Mahya tradition gradually flickering out

The illumination made by strings of lamps suspended to a stout rope between two minarets -- this is an inadequate description...

Mahya tradition gradually flickering out

The illumination made by strings of lamps suspended to a stout rope between two minarets -- this is an inadequate description for mahiyya (mâh from Persian meaning moon, and -iyya, an Arabic suffix used to turn words into nouns; the word came to be used as mahya in the 20th century.)

İstanbul's internationally renowned Sultanahmet Mosque, a.k.a the Blue Mosque, is shining brightly with the mahya writing that welcomes the holy month of fasting. It's also the first mosque, sources say, where the first mahya was strung in the 17th century.

Let's go back a century or so ago, to a time when the tallest buildings had only three levels; when there was no electricity and thus the streets were not illuminated at night so you were able to see all the stars in the sky.

And now think about how major the impact of these marvelous writings would be on you. You can discern the silhouette of the awe-inspiring colossal mosques from a short distance in the dark, but now you can easily see these massive buildings even from the other side of the Bosporus. You are reminded of the holy month of Ramadan's arrival and given various messages as to its spiritual importance. In a world with no electronic visual devices like television, you are captivated by this magical scene.

The writings of light inspire many beautiful feelings, besides piercing the absolute dark of the night, and are etched in your mind allowing you to still see the message even when you close your eyes. This experience must be just another thing we lost to urbanization and advancing technology, which both have stolen many things from us while providing things that facilitate our lives only in the material aspect. For instance, it gave us modern buildings while stealing the neighborhood relations of the past. Regardless, let's delve a little further into the history of the mahyas.

Since they are strung between minarets of mosques only during Ramadan and a few other very special occasions, the word mahya has come to be associated with this holy month of fasting. Although it is generally believed that the mahya tradition appeared for the first time in the 16th century in İstanbul, the tradition of adorning mosques with oil or candle lanterns on blessed days and nights to facilitate worship and to give glad tidings of the arrival of those blessed days or months dates back to the first centuries of Islam.

An early Muslim scholar Fâkihî (d. 891) writes that the mosque around the Kaaba, Masjid-i Haram, had 455 lanterns, and some of them, which radiated more light than others, were lit only in Ramadan and during the pilgrimage time. This practice might well have served as the inspiration for the tradition of mahya, which is exclusively an Ottoman invention and practice.

History of Mahya

It is not exactly known when the Ottomans strung the first mahya and what they wrote. However, a depiction in the famous German traveler Schweigger's book clearly indicates that there was a mahya in İstanbul, strung in a similar way to today's mahyas, in 1578 -- the year when he visited the Ottoman capital. It is found in historical sources that a muezzin (the person who chants the call to prayer) of the Fatih Mosque, built by Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, Calligrapher Hâfız Ahmed Kefevî strung the first mahya, as we know it today, between two of the minarets of the Sultanahmet Mosque (the Blue Mosque.)

The mahyas, strung only on blessed nights and for religious festivities, started appearing between the minarets of all sultan mosques -- namely, those built by sultans using their personal wealth -- upon order of Damad İbrahim Pasha in 1723 when more and more people demanded to see them in their own neighborhoods.

As most sultan mosques had at least two minarets, they were quite suitable for stringing mahya. However, some of them, like the Eyüp Sultan Mosque, had only two short minarets, which made it nearly impossible to string a mahya. The short minarets of such sultan mosques were later replaced with longer ones. For instance, Damad İbrahim Pasha gave the order to make the Eyüp Sultan's minarets longer in 1723.

As the popularity of mahyas grew among the public, some bigger mosques with a single minaret were also adorned with mahyas. As in the Hekimoğlu Ali Pasha and Davutpasha Mosques, the mahya would be strung between the minaret and the top of the dome, although it would incline slightly toward the dome, and thus would not be as straight as those strung for the sultan mosques.

Apart from these stationary mahyas, there were also ones designed to move. One that attracted the most attention was made by the famous mahya-maker of the Süleymaniye Mosque, Abdüllatif Efendi, whose craft was known all around the capital during the time of Sultan Abdülaziz. His moving mahya consisted of three pieces.

The one in the middle depicting the Unkapanı Bridge and the Azapkapı Mosque was still; the upper one, depicting horse-drawn carriages, and the lower one with fish and kayaks on it were in motion. Someone in the minaret would move the upper and lower boards, and it would present a very pleasant scene for those watching from afar.

In some mosques, it was possible to encounter mahyas inside, just above the altar hanging from the lowest part of the dome, where it was connected to the highest part of the wall which was the niche of the imam (mihrab).

Apart from İstanbul, the only Anatolian cities with mosques where mahyas were strung were Edirne and Bursa -- two very important cities, which both had served as the capital before Istanbul was made capital by Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror. They both had mosques with two minarets such as the Selimiye, Beyazıt and Üç Şerefeli Mosques in Edirne and the Grand (Ulu) Mosque in Bursa.

In İstanbul, Ramadan would come resplendent amidst the mahyas strung in the Nusretiye, Ortaköy and Dolmabahçe mosques in the Tophane district; the Şemsipasha and Selimiye Mosques in the Üsküdar (Scutari) district; the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), Sultanahmet, Cedid Valide, Süleymaniye, Fatih, Nuruosmaniye and Yeni Camii (New Mosque) Mosques in the Eminönü-Beyazıt district.

Mahyas were not strung only on blessed nights and during the month of Ramadan. For instance, when Sultan Abdülaziz returned from his visit to Europe or when Atatürk came to İstanbul accompanied by Hidiv İsmail Pasha and the Iranian Shah, "welcoming mahyas" were strung.

During the years of occupation in İstanbul, mahyas that read "Always Victorious" and "Don't forget the Red Crescent" illuminated the minarets of the sultan mosques. When, for example, the sultan was to honor the route peculiar to the "Procession of the Blessed Cloak of the Prophet," (In Istanbul, there are two garments of Prophet Muhammad; one of them, the one given by the Prophet to a saint in Yemen called Uvays'a-l Karanî, preserved in the Hırka-i Şerîf [the Blessed Cardigan] Mosque, would be visited after the 15th day of Ramadan) the large mosques along the route such as the Nusretiye, Dolmabahçe and Ortaköy mosques would be endowed with mahyas reading "Long Live (My) Sultan" or "Always Victorious" (referring to the sultan). These mahyas were strung particularly by Mehmet Ali Efendi, the mahya master of the Sultanahmet Mosque during the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz.


According to information from the late Süheyl Ünver -- a professor of medicine, a nay player, a paper-marbling (ebru) artist, an accomplished calligrapher and miniature painter, a famous archivist of Turkish culture and a researcher and writer -- the mahya master would embroider a scale model of whatever was to be strung up with pearls onto green or red satin, and thus request the sultan to choose the phrases and designs.

Following the determination of the mahya, the mahya master or masters would set about stringing the mahya between the minarets of the selected mosque, which was a very difficult job that necessitated utmost attention. Once strung, the oil of the lanterns would be refilled every evening, and an average of five okkas of olive oil (1 okka = 1.282 kg) would be used every day.

Towards the end of the Ottoman Empire, mahyas with electric light bulbs were also made; however, first to perpetuate the traditional way of doing it and since the ones strung with light bulbs were not as beautiful, the practice was ended, and mahya masters switched back to their old system. Today, all of them are strung with modern electric light bulbs. Recently the newest method, called "hose mahya," which involves writing the phrases with illuminated transparent tubes, has been adopted by some mahya masters.

Mahya making is a profession usually passed from father to son. However, in Ottoman times, a person who wanted to work as a mahya master would be tested by a committee called the Jury of Foundations, consisting of the most experienced mahya masters and some dignitaries of the city.

Once he proved his capacity and knowledge, he would be qualified to work as a mahya master. They would mostly work only during Ramadan and would spend the rest of the year training apprentices. In a primary school located in the Fatih district, they had rooms of their own, which they would use to train the novices.

Süheyl Ünver provides a list of the 23 mahya masters alive as of 1931 and of the mosques where they worked in his book, "Research on Mahya." In the pre-electric era, mahya making was a genuinely difficult craft. The phrases strung up in mahyas are usually selected from the sayings of Prophet Mohammed. But in recent years, some phrases attract attention with their originality and the message they convey. For instance, the mahya strung for the last two years between the minarets of the Süleymaniye Mosque, "O Fast, Hold Us," is very striking.

The phrase belongs to Dr. Adnan Ertem, the İstanbul Regional Director of the Directorate of Foundations. Ertem says, "The fast we observe should be able to give us the strength and the will to abstain from all evil deeds and bad language. To point out this fact, this supplication came to mind, and I said, 'O fast, hold us!'"


Last masters

The mahya tradition is carried on currently by four mahya masters employed by the Directorate of Foundations. All of them have been masters for over three decades; Kahraman Yıldız, Süleyman Kök, İlyas Tosyalı and Ahmet Aslandağ are unfortunately the last representatives of this art. They have been demanding apprentices to teach their craft to before they die in order that this unique art and tradition may live on. They begin their Ramadan preparations 20 days before the month begins. Apart from the sultan mosques of İstanbul, they string mahyas for those in Bursa. The phrases written in mahyas are changed four times during the month to provide as many messages as possible. Stringing and hanging the new mahya takes them one day. Kahraman Yıldız, the oldest master, says that the phrases to be written in the mahya are determined by a committee. He notes that an average mahya is strung with 150 to 300 light bulbs and weighs around 150 to 200 kilograms. The master complains about the recently introduced "hose mahyas," and stresses that they will never take the place of the classic mahyas.

Today's Zaman

Last Mod: 21 Eylül 2007, 10:43
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