Mosque lights tell faithful to stay home
The traditional lighting that hangs between the minarets of Turkish mosques, usually packed for evening prayers in the holy month of Ramadan, is urging Turks to stay at home this year as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic.
Known as “mahya”, the tradition of stringing up devotional messages in lights from the soaring minarets of Istanbul’s Ottoman-era mosques is unique to Turkey and dates back hundreds of years.
The process of hanging the lights is overseen by masters of the art. Working from sketches, they set lightbulbs on cords to spell out the desired message, before rolling them onto ropes draped between the minarets of the mosque using a pulley.
Suspended between the minarets, the lights normally declare religious messages in huge letters, visible from afar and intended to reward and inspire the faithful who have spent the daylight hours fasting.
This year, with Turkey at the peak of coronavirus outbreak at the start of the fasting month of Ramadan, the messages are different.
Kahraman Yıldız, one of the last remaining experts on the art, wears a mask for the first time in his long career as he hangs the lights between two minarets of the 400-year-old New Mosque in Istanbul’s Fatih district.
“We were giving nice religious messages during the month of Ramadan. This month, something different happened because of this pandemic,” he says.
“We are sharing [messages] related to that,” Kahraman adds, unfurling the string of lights that read: “Life fits at home”.
He then begins hanging the lights one by one on a rope between the minarets as he and his colleagues carefully abide by social distancing rules in a city which has borne the brunt of Turkey’s 112,000 confirmed coronavirus cases.
The lights are lit every evening during Ramadan at the time of the call to prayer that announces the end to the day’s fast.
“Mahyas have given beautiful messages with excerpts from verses (of the Koran)... for centuries. But this year for the first time, we have mahyas that we hung up aimed at protecting our health,” said Burhan Ersoy, General Director of Foundations.
He said other examples included, “Stay responsible, stay healthy,” and “Stay home, stay healthy”.
An effective communication tool
Mahya has a longer history: it is an Ottoman tradition. The ruling dynasty began adorning mosques with mahya in the early 1600s.
Some claim that it was an imam’s assistant of the Fatih Mosque, the calligrapher Hâfız Ahmed Kefevi, who hung the first mahya between two minarets of the Blue Mosque in 1616 or 1617.
The first official document regarding mahya points a later date. In 1723, Ottoman Grand Vizier Damad İbrahim Pasha ordered mahya to be hung all “sultan” mosques; that is those constructed by sultans using their own wealth.
Since such mosques had at least two minarets, they were suitable for the illumination work, in contrast with more austere forms of mosque building in other parts of the Islamic world.
Apart from the Ottoman capital, Istanbul, mahya were also hung in mosques in Bursa and Edirne, which also served as Ottoman capitals. Yet mahya remains a distinctly Istanbul art form.
These signs have changed over the centuries. From oil-lit displays of Ottoman ostentation and piety to electric lightbulbs broadcasting secular messages after the birth of Atatürk’s new Turkey; their messages have been emblazoned on the minds and memories generations of Istanbulites.