In the 19th century, Istanbul was one of the important stops for Western travelers. Some of the famous names who came to the city came across the month of Ramadan. In order to see the daily life, some of them disguised and mixed with the Muslim people, some opened iftar in the Harem. The travelers told their Ramadan testimony in interesting details. Here are the Istanbul Ramadan, two centuries ago, in the eyes of Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, Julia Pardoe and Jules Verne, who took her readers on an Ottoman tour with her novel …
‘Here you go’ is never said coldly and reluctantly ‘
British writer Julia Pardoe came to Istanbul on 30 December 1835. In the city where he will stay for 9 months, he first wanted to spend a fasting day at the home of a Turkish family. He was hosted in the harem of a “reputable Turkish merchant” with a Greek translator. Since he decided to “fast in their way”, he turned down the treats and waited for iftar. He took his place in the table prepared while throwing the ball. The variety and eating traditions on the table were interesting to him.
“The dishes arranged in a circle were followed by the fish laid on rice. I was content with tasting the first meals, and that was the only answer I could give to the lady of the house, constantly saying ‘Eat, eat, come on’. Spoons were placed in the middle with the fish and we all dipped the spoons in the same plate. I should add, however, that this custom was much less disgusting than in other situations, because everyone was careful to scoop the food in just one place, and the food containers were changing at great speed. Meat and chicken were eaten with fingers, everyone teared off the piece they had cut into their eyes; several of them shred a portion and handed it to me as a courtesy. I must say in parentheses that I would have preferred not to buy them. The meal, consisting of nineteen varieties of fish, meat, game, pastry and ice cream, in the most complex form – salty followed by dessert and stew after pudding – ended with a pyramid of rice. I kept sitting stubbornly throughout this fancy culinary show. However, according to Turkish etiquette, no one has to make this effort. “
Even though his table habits were strange, he did not neglect to make the following note in the book he named “The Ecchiest of Cities, Istanbul”: “I should not pass without mentioning the simple and beautiful hospitality of the Turks, such as inviting everyone who will find it suitable to live, whether they are rich or poor. “Here you go” is never said coldly and reluctantly. “
‘The days are mourning and the nights are like a carnival’
There is still no record of Jules Verne, who is thought to be in Istanbul after the publication of the stubborn novel Keraban, has set foot in the city. Verne depicted Tophane before iftar through the eyes of two Dutchmen in his entertaining novel, which, although translated into Turkish, is not well known.
Waiting for tobacco merchant Keraban Ağa, Van Mitten and his servant Bruno are confused by the slumber of people on the deserted streets and docks. Unaware that they will have to cross the Black Sea by road in order to cross to Üsküdar because of the stubbornness of Keraban Ağa, they start a conversation about Istanbul and Ramadan:
“’Those Turks are amazing guys,’ said somebody, ‘A traveler who is going to visit Istanbul during such an upsetting abstinence will really have a sad opinion about the capital of Muhammad.’
‘Well, it’s not happier on Sundays in London either! The Turks fast all day, but they suffer throughout the night. As soon as the ball that announces the setting of the sun explodes, the streets will have their usual look with the smells of fried meat, the flavor of drinks, the smoke of sticks and cigarettes! ‘
These two strangers must have been right, for at the same time the coffee shop was shouting at his apprentice:
‘Get everything ready! Those who fast will flock for up to an hour, and everything will be messed up. ‘ Two strangers started the conversation again:
‘I don’t know, but it seems to me that Istanbul is more interesting during Ramadan! No matter how sad, gloomy and sad the day is, the nights are as cheerful, loud and lively as a carnival! ‘
‘Yes, it’s a stark contrast!’
‘All that arbitrary behavior and so much freedom together’
Gérard de Nerval learned that it was the first day of Ramadan while sitting in a coffee house. He disguised as an Iranian merchant and settled in a caravanserai called Yıldız Hani near Çemberlitaş. The French poet and writer is the traveler who finds the opportunity to observe the Ramadan in the most detailed way, which he describes with the words “Both fasting and a carnival”.
Gerard de Nerval
In Istanbul in 1843, told by Nerval, after iftar, coffeehouses were sat down, hookahs and sticks were coming, listening to “extraordinary stories that professional storytellers recite or narrate in a theatrical manner”, almost in a “religious silence”. Nerval explains: “Coffee makers often spend a lot of money on attracting famous storytellers to their venues. Since the session lasted no more than an hour and a half, the storytellers could work in several coffeehouses on the same night. Sometimes a head of the family, who liked the story he listened to, also had sessions in his harem. But cautious people turned to the president of the guild of storytellers, called oderators, to make a deal. Because some malicious storytellers, who were not satisfied with the amount given, sometimes disappeared in the most interesting part of their story. There was so much arbitrary behavior but also so much freedom in Istanbul. Do not think that the taverns are closed. A Turkish holiday is for everyone. (…) The outer door must always be closed. But you can push in and drink a glass of good Tenedos for ten bucks. ”
In his book “Journey to the East”, Nerval describes the Eid al-Fitr as follows: “As the day dawned, the echo of the cannons thrown from all castles and ships spread around by suppressing the prayers of the muezzins who glorified Allah from the tops of thousands of minarets. (…) Up to a million people, coming from Istanbul, Üsküdar and Pera, were filling the huge triangle that ended in Sarayburnu. “
Nerval, who also had the opportunity to see Sultan Abdülmecid, who performed the eid prayer, drew attention to the fact that the sultan appeared before the people in plain clothes. “But his horse was so covered with gold embroidery and diamonds that anyone who looked at it was dazzled.”
The city illuminated by Ramadan
Théophile Gautier also disguised to enter daily life without attracting attention. Nobody found him odd because he was wearing a tunic, a sandals, and a turban. 70 days he spent in Istanbul, where he infiltrated his back streets, he dictated a book named after the city. The French critic, journalist and poet summarized the 24 hours of Ramadan 1856 as follows:
“In normal times, the streets of Istanbul are not illuminated, everyone has to carry their own lantern as if looking for someone, but in Ramadan there is no place as bright and cheerful as these streets and squares, which are usually dark and where a yellow paper star trembles from afar. The shops, which are open all night, emit lively lights reflecting joyfully from the houses opposite them, and they look like they are on fire. These are all lamps, candles and night lamps floating in oil. The grills, on which small pieces of mutton meat are crocheted and cooked vertically on skewers, are illuminated by the reflections of red coals. The ovens where baklavas are baked open their red mouths. Peddlers string candles around them to attract passers-by and display their wares. Friendly groups drink soup around a three-wick lamp whose flame flickers with the cool air or a large lantern painted in bright colors. Those who smoke tobacco at the door of the coffee shops revive the red scales of their sticks or hookahs with each breath, the light falling on this delightful crowd gushes again with strangely picturesque reflections.
Text: Perihan Özcan