Sunday, June 6, 2010

Eyup in Istanbul and The Legitimisation of Power

I have just returned to Zurich having spent most of the past week in Istanbul, Turkey.  I took the above photo of these two little chaps in the courtyard of the Eyup Mosque. The boys are dressed like princes because this is a very special day in their lives.  They are about to be circumcised.

After Mehmet the Conqueror, Sultan of the Ottomans, succeeded in taking the Byzantine capital Constantinople on May 29th 1453, he faced one major problem. How could he justify the fact that he was now the greatest ruler in the Islamic world? Earlier, powerful rulers of Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo could all claim descent from the prophet Muhammad. Mehmet II however, couldn’t even claim to be an Arab. In other words, he suffered from what political scientists and historians refer to as a "legitimacy deficit".

      Entrance to Eyup

The problem was solved when Mehmet’s spiritual advisor had a dream which indicated the location in Constantinople/Istanbul of the remains of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s right hand men, Abu Ayyub Al-Ansari. Ayyub had hosted Muhammad in his home in Medina way back in the 7th century. Ayyub thereby gained the title “Host of the Prophet”. After Muhammd’s death in 632, Ayyub participated in wars of conquest in Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Cyprus. In 669, at the age of 80, he died at a siege of Constantinople and, according to legend, was buried near the infamous walls. Now, nearly a thousand years later his body had been miraculously found.

        The ancient walls of Constantinople, near Eyub

This was very convenient for the Ottomans. As Philip Mansel put it in his book Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire 1453-1924, “This convenient discovery provided a charismatic link between the new capital and the Prophet himself”. Clearly the leaders of the most powerful Muslim military force in the world, Mehmet II now found his regime being blessed by the Muslim devout. It was taken as a sign of Allah’s good will towards Ottoman rule that the remains of the Host of the Prophet had been miraculously recovered. Naturally Mehmet ordered for a new mosque to be built in 1459 and for Ayyub’s remains to be interred within the mosque. The Ottomans were now the protectors of the holy city, with its holiest of mosques. The new mosque, known as Eyup, is still the most revered Muslim site in Turkey and one of the ten holiest places in all of Islam. It is a conservative mosque, always busy, even at night, with pilgrims at prayer. Last week it was particularly busy as some of those killed by Israel’s attack on the Turkish flotilla were buried near Eyup.

        At prayer in Eyup
By building Eyup Mehmet II had legitimised his rule and turned Istanbul into one of the holiest cities of Islam.  The Ottoman Sultans had therby become protectors of the faith.

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