Famous Turkish writer and poet Yahya Kemal Beyatlı once said in the 1920s: "I have discovered a truth. This state has two moral foundations: The adhan (the call for prayer for Muslims) that Sultan Mehmed II, aka Mehmed the Conquer, ordered to be called out on the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque’s minaret and is still being recited; the Quran that Sultan Selim I ordered to be recited in the Hırka-i Saadet Dairesi (the Shrine of the Sacred Relics) in the Topkapı Palace and is still being recited."
The Ottoman Empire period, spanning more than 600 years, features interesting, different and original codes in terms of culture and art history. When we examine Ottoman history in the context of the Quran and art, we see a magnificent governmental structure shaped by the respect and love for this book. So much so that, the continuous recitation of the Quran 24 hours a day, seven days a week in Topkapı Palace for 400 years is one of the obvious embodiments of this respect and love. Let's take a look at the foundations of this tradition.
You cannot find a similar tradition that continued for more than 400 years in the history of Islam like the recital of the Quran without interruption. The interest in the Quran and love for the Prophet Muhammad, which are the two most important features of the spirituality of the Ottoman Empire, have been symbolized in this tradition of the Quran recitation at Topkapı Palace.
The initiator of this tradition was Sultan Selim I, also known as Selim the Grim or Selim the Resolute. He called himself "the servant of Mecca and Medina.” The Mamluk Sultanate was destroyed after the Ottomans' Egypt campaign in his period. The emir of Mecca and Medina, who was now under Ottoman rule, sent the keys of the cities together with a letter to Sultan Selim I and declared his obedience to him. This emir, known as Sharif Abu Numei, the son of Abu'l-Berekat, also sent an important part of the Sacred Relics, the items that are believed to belong to the Prophet Muhammad, his friends and some other prophets considered sacred in Islam, to the sultan.
Sultan Selim I showed respect and love for the prophet at the highest level. This was why he was so happy with the arrival of the Sacred Relics and the reconciliatory approach of the emir. When some statespeople said to him that it would be more appropriate to replace this emir with an official from Istanbul, the sultan even said: “It has been more than 900 years since the religion of Prophet Muhammad emerged on earth. Makkah al-Mukarramah and Al Madinah Al Munawwarah are the thrones of the prophet. Has any ruler been sent for them from outside until this time? The sultanate of Mecca and Medina is in the hands of the honorable children of the lord of the universe. I did not take those states by the military force. They showed respect to me with obedience, kindness and maturity due to their good decency and grace. This is a reward to me. It is one of the blessings and grants of Allah to me that my name is mentioned in the sermons recited on Eids and Fridays in Mecca and Medina. For this, I cannot thank Allah enough even if I pray day and night for it. I would not change this happiness for the whole world sultanate. All kinds of efforts, kindness, affection and observance should be shown to the people of the emir. But do not interfere in the affairs of Mecca and Medina!”
In fact, these privileges for the administration of Mecca and Medina were always preserved. While in Egypt, Sultan Selim sent various gifts to Sharif Abu Numei in response to his gesture of sending the city keys and sacred relics as a symbol for his recognition of his emirate. He also sent ships full of 200,000 pieces of gold and abundant grain to be distributed to the people of the region.
The sultan then decided to bring the Sacred Relics to Istanbul, which were previously under the protection of the Mamluk rulers. Some of these items had also been obtained from Cairo and Syria.
He ordered that the Quran be recited 24 hours while the Sacred Relics were loaded on the ships and brought to the country. The sultan himself took turns reciting the holy book. When they arrived in Istanbul, a corner had already been reserved for these items in the Topkapı Palace. However, the sultan did not accept to place the relics in this corner; he, instead, allocated the privy chamber – which is the seat of the sultan that is his own room – for them. And from there on, the room was called “Hırka-i Saadet Dairesi” (the Shrine of the Sacred Relics). He ensured that the Quran is recited 24 hours a day in this room.
With the proclamation of the republic, this tradition in the Topkapı Palace was also interrupted for 50 years. However, the Ottoman historian and classical Turkish music expert Yılmaz Öztuna, known as the "man who made people love history" in Turkey, attempted to revive it when he was elected as a deputy in 1969. He succeeded in his quest with the support of the government. Today, this tradition has been kept alive under the supervision of the Presidency of Religious Affairs.
One of the genetic codes that we're bound to witness if we hold the cultural structure of the Ottoman civilization under a microscope is the Quran. How could it not be? The Quran is even at the center of the story about the establishment of the state. This famous story is narrated in the books of all Ottoman historians.
Osman Bey, Ertuğrul Gazi's son who is regarded as the founder of the Ottoman Empire, had a teacher-student relationship with Sheikh Edebali, who is considered the spiritual leader of the region, along with being friends.
Once staying as a guest in Sheikh Edebali’s house, Osman Bey saw a Quran in a special enclosure in the room where he was hosted. After that, he was unable to sleep. He took the mushaf (a written copy of the Quran), knelt and began to recite it devotedly until the morning. Eventually, he fell asleep unwillingly.
Historian Neşri narrates that Osman Bey heard the divine voice at that moment. This voice said, "Osman, since you have given a value and honor to words that I have revealed, I have made you and your children and your people and things (everything belonging to you) magnificent, honorable and venerable.”
Osman Bey started visiting Sheikh Edebali's dervish lodge more often after the dream. Their religious conversations continued until late hours and he often stayed at the lodge. On one of those nights, he had a dream again. In his dream, a crescent suddenly emerged from his teacher Sheikh Edebali's chest, ascended into the sky, grew into a full moon and reentered his own chest. Then, he saw a plane tree growing bigger and bigger. The shadow of this tree, growing constantly with its trunk, branches and leaves, surrounded the lands and seas until the end of the three continental horizons. Rivers such as the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile and Danube emerged from the roots of the tree. There were also plains full of crops and mountains covered with great forests.
Many have written that the dream points to the conquest of Istanbul. When Osman Bey told his dream to Sheikh Edebali, the scholar announced the good news, saying: "Almighty God has given you and your generation sultanate, congratulations. Also, my daughter will be your wife."
The interest in the Quran always remained alive in Ottoman sultans until the last periods. For instance, in line with an empire tradition, the ulama (Muslim scholars) gathered in the palace in the presence of the sultan and interpreted the verses of the Quran. And according to historians, this tradition has been sustained since the era of Osman Bey. In the classical period, it is known that similar interpretation lessons and debates were carried out in the presence of Sultan Mehmed II.
Sultan Mustafa III made these lessons permanent through an official decision in 1758. According to the decision, lessons were held in the presence of the sultan twice a week starting from the first day of the month of Ramadan. A few verses were selected and explained from the book known as “Kadı Beydav, Tefsiri” (“Qadi Beydavi Tafsir or Exegesis”), which has a distinguished place in the history of Islamic science. These lessons were named "Huzur Dersi," which can be translated as “Lessons of Presence,” as they were held in the presence of the sultan.
In the lessons, a teacher explained some chosen verses and the attendees asked questions about them, this discourse often took the shape of debates. However, the questions of the attendees did not aim to pressure the teacher. Instead, everyone could benefit from these questions to understand the verses better. The questions continued until the sultan signaled the end of the lessons. Thereafter, prayers were called out, and the sultan paid compliments to the teachers at the end of the lesson. He handed out gifts from his personal property, especially by appreciating the narrators.
Similar customs like those seen in the palace were observed in all classes of Ottoman people. The Quran took a significant place in every stage of a simple Ottoman citizen’s life from birth to death.
People with beautiful voices recited the Quran to pregnant women so that the baby could hear it and the mother could relax. The adhan and Quran verses were whispered in the ears of a newborn. Children who reached the age of 4 first learned how to recite the Quran at home and then at a mosque. When they start to learn to recite the Quran from beginning to end, also called "hatim," a celebration ceremony called "Amin Alayı” (“Amen Procession") was organized.
Jean Baptiste Vanmour, the famous painter of the Tulip period, depicted this procession in one of his paintings. In this artwork, children are seen holding copies of the Quran and announcing that they have started their hatim while reciting prayers aloud in the presence of their parents.
Each of the Ottoman artists has some kind of constant contact with the Quran. Quran verses including pieces of advice decorate palaces and mansions. In fact, arts and craft are intertwined in the Ottoman Empire. For example, calligraphy was practiced not only as an art but as a profession. One of the most important jobs in this profession was writing the Quran. One Ottoman calligraphy custom or non-verbal rule of the profession is to write the Quran from beginning to end. A calligrapher who has never written a Quran was often not taken seriously in the profession.
After the printing press, the tradition of manuscript Qurans continued for a long time. Because Muslims wanted their copy of the Quran to be a unique work of art. The special Quran was often covered in decorative bindings and was recited often by the owner. When its binding wore out, the owner of the Quran repaired it and continued to recite it. They would establish a spiritual connection with that book. So much so that, calligraphers such as Sheikh Hamdullah and Hafız Osman became well-known due to their distinct style.
In short, all areas of cultural life, from education to art, have been nourished by this holy book in Ottoman history and its continuous recital in the Topkapı Palace.
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