Lastprophet.info interviewed one of Turkey’s most important cultural historians, Associate Professor Haluk Dursun, President of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Museum, regarding Mawlid celebrations during the Ottoman period.
We are sharing with you rare information that cannot even be found in reference works, such as the "Hacet Bayramı (Religious Festival of Need)" and "Special Mawlid," which most of us have not even heard of.
"The Mawlid is not just a prayer; at the same time it is a ‘voice'"
How did the people make Mawlid celebrations during Ottoman times?
It perhaps would be best to separate the subject into the two categories of celebrations among the people and state celebrations. In other words, palace and public... Celebrations of the people were based on the preference and choice of the state. According to records related to the latter part of the 18th century, the Sultanahmet Mosque was preferred. Hagia Sophia was generally used for state protocol, but the Sultanahmet Mosque was preferred for Mawlids. I can not explain this. But I saw the records of the Sultanahmet Mosque; the Mawlid was especially held in the Sultanahmet Mosque.
At this time nights are preferred for celebrations. Is there any day-night difference in these records?
There are two kinds of records on all the kandils (religious holidays when mosques were lit up with candles). First of all, they were attended in order to give congratulations to the sultan. During later times this was done in the Yıldız Palace and Topkapı Palace. The Mawlid of the Sultan –irrespective of which one it was- was congratulated. This means the celebrations of the Grand Vizier and other ministers were held in their own residences. In other words, those celebrations were held in connection with someone, beginning with the person at the top. It also means that these celebrations were held in the form of official protocol at the palace. This was true for all kandils: Berat, Regaip, Kadir, etc... There was a celebration for the sultan. It was announced publicly. The people preferred to come to the great selatin mosques (mosques built by sultans) and listen to Mawlids there.
A Mawlid is not just a prayer; at the same time it is a ‘voice.' I see it not as a banquet of music, but as a voice-banquet. During the latter period it became particularly accentuated. According to records I've seen, at the beginning of the 1900's the name of the Mawlidhan (chanter of the Mawlid) became more prominent than the Mawlid. For example, depending on which famous Mawlidhan (like Hafız Sami, Hafız Burhan, Hafız Mecit) was going to do the recitation, that Mawlid would be more popular than the others. I guess this is continuing as a tradition. It is known who is going to do the chanting at which mosque. The quality of his chanting and his voice are favored. This is quite obvious. There are those who become enraptured during Mawlids and some even faint. The Mawlid being recited by an important hafız is a big event. And this Mawlidhan tradition continues until the early years of the Republic. At the same time it is an important door of income.
Mawlidhans generally were taught what we call usul (method). There were masters and master-apprentice relationships. They needed to have vocal talent which was developed in an original way in respect to attitude and method. There were several dialects. Just like in regard to quality, for example, there was the Istanbul dialect and the Üsküdar dialect. With the thickness of their voices they displayed their originality particularly with transitions in classes of meters. For example, the "Merhaba (greetings) class" has a particular importance in this respect in comparison with the others. It is more suitable for this because it is amenable to departures. In the recent period Halil İbrahim Çanakkaleli and Adalı Hafız are among this type of chanter.
A new page is opened with radio
Before television, Mawlids broadcast on radio had the special character of enabling this type of Mawlidhan to be heard anywhere in Anatolia where there was a radio. In the houses where there was a radio the Mawlid turned into a celebration. People gathered together and listened to the Mawlid together. Accustomed to the different voices, listeners knew who was reciting even if there was no announcement. They knew Aziz Bahri, Yusuf Gebzeli, Nakkasi, Kani Karaca - the ones in recent times that I was able to know- and Halil İbrahim Çanakkaleli, who was number one among them. There is such a list of Mawlidhans. The people follow them in Istanbul mosques or on the radio.
Many people are interested in the chanted Mawlid in respect to its sound, because it is a practice in which the sound of the Qur’an is fully prominent. Another aspect the people are interested in is that of its prayer. This interest has formed such an important environment that as a result a special career field – duahan (prayer maker) – has emerged. In other words, a good chanter is not necessarily a good prayer maker. Making prayer demands a different kind of talent and experience. Just as is the case in other professions in Istanbul, we can speak of a national monopoly among hafızes. For example, there are "hafızes from Gerede" and "duahans from Siirt." The master-apprentice relationship is also practiced in the duahan profession. There are particular prayer patterns and prayers are made in accordance with them.
Does knowing Arabic help one to advance in this field?
Most likely, because Arabic is the dominant language here. The second important matter is the master-apprentice relationship. Recitation of the Qur’an is partly different. The Qur’an is always recited at Mawlids and chanters known as "reisu'l-kurra (head chanter)" are preferred. There is a hierarchy here; in other words, those who read the Qur’an most beautifully are given this duty. Although this is not true for Mawlidhans, in recitation of the Qur’an reisü'l-kurra determines the best chanters.
Another interesting thing I found in chronicles is that the Mawlid was made when the army was on campaign. In twelve sources it is indicated that the Mawlid was recited at the Danube Front. Because the chronicles are daily, we see from the chronicle of that particular front that it was recited. It was mentioned as a Mawlid. It was explained that a big Mawlid was held in the army headquarters. It is mentioned that "The chief of the pulpit at Hagia Sophia was there, and he came and made the prayer." We understand here how important the prayer ceremony was.
Did each organization celebrate within its own entity?
Yes, members of the state, the military and the people held ceremonies according to their own methods. Just as Istanbul was the center of ceremonies, the selatin mosques were the center of Istanbul. I emphasized Sultanahmet. The Night of Power was different; it was celebrated at the Hagia Sophia. In the other, the sultan went to Sultanahmet. I saw it in the records.
I mentioned the congratulations. Only the sultan was congratulated. There was a festive ceremony. The Bosphorus was illuminated and candles were lit. In addition to candles being lit in the mosques, there was the practice of illuminating the Bosphorus Straits.
Offering candy to soldiers on guard...
What was offered as refreshment during these ceremonies?
Candy and sherbet are mentioned. There was even candy in the army. It is mentioned in the chronicles that "candy and sherbet were offered to soldiers on guard."
How was love for the Prophet responded to in our culture? What can you say about this in reference to the Mawlid?
One of the important aspects of love for the Prophet was the palace tradition of the visit to the holy relics on the 15th of Ramadan. Regardless of where the sultan was, whether he resided in the Topkapı Palace or not, on the 15th of Ramadan he would break his fast there and visit the Mantle of the Prophet and the other holy relics. He would kiss the Mantle and wipe it with water; a destimal (hand towel) would be given as a gift. This ceremony was for officials. While it was being held in the Topkapı Palace, a similar ceremony was held for the public in the Hirka-i Serif (Holy Mantle) Mosque.
"A Rose is the perspiration of Muhammad"
It is said that in some places there are shirts belonging to the Prophet. For example, in places like the İsmet Efendi Dervish Lodge in Çarsamba, Fatih... It is still there. In addition to that, Ayyub Sultan is very important on the Mawlid Holiday. It is visited then because the Footprint of Muhammad is there.
There are also ceremonies in which roses are smelled and salawat is recited.
The Turkish Epic of Prophet Muhammad: Vesiletu'n- Necat
Was Süleyman çelebi's Vesiletu'n-Necat preferred?
Yes, this Ottoman tradition in Ottoman geography was important because it was in the Turkish language. It was preserved in Turkish houses where the Opening chapter of the Qur’an was recited.
What do we know about the practice of the Mawlid among Arabs?
Of course, we do not know what happened in the past. I was in Algeria at one time. In my opinion, it was celebrated in an exaggerated way. I tried to explain the situation like this: Algeria remained under the occupation of the French for a long time. This big a celebration might be a reaction to the Christmas celebration by the French. For example, there was Mawlid shopping there just as there is Noel shopping here. We do not have this custom in Turkey – buying gifts, toys, and balloons for children, fireworks, etc... I saw Mawlid shopping there for the first time. It is a new and different custom for us.
Mawlid: the voice of love for Prophet Muhammad
We see that Süleyman Çelebi wrote the Mawlid out of respect for Prophet Muhammad. Can we say that its becoming widespread with time is due to respect for the Prophet?
Yes, exactly. In time this event was perceived as a sunna (practice of the Prophet). The love and respect of our people for the Prophet are reflected in the Mawlid. In one way we tie it to him and accept it as his sunna. We have enriched and made it more beautiful by a number of rituals like standing up when his birth is described. It has almost been memorized by ear among the people. Those for women are separate, of course. They memorized it, too. There are female Mawlidhans among women who are called to recite the Mawlid. This custom still continues.
This shows that traditional culture is actually not dull as it is thought to be. We understand from this that efforts have been made to beautify life.
I remember the final days, for example. It is one of the fine details from my childhood... All our relatives and neighbors would come together around the radio on the day of the Mawlid. We would all listen together in silence to the Mawlid. The prayer would be made together, and refreshments would be served at whichever house we had gathered together at. The lady of the house would serve specially prepared refreshments. At the same time this celebration brought the feeling of sharing in life. Communal prayer led to sharing the communal pleasure of worship. I should mention that the radio had a special function here.
Thus, it enabled the Mawlid to be listened to in Anatolian geography.
Of course. Just as there were Mawlids for births, there were also Mawlids for deaths. There was a tradition in Anatolia for some time for the Mawlid to be chanted at mosques on the 40th day after death. This is very important. It was important which hodja, which hafız and which Mawlidhan was going to come. The names of those coming would be written on a blackboard on Friday (when everyone came to the mosque). For example, it would be written that on Thursday or Sunday after the afternoon prayer a particular hafız would be coming to read the Qur’an. And people from surrounding villages would come to listen.
The Hacet Holiday should not be forgotten
Also in Anatolia there is the tradition of the "Hacet Holiday." Every year in the spring when people went to the high plateaus for the summer, a special place would be chosen. In the open air on the plateau near the grave of a saint, communal prayer would be performed under the shade of a tree, the Mawlid would be chanted and meat and rice would be served. This was called the Hacet Holiday. This took place mostly in the manav villages. The places where fruit and vegetable sellers first settled – from around Bursa, Izmit and Adapazar to Bolu, which were settlement areas during the time of Sultan Orhan. It is an interesting tradition. That day the women of the village met in the coffee shop, which was left to their use by the men. The wife of the village elder operated it. All of these activities took place on Sunday under the name of Hacet Holiday.
Does this practice still continue?
Yes, it is. It was in the news several times recently. It continues in the Yukari Erek Village where I live. It is a 600 year-old tradition. People go to the plateau where there is a saint's grave. It is a village remaining from Sultanhamam. A Mawlid is recited on Hacet Holiday, the Qur’an is read and rice with meat is eaten. Rice with chickpeas and meat is eaten with flat bread. It is an unchanging tradition. That day flat bread is made. Women open the dough and men go there. According to their means, everyone gives a sheep or money to make the rice with meat. The Mawlid is recited, communal prayer is made, water is drunk from the streams in the plateau and then everyone returns home. In some places a prayer for rain is also made. This is a tradition that includes the Mawlid.
Is the Vesiletü-n Necat read in the same way today?
As far as I know there is no change. Only a difference in approach. There is a difference in the approach of the chanters.
Arabic method in the Qur’an; Turkish method in the Mawlid
Is that approach or custom being preserved today? Or has it changed?
It is being preserved. In the recitation of the Qur’an there is the Arabic method, but not in the Mawlid. The method called the Arab method is also known as the Kaaba or Mecca method, but the Mawlid is just recited in the Turkish method. It is a method in which Turkish is emphasized and chanted.
Was being a Mawlidhan a profession during the Ottoman period?
In the last period unfortunately whatever a soloist is today, the Mawlidhans of that time were that. They would travel around and chant, and they would have big followings. Men continually heard them at mosques, but women followed them in particular. Because the Mawlids were special days, women would go to the mosques, too. Going to a Mawlid, seeing someone at a Mawlid... It was also a social event and, in particular, potential bridal candidates would be found there... There was a white lace head scarf the borders of which had beautiful lace. It was not used at any other time, only at Mawlids. So, there was this social aspect as well.
Indispensable Mawlid "tastes": Akide candy and sherbet
Were Mawlids recited at different mosques on the same day?
Yes, on the same day. Sometimes at the same time. Let's say Mawlids are held on Sundays. The Mawlidhans had an appointment book. They would be whisked off by car and taken from one mosque to another. For example, it could be recited after the afternoon prayer at the Atik Valide Mosque in Üsküdar and then at the Osmanağa in Kadıköy. One chanter would recite and then leave and another would come. It was possible because it was long and 6-7 people could recite.
Can we say that akide candy and elvan candy are special to the Mawlid?
In religious celebrations akide candy was a kind of candy that came from the palace. There would always be Turkish Delight on top of it. Rose Turkish Delight was special for the Prophet. It would be served after the Mawlid. There was always rose water.
[Read our previous interview with famous candy-maker Cafer Erol regarding akide candy.]
Was sherbet served in homes?
Sherbet is served especially at Mawlids. In state palace mosques Mawlids would be recited for members of the palace. Members of the harem held separate Mawlids at mosques. Sometimes Mawlids were held in mansions. The Egyptian Khedive family did this frequently in the Khedive Summer Palace...
Are there places that have transferred the Ottoman palate to today?
The brand is important, of course. Hacibekir is important here. Hacıbekir Mawlid candy. The people would buy from there. Ali Muhittin became a second brand. The others are more like neighborhood tastes.