Archive for July, 2012

Ramadan at the Topkapı Palace

July 27, 2012
The holy month of Ramadan was lived in quite a spectacular way at Topkapı Palace, which hosted the top statesmen of the Ottoman Empire for ages. Those who lived at the palace would enjoy this month to the fullest, with gatherings rife with entertainment and spirituality around tables that displayed a diversity of flavors.

As with everything done at the palace, Ramadan would see an assortment of ceremonies. Many events, such as the opening of the Hırka-i Şerif (the Holy Mantle that belonged to the Prophet Muhammad) and the baklava parade of the janissaries, would be held in accordance with palace rituals. Many sultans would break their fast both with the general public and with the attendants of Enderun, the palace school.

In the eyes of investigative author Talha Uğurluel, the Ottoman sultans were actually romantic people who loved to eat or break the fast with their wives. For example, İbrahim I, known as İbrahim the Mad, ordered the construction of an alcove in the palace garden close to Gülhane Park, which women couldn’t enter, so that he could privately break the fast with his wife Hatice Turhan Sultan, who is also known as Valide Sultan and who sponsored the construction of the Yeni Camii (New Mosque) in Eminönü, İstanbul. Thus, Sultan İbrahim I would, in the company of his wife, look out at some of the beautiful scenery of İstanbul as they waited to enjoy their fast-braking meal.

Both Enderun and the harem would mark Ramadan by taking their fast-breaking meals and suhurs (predawn meals) and performing the terawih prayer with the sultan. In her memoirs, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an English aristocrat who visited İstanbul in the early 1700s, noted that there would be two performances each day of the terawih prayer at the palace. Young girls would attend a quick terawih prayer session at the harem, while the older ladies would opt for a session that was slower and longer. The sultan and students of Enderun would also attend this second session, during which the Quran would be recited in full. This way of performing the prayer came to be known as the Enderun-style terawih prayer, and has recently returned to public appeal.

Evenings at the palace would see lessons specific to Ramadan taught in the royal presence with the attendance of the students of Enderun. During these lessons, senior clerics would discuss religious matters. Uğurluel argues that this program, held in the Has Oda (Royal Room), was intended to “teach the sultan some lessons under the pretext of Ramadan.”

Palace food during Ramadan

The sine qua non items at fast-breaking tables during Ramadan were iftar (fast-braking meal) starters consisting of hoşaf (a stewed fruit compote), şerbet (a traditional nectar), yufka (phyllo pastry) bread and breakfast foods. After consuming these iftar starters, the evening prayer would be performed, and the main dishes would come after the prayer. In addition to soups and dishes containing meat, the favorite of the main dishes was usually fried eggs with pastırma (cured spiced beef) or onions. After the main dishes were consumed, there would be table talk before desserts were served. While desserts were generally pastry-oriented, the most famous dessert was indisputably güllaç (a traditional Ramadan dessert formed by layers of thin cornstarch pastry soaked in rosewater-infused milk). The intervals between courses were intended to prevent potential indigestion. During the exhibition of the Hırka-i Şerif, held on the 15th day of Ramadan at the palace, trays of baklava (a multilayered, flaky pastry with walnuts, pistachios and syrup) would be distributed to the janissaries. The janissary troops would carry these trays to their barracks in a ceremony know as the baklava parade.

Destimal ceremonies

Another important ritual associated with the exhibition of the Hırka-i Şerif was the destimal (handkerchief) ceremony. Prominent figures within the palace as well as philanthropists from outside the palace would be invited to the destimal ceremony. Special handkerchiefs would be produced from a golden box and, while all guests witnessed it, they would be touched to the Hırka-i Şerif before being presented to the guests as gifts. People would cherish these rose-scented handkerchiefs as reminders of Ramadan and would keep them until their deaths, at which time the handkerchiefs would be used to cover their faces before they were buried.