September 05, 2011

Poetic Scripts Adorn Gravestones of Yore

Some of the gravestones stand upright, some at an angle or fallen to the ground. All are taller than they are wide, are capped with headgear of some kind and have writing on them in the Ottoman Arabic script. They are surrounded by stately cypress trees and overshadowed from place to place by flowers. To the Western eye, many of Istanbul’s cemeteries look unkempt. After all the city has grown around them but needs money for so many other things; the dead don’t care.

There are numerous cemeteries around Istanbul, not to mention the smaller cemeteries that exist around mosques and other buildings that were involved in religious activities of one sort or another. There are even single graves to be found in odd corners.

Istanbul’s earliest cemetery is in Uskudar: the Karacaahmet Cemetery. Named after a warrior companion of the first Ottoman sultan, it simply grew from its 14th-century founding until now, when it is estimated to contain over a million graves.

Istanbul’s most famous cemetery is in the Golden Horn village of Eyüp. It grew up around the tomb of Eyüp Ansari, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed, who died during a seventh-century siege of Istanbul. The shores and hillsides around the mosque at the site are covered with mausoleums, medreses (religious schools) and graves. Centuries-old cypress trees stand along the streets and amid the graves, giving off the feeling that they are the guardians of peace and rest for the dead bodies buried beneath them.

The most intriguing gravestones are those that have come to us from the Ottoman period. Their form differs from that used by the Seljuk Turks who preceded them in power in Anatolia. These grayish white stones stand tall (or at least they’re supposed to) to mark who is lying between the headstone and the foot.

The inscriptions are in Turkish and in the Ottoman alphabet, which very few can read today. Over time these became rather standardized. The basic form includes the name of the deceased, his father, where the family is from, the words “ruhiycun el-fatiha” (short for reciting the first chapter of the Quran for the soul of the deceased) and the year in which the person died.

Later on, these headstones would even include position and rank and a line or two of poetry. Edhem Eldem writes in his book, “Istanbul’da Ölüm,” that the poems were rhymed, making them easy to remember, and likely were a combination of Iranian literary and oral folk poems. He cites one poem that was particularly popular:

Ziyaretden murad bir duadır; Bugün bana ise yarın sanadır.

The goal from the visit is a prayer, This year for me, tomorrow for you.

Taken generally however, the inscriptions provide information on families and ties with cities and villages throughout the Ottoman Empire, the distribution of religious sects, cultures, invasions, wars and even natural calamities.

On top of the headstone one finds headgear that represents the highest rank a dead man achieved in his lifetime. Huge turbans come from the earlier period and fezzes from the first part of the 19th century. Sometimes the stone is carved with indications of what the deceased did in his life. For example, the gravestone of Kılıç Ali Paşa, who is buried at the late 16th-century mosque that bears his name at Tophane, has anchors and ropes around the inscription, bearing witness to his position as an admiral in the Ottoman fleet.

In earlier centuries, the gravestones for women were square and contained little information, but with time they were elongated, similar to that of men. By the 19th century the headstones on women’s graves were frequently decorated with stylized flowers or the curling tendrils of hanging vines. They too had poems inscribed on them.

Today Ottoman cemeteries are visited more out of curiosity than anything. The Eyüp Municipality for instance has been engaged in serious restoration work among the many graves there. There are millions of graves around Istanbul, some on very choice property, but one can hope that the dead won’t be disturbed in the future.

Read more on Hurriyet Daily News: Poetic Scripts Adorn Gravestones of Yore


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