Living abroad has many advantages, but there are times when you get lost in the space between where you came from and where you are now. This happened to me last Friday.
Friday, July 4th was simultaneously Independence Day in the US and the second Friday of Ramazan (the Turkish word for Ramadan) in Turkey. Looking online, I saw my American friends and family celebrating with fireworks and cookouts. Looking around me in the streets, I saw families lining up for iftar meals and taking advantage of holiday promotions. While all these celebrations were happening before my eyes, I could not fully participate in any of them.
So rather than sulk, I decided to take charge of my fate: I got on a bus to Eyüp. Eyüp is another neighborhood on the European side, past Fatih on the Golden Horn. During Ramazan, the Eyüp municipality sets up a cute, colorful row of model Ottoman houses where local vendors and restaurants set up shop. There were sweets shops with piles of lokum (Turkish delight) and photography stands were families could dress up in Ottoman robes and turbans and have their photo taken as Ottoman nobles. I sat there for an hour, watching the cooks prepare vats of soup, piles of rice, and spits full of meat, and then watched the servers sprint back and forth delivering the meals to hungry Ramazan observers. Being in this holiday atmosphere relieved my loneliness.
It also made sense to be in Eyüp during Ramazan as it plays a part in local Ramazan tradition–some Muslims in Istanbul try to visit all the “imperial mosques” as a way of making penance for the sins of the year, and the Eyüp Sultan Mosque is one of those special mosques. Eyüp Sultan, which the Eyüp neighborhood is centered around, was completed in 1458 (five years after the invasion) and was the first mosque constructed by the victorious Ottoman Turks.
The grounds around Eyüp Sultan contain a sprawling multi-level cemetery bursting with ancient gravestones. The inside of the mosque is expansive. Men pray on the main floor while women worship in the upper balcony, as well as in a labyrinthine series of interconnected hallways, chambers, and even a skywalk, all of which I imagine had to have been added later after the main balcony failed to fit the droves of female pilgrims.
Meanwhile, the inner courtyard of the mosque houses important turbes, or saints’ tombs. It is surrounding these tombs that you can observe what my Ottoman history professor dryly referred to as “folk religious practice.” Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of pilgrims cluster around these tombs with outstretched hands, entreating the saints for their blessing, or healing, or guidance, and collecting the saints’ holy aura with palms facing up. In this sense I believe Eyüp is a great place to visit and observe–it’s full of visitors coming from different parts of the city and country, practicing different forms of the faith, so as long as you meet the baseline standards of etiquette, it’s easy to blend in, watch, get a more diverse vision of the faith, and feel the fervent atmosphere.
While it was an unusual way to celebrate the 4th of July, being in that festive and spiritual atmosphere at that moment somehow satisfied my need for a celebration, and I was grateful that Eyüp is the kind of place that an outsider to the religion can partake in a small way.