About Martin

Scholar of Islamic Studies, Bibliophile, Manuscripter

US Army Guide to Calcutta, circa 1945

At this summer’s Westport Public Library Book Sale I came across a guide to Calcutta, India prepared by the Information and Education Branch of the United States Army Forces during World War II.

The Calcutta Key

The small pamphlet provides both cultural information and advice on living abroad in the city. Brigadier General Robert Reese Neyland provides the following introduction:

“TEEK-HAI”

Once I knew a man who grew up in Philadelphia but never visited Independence Hall located there. I know several New Yorkers who though they live in its shadow, have never visited the Statue of Liberty.

I hope it can never be said that you were in Calcutta and didn’t visit the Burning Ghats, the Kalighat Temple, and some of the other – equally famous – sights which Calcutta affords.

If you come here with an open mind you will find Calcutta is “Teek-Hai” (Okay). Of course, it’s just like visiting any big city back home: you can have a good time, or a bad time, depending on how well you take care of yourself.

Incidentally, the people here like us. They think we’re all right. Thanks to the good behavior of American soldiers who preceded you, a friendly welcome from these folks awaits you. If you behave equally as well, a similar welcome will await your buddies who follow you in here.

“Teek-hai?”

Br. Gen. R. R. Neyland

Calcutta, 1945.

(Information and Education Branch, The Calcutta Key,  3)

Illustration for “That Minor Sport – Bargaining”

Unfortunately, Islam and Muslims are rarely mentioned in the publication. Nevertheless, there are a few notices. Under the section “People in Calcutta” we find the following:

The Local Man. Being a Bengal he usually has no headdress. Of the Bengalis only the Muslim wears a fez, and even then he does not wear one all the time. The Bengali is the chap who wears a sheet-like cloth which you will see draped about his waist and legs, with the ends of the cloth tucked between the legs – sometimes winding up in a flowing, folded end that hangs in front. The shirt-like garment is worn outside the lower one. (Remember those jitter-bugs back home who thought they were starting a new fad by allowing their shirttails to hang outside their trousers?)

(The Calcutta Key, 7)

Mention is also made of “the Nakhoda Mosque which is the largest Mohammaden mosque in Calcutta” under the “American Red Cross Daily Tours” as part of the second of such excursions (The Calcutta Key, 45).

On a more general note, we find the following interesting description under the section “Our Allies”:

You Look At The Indian. You look at the Indian daily, you pass him on the streets, his life touches yours constantly. But do you actually see him, do you get a picture of what makes him tick, or do you brush him off in your mind as “That darn native who….”? (He is an Indian, not a native, by the way – and you, being a non-Asiatic in a country where all such visitors are for convenience classed as Europeans, you are a ‘European’) You do see that the Indian is different from yourself. Granted. But – do you see that the difference between the two of you does not give you a reason to criticise the Indian? Do you try to realize that the Indian’s dress is not strange for India? Rather, it fits the climate here. The Indian thinks his turban to be sacred and does not want it touched. Is that silly to you? Okay, soldier, how’d you like to be back in the United States sporting a new light-grey snap-brim felt and have some stranger come along and casually reach up to finger it? When the stranger had picked himself up…! Many Indian women object to hands being touched even in a friendly handshake. Perhaps you may feel the same way about the French custom of kissing you on both cheeks. Kissing you, the nerve of the guy! Everywhere, in streams, ponds, or under public fountains, you will see Indians taking baths by pouring water on themselves; although they have their own standards and their own instincts for cleanliness, a great number of Indians consider a bathtub to be dirty. Queer of them, isn’t it? Ha, ha! Some of our own States once outlawed the use of bathtubs as being immoral. To repeat, yes, the Indian is different. But instead of merely noticing that difference and judging it hastily, suppose we take a good long second look and attempt to understand the fellow’s customs and ways of living. Remember, it is an age-old failure to laugh at things that you do not understand.

(The Calcutta Key, 11-12)

Illustration for “What To Do and Where To Go”

Finally, some concise guidelines:

TRY THESE “DO’S” FOR SIZE

1. Avoid political discussions.

2. Act here with the same common courtesy you use at home.

3. Guide the other fellow’s conduct; ‘breaks’ reflect on all.

4. Replace, “Hey, you!” with “Bhai!” or “Brother!”

5. Discuss Indian customs out of their sight and hearing.

6. You’re in Rome. Keep your ways; let the Romans have theirs.

7. Keep your temper; the Indian will keep his.

8. An attitude of respect leads to ‘breaks’ being forgiven.

9. Take pictures only of the laboring classes (and them only if they cnnsent [sic]); upper-class Indians don’t like to be photographed.

10. Look at passing British and Indian women without tossing remarks at them. Four out of five women over here are offended by “yoo-hoos.”

(The Calcutta Key, 16-17)

The publication page of “The Calcutta Key”

Now, a bonus excerpt:

Women. (whoops, here we go again! But we don’t mind knocking ourselves out if you guys don’t mind listening.) Those of you who have already made up your minds to abstain, kindly turn to the next movie section and decide what show you want to go to tonight. That eliminates part of the audience – we hope. To go on: As in any port city in the Orient, Calcutta is riddled with venereal diseases. Studies show that professional prostitutes are 150% infected (half have one and the other half have two). Even in the native population the rate is well over 50%. That good-looking amateur whom you think you convinced by your personal charm may be just the baby to hand you a gift package – unwrapped.

(The Calcutta Key, 75)

The final illustration in “The Calcutta Key” pamphlet

Information and Education Branch, United States Army Forces in India-Burma. The Calcutta Key. Calcutta: The Indian Press Limited, n.d. [ca. 1945].

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The Sahaba of Istanbul [2] The Underground Mosque

For the second post of this series (Part 1) we turn momentarily from Eyüp to cover perhaps the best known tombs after that of Abū Ayyub al-Anṣārī. The site is located in Galata in the Yeraltı Camii or the Underground Mosque, a site previously mentioned in our treatment of Strolling Through Istanbul.

The seaside entrance to the Yeraltı Camii with signpost to the tombs

The relevant excerpt from there reads:

Towards the rear of the mosque we find the tombs of two sainted martyrs, Abu Sufyan and Amiri Wahabi, both of whom are supposed to have died in the first Arab siege of the city in the seventh century. Their graves were revealed to a Nakşibendi dervish in a dream in 1640, whereupon Sultan Murat IV constructed a shrine on the site. (Sumner-Boyd and Freely, Strolling Through Istanbul, 412)

There appears to be some confusion as to the names of the persons buried here given that the signs currently posted throughout the Underground Mosque (Amr bin As, Vehb bin Hüşeyre, and Süfyan bin Üyeyne) differ from those given by Sumner-Boyd and Freely.  Hasluck, whose work appears in the 1920s, also uses different names in his interesting record:

The building seems to have been identified by the discovery in it of alleged Arab tombs, now attributed to saints named Amiri, Wahabi (left of entrance), and Sufian or Abu Sufian (right of entrance). The latter tomb is the most important of the group and occupies a separate compartment within a grille; it is evidently associated with Sufian, one of the Arab warriors who took part in the first Arab siege (672-7) by Moawiya. It is frequented as a pilgrimage by Turkish and Armenian, occasionally by Greek, women. For a small fee the guardian lays on the tomb a new garment of handkerchief, which, having remained there forty days, is an infallible love-charm, if worn by the man it is desired to attract. Women desirous of children wear round their waists a handkerchief which has been consecrate in a similar way. (Hasluck, Christianity and Islam Under the Sultans, 2:727)

It appears that Sumner-Boyd and Freely relied on Hasluck and confused “Amiri, Wahabi” as a single name when Hasluck rather intended to designate two different ones: Amiri and Wahabi. Furthermore, that one of the tombs might be called Abu Sufyān, rather than just Sufyān, is explained by Hasluck in a footnote which states, “Abu Sufian was the title of the caliph Moawiya.”

The Gated Enclosure to the Tombs of Wahb and ‘Amr b. al-‘Āṣ

Greater detail is given in Namık Erkal’s relatively recent architectural study of the mosque, which was once the Fort of Galata under the Byzantines and then a Leaded Magazine (Kurşulu Mahzen):

In the reign of Mahmud I (r. 1730-1754), it was by the prophecy of a Nakshibendi sheikh from Damascus that the relics of three martyrs from the siege were discovered by the wall of the Magazine in leaded coffins, to further elevate the Islamic connotation of the site -and bring a new reading on the term “leaded”. It was said that the relics were found buried on the side of a wall in a chamber the gate of which was “leaded” by the Umayyads during the siege… There were three coffins within the mosque, one of them being a separate tomb and two others within the Hall behind the rails. (Erkal, “The Corner of the Horn,” 215-6)

The footnote at the end of Erkal’s passage reads:

The relics are said to be of Vehb bin Huseyre (inside the rails, who joined the second Umayyad siege); Amr bin As who is the conqurer of Egypt and who was dead at the time of Umayyad sieges but is believed to visit his tomb within the mosque; Süfyan bin Uyeyne, resting in the Tomb was born in the 8th century and died in 814. The tomb has been constructed and restored several times. (Erkal, “The Corner of the Horn,” 216, fn. 105)

For the sake of this post, I will proceed as if the persons ascribed to the tombs in the Underground Mosque are in fact the ones designated in the presently found signs.

ʿAmr b. al-‘Āṣ (d. 43/663-4) and Wahb b. Hushayra

Near the back entrance of Underground Mosque and off to the side is a gated room bearing two side-by-side tombs bathed in green light. Supposedly therein lie ʿAmr b. al-‘Āṣ (Amr bin As, Turkish) and Wahb b. Husahyra (Vehb bin Hüşeyre, Turkish). ‘Amr b. al-‘Āṣ is best remembered for leading the Muslim conquest of Egypt. As al-Ṭabarī memorializes for “The Events of the Year 43 (April 15, 663 – April 2, 664)”, he also served for the remainder of his life as its governor:

In this year ‘Amr b. al-‘Āṣ died in Egypt on Yawm al-Fiṭr (January 6, 664). He has been its governor for ‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb for four years, and for ‘Uthmān for four years minus two months, and for Mu’āwiyah for two years minus one month. (al-Ṭabarī, History, 18:32)

The tombs of Wahb and ‘Amr b. al-‘Āṣ

In his early life, ʿAmr b. al-‘Āṣ was among the Quraysh who opposed the Prophet Muhammad. He was famously sent with ‘Abd Allāh b. Abī Rabī’a to entreat the Negus of Abyssinia to send back the Muslim Emigrants who had fled there. After the Battle of the Trench but before the conquest of Mecca, ʿAmr b. al-‘Āṣ became Muslim. He relates the story of his conversion in Ibn Isḥāq’s biography of the Prophet:

Yazīd b. Abū Ḥabīb from Raṣhid client of Ḥabīb b. Abū Aus al-Thaqafī from Ḥabīb told me that ‘Amr b. al-‘Āṣ told him from his own mouth: When we came away from the trench with the mixed tribes I gathered some of Quraysh together, men who shared my opinion and would listen to me, and said: ‘You know that in my opinion this affair with Muhammad will go to unheard-of lengths and I should like to know what you think of my opinion. I think that we ought to go to the Negus and stay with him. If Muhammad conquers our people we shall be with the Negus and we should prefer to be subject to his authority rather than to Muhammad; on the other hand, if our people get the upper hand they know us and will treat us well.’ They thought that my suggestion was excellent so I told them to collect something that we could take as a present to him; as leather was a product of our land which he most valued we collected a large quantity and took it to him.

While we were with him who should come to him but ‘Amr b. Umayya al-Ḍamrī whom the apostle had sent concerning Ja’far and his companions. He had an audience with the Negus, and when he came out I said to my companions that if I were to go to the Negus and ask him to let me have him, he would give him to me and we could cut off his head; and when I had done that Quraysh would see that I had served them well in killing Muhammad’s messenger. So I went to the Negus and did obeisance as was my wont. He welcomed me as a friend and asked if I had brought anything from our country, and when I told him that I had brought a large quantity of leather and produced it he was greatly pleased and coveted it. Then I said, ‘O King, I have just seen a man leave your presence. He is the messenger of an enemy of ours, so let me have him that I may kill him, for he has killed some of our chiefs and best men.’ He was enraged, and stretching out his hand he gave his nose such a blow that I thought he would have broken it. If the earth had opened I would have gone into it to escape his anger. I said that had I known that my request would have been distasteful to him I would not have made it. He said, ‘Would you ask me to give you the messenger of a man to whom the great Nāmūs comes as he used to come to Moses, so that you might kill him!’ When I asked if he were really that great he said: ‘Woe to you, ‘Amr, obey me and follow him,  for by Allah he is right and will triumph over his adversaries as Moses triumphed over Pharaoh and his armies.’ I asked him if he would accept my allegiance to Muhammad in Islam, and he stretched out his hand and I gave my allegiance. When I went out to my companions I had entirely changed my mind, but I concealed my Islam from my companions.

Then I went off making for Muhammad to adopt Islam, and met Khālid b. al-Walīd coming from Mecca. This was a little while before the occupation of Mecca. I said, ‘Where are you going, Abū Sulaymān?’ He said: ‘The way has become clear. The man is certainly a prophet, and by Allah I’m going to be a Muslim. How much longer should I delay?’ I told him that I too was travelling with the same object in view, so we went to Medina to the apostle. Khālid got there first and accepted Islam and gave his allegiance. Then I came up and said, ‘O apostle, I will give you my allegiance on condition that my past faults are forgiven and no mention is made of what has gone before.’ He said, ‘Give allegiance ‘Amr, for Islam does away with all that preceded it, as does the hijra.’ So I gave my allegiance and went away. (Ibn Isḥāq, The Life of Muhammad, 484-5)

As for Wahb b. Hushayra (if the ascribed name is correct) he appears to have been a minor Companion who partook in one of the early Umayyad attacks on Constantinople. As I have fallen short on sources, I would appreciate any references to his life or a reliable identification.

The tomb of Sufyān b. ‘Uyayna

Sufyān b. ‘Uyayna (d. 198/814)

Located in a separate room is a tomb bearing the name of Sufyān b. ‘Uyayna (Süfyan bin Üyeyne, Turkish). It is possible that the tomb has been misidentified since Sufyān b. ‘Uyayna’s years of life puts him later than the generation of the Companions. The actual person buried here may be another (Abū?) Sufyān. Nevertheless, Sufyān b. ‘Uyayna is a revered figure in the Islamic tradition. From Kufa, Sufyān was a noted hadith transmitter, exegete, and jurist. He studied with al-Zuhrī (d. 124/742) and went on to teach al-Shāfi’ī (d. 204/820). Al-Ṭabarī’s biographical entry on Sufyān states:

Sufyān b. ‘Uyayna b. Abī ‘Imrān. His kunyah was Abū Muḥammad; he was a client of the Banū ‘Abdallāh b. Ruwayhbah, [a clan of] the Banū Hilāl b. ‘Āmir b. Ṣa’ṣa’ah. Sufyān’s father, ‘Uyaynah, was a functionary of Khālid b. ‘Abdallāh al-Qasrī. When Khālid was dismissed from [his office as governor of] Iraq and replaced by Yūsuf b. ‘Umar al-Thaqafī, the latter pursued Khālid’s functionaries, so they fled from him. ‘Uyaynah b. Abī ‘Imrān went away and settled in Mecca.

According to Ibn Sa’d > Muḥammad b. ‘Umar [al-Wāqidī]: Sufyān b. ‘Uyaynah told me that he was born in the year 107 [725-6]. He had pursued knowledge at an early [age] and became a ḥāfiẓ. He lived a long life, until his peers died and he outlived them.

Sufyān related: I went to the Yemen in the years 150 [767-8] and 152 [769-70] while Ma’mar [b. Rāshid] was still alive. [Sufyān] al-Thawrī preceded me [there] by a year.

According to Ibn Sa’d > al-Ḥasan b. ‘Imrān b. ‘Uyaynah, Sufyān’s nephew: I was with my uncle on the last pilgrimage he made [to Mecca], in the year 197 [August 813]. When he was at Jam’, having prayed, he lay on his mat and said to me: “I have arrived at this place for seventy years, and each time I said ‘O Lord, do not make this the last time that I visit this place.’ I feel embarrassed before God about asking Him this so many times.” Sufyān returned [from his pilgrimage] and died the next year, on Saturday the 1st of Rajab 198/February 25, 814. He was buried at al-Ḥajūn. He was ninety-one years old [when he died]. (al-Ṭabarī, History, 39:265-6)

The back entrance to the Yeraltı Camii

Erkal, Namık. “The Corner of the Horn: An Architectural Review of the Leaded Magazine in Galata İstanbul.” Middle East Technical University (METU) Journal of the Faculty of Architecture 28.1 (2011): 197-227.

Hasluck, F.W. Christianity and Islam Under the Sultans, Volume I and II. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929.

Muḥammad b. Isḥāq b. Yasār. The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Isḥāq’s Sīrat Rasūl Allāh. Translated by A. Guillaume. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Sumner-Boyd, Hilary and John Freely. Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City. London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2010.

al-Ṭabarī, Muḥammad b. Jarīr. The History of al-Ṭabarī, Volume XVIII: Between Civil Wars: The Caliphate of Mu’āwiyah. Translated by Michael G. Morony. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

al-Ṭabarī, Muḥammad b. Jarīr. The History of al-Ṭabarī, Volume XXXIX: Biographies of the Prophet’s Companions and Their Successors. Translated by Ella Landau-Tasseron. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

To access the other posts in the series:

The Sahaba of Istanbul [1] Abu Ayyub al-Ansari

The Sahaba of Istanbul [3] Eyup

The Sahaba of Istanbul [4] The City Walls of Leo and Heraclius

The Sahaba of Istanbul [5] The Ayvansaray Coast

The Sahaba of Istanbul [6] Galata/Eminonu/Sultanahmet (forthcoming)

The Sahaba of Istanbul [1] Abu Ayyub al-Ansari

The city of Istanbul, once Constantinople, purportedly hosts the tombs of many Sahaba, the revered Companions of the Prophet Muhammad.

Though the city did not fall until 1453, when it was conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (d. 886/1481), Muslims forces campaigned against the city during the earliest decades of Islam’s irruption onto the world stage. The fifth Caliph Mu’āwiya (d. 60/680) directed a major campaign against Constantinople in the year 49/669, less than forty years after the Prophet’s death. In these earliest of days, it was often at the very walls of the city itself that some Companions of the Prophet reportedly breathed their last breath.

The present post is the first of a series that will document the lives and alleged burial sites of many of these Sahaba.* By some counts, more than thirty such tombs are spread across the city. During our last visit to the city in May of 2012 we visited many- but far from all- of these in order to properly locate and photo-document them. It is hoped that this series will facilitate the future visits of other travelers and to shed further light on Istanbul’s importance for the tradition.

Eyüp Sultan Camii

Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī

Just beyond the city walls and alongside the Golden Horn is the district of Eyüp, named after the tomb and mosque complex built around the burial site of Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī (d. 52/672). Our guide to the city John Freely reports:

The mosque of Eyüp is the holiest in Istanbul; indeed after Mecca and Jerusalem it is perhaps the most sacred place of pilgrimage in the Islamic world. This is because it is the reputed burial place of Eyüp (Job) Ensari, the friend and standard-bearer of the Prophet Muhammed. Long after the Prophet’s death, Eyüp is said to have been one of the leaders of the first Arab siege of Constantinople from 674 to 678 and to have been killed and buried somewhere outside the walls. When some eight centuries later Fatih Mehmet besieged the city, he and his advisors, as Evliya Çelebi writes,

“spent seven whole days searching for the tomb. At last Akşemsettin (the Şeyh-ül Islam) exclaimed, ‘Good news, my Prince, of Eyüp’s tomb!’ Thus saying he began to pray and then fell asleep. Some interpreted this sleep as a veil cast by shame over his ignorance of the tomb; but after some time he raised his head, his eyes became bloodshot, the sweat ran from his forehead, and he said to the Sultan, ‘Eyüp’s tomb is on the very spot where I spread the carpet for prayer.’ Upon this, three of his attendants together with the Şeyh and the Sultan began to dig up the ground, when at a depth of three yards they found a square stone of verd antique on which was written in Cufic letters: ‘This is the tomb of Eba Eyüp.’ They lifted the stone and found below it the body of Eyüp wrapped up in a saffron-coloured shroud, with a brazen play-ball in his hand, fresh and well-preserved. They replaced the stone, formed a little mound of the earth they had dug up, and laid the foundations of the mausoleum amidst the prayers of the whole army.”

This pleasant story, though still current and recounted in one form or another by the guides and guidebooks, seems rather unlikely – apart from its supernatural elements – because it appears that the tomb had always been known and respected even by the Byzantines. Various Arab historians note that it was made a condition of peace, after the first Arab siege, that the tomb should be preserved. An Arab traveller during the reign of Manuel I Comnenus (r. 1143-80) mentions it as still existing in his day, while another traveller, Zakariya al-Kazwini (ca. 1203-83), relates that “this tomb is now venerated among them (the Byzantines) and they open it when they pray for rain in times of drought; and rain is granted them.” If the tomb was still extant in early Palaeologan times [dynasty begins 1259], it seems improbable that it should so completely have disappeared before the Turkish conquest. Probably, Fatih restored or rebuilt it on a grander scale. (Sumner-Boyd and Freely, Strolling Through Istanbul, 363-4) 

Remarkably, the early historian al-Ṭabarī (d. 311/923) corroborates Freely’s account of Byzantine Christians visiting the tomb of Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī. Furthermore, al-Ṭabarī’s attestation forwards the popular phenomenon to the early 4th/10th century:

It was reported that the Greeks frequent his grave, renovate it, and pray there for rain in times of drought. (al-Ṭabarī, The History of al-Ṭabarī, 39:40)

Philip K. Hitti provides a slightly different account than Freely of the burial place’s discovery as well as offering some details concerning Abū Ayyūb’s final campaign:

Tradition asserts that in the course of the siege abu-Ayyūb  died of dysentery and was buried before the walls of Constantinople. His legendary tomb soon became a shrine even for the Christian Greeks, who made pilgrimages to it in times of drought to pray for rain. During the siege of Constantinople in 1453 by the Turks, the tomb was miraculously discovered by rays of light… and a mosque was built on the site. Thus did the Madīnese gentleman become a saint for three nations. (Hitti, History of the Arabs, 201-2)

The Courtyard of Eyüp Sultan Camii. The tomb of Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī lies in an alcove just behind the tree.

Returning to the immense historical chronicle by al-Ṭabarī we find the following about Abū Ayyūb listed among “The Events of the Year 49 (February 9, 669-January 28, 670)”:

The raid of Yazīd b. Mu’āwiyah against the Byzantines occurred during this year. He reached Qusṭanṭīniyyah accompanied by Ibn ‘Abbās, Ibn ‘Umar, Ibn al-Zubayr, Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī. (al-Ṭabarī, History, 18:94)

Then later under “Those Who Died or Were Killed in the Year 52 (January 8, 672-December 26, 672)” al-Ṭabarī states:

Among them was Abū Ayyūb. His name was Khālid b. Zayd b. Kulayb b. Tha’labah b. ‘Abd b. ‘Awf b. Ghanm b. Mālik b. al-Najjār. All [the biographers] are unanimous that he was one of the seventy Anṣār who swore allegiance to the Prophet on the night of the ‘Aqabah meeting. The Prophet established the bound of brotherhood (mu’ākhāh) between Abū Ayyūb and Muṣ’ab b. ‘Umayr. Abū Ayyūb participated in [the battles of] Badr, Uḥud, and the Ditch and all the [other] events on the Prophet’s side.

Abū Ayyūb died when Yazid b. Mu’āwiyah raided Constantinople during the caliphate of his father, Mu’āwiyah. His grave is at the foot of the fortress in Constantinople, in the Byzantine territory. (al-Ṭabarī, History, 39:40)

As al-Ṭabarī has related, Abū Ayyūb was among the first Muslims of Medina. In fact, as Ibn Isḥāq and al-Balãdhūrī report, the Prophet took up residence with Abū Ayyūb when he first arrived in the city and stayed there until the mosque’s construction was completed (Ibn Isḥāq, The Life of Muhammad, 228-30; al-Balãdhūrī, The Origins of the Islamic State, 19).

More on the life of Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī can be found in a modern pietistic compilation by AbdulWāhid Hāmid. We will conclude this post with an excerpt from the end of his account given his appropriately memorializing tone of Abū Ayyūb:

The last campaign he took part in was the one prepared by Mu’āwiyah and led by his son Yazīd against Constantinople. Abū Ayyūb at that time was a very old man, almost eighty years old. But that did not prevent him from joining the army and crossing the seas as a ghāzī in the path of God. After only a short time engaged in battled, Abū Ayyūb fell ill and had to withdraw from fighting. Yazīd came to him and asked: “Do you need anything, Abū Ayyūb?” 

“Convey my salāms to the Muslim armies and say to them: ‘Abū Ayyūb urges you to penetrate deeply into the territory of the enemy as far as you can go, that you should carry him with you and that you should bury him under your feet at the walls of Constantinople.'” Then he breathed his last.

The Muslim army fulfilled the desire of the companion of the Messenger of God. They pushed back the enemy’s forces in attack after attack until they reached the walls of Constantinople. There they buried him. (Hāmid, Companions of the Prophet, 1:157-8)

Visitors and pilgrims gathered before the tomb of Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī.

*I say “alleged” simply because the history of such sites are more rich and complicated than they initially appear. Several of these sites, for example, were in fact places of veneration for the city’s Christians as well, well before the arrival of the Ottomans. Rather than wrestling with questions of historicity, the posts of this series will focus more on what the available narratives and sources have to report about the Companions supposedly buried in Istanbul. And to encourage more curious readers, I refer to English-language sources or English translations of primary sources wherever possible, though this may not always be maintained throughout the series. Finally, I try to provide dates both in the ḥijrī (Islamic calendar, AH) and Common Era (CE).

al-Balãdhūrī, Abū l-‘Abbās Aḥmad b. Jābir. The Origins of the Islamic State: Kitāb Futūḥ al-buldān. Translated by Philip Khūri Hitti. Beirut: Khayats, 1966.

Hāmid, AbdulWāhid. Companions of the Prophet, Book One, New Revised Edition. London: MELS, 1998, 153-8.

Hitti, Philip K. History of the Arabs. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Muḥammad b. Isḥāq b. Yasār. The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Isḥāq’s Sīrat Rasūl Allāh. Translated by A. Guillaume. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Sumner-Boyd, Hilary and John Freely. Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City. London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2010.

al-Ṭabarī, Muḥammad b. Jarīr. The History of al-Ṭabarī, Volume XVIII: Between Civil Wars: The Caliphate of Mu’āwiyah. Translated by Michael G. Morony. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

al-Ṭabarī, Muḥammad b. Jarīr. The History of al-Ṭabarī, Volume XXXIX: Biographies of the Prophet’s Companions and Their Successors. Translated by Ella Landau-Tasseron. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

To access the other posts in the series:

The Sahaba of Istanbul [2] The Underground Mosque

The Sahaba of Istanbul [3] Eyup

The Sahaba of Istanbul [4] The City Wall Beside the Golden Horn 

The Sahaba of Istanbul [5] Ayvansaray Coast

The Sahaba of Istanbul [6] Galata/Eminonu/Sultanahmet (forthcoming)

Mecca, Mahomet and Cairo in America

What’s in a name?

Spread across the United States, but especially in the Midwest, are several towns and cities bearing Middle Eastern, if not explicitly Islamic names: Mecca, Mahomet, Morocco, Cairo.

Abandoned Downtown Cairo, Illinois

George Stewart’s classic Names on the Land offers some explanation, but only for Cairo, Illinois. He writes:

Various imaginative people had not failed to compare the Mississippi with the Nile. Analogies were obvious enough. Both were great and muddy rivers, given to inundations, highways for travel. The hope was also expressed that a new and greater civilization, surpassing even that of ancient Egypt, might soon develop along this “Nile of America.” Such analogies and hopes soon suggested the transplanting of Egyptian names. In 1818 a St. Louis merchant laid out a town at the junction of the Ohio and the Mississippi, and incorporated it as Cairo. The site was unhealthy and bad luck dogged the town. Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit pilloried it as the City of Eden. It never rivaled its prototype, but the influence of its name was great. Because of Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro) all Southern Illinois came to be known as the Land of Egypt, or merely Egypt, and its inhabitants are Egyptians even to this day.

Farther down the river also, another town was laid out, shortly after Cairo. Its founders too cherished hopes for its greatness, and were conscious of the Nile of America. They remembered the great city of ancient Egypt, and called their new venture Memphis. (Stewart, Names on the Land, 238-9)

Nathaniel Deutsch more recently has addressed others of these names in his study of the “Tribe of Ishmael” in America. In one section, where he critically analyzes the “Islamic hypothesis” of Hugo Leaming (see the book for further details), Deutsch discusses Mahomet, Illinois and the towns of Morocco and Mecca in Indiana.

Local legends concerning the origins of Mahomet, Illinois and Morocco and Mecca, Indiana, reveal no links to the Tribe of Ishmael. In the case of Mecca, however, they do suggest a possible connection to Islam. According to one local story, in the 1890s a tile plant was built in the vicinity of the town, “and they needed cheap workers, so they sent over to the Near East and got these Moslems… When they got paid, they’d come to town and say it was almost like coming to Mecca, and so they called the town Mecca.” Another local tradition traced the genesis of the towns name to the 1880s, when Arab workers from the Middle East were supposedly brought in to train Arabian horses.

Even though the names of Midwestern towns like Mahomet, Morocco, and Mecca do not teach us anything about the Ishmaelites, they do teach us something important about the presence of Islam in Middle America. Such names should be seen as part of the broader flowering of romantic Orientalism in America’s heartland during the second half of the nineteenth century. Residents of towns like Morocco and Mecca were attracted to these names for the same reason that they joined the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, visited the simulated streets of Cairo at the Chicago’s world’s fair of 1893, and smoked cigarette brands called Camel, Mecca, and Medina. As formerly rugged places like Indiana and Illinois ceased to mark the American frontier, residents began to turn their gaze from the Middle West to the Middle East in search of a new frontier-one to be imagined and consumed rather than physically settled.

During the same period that Shriners with names like Johnson and Kelly were donning fezzes and meeting in places like the Mohammed Temple in Peoria, Illinois, Arab immigrants from the Middle East were beginning to arrive in significant numbers in the United States. In the 1880s and 1890s, Muslim, Christian, and Druze Arabs established substantial communities throughout the Midwest, both in large cities like Detroit and Chicago and in smaller towns like Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Spring Valley, Illinois. We will probably never know whether Mecca, Indiana, received its name form Muslim laborers who settled in the town during this period, but more importantly, the local legends that suggest such an origin for the name Mecca point to the broader phenomenon of Muslim settlement in rural towns across the Midwest. (Deutsch, Inventing America’s “Worst” Family, 166-7)

George R. Stewart. 2008. Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States. New York: New York Review Books.

Nathaniel Deutsch. 2009. Inventing America’s “Worst” Family: Eugenics, Islam, and the Fall and Rise of the Tribe of Ishmael. Berkeley: University of California Press.

When Elvis and Sinatra Played At The Mosque

In Richmond, Virginia there is “the Mosque” where for decades American music legends have played packed and rapt audiences. But it is “the Mosque” in name only and, in fact, it is no longer officially called that. Today it is known as the Landmark Theater, located in Monroe Park next to the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. It began as a Shriner Temple, hence its original romanticized appellation of the Mosque. And much like the previously covered Mecca Temple in NYC, it too bears a distinctive Moorish Revival architectural style; domes, minarets, and arabesque motifs adorn the edifice.

Built in 1926 the Mosque was meant to serve as the main temple of the Acca Shriners, the local Richmond branch of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. While the Acca Shriners are still active today, they lost the Mosque in 1935 because of financial difficulties and the city of Richmond eventually bought the property five years later in 1940. In the 1990s concerns from local Muslims prompted the city to change the name from the Mosque to the Landmark Theater.  According to the Hampton Roads, VA newspaper Daily Press:

The city officially closed the building for renovation in 1994. And in 1995 the Mosque moniker was changed to Richmond’s Landmark Theater after area Muslims petitioned the City Council. They said mosque means “place of worship,” an inappropriate name for a building devoted to entertainment. (Pernell Watson and Elizabeth Joines, Daily Press, 14 April 1997)

For its many years of service the Mosque was a prime venue for touring performers and has hosted such artists as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Duke Ellington, and Bruce Springsteen. In fact Sinatra, near the end of his life and career, suffered a fall on stage while at the Mosque (more information on all these performances can be found here). At present the Mosque/Landmark Theater is closed, but according to a recent article (John Reid Blackwell, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 12 July 2012) the space is currently undergoing major renovations and is slated to reopen as the Altria Theater in October 2013. The name change to Altria is due to the sponsorship of Altria Group, Inc. (formerly Philip Morris Companies, Inc., the parent company of the Virginia tobacco company Philip Morris).

Notably, the building does not appear to have a plaque or sign designating it as a historic landmark. Perhaps this was an oversight on our part. In any case, let us hope the renovations do not dramatically change the distinctive designs adorning the building’s interior and exterior. More images of The Mosque can be found over on the appropriate gallery page.

Kitāb al-Futūḥāt al-rabbāniyya fī tafsīr mā warada fī al-Qurʾān min al-awāmir wa’l-nawāhī al-ilāhiyya

While browsing the used books in the Sahaflar Çarşısı (located in the Aslıhan Pasajı off of Istiklal Street in Beyoğlu, Istanbul) we came across a corner bookstore called Ayça Kitabevi. Inside I found a stack of mostly old Ottoman books, but intermixed with these works were a few Arabic ones.

After going through the store’s small collection I ended up purchasing a copy of the Qur’an printed in Mecca, whose publication date is unlisted (according to the text this edition was verified in Ramadan 1366/July-August 1947), and a two-volume Arabic tafsīr or commentary of the Qur’an. Both volumes of the text are in fairly poor condition. The cover to volume two, for example, has been previously “repaired” with tape. The tafsīr in question is entitled Kitāb al-Futūḥāt al-rabbāniyya fī tafsīr mā warada fī al-Qurʾān min al-awāmir wa’l-nawāhī al-ilāhiyya and was written by Muḥammad ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Ḥakīm. According to the introduction the author’s full name is Muḥammad ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Ḥakīm Ibn ʿUmar Rāsim b. Ḥusayn b. ʿAbd al-Raḥīm (vol. 1, p. 3). Consulting al-Ziriklī, the author, who also bears the nisba al-Kuraydī, appears to have died in 1324/1906 with this tafsīr listed as his only work of note (al-Ziriklī, al-Aʿlām, vol. 4, p. 24). This date of death cannot be correct if the tafsīr itself is to be believed. The colophon to the second volume states that the work was completed on Monday 29 Safar 1324/23 April 1906. However, the colophon to the first volume states that that volume was completed a year later on 12 Rabīʿ al-Awwal 1325/24 April 1907. It would seem that volume one was finished after volume two and that the author was still alive in 1325/1907.

The text is an aḥkām al-Qur’ān work. Based on the repeated Qur’anic injunction to command the good and forbid the wrong, the book is divided into two volumes; one deals accordingly with divine commands (awāmir) and the other with divine prohibitions (nawāhī). The first volume is 352 pages with 4 additional pages of corrections and the second volume is 354 pages also with 4 pages of corrections. Neither a date of publication or publisher is given in the work. The book appears to be rare. Checking the libraries catalogued on WorldCat the tafsīr only appears in the collection of two libraries: the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis and Brigham Young University. The edition that they have, however, is a later printing. We know this because their edition, which was published in 1936  by Maṭbaʿat el-Mahmūdiyyah in Cairo, has both volumes printed together as one, whereas as the present edition was printed as two separate volumes as it was initially intended.

If anyone can shed further light on this work or its author Muḥammad ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Ḥakīm, it would be greatly appreciated.

An Edition Concerning the Histories of Nishapur

In an earlier post on Frye and the Histories of Nishapur I drew attention to the importance of consulting the earliest surviving recension of Fārisī’s Kitāb al-Siyāq li-tārīkh Naysābūr as it is preserved in the facsimile edition prepared by Richard N. Frye. I was unaware at the time that an edition of that work had been published (Harvard at least had not and still does not own it). However, a few days ago while browsing the Arabic books at Şam Kitabevi in Istanbul I came across an edition prepared in Iran.

This work, edited by Muḥammad Kāẓim al-Maḥmūdī, was published by Mīrās-i Maktūb in 2005. I wish I had come across this book sometime earlier during the past seven years. It would have made the task of dealing with Fārisī much easier (On further investigation, a copy appears readily available at Yale where I could have accessed it earlier had I known of its existence, but by then I was reading from own copy of Frye).The indices are especially helpful and exceed Jaouiche’s indexing of the Kitāb al-Siyāq.

Nevertheless, I still believe Frye’s facsimile should be checked against the edition. An edition after all is ultimately an interpretation of how a manuscript should be read and the Fārisī manuscript can be quite difficult to read in places. For instance, my question concerning what appears to be a marginalia scrawling in the manuscript remains unanswered by the edition.

In any case, consider this 1) an update to the material available for Nishapur and 2) a notice to check out Şam Kitabevi for its Iranian editions of Arabic and Persian works (among other things) if you are ever in Istanbul. The location of the bookstore is marked on our Islamicana Map of Istanbul.

Abū al-Ḥasan al-Fārisi. 2005. al-Mukhtaṣar min mitāb al-siyāq li-tārīkh Naysābūr. Tehran: Mīrās-i Maktūb.

Andersen in Istanbul: The Mawlid of the Prophet Muhammad

The Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), famous for his stories and fairy tales, also captured his journeys abroad in a number of travelogues. The lengthy excerpt reproduced here recounts a visit to Istanbul (Constantinople) on the occasion of the birthday celebration, or Mawlid, for the Prophet Muhammad. He also recounts the public procession of the Sultan and his entourage from the Serail (meaning Topkapı Saray or Palace). The account gives yet another interesting outsider perspective on Ottoman life and society.

ConstantinopleThe following passage is found in an 1889 publication entitled Stories for the Household as are the two images (pp. 829 & 845 respectively) in this post:

MAHOMET’S BIRTHDAY. 

A SCENE IN CONSTANTINOPLE.

THE fourth of April is the birthday of the Prophet. Already on the eve of that day the celebration began; and to say the truth, the performance on the eve was the prettiest part of the festivity. I considered it unfortunate that the night happened to be moonlight, and that the Osmanli police regulations demanded that every one who went out after sundown should carry a light in a lantern; but I was obliged to submit, for the police regulation could not be altered, nor could the moonlight. A young Russian named Aderhas and I associated ourselves together, and, without a companion, but duly provided with a light in a great paper lantern, we sallied forth to behold the illumination in honour of the Prophet.

“We went through a narrow street of Pera, and before us lay a scene of fantastic beauty, such as we can only see in the North in a wondrous dream. From the row of houses near which we stood down towards the bay extended a churchyard, that is to say, a cypress grove, with thick dark trees ; and dark night rested upon it. Over rough hills, downwards among the tall trees, winds the path which the footsteps of men and the hoofs of horses have worn, sometimes among the tombs, sometimes among fallen grave-stones. Here and there a blue lantern was seen moving to and fro, which soon disappeared, to reappear shortly upon the black background of the picture.

In the churchyard a few lonely houses lie scattered, and the lights glimmered from the upper windows, or were carried to and fro upon the balconies.

Beyond the cypress-tops shone, blue as a Damascene blade, the Gulf with its many ships. Two of these, the largest, were richly ornamented with burning lamps, which glittered around the portholes, the masts, and the guns also, or were hung in the rigging, which shone like a spangled net. Just before us lay the town itself, the great far-spreading Constantinople, with its countless minarets all wreathed with garlands of lamps. The air was still red with the sheen of the setting sun, but so clear and transparent that the mountains of Asia, and Olympus, covered with perpetual snow, showed their sharp broken outlines like a silver-white cloud behind the glorious city. The moonlight did not deaden the splendour of the lamps, but only brought out the minarets in relief, till they looked like gigantic flower-stalks crowned with blossoms of flame. The smaller minarets had one starry wreath, the larger two, and the largest of all three, one over the other.

 Not a human being was to be seen in our neighbourhood, all was lonely and still. We wandered down among the cypresses; a nightingale was raising its flute-like voice, and turtle-doves cooed among the shadows of the trees. “We came past a little sentry-house, built of planks, and painted red; a little fire had been kindled in front of it, among the gravestones, and soldiers were reclining around it. They were dressed in European garb; but their complexion and features proclaimed them of Ishmael’s race, children of the desert. With long pipes in their mouths, they lay and listened to a story. This story was about Mahomet’s birth.

The nightingale translated it for us, or we should not have understood it. Here it is:

La illah il Allah!” “There is no God but God!” In the city of Mecca the merchants assembled for the sake of traffic; thither came Egyptian, and Persian, and Indian, and Syrian dealers. Each one had his idol in the temple Kabba, and a son of Ishmael’s race filled the highest office, namely, that of satisfying the hunger of the pilgrims and quenching their thirst. In his piety he wished, like Abraham, to offer up his son as a sacrifice; but the prophetess declared that the handsome Abdallah should live, and a hundred camels were sacrificed in his stead. “La illah il Allah!

And Abdallah grew to be a man, and was so handsome that a hundred maidens died for love of him. The prophetic flame shone on his forehead, the flame which passed hidden from race to race, until the Prophet was born, Mahomet, the first and the last. The prophetess Fatima saw this flame, and she offered a hundred camels if he would be her husband; but he married Amina, and the prophetic flame vanished from his forehead and burned in Amina’s heart. “La illah il Allah!

And the next year came round; the flowers had never been so sweet as they were this year, never had the fruits on the trees swelled with, such abundance of juice; and the rocks trembled, and the lake Sava sank into the earth, the idols fell down in the temple, and the demons, who wanted to storm the heavens, fell from the sky like millions of shooting stars, hurled down by the mighty hand that wielded the lance; for in that night Mahomet the Prophet was born. “La illah il Allah!

This was the story the nightingale translated for us, for the nightingale understands Turkish just as well as our own language.

We went forth beneath the tower of Pera, out to the convent of the dancing dervishes, and a beauteous panorama met our view. The whole Sea of Marmora lay before us, lighted up by the rays of the moon, and in the mid-distance Scutari [Üsküdar] stood forth, its minarets gleaming with many lamps like those of Constantinople. The Mosque of St. Sophia with its four, and the Mosque of Ahmed with its six minarets, stood forth in especial splendour, each pinnacle crowned with a double or a triple garland of glittering stars. They seemed to surround the garden of the Serail, which stretched down towards the Bosphorus, dark as a starless night. No light shone in the palace of the sultanas near the shore; but there where the Golden Horn ends, a sword of flame had been reared, that threw a ruddy glow over the waters. Innumerable little boats, gaily decked out with red, green, or blue paper lanterns, darted like fireflies between the shores of the two continents. All the great line-of-battle ships blazed with lamps; every ship, nay, every rope and spar, could be clearly seen, the outlines drawn in fiery colours. Scutari and Stamboul seemed united by the gleaming water with its rows of shining sparks. It was a fairy city, a city of the fancy, with a magic haze poured forth over it; and only two points were covered by mysterious darkness: in Asia the great churchyard behind Scutari; in Europe, the garden of the Serail. Night and dreams lay brooding over both spots the dead heroes are dreaming of the maidens of Paradise, and in the night of the Serail the dreams are those of earthly beauties, charming and fair as the houris of Paradise.

The streets of Pera were filled with a throng of Greeks, Jews, and Franks, each carrying his lantern or his candle. It was an Oriental procession of Moccoli; but the costumes were far more correct, more rich and varied, than those in the Corso of Rome on the last evening of the Carnival. In front of the palaces of the foreign ministers lamps were burning, erected in the form of pyramids, or in a great M, the initial letter of the Prophet’s name. At nine o’clock cannon were fired from all the ships; there was a thundering din, like that of a sea-fight; all the windows shook; shot after shot boomed forth, announcing the hour at which the Prophet was born.

I fell asleep amid the thunder of the cannon, and was awaked early by the same sound. Merry music of Rossini and Donizetti sounded through the streets: the troops were marching on, to be paraded between the Serail and the Mosque of Ahmed, whither the Sultan was about to proceed in state.

The Danish Consul, Romain, an Italian, came to fetch me. A young Turk, with pistols in his girdle and two long tobacco-pipes an his hand, walked before us; an old Armenian, in a dark blue fluttering caftan, and a black jar-shaped hat on his shaven head, came after us, carrying our cloaks; and thus we strolled through the main street of Pera, down towards Galata. The servants stepped into a boat, we two embarked in another, and now we rowed across the Gulf, darting swiftly among hundreds of others, whose rowers shouted and howled at each other, as one or other of the boats ran the risk of being swamped. At the landing-place in Constantinople the mass of gondolas formed a huge swaying bridge, across which we had to skip, to reach the firm land, which is bordered by decayed planks and beams. The crowd was great, but soon we came to a broad side street. Here were many people, but there was room enough. Great crowds of veiled women wended along the same way with us, and soon we had arrived under the walls of the Serail, which are very high towards the town, and look like the walls of an old fortress. Here and there is a tower, with a little door, which looks as if it had never been opened; the hinges were covered with grass and climbing plants. Great old trees stretched their leafy branches across the old walls; one could fancy one’s self on the borders of the forest in which sleeps the enchanted Princess.

We chose our position in front of the Mosque of St. Sophia, between the great fountain and the entrance to the Serail. From this point the Mosque of St. Sophia, with its numerous cupolas and subsidiary buildings, has a whimsical resemblance to a great flower-bulb to which several smaller bulbs have attached themselves. The terraces in the foreground were thronged with Turkish women and children, and the shining white veils worn by the former gave the scene quite a festive air. The fountain behind us is the largest and most beautiful in Constantinople. With the name “fountain” we usually associate the idea of a basin with a jet of water plashing up from it; but in Turkey fountains have a very different appearance; and a more correct idea of their appearance will be obtained by imagining a square house, whose walls are quite Pompeian in their variegated richness of colour: the white groundwork is painted with inscriptions from the Koran in red, blue, and gilt letters; and from little niches, to which brazen basins are fastened, the consecrated water ripples forth, with which the Mussulman bathes his hands and face at certain hours of the day. The roof is painted and gilt with quite a Chinese richness of colour. The dove, the sacred bird of the Turks, builds its nest here: in hundreds they flew over our heads, to and fro between the fountain and the Mosque of St. Sophia.

All around were a number of Turkish coffee-houses, all built of wood, with balconies, almost like the Swiss houses in appearance, but more gaudy and less solid: before each there stretched a little plantation of trees; and all these plantations were occupied by smoking and coffee-drinking Turks, who quite lit up the gardens and the fronts of the houses with their bright-coloured caftans: some of them wore turbans, others fez caps. Between the fountain and the great gate leading into the forecourt of the Serail, two long scaffolds had been erected of boards placed on tubs and tables. The second of these was higher than the first, and on the lower one veiled Turkish women of the lowest class were reclining. Old Turks, Persians, and a few Frankish strangers, whose unveiled women were objects of universal attention, held their station on the upper platform. Now appeared several regiments of Turkish soldiers, all dressed in European fashion, in tight trousers and close jackets, white cross-belts across their chests, and red fez caps on their heads. The guards made a very good appearance in their new uniforms, with tight stock and collars; and, as I was told, they wore gloves to-day for the first time. Some of the other regiments seemed in most lamentable plight: not only were the men of all possible complexions, white, brown, and coal-black soldiers all mingled together, but some of them were lame, and others had club feet. Their European uniforms were too tight for them, consequently the majority had ripped up the seam of the sleeves at the elbow, and many had cut their trousers at the knee, that they might move their legs with greater freedom; consequently naked elbows were seen protruding all along the line, and during the march many a red, brown, or black knee protruded from the blue trouser. Especially remarkable was one regiment, which I might almost call the “barefoot warriors,” for some of them had only one boot and one shoe, while others shuffled along with bare feet thrust into slippers of different colours. Amid a din of military music, they all marched into the courtyard of the Serail, and, after defiling before the Sultan, came back and drew up in line along both sides of the way: Ethiopians and Bulgarians stood side by side, and the Bedouin became the neighbour of the shepherd’s son from the Balkan.

At ten o’clock the procession was to begin; but it was nearly twelve before the Sultan thought fit to leave the Serail. The sun shone warm as in summer; cup after cup of coffee was quaffed, and once or twice the lower platform gave way, and all the Turkish women tumbled down in a heap. It was a long time to wait. Until within a few years, it was the custom to bring out to this spot the heads of those who had been decapitated in the courtyard of the Serail, and to throw them to the dogs; but everything looked peaceable enough now. Young Turks who could speak a little French or Italian began a conversation with us and with other Franks, and showed the greatest willingness to explain to us whatever they thought might excite our interest. Below us, in front of the walls of the Serail, lay spread the Sea of Marmora, enlivened with many a sail, and glittering in the sunshine; and high up, in the background, the snow-covered mountain-peaks of Asia glowed in the clear blue-green sky. I had never before seen this grassy glimmer in the air. A young Turk, who told me he had been born on the banks of the Euphrates, assured me that yonder the sky sometimes showed rather green than blue.

But now a cannon-shot resounded from the garden of the Serail: the procession was starting. First came a mounted military band, even the drummer and the man who played the cymbals were on horseback: the latter musician let the reins hang loose on the horse’s neck, while he clashed the brazen plates in the sunlight. Now came the Sultan’s guards, as soldierly a body of men as you would see in any Christian kingdom; then a number of splendid horses were led along, without riders, but all decked in gorgeous trappings, red, blue, and green, and all powdered with jewels. The horses danced along on their strong slender legs, tossing their heads and shaking their manes, while their red nostrils quivered like the leaf of the mimosa, and more than instinct seemed to flash from their bright eyes. Now came a mounted troop of young officers, all clad in the European costume, but wearing the fez cap; they were followed by civil and military officials, all clad in the same way; and now the Grand Vizier of the empire appeared, an old man, with a long beard of snowy whiteness. Bands of music had been posted at different points, and relieved each other at intervals. In general, pieces from Rossini’s “William Tell” were played, but suddenly they were broken off, and the strains of the young Sultan’s favourite march were heard. This march had been composed by the brother of Donizetti, who has been appointed band-master here. Now came the Sultan, preceded by a troop of Arabian horses still more gorgeously caparisoned than those who had gone before. Rubies and emeralds formed rosettes for the horses’ ears; the morocco leather bridles were covered with precious stones, and saddles and saddle-cloths were wrought with pearls and jewels.

 It seemed as though we were looking on the work of a spirit of Aladdin’s lamp. Surrounded by a number of young men on foot, all displaying a feminine Oriental beauty, as if a number of Turkish women had ventured abroad without their veils, came riding on his splendid

Arab horse the young “nineteen-year-old” Sultan Abdul Medjid. He wore a green coat buttoned across the chest, and wore no ornament, except one great jewel with which the bird of Paradise feather was fastened in his red fez cap. He looked very pale and thin, had melancholy features, and fixed his dark eyes firmly on the spectators, especially on the Franks. We took off our hats and bowed; the soldiers shouted out, “Long live the Emperor!” but he made not a gesture in acknowledgment of our salutes.

 “Why does he not notice our salutes?” I inquired of a young Turk at my side. “He must have seen that we took off our hats.”

 “He looked at you,” replied the Turk; “he looked at you very closely.”

With this we had to be content, for it was considered as good as the best acknowledgment. I told the Turk that all Frankish princes acknowledged the salutes of their subjects with uncovered heads, a statement which seemed quite incredible to him. 

Pachas and other grandees of the empire now came by; then Frankish officers in the Turkish employ; and then a number of servants, male and female Turks, closed the procession. Such a crowd, such a pushing to and fro! Half-naked street boys with dingy turbans, old beggar women with ragged veils, but with coloured trousers and morocco slippers, pushed noisily through the throng.

Allah akbar!” “God is great!” they shouted, when the soldiers tried to drive them back with the butt-ends of their muskets. The whole street was like a many-coloured stream of fez caps, turbans, and veils, and on both sides, like reeds along the river’s banks, rose the glittering bayonets. Whenever parties of Franks wished to pass through the ranks of the military, Turkish officers came forward and made room for them with the greatest politeness, pushing aside their fellow-countrymen, who contented themselves with gazing upon the favoured Franks, and shouting once more, “Allah akbar!” (pp. 830-836)

Hans Christian Andersen. 1889. Stories for the Household. London: George Routledge and Sons.

Mecca Temple in NYC

An imposing domed building called Mecca Temple lies on 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in the very heart of Manhattan. Or at least it was once called that.

Today the building is known as the New York City Center and is a theater with 2,750 seats. When it was first built in 1923, however, it was christened Mecca Temple and served as a meeting hall for its builders the Shriners, more bombastically known as the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. And what a shrine Mecca Temple must have been for these noble gentlemen of New York with its immense green dome (now red tile) and its profuse Islamic and Arabesque motifs. Though the building is now hidden by its towering neighbors, it was once (see vintage postcard below) an imposing structure in its own right.

We can revisit our 1939 New York City Guide for a more historic perspective on Mecca Temple as it once was. It succinctly reports:

MECCA TEMPLE, the largest Masonic Shrine in the city, is at 135 West Fifty-fifth Street. The mosque-like façade is framed with shallow-arched recesses in blue, green, and orange mosaic. The hall itself, which seats 3,500, is crowned by a tiled dome surmounted by the Scimitar and Crescent. (p. 180)

The architecture style seen here is known as Moorish Revival and reflects a Western fascination with a mysterious/mystified orient, particularly with romanticized Ottoman and Andalusian elements. Such fanciful imaginings of course, extended beyond building design and is equally evident in the habit and customs of the Shriners themselves, their most notable piece of apparel being the red fez.

More images of Mecca Temple can be found over on the appropriate gallery page. Of course, if you are ever in town I encourage you to see it for yourself. It’s worth a visit.

Ernest Goes to (Post-)Ottoman Istanbul, 1924-26

In less than two weeks time I’ll be journeying to Istanbul yet again. In anticipation of that I wanted to share a wonderful reminiscence of Istanbul from a fellow American, Ernest Gerber,* at the beginning of the 20th century.  What you’ll find are Ernest’s striking readings of a number of subjects including Muslim tolerance, Laylat al-qadr, and what I presume to be a Sufi dhikr (rather than Tarawih prayer). But before I begin, a bit of background is in order.

Kiran’s earlier post on The Real Muslims of Lower Manhattan introduced us to the fount of historical information that was gathered and compiled by FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), specifically the Federal Writers’ Project, from 1936 to 1940. The efforts of these writers, however, extended beyond American guide books like our New York City Guide (1939) and New York Panorama (1938). Spread across the country, the writers of the WPA were well positioned to collect the local history and cultural color of many of the America’s oft-overlooked communities and hidden corners.  In effect, these writers became the country’s first collective of oral historians. In fact, counted among the hundreds who worked for the WPA was Studs Terkel, who arguably went on to become America’s greatest oral historian.

Kiran and I have searched and continue to search through the rich collection of WPA material for other bits of “Islamicana.” Particularly helpful has been the website maintained by the Library of Congress: American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940. The piece that I wish to share now is just one of our discoveries and seemed exceedingly relevant given my own imminent departure to Istanbul. Not only does the Library of Congress provide a rough transcription of the typed interviews, or “life sketches” as they were sometimes called, it also provides digital scans of the original reports.

Allow me at last to share with you some excerpts from one remarkable interview entitled “From Around the World to a Georgia Farm.” Rather than being about some aspect of Islam in America, these words have more to do with an American abroad.

A WPA writer named A. O. Berie met with a Swiss-American neighbor named Ernst Gerber on the latter’s farm just north of the Chattahoochee River in Marietta, Georgia. Locals also called Ernest “Chief” and “Doc” as the writer does in the following life sketch. The interview was conducted on 25 February 1939, but the story that Ernest related covered nearly his entire life.

Berie opens by providing an interesting description of Ernest’s home, part of which reads:

The chest which holds the camp stove also serves as a kitchen table, holding the few dishes and accessories necessary for his simple meals. A few inches above them, and extending nearly across the wall from door to window, is a fine example of Turkish tapestry about 18 inches in width, and immediately above the center of this is a small but excellent water color portraying the murdering of a Sultan’s favorite by the Eunuch and his helpers. (The Chief says she probably waved her handkerchief out the window at some Yankee sailor). Flanking the picture is a pair of wrought brass candlesticks (from Turkey) representing two puff adders. Above each of these is a small framed excerpt, in Arabic, from the Koran. Above these, in the center of the wall is a beautiful prayer rug depicting the mosque of Little St. Sofia. Scattered about the other walls are pictures of Mohammedans in native garb and a couple of fine tapestries. Two small taborets of exquisite inlay workmanship stand near a large oil-cloth covered table which serves as a writing desk and also accommodates the typewriter and a few books and datalogues. (pp. 5-6)

With that our stage is set and Berie then hands over the course of the life sketch directly to Ernest’s own words. And so we learn from Ernest himself that in 1917 he joined the Hospital Corp of the US Navy and then, began in 1920 to visit Istanbul, or Constantinople as he called it. Here is some of what Ernest had to say about a two-year stay in Istanbul that began in early 1924:

Well, magazines have carried pictures and fine descriptions of the beautiful mosques and palaces in Turkey and nothing I could say would make them more beautiful or interesting. I do say, though, that the so called Christianized people who are always talking about the Turks or Mohammedans being so terribly intolerant, don’t know what they are talking about. They always cite the fact that the beautiful mosaics in the mosque of St. Sofia have been covered with ochre. Well, did you ever see a picture of the Virgin Mary in a Presbyterian or other protestant church? I have been in St. Sofia many times and the thought came to me the first time that if these people were so intolerant, why didn’t they destroy the mosaics? A Yankee boy with a handful of stones could spoil one in a few good throws. And in many cases the only part of the picture covered is the face, and some of these are not even painted over but covered with a gold star. In the same Mosque, on either side of the opening in the hall-way where the faithful enter the inner temple there is a beautiful statue which could have been destroyed with a blow of a hammer; instead they are enclosed in cabinets which are closed up during religious ceremonials, and can be opened to the view of the public at other times.

I had a little adventure in connection with this mosque which might be worth telling about. It was built by The Emperor Justinian I as a Catholic shrine, and is considered the third most holy mosque in Turkey. For that reason it was, at that time at least, closely guarded, and no one was allowed to carry anything inside which might desecrate it. I had tried for nearly a year to get permission to photograph some of the interior but was always refused permission. Well, one day I got acquainted with a shepherd who tended his flock not far from there and after I had visited him many times I told him what I wanted. He finally told me of a way to get in through a narrow opening between the bastions in the rear which was covered with bushes. I sneaked through the opening and not seeing the guard inside I set up my tripod and camera and got two good pictures. Just as I was hurriedly taking down the outfit the guard entered and saw me. He raised his long barreled rifle and was about to drill me when the shepherd rushed in with his hands up, shouting the Arabic word for “immunity.” This was my cue and I dug out my embassy assignment card and handed it to him. Of course he didn’t know what it said but as we were immune from about everything else he thought I hadn’t got a picture yet he finally got friendly and was very courteous from then on.

One day I heard that some prominent man had died and his funeral was to be held at the Mosque of Ayoub [Eyup], on the Golden Horn. Hiking out there I joined the crowd lining the street and waited for the ceremonial procession. I noticed a young man in European clothes standing next to me and spoke to him in Arabic. He answered me in better English than I ever spoke and we immediately became friends. He was highly educated in English and other languages, was a graduate of one of our own famous universities, and was the personal secretary of the Sheik El Islam, the spiritual head of the Church in that part of the empire. He did me many favors during the rest of my stay and helped me to learn more of the Mohammedans and their customs.

Not long after we met, the month of the Ramidan [Ramadan] began. During this period, which begins when the first sickle of the new moon appears after the Vernal Equinox, the faithful fast every day from sunrise to sundown, not even a drop of water reaching their lips. But you’d ought to see them eat and drink between sunset and sunrise! They sure do make up for lost time.

During this month there is one night set apart from the rest and called the Night of Power [Laylat al-qadr]. On this night the spirits are supposed to descend on each worshipper and give him the power to control his body and mind, in fact make them sort of supermen. That is, if they are able to get themselves wrought up to the proper pitch for the reception of the power. I had long wanted to witness one of these gatherings but it seemed I was doomed to disappointment, until I met my new friend and asked him if he could help me out. Well, through his influence with the Sheik I was permitted to attend, clothed in the proper robes and instructed how to act. I must say that I was not greatly impressed with the show. It was not nearly as wild as I had been led to believe; in fact, I’ve seen a lot crazier demonstrations of fanatical emotionalism right here at home at Holy Holler meetings. Very few of the worshipers went into contortions and for the most part it was more of a mass action, the robed figures swaying from side to side and forward and back in unison, me with the rest of them. Maybe its all hooey, but I know from close contact with them that they sure do know how to control their tempers, especially when some fool white man does something that would mean fight right now in any other country.

I sure enjoyed life there and sometimes wished I could have stayed there permanently, but all things must keep moving, so early in 1926 I was ordered to the USS Pittsburg, at Villefranche, France. And here began the long trip which finally landed me back in the States, on the last lap of my journey to Georgia. (pp. 28-30)

The interview continues beyond this and at the very end of the typed report is a brief note scrawled in an expedient cursive hand. It dispassionately states “The subject of this sketch died on Dec. 23-1940” (p. 40) meaning that Ernest Gerber passed away almost two years after having been interviewed.

*In memory of Ernest Gerber (12 January 1883 – 23 December 1940). Thank you Ernest for your memories, sincerity, and honesty and thank you to the men and women of the Federal Writers’ Project for saving so much that would have otherwise been lost.

For those still interested in reading more here is a bonus passage detailing his living accommodations and his observance of firefighting methods in Istanbul/Constantinople:

No, I didn’t find my old sweetheart in that port [Constantinople] but there was plenty of others. Now, I’m not going to spill a lot of hooey about the morals of sailors or make excuses, but what the folks call the immorality of the foreigners is a damn sight better than the same thing in some of the so-called civilized countries. Now, you take a man assigned to shore duty for a long stretch; he would have to spend most of his spare time on the ship, if he didn’t live on shore, and would have to be in at certain hours and put up with a lot of other regulations. Well, he can rent a good room and kitchenette for five dollars a month, get him a good looking girl, and live like a king. Yes, they do everything a wife would do and a lot more than most of them. And let me tell you, they are a darn sight more capable and economical in running a house than the girls here. They have it bred into them in those countries… They mend and press your clothes, buy the groceries, do the cooking, and they sure can cook, and keep the place spotlessly clean. And while you have her she is your woman and nobody else can touch her. Yes, as soon as you’re gone she will be looking for another man, but they got to live just like everyone else.

Since Kemal Attaturk began to reform the country I suppose there have been many changes, and things would be a lot different than when I was there, but my camera retained for me the things as I saw them, and bring back to my mind the incidents that happened at that time. Some things I didn’t photograph pop into my mind once in a while and I was just thinking of the time I saw the fire department go into motion. They didn’t have any waterworks then, just a well here and there, and there seemed to be two crews of firemen, one with red equipment and the other with green. The men wore helmets like the old Roman soldiers and a little short tunic, the rest of the body being bare. Their pump was a sort of barrel-shaped thing which was carried on the shoulders of six men, some extra men being in front and behind them to relieve if the trip was very far, and a number of men carried buckets. There wasn’t any signal system, but a watchman in a tower in some part of the city would cry out when he saw what looked like a fire maybe the word would get around to the firemen after a while. When they heard about a fire they would start running toward the spot and the first crew there might get the job of putting out the fire. If both crews got there about the same time, they would begin bidding on the job of putting out the fire. That’s what happened one day when I was lucky enough to be nearby, and damned if the building didn’t burn down before the owner decided which crew he would hire. (pp. 26-27)