Istanbul mosques mark Ramadan with celestial script

ISTANBUL (Reuters Life!) - Laden with hundreds of light bulbs a breathless Kahraman Yildiz emerges at the top of one of the Suleymaniye mosque’s minarets, ready to string up a Ramadan message and illuminate the Istanbul night.

A mahya reading "Hold the fast. find good health" hangs between the minarets of the Ottoman-era Eminonu New mosque in Istanbul August 12, 2010. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Yildiz is one of the few remaining masters of Mahya, a tradition unique to Turkey and for which Istanbul’s Ottoman-era imperial mosques with their soaring minarets are ideally suited.

Suspended between the minarets, dangling lights spell out devotional messages in huge letters, visible from afar and intended to reward and inspire the faithful who have spent the daylight hours fasting.

“You need electrical skills, aesthetic skills, patience and a head for heights,” says Yildiz, 54, who unfurls long cables of light bulbs which he suspends from a guide rope stretching to a matching minaret.

He then leans out from a narrow balcony atop the 76-meter (yard) minaret and with a pulley rope draws out the strings of lights, which will switch on at sunset as the evening call to prayer sounds, signaling time to break the fast.

“Ramadan is bountiful,” reads his handiwork.

This year a new book published to mark Istanbul’s tenure as European City of Culture records the 400-year history of Mahya and how the tradition has adapted to such change as the coming of electricity and Turkey’s abandonment of Arabic script in favor of the Latin alphabet.

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While Yildiz’s working conditions are hard -- he must mount the minaret’s 250 narrow, dark steps every week of Ramadan to change the message and deal with dizzying heights -- his counterparts of previous centuries had it harder.

They would have to light and suspend hundreds of oil lamps and wicks and carefully plot letters in Arabic’s curving letters.


Today just a handful of Istanbul’s mosques use Mahya, but they are the city’s grandest, and the phrases, set by Turkey’s directorate of religious affairs, are legible from afar.

Yildiz has hung Mahya for 40 years with his team of assistants, also suspending them from the Blue Mosque.

“Fast, find good health,” reads another of this year’s Mahya, seemingly printed onto the night sky.

Mahya are said to have their origins in the reign of Sultan Ahmed I (1603-1617), who was so pleased by a Mahya a muezzin had created as a surprise for him, he ordered that they be copied elsewhere.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and creation of modern Turkey in 1923, the powerful visual impact of the Mahya was commandeered to issue patriotic messages such as “Save Money” or “Buy Turkish products.”

Today the phrases are again religious in nature and Yildiz derives a sense of satisfaction from their impact.

“It is a wonderful feeling to see the Mahya I’ve hung in the city and how people look up to stare at them.”

Editing by Paul Casciato