Sunday, 16 May 2010

Cities of the Dead

At Eyup Sultan Masjid in Istanbul (built by the Ottomans in 1458 AD), the tomb of Sokullu Mehmet Pasa, a sixteenth century AD Ottoman vizier, whose last known descendant passed away a few months ago. The masjid is located near the supposed grave of Khalid ibn Zaid ibn Kulayb, a companion of the Prophet (sallalahu alayhe wa sallam) who participated in the seventh century AD Muslim conquest of Istanbul. Many Ottoman officials are buried near the masjid.

An iris flowering on another grave in downtown Istanbul.

One of the things that struck me about Istanbul was the sheer number of people who have died in the city. Many of the graves I saw dated from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but even still everywhere I went there were vast graveyards, or old graves squeezed in next to the street.
I was on a bus to Eyup, and I saw a small mountain on the Golden Horn, overlooking the sea. It appeared to be covered with square white limestone rock formations, interspersed with trees, but when I got closer I realized that the whole mountain was covered in white stone tombs about the size of coffins, all jumbled together. Families bearing flowers picked paths among the tombs, winding their way up the mountain to tend the graves of their loved ones.
Most of the monuments at Eyup Sultan dated from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, which puzzled me for a while, because they were in the Ottoman style of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the carvings were mostly perfectly legible. Had the Ottomans built new monuments for ancient graves? If so, why were they all so close in age? It took me far longer than it should have to realize that they were using the hijri calendar. The current hijri year is 1431.
Just the number of people who died and merited monuments in this one city in the past two centuries is hard to grasp; I can’t imagine how many people will rise up on Judgement Day.

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