth noting now that prayer is essential during Ramadan as it is in other days in Islam, with Iftar coming after the evening prayer and Suhur before the 1st). The first day of Bayram you wake up extra early to pray and go around in your best clothes. Children will come around and kiss your right hand and press it to their foreheads, and then you are supposed to give them candies or small amounts of money, kind of like Halloween.

Overall

It's really an exciting time and a great insight into religious devotion and purpose, as well as just culturally. I'll check back in a few weeks to let you know if I failed or not. Also, I'll admit to not being a religious scholar. I know I'm missing a lot but if there are any glaring inaccuracies feel free to leave a comment.

Ramazanınız Mübarek Olsun!

Hagia Sofia's History and Highlights Cheatsheet

DSC_0094 Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya is probably the must-see historical site in Istanbul; a city that's full of them.

The Name

In Greek, it means Holy Wisdom and the building served as a Greek Orthodox Church when it was ordered to be built by Emperor Justinian close to 1,500 years ago. It was the Byzantine's 3rd attempt at a grand church after the 1st two were taken down by fires and riots.  Completed in 537 AD, it stands as a landmark of the area's Christian, Muslim, and imperial history. It was converted into a Mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and has been a Museum since 1935.

There's a lot to process when you get in there. So, I'm going to give you a little help with some of the most important locales. Whether you don't want to pay for the audio tour or guide, just want to impress someone with your knowledge of near eastern history, or you aren't in Turkey and want to see what you're missing out on. Here is a view of some of the most impressive sites in the world.

Imperial Door

The first thing you'll notice when you finally get inside (Get a museum card, so you don't have to wait in line!) is the Imperial Door. This massive bronze door opened only when the Emperor arrived and sat beneath one of the most impressive mosaics, which I'll mention later and opens up to a majestic view of the lower gallery where most of the attractions stand. This is because churches at this time focused on the east side of their corridors. This trend continued when it became a mosque because Mecca is south-east of Istanbul and therefore the mihrab and other vital facets are located in this area. Above the door sits one of the more famous mosaics, which I'll talk about later. Also, when you enter, there are two massive indents in the floors that were caused by two statues that stood for close to 1000 years.

    Minbar

Where the Imam would lead Friday services, it sits on top of about 40 steps where you can allegedly see the imprints from the original chair. It has an epic stature next to the altar and overlooking the coronation block. It also stands near the mihrab (formerly the altar) in the apse area. When you visit, you'll notice the mihrab is slightly off center. This is because it pointed straight to Mecca (south-east of Istanbul) and was altered from its centered position during the Mosque conversion. Above the altar is a mosaic of the Virgin Mary and another one of the archangels Michael and Gabriel (though these images are hard to discern nowadays). The minbar is just an aspect of maybe the most fascinating part of the museum, the apse.

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Apse

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The apse that is mentioned and the picture above incurs quite the crowd in front of it. It was the central area for spectacles at Hagia Sophia. The throne directly faced another area that is of particular importance: The Omphalion.

 The Omphalion

Ostensibly, it's just a spot on a marble floor with different color tiles and doesn't appear to hold any importance, besides the fact that it's roped off. In actuality, it's the spot of the Byzantine Emperor's coronation. This exact spot was the place for emperors such as Basil I & II, Irene, Zoe, and Alexius, to see their ascension to power.

The Omphalion. The throne was placed in the middle circle.

I find this to be such an important site because even though it has an unimposing appearance. It is the exact spot of the transference of authority for the most influential person of the most potent empire for about 1,000 years.

Calligraphic Roundels

The Islamic calligraphic roundels that hang from the walls amongst the numerous Christian mosaics are another fascinating aspect of the Museum and provide a contrast between Christian and Islamic history. These roundels are the largest calligraphy plates in the world and spell the names of Allah, Mohammad, and six of Mohammad's brothers. They were apparently placed during Aya Sofya's transition into a mosque and illustrate the separation from Christian art and architecture.

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Mosaics

Christ as Pantocrator

What Hagia Sophia is maybe most known for are its mosaics. Just like looking at a Rembrandt painting can tell you about the Dutch Golden Age or Baroque Age, these mosaics fill you in on beliefs and ideas from the Byzantine heyday, as well as their decline. The first mosaic you'll notice (and there's lots of them) is the Christ as Pantocrator (Ruler of All) above the Imperial Door.

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Here you'll see Christ seated with (who's probably) Leo VI kneeling before him. Gabriel is on the right side of the frame and Mary on the left. My shitty photography makes it difficult to recognize the book in Jesus's left hand, but the Latin inscription reads, "Peace be with you. I am the light of the world". (John 20:19; 20:26; 8:12). This mosaic dates back to the late 9th or early 10th centuries.

Deesis Mosaic

The Deesis Mosaic is probably the most famous and is located in the upper gallery. It marked the beginning of the Renaissance of Byzantine art. It was completed in the 13th century and is notable because of its attention to detail in facial features, vibrant colors, and because it was ordered to be created to mark the end of Roman Catholicism in Constantinople. It shows the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist pleading with Christ Pantocrator for humanity's salvation.

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Empress Zoe Mosaic

Another illustrious design is the Empress Zoe Mosaic that dates back to the 11th century. You see Christ Pantocrator surrounded by Empress Zoe who holds a scroll to symbolize all her past donations to the Church, with an inscription above her head reading, "Zoe, the very pious, Augusta." Next to her, is her 3rd husband Constantine IX holding a bag of money to show his donation to the Church. His inscription reads, "Constantine, pious emperor in Christ the God, king of the Romans, Monomachus." Above Christ's head are the letters IC and XC meaning, Iēsous Khristos in Latin.  The faces in the mosaic have been scratched off previously and are believed to have been initially created for another Emperor and Empress or just one of Zoe's previous husbands.

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Chamber of Warriors Mosaic

The Chamber of Warriors Mosaic is the last one I'll discuss. There are numerous others to see, like the Alexander or Mary Mosaics. The Warriors' Mosaic is interesting because it flanks Mary, with baby Jesus on her lap, with Constantine I holding a model of his namesake, Constantinople, and Justinian presenting a copy of his most celebrated accomplishment, a model of the Hagia Sophia.

Photo:http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/06/Istanbul.Hagia_Sophia075.jpg

There are countless other beauties to behold in and around Ayasofya, including other mosaics that have as rich a history as the ones mentioned above, remnants of the 2nd Hagia Sophia, Tomb of the Sultans, the Library, the Weeping Column, the Marble Door, and many more. I can only suggest you visit this place yourself to understand truly how it feels.

Why You Need to See It

If you've been on the fence about visiting this place, then you may want to take advantage of the opportunity while it lasts. There has been a big push to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, especially after comments from Pope Francis acknowledging the Armenian Genocide. Protests started on the weekend of May 23rd to turn the structure into a mosque again. Causing massive outcries from secularist Turks as well as Greeks who see Hagia Sophia as a significant feature of their religious history.

What this conversion could mean is a few things for visitors. Much like the rest of the famous mosques in Turkey, it will remain open to public visitation (probably) and close only during prayer times. The most significant changes would be the carpeting of the floor, covering items such as the coronation square. Also, the legendary mosaics on the walls will be covered with plaster as the depiction of religious figures aren't allowed. So, some of the more impressive and must-see sights will be forever hidden from view.

While the idea of changing it back to a mosque has been debated for a few years, it's only been talk up to this point so that I wouldn't freak out quite yet. Though, with the current political climate and the rising of Islamist policies from the ruling AKP, I wouldn't put it past them to push forward with this plan.