Ottoman Ramadan through foreigners’ eyes
The 17th century Ottoman travel writer, Evliya Celebi, speaks of gathering friends and going over to the northern side of the Golden Horn where they would break their fast alongside one of the streams and spend their Ramadan nights reciting poetry and talking. Celebi also writes of having been entertained with theater plays, storytellers and shadow plays.
The month of Ramadan has started and the story is as old as Islam. For the Ottomans too consumed no food or drink between dawn and dusk and spent the night eating and making merry. During Ramadan mosques would be full, almost to the point of overflowing. Strings of lights with religious sayings would be strung between the minarets of the imperial mosques. Most Muslims would enjoy a large dinner in which there would be traditional dishes served and eat a smaller breakfast before dawn. It was a time for family, relatives and friends. The wealthy and the powerful starting with the sultan on down would provide lavish meals and gifts to those around them.
The 17th century Ottoman travel writer, Evliya Celebi, speaks of gathering friends and going over to the northern side of the Golden Horn where they would break their fast alongside one of the streams and spend their Ramadan nights reciting poetry and talking. Celebi also writes of having been entertained with theater plays, storytellers, dancers and shadow plays.
For the foreigner, the customs of the Ottoman Turk were a curiosity, not least when it came to religious practices. The month of Ramadan was no exception so when young Miss Julia Pardoe landed in Istanbul in 1835 during Ramadan, one experience on her list was to take part in the breaking of the fast that all pious Muslims kept during daylight hours.
“As it was the time of the Ramazan, neither coffee nor sweetmeats were handed to us, though the offer of refreshments was made, which we, however, declined, being resolved to keep Lent with them according to their own fashion. We fasted, therefore, until about half past six o’clock, when the cry of the muezzin from the minarets proclaimed that one of the out watchers, of whom many are employed for the purpose, had caught a glimpse of the moon. Instantly all were in motion; their preliminary arrangements had been so zealously and carefully made that not another second was lost; and, as a slave announced dinner, we all followed her to a smaller apartment, where the table, if such I may call it, was already laid,” Pardoe wrote, detailing the event in her travelogue, which as later published.
“The room was a perfect square, totally unfurnished, save that in the center of the floor was spread a carpet, on which stood a wooden frame, about two feet in height, supporting an immense round plated tray, with the edge slightly raised. In the center of the tray was placed a capacious white basin, filled with a kind of cold bread soup; and around it were ranged a circle of small porcelain saucers, filled with sliced cheese, anchovies, caviare, and sweetmeats of every description: among these were scattered spoons of box-wood, and goblets of pink and white sherbet, whose rose-scented contents perfumed the apartment. The outer range of the tray was covered with fragments of unleavened bread, torn asunder; and portions of the Ramazan cake, a dry, close, sickly kind of paste, glazed with the whites of eggs, and strewed over with aniseeds,” Pardoe wrote.
“Fish, embedded in rice, followed the side or rather circle saucers, most of which I sparingly partook as the only answer that I was capable of giving to the unceasing ‘Eat, eat, you are welcome,’ of the lady of the house,” Pardoe wrote.
“Nineteen dishes, of fish, flesh, fowl, pastry, and creams, succeeding each other in the most heterogeneous manner — the salt following the sweet and the stew preceding the custard — were terminated by a pyramid of pilaf. I had the perseverance to sit out this elaborate culinary exhibition; an exertion which is, however, by no means required of any one, by the observance of Turkish courtesy. Gastronomy is no science in the East, and gourmands are unknown; the Osmanlis only eat to live, they do not live to eat,” she wrote.
“As we rose from table, a slave presented herself, holding a basin and strainer of wrought metal, while a second poured tepid water over our hands, from an elegantly-formed vase of the same materials; and a third handed to us embroidered napkins of great beauty, of which I really availed myself with reluctance,” Pardoe wrote.
“Having performed this agreeable ceremony, we returned to the principal apartment, where our party received an addition in the person of a very pretty [and] old [tale-teller], who had been invited to relieve the tedium of the evening with some of her narrations. This custom is very general during the Ramazan, and is a great resource to the Turkish ladies, who can thus recline in luxurious inaction, and have their minds amused without any personal exertion. Coffee was prepared at the [barbeque], and handed round: after which the elder lady seated herself on a pile of cushions placed upon the floor, and smoked a couple of pipes in perfect silence, and with extreme gusto, flinging out volumes of smoke, that created a thick mist in the apartment,” she wrote.
The Italian traveler Edmondo de Amicis in the 19th century had a different vision of what happens during Ramadan. He noted how serious everyone generally took fasting, although he refers to one exception he found, a young officer who had been drinking coffee when the door to his office suddenly opened. He was in such a hurry to hide it that he half spilled it on his shoes. But de Amicis adds a story about his boatman who couldn’t be tempted to even sniff the loaf of bread he had with him in his boat before the sun had gone down and the Ramadan cannon had sounded. “On the instant, thirty two thousand teeth tear a thousand huge mouths-full from a thousand loaves! But why say a thousand when in every house and café and restaurant is being enacted at precisely the same moment, and for a short time, the Turkish city is nothing but a huge monster whose hundred thousand jaws are all tearing and devouring at once,” de Amicis wrote.
Lady Dorina Neave spent 26 years of her life in Istanbul at the end of the 19th century and wrote about it. She experienced the years of Sultan Abdulhamid II’s reign from 1876 to 1909. As she came to Turkey at quite a young age she came to know the culture well. Her account of Ramadan, which she refers to only once in her writing, differs markedly from the others shared in this column. “It so happened that we paid our visit to the bazaars during the Festival of Ramadan, and, as, during this season, the Turks fast all day and feast all night, there was a great need of ready money, for all members of the wealthy class were obliged to keep their doors open and to feed anyone who claimed hospitality during the period from sunset to sunrise. To procure the money required for the purchase of large stores of food, many household treasures in the shape of jewelry, china, glass and carpets were sent to the pawnbrokers’ shops in the bazaars. It was owing to this circumstance that we found the stalls unusually well stocked, and as money in return for them was urgently required, they were being sold at very moderate prices.”