The phrases are usually selected from the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, but in recent years, other phrases have attracted attention with their originality and the messages they convey. For instance, the mahya strung for the last two years between the minarets of the Süleymaniye Mosque, “O fast, take hold of us,” is very striking. It reflects fasters’ desire to abstain from all evil deeds and bad language during the holy month.
Among other popular messages on display between minarets are “Welcome to the month of Ramadan,” “Follow God’s order,” “The sultan of the 11 months,” “Observe the fast, be healthy” and “Farewell.”
Keeper of a timeless tradition
Laden with hundreds of light bulbs, a breathless Kahraman Yýldýz emerges at the top of one of the Süleymaniye mosque’s minarets, ready to string up a Ramadan message and illuminate the Ýstanbul night.
Yýldýz is one of the few remaining masters of mahya, a tradition unique to Turkey and for which Ýstanbul’s Ottoman-era imperial mosques with their soaring minarets are ideally suited.
Suspended between the minarets, dangling lights spell out devotional messages in huge letters, visible from afar and intended to reward and inspire the faithful who have spent the daylight hours fasting.
“You need electrical skills, aesthetic skills, patience and a head for heights,” says Yýldýz, 54, who unfurls long cables of light bulbs which he suspends from a guide rope stretching to a matching minaret.
He then leans out from a narrow balcony atop the 76-meter-tall minaret and with a pulley rope draws out the strings of lights, which will switch on at sunset as the evening call to prayer sounds, signaling the time to break the fast. “Ramadan is bountiful,” reads his handiwork.
This year a new book has been published as part of Ýstanbul’s role as 2010 European Capital of Culture recording the 400-year history of mahya and how the tradition has adapted to such changes as the coming of electricity and Turkey’s abandonment of the Arabic script in favor of the Latin alphabet.
While Yýldýz’s working conditions are hard — he must mount the minaret’s 250 narrow, dark steps every week of Ramadan to change the message and deal with dizzying heights — his counterparts of previous centuries had it harder. They would have to light and suspend hundreds of oil lamps and wicks and carefully plot out a message in Arabic’s curving script.
Today just a handful of Ýstanbul’s mosques use mahya, but they are the city’s grandest, and the phrases, set by Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, can be read from afar. Yýldýz has hung mahya for 40 years with his team of assistants, even putting up the messages at the Blue Mosque.
“Fast, find good health,” reads another of this year’s mahya, seemingly printed onto the night sky. Mahya are said to have their origins in the reign of Sultan Ahmed I (1603-1617), who was so pleased by a mahya a muezzin had created as a surprise for him that he ordered it be copied elsewhere.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the powerful visual impact of the mahya was commandeered to issue patriotic messages such as “Save Money” or “Buy Turkish products.”
Today the phrases are again religious in nature and Yýldýz derives a sense of satisfaction from their impact. “It is a wonderful feeling to see the mahya I’ve hung in the city and how people look up to stare at them.”
Source: The Muslim News