Stay at home and travel with Río Wang

Dong Yuan 董源 (934-962): 潇湘图 Views along Xiao and Xiang rivers. Beijing, Palace Museum

Dear Readers and Fellow Travelers,

In real life, our journeys have stopped for a while, but they continue on Río Wang. From this Thursday, 2 April on, I invite you to an online virtual journey once a week. Via the Zoom conference program, I will be giving lectures about a variety of journeys: real journeys, monuments visited, exhibitions, history, pictures, people. Although it will be mainly me who tells stories and shows pictures, videos and music, nevertheless, the program also offers you the opportunity to speak, ask questions and chat with each other, like we do in our real journeys. Later I will also publish the presentations in written form here in the blog. I will announce the topic of each lecture a few days beforehand via e-mail and on Facebook. Suggestions are also welcome.

If you want to attend, please e-mail me at to receive an invitation to join the virtual meeting. The version of Zoom I have subscribed to has room for 100 participants, this is the number who come to my live presentations in Budapest. If a lot more people sign up, then I have to subscribe to a multi-participant version, which is quite expensive, so in that case I will have to ask for a small “room rental contribution”.

The Thursday presentations will be in Hungarian, but if enough of you are interested, I will repeat it in English (or possibly later in another world language, Italian, Spanish, German, French or Russian). The planned time for the Hungarian presentation is 4 pm on Thursday, for the English one 4 pm on Friday. If this is not good for you, e.g. because it conflicts with some other virtual program, write me. It’s important to hold it in daylight, because I don’t have professional lighting, but I live in a former painter’s studio where I have very good natural light until dusk.

Wu Zhen 吳鎮 (1280-1354): Fisherman, taken from here

Istanbul's holy fools

Istambul’s old town is still as full of türbes, the tombs of Muslim saints, as the Catholic cities of pre-Enlightenment Europe were with the tombs and relics of Christian saints. Their competencies and specializations, spatial networks and collaborations have their complexity, but they had a just as well understood by the believers and expertly manipulated system as with the Catholic relics. And in addition to the great saints, the dervishes, the commoners of holy life and the revered saintly founders, there are also the “holy fools”, “makeshift saints”, just as in Christian, especially Orthodox, hagiography.

The Laleli, that is Tulip, Mosque is a jewelry box of late Ottoman architecture of Istanbul. It was built between 1760 and 1763 by the court architect Mehmet Tahir Ağa on behalf of Sultan Mustafa III. Its structure, with a large dome and ensemble of smaller semi-domes supporting it, follows the tradition of the Ottoman mosque created by Sinan in the 16th century, which ultimately reaches back to Hagia Sophia. In its details, however, it conveys the playfulness of European Baroque and even Rococo, which had a profound influence on European Ottoman architecture in the 18th century, especially during the Tulip Era from 1718 to 1730, which was named after its enthusiasm for tulips.

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At first you might think that this beautiful example of “Ottoman Baroque” was named after the Tulip Era. But if you look at the year, you will see that it was built thirty years after it ended. Moreover, unlike the works of that era, it does not use the tulip motif (except in the inner window panes of the courtyard, which are actually modern additions, inspired by the name of the mosque). No. The Laleli Mosque was named after the holy man living next to it, Laleli Baba, “Uncle Tulip”, or “Father of Tulips”.

Mosques are usually named after their founders. They may also have another popular name, like the Blue Mosque, but that one is also officially called Sultanahmet Mosque after its founder, Ahmed III, the sultan of the Tulip Era. The Laleli Mosque, however, is not called by a popular name. This has been its official name since its founding, rather than the Mustafa Mosque, which is the name one would expect.

Mustafa III (1757-1774), the founder of the mosque, himself complained: “I built three mosques. The first [the Fatih, rebuilt after the fire of 1766] I had to dedicate to my ancestor. The second [the Ayazma in Üsküdar] was expropriated by the dervishes, and the third [the Laleli] was occupied by a homeless man.” This is why today only the small and extremely unprepossessing Iskele Camii, the Harbor Mosque built in 1774, officially bears the name of Mustafa III in Istanbul.

How did this happen?

Laleli Baba was a holy man in the Fatih Quarter, beyond the bazaar, widely known for his good temper and open mouth. He was also a healer who used herbs and prayers, and his success in this made him particularly popular throughout Istanbul. He was never seen praying in a mosque, but to the mother of the sultan he revealed that in prayer times he flies in a blink of an eye to the Kaʿaba stone in Mecca, and does his prayer there. This is why Mustafa III, after completing the mosque, asked for his blessing, and a blessing for the new sanctuary.

Laleli Baba appeared before the sultan, and blessed him thus: “My Sultan, if Allah wants it, may you eat, drink and fart in good health throughout your life.” The sultan was outraged at the saint’s vulgarity, and had him thrown out of the palace by the guards. At the door of the throne room, the old man turned back and said: “All right, if you prefer, may you eat and drink, but not fart.” And so it was. From the next day, the belly of the sultan began to grow and tense. The doctors tried everything, but to no avail. Finally, when his pain become unbearable, Laleli Baba was called again, this time putting on his bad face, whereupon he began to raise the cost of the cure. They were already beyond the new mosque bearing his name, and the sultan was already willing to hand over his throne, which the saint dismissively waved away: “I do not need a throne that is worth only a fart.” In the end, he relented, put his hand on the sultan’s belly, prayed, and the miracle happened.

Laleli Baba also opened a spring at the bottom of the new mosque, facing today’s main street Ordu Caddesi, and he was buried there. In the 1950s, when the street was widened, the spring disappeared, and the cemetery was closed down. Today there is only a modern tomb here, right next to the sidewalk, with the inscription “Official tomb of Laleli Baba”.

His devotees erected a new gravemarker for him in 1957 in the old cemetery of the nearby little Kemal Mosque, and they still go there to ask for his intercession in difficult cases.

The other “holy fool”, Bekri Mustafa lived a hundred years before Mustafa III, but has so much to do with him that he lived in the Eminönü harbor, next to the future Harbor Mosque. He was swept up by a passion for drinking, which gave him the nickname Bekri, that is, Drunkard. Sabri Koz writes about him in the İstanbul Ansiklopedisi, celebrated in Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, that he was born into a family of craftsmen, he was also schooled, and he was a hafez, meaning he knew the Qurʿan by heart. However, after the death of his parents, he did not care about his craft, he only wandered from tavern to tavern.

At this time Sultan Murad IV (1623-1640) passed a decree which prohibited the consumption of alcohol (and later also coffee and tobacco), not on religious grounds, but because the taverns where they were consumed were often the nests of rebellion, especially for the Janissaries. Whoever was found drinking wine was beheaded on the spot. The sultan’s strange obsession was that he often followed the constables in disguise, and delighted in the execution, and sometimes he himself executed the sinner.

In such circumstances Bekri Mustafa, in order not to put himself at risk, became a boatman, and he only took out the bottle on the open water, far from the sight of the constables. Which he did when he was ferrying the disguised sultan and his grand vizier over to Üsküdar.

“What is in the bottle?” the sultan asked.

“Power drink”, Bekri Mustafa replied.

The sultan became curious, and asked for a sip, as did the grand vizier. Then he gasped. “But this is wine!”

“It is”, Bekri Mustafa said stoically.

“Didn’t I forbid drinking wine?” the sultan was upset.

“Now, who are you to forbid anything to anyone?” Bekri Mustafa lost his temper, too.

“I am Sultan Murad, and this is Bayram Pasha, the Grand Vizier.”

“Well, my friends, then you should be banned from drinking wine. You just drank a sip, and you are imagining yourself to be the sultan and the grand vizier. If you finished the whole bottle, I bet you would say that you are Allah and this one His Prophet.”

The sultan liked the straight talk, and instead of beheading the drunkard, he invited him to his palace, where Bekri Mustafa introduced him into the science of drinking wine. Shortly afterwards, the alcoholic boatman died, and Sultan Murad was inconsolable. Demetrius Cantemir (1673-1723), the fallen Moldavian prince in exile in the Istanbul court, an excellent chronicler of the late Ottoman era, writes:

“At his death the emperor ordered the court to go into mourning, but caused his body to be buried with great pomp in a tavern among the hogsheads. After his death the emperor declar’d that he never enjoy’d one merry day, and whenever Mustafa chanc’d to be mention’d, was often seen to burst into tears, and to sigh from the bottom of his heart.”

Musicians entertaining Sultan Murad IV. Illustration in Atai Uzbeki’s poems, 1721. The Walters Art Museum, MS 666.67A

The Hungarian novelist Ferenc Móra wrote a whole satirical short story about Murad IV’s tyrannical rule with the title The man’s head is no fig, and in it he describes the meeting of the two – based not on historical sources but on his own holy fool wisdom – differently:

“Once a tramp called Bekri Mustafa was dragged in front of him, who was caught in drinking wine, although it was a capital sin.

– Is it true, you son of a bitch – the sultan asked – that you scolded me for being the son of a slave, and you said that if you had a piaster, you would buy me?

The tramp, whose legs were still unwilling to obey, pulled out a glass of wine from his rags, and with a grin he joggled it in front of the sultan:

– What do I know, o Lord of the faithful, whether I said it or not? Even if I said it, it was not me who said it, but this liquid gold, which is worth more than any treasure in the world, because it makes a sultan out of a tramp, and makes a coward dog like me a hero. If you do not believe it, give it a try.

The sultan was amazed at this brazenness. He took the bottle, drank the tramp’s wine to the last drop, and immediately gave a precious caftan on Bekri Mustafa, appointing him a court counselor, which title was this time really deserved.”

Bekri Mustafa’s figure in the karagöz puppet show. From the Yapi Kredi Collection
Bekri Mustafa’s figure became enormously popular perhaps even during his life or shortly after his death by becoming a permanent figure of the karagöz puppet show, widely beloved throughout the Ottoman Empire, which was the sharpest political satire of the era (and of later eras, too). The renowned traveler Evliya Çelebi wrote in the 1630s that the blind karagöz player Hasanzade Mehmet Çelebi included the character of the truth-telling drunkard among the permanent figures of the puppet game under the name of Tuzsuz Deli Bekir (Saltless Fool Bekir). It was very popular, because, due to his drunkenness, he could reveal a string of unpleasant truths unpunished, which were forbidden to others.

This role explains the concept of the “holy fool”. The “holy fools” known from the Christian – especially from Russian Orthodox – cultural sphere followed St. Paul’s instruction: If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” (1Cor 3:18) Although in Islam there is no such teaching, the role is the same: the wise and quick-witted saint pretends to be a fool so he can express his sober cleverness against the authority’s hypocritical wisdom.

This is the source of the multitude of Bekri Mustafa anecdotes, which are still well-known in the former Ottoman Empire.

According to one anecdote, Murad was fed up with Bekri Mustafa’s drinking, and forbade him to drink. Some hours later, as he went about the pubs in disguise, in one of them he found Bekri Mustafa. Seeing the sultan, he immediately took the jar from his right hand to his left, and hid it behind him. “Stretch out your left hand!” commanded the sultan. Bekri Mustafa quickly took the jar into his right hand and hid it behind him, while stretching out the left. Murad laughed. “Stretch out both hands!” Bekri Mustafa pressed the jar against the wall with his back, and extended both hans. “Stop playing around, Murad”, he said then, “lest the jar break”.

These plays and anecdotes made the harbor pub where Bekri Mustafa rests famous, and the people of the tavern, the harbor and the bazaar began to honor him as a kind of holy patron. Men often pleaded to him in cases of hangover, or if they had no money for wine or raki; and wives asked him to send their husbands home from the pub. It was a common practice for women to put earth mixed with food on his grave, which was proved to have a good effect on the return of husbands.

In the 1880s, when the city began to widen the harbor road, many small old buildings, including Bekri Mustafa’s tavern, fell victim to the works. His devotees, however, disinterred the body and placed it in a nearby makeshift folk shrine, Sheikh Abdürraif Şamadani’s türbe. His status increased greatly, as the Sheikh’s admirers were now praying to him as a saint, and the increased attendance due to Bekri Mustafa also benefited the popularity of the Sheikh.

Don’t drink and drive. A spontaneous parking lot in the protection of the shrine.

The furthermost grave belongs to Bekri Mustafa.

Devotees of Bekri Mustafa at the historical Salacak boat house. Photo by Kerem Yücel in the book Rakı: The Spirit of Turkey by Erdir Zat.

When I was there, a typical representative of the people of the harbor arrived, and – as I stood in the doorway taking photos – he began to pray with open arms at the wall of the shrine, under Bekri Mustafa’s name. When I stepped back to document him as well, he went ahead and took my place in the doorway, so only his back is visible in the picture. In any case, it is a good demonstration that the worship of the holy drunkard is still unbroken among the people of Istanbul.

A Quiet City

Yesterday, I went out of my apartment into the streets of an unknown city; one largely without people. Each year, Prague welcomes millions of visitors. They swarm the attractions, they choke the streets. They guzzle the beer and drop wads of cash on tasteless trifles. Some swoon at the complete Baroqueness of the city; some leave grafitti on the precious monuments. Sometimes, they carelessly laugh at things taken seriously by Praguers, and sometimes they stand in awe at things the locals find banal. Today, it is as if a tornado has come and swept them all away.

Not just the visitors, but the locals, too. By government decree, beginning at midnight tonight, anyone without a valid reason to be out in public must stay at home. It is for our own safety, and the safety of others.

Yesterevening, I went out one last time before the curtain is drawn. The planet Venus, bright enough to cast a shadow, hangs in the northern sky. Light from a corner večerka (shop with late hours) spills out onto the street as the shopkeeper prepares to close. I stop, not far from Loreta. Standing in the empty streets of Nový Svět (New World), I hear the faraway bell of St. Vitus Cathedral in Hradčany strike eleven o’clock.

Recording by Lloyd Dunn

What new world awaits us when all of this is over?

Adam’s children

Today’s issue of Haaretz offers a detailed report about the overcrowding of hospitals in northern Italy, and also reports on the great unexpected help that China is giving Italy in this difficult situation. “We, the Italian Red Cross, are not used to receiving donations,” they quote the head of the Red Cross, Francesco Rocca, “we usually donate.”

The Israeli newspaper also mentions in a paragraph that China is also providing assistance to Iran, the country most affected by the epidemic, with a fine local touch:

“China had also sent a medical team to Iran along with 250,000 masks and 5,000 test kits packed in boxes bearing a centuries-old verse by the Persian poet Saadi Shirazi: «The children of Adam are the limbs of one body, that share an origin in their creation.»”

Everyone in Iran knows this verse. This is the beginning of one of the most popular poems of one of the greatest Persian poets, Saʿdī Shīrâzī (1210-1291), the first poem taught in Iranian schools, which also figures in Persian and English (!) on the reverse of the 100,000 Rial banknote, depicting Saadi’s tomb in Shiraz:

بنی آدم اعضای یک پیکرند
که در آفرينش ز یک گوهرند
چو عضوى به درد آورد روزگار
دگر عضو ها را نماند قرار
تو کز محنت دیگران بی غمی
نشاید که نامت نهند آدمی
bani âdam aʿzâ-ye yek peykarand
ke dar âfarinaš ze yek gowharand
čo ʿozvi be dard âvarad ruzgâr
degar ʿozvhâ-râ na-mânad qarâr
to k’az mehnat-e digarân biqami
na-šâyad ke nâmat nahand âdami

Adam’s children are the limbs of one body,
of one essence since their creation,
and if one limb is hurt by a calamity,
the other limbs cannot remain at rest.
If the pain of others does not hurt you,
you do not deserve to be called human.

From the several recitations of the poem, let us hear the one read by Raha Mirzadegan before she sings the Persian song Dokhtare Boirahmadi, “Daughter of Boirahmad” in the concert of the early music ensemble Apollo’s Fire presenting the music of medieval Jerusalem.

It is understandable, that this poem is particularly suited to expressing solidarity between peoples. Just as China uses it to send a message to Iran, and the Iranian singer to the people of Jerusalem, so Obama used it to conclude his 2009 Persian New Year message. And the following classical Persian musical version, played by the Kermanshah musicologist, folk music collector and cultural center founder Yahya Ranaei and his family ensemble, was also performed across Iran to comfort and financially help the survivors of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami of Tōhoku.