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.

2 comentarios:

ester peleg dijo...

What a gem of a story! A perfect antidote to the corona madness
A perfect reminder of a missed journey to Istanbul with you!
September hopefully?

Studiolum dijo...