Converting Constantinople after the Conquest: Akşemseddin’s Finding of Ebû Eyyûb

Şehname-i Selim Han (BL Or. 7043)
Sultan Selîm II (r. 1566-74) visits the shrine of Ebû Eyyûb, from the poet Lukmân’s Şehname-i Selim Han (BL Or. 7043)

Perhaps the best-known, and most-visited, Islamic place of pilgrimage in modern-day Istanbul is the tomb-shrine complex of Ebû Eyyûb (Ar. Abū Ayyūb al-Anṣārī), located in the eponymous quarter of Eyüp, just north of the Theodosian  land walls along the Golden Horn. Ebû Eyyûb, an early Muslim (one of the Anṣār, the ‘helpers,’ who joined the fledgling community later than the Companions), was said to have died during the unsuccessful Muslim siege of Constantinople in 669, being buried where he fell without the walls. His tomb, whose ‘discovery’ is described in the text below, would become a center of visitation soon after Mehmed II’s conquest of the city in 1453, and over time there would be built up the sprawling array of mosques, medreses, tombs, cemeteries, and so on that encompasses the main tomb-shrine complex. The tomb itself has gone through many permutations since the above image was painted in the early 17th century, but the tomb remains at the center of it all. Its discovery is described in the following story, an account taken from a menâkıb of one of the major Muslim saints of the fifteenth century Ottoman lands, Akşemseddin (1390–1459). The saint’s life was written down by one Göynüklü Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî in the mid-sixteenth century, drawing upon oral narratives circulating in his native Göynük, the small west Anatolian town where Akṣemseddin eventually settled and where he would die and be buried, and elsewhere, in including in Constantinople. This story picks up from Akṣemseddin’s close relationship with Mehmed II, who has just led the conquest of the city from the Byzantines:

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Then Constantinople was conquered. Sultan Muhammed [Mehmed Fatih] sought from Akşemsüddin the exalted tomb of Ebû Eyyûb. The Şeyh, finding a thicket growing in the midst of the exalted tomb, marked it out by placing his staff to the right side of Ebû Eyyûb’s body. But someone took the staff, so that the marker that the staff had provided of the place was hidden, and it was said to the Şeyh, ‘The marker has gone away, do designate it once again!’ So they Şeyh returned to the place. He set up his staff, and they began to dig, and he stood up the hidden markers [under the ground].

Akşemsüddin then said: ‘This is the exalted tomb! The evident sign of this is that the night that Ebû Eyyûb was buried, an ascetic monk (bir ehl-i riyâzat ruhbân) saw in a dream the Prophet, upon whom be peace. The Prophet, upon whom be peace, indicated his desire for the monk to become a Muslim, saying: “One of my companions, Ebû Eyyûb-i Ensârî is buried in such-and-such place. It ought not remain unmarked in this foreign realm,” he said. The monk awoke, his heart filled with the light of faith: ‘I bear witness that there is no god but God and I bear witness that Muhammad is his servant and his messenger,’ he said. He tasted the savor of faith, and with love and purity before morning he went out from the fortifications, and looked for the indicated place. In the place of the exalted tomb he saw a light. Dawn was approaching. This was the exalted tomb. He rubbed his face [upon it]. He built a place of visitation (mezâr) over it, and digging down close by to the tomb uncovered an ayazma [1].

This being so, Sultan Muhammad Hân and all the lords of the devlet [2] came to the exalted tomb and dug, and clearing away the rubble in accordance with the Şeyh’s words uncovered the exalted tomb and the ayazma. Sultan Muhammed Hân then built up the exalted tomb and built for the Şeyh built a hânigâh and a tekye, but the Şeyh did not accept them, and they were made into a medrese later [3].

After having excavated Ebû Eyyûb-i Ensârî’s place of visitation (mezâr), in support of the evidence that the Şeyh had adduced a shepherd came forward and said: ‘This is the exalted tomb! For I was driving my animals along, and upon coming to this place, the sheep would not pass over this exalted place of visitation, but split up to go around it, coming back together afterwards.’ [4]

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There is much to uncover (pun intended) from this story. Ebû Eyyûb was known to have died before Constantinople from a wide range of Arabic sources dating back to the formative period of Islam, but those sources gave no indication of exactly where he was buried, and the conquering Ottomans clearly could find no visible trace of his tomb, as much as they may have hoped to establish its location and so have at hand the holy tomb of a warrior from the earliest days of Islam and who was in direct contact with Muhammad himself, evidence of the long-standing ‘Islamic-ness’ of the city. We can see similar ‘strategies’ at work elsewhere in Anatolia and in the Balkans, through the ‘discovery’ of tombs of figures from early Islam, and the elaboration of stories about them, such as Battal Gazi.

The intervention of Akşemseddin provides saintly authority as to the tomb’s location, which is presented here as being in a basically rural area (as indeed parts of the district, in Byzantine times known as Kosmidion, were devoted to various forms of agriculture well through Ottoman times). Note that he presents a very particular argument with ‘evidence,’ and not just the presentation of his word as authoritative in itself or as a result of a dream-vision delivered to him. He claims instead to have knowledge (though he does not describe how he came about the knowledge) of how the tomb was originally discovered, by a Byzantine monk. This monk, while he (secretly?) converts to Islam through a dream-vision, is notably depicted as already being pious and ascetic even as a Christian, the phrase ehl-i riyâzat one that might be applied to Muslim saints as well. And when he uncovers the tomb of Ebû Eyyûb, he also uncovers an ayazma, a holy well, a typical feature of Orthodox Christian holy places in Constantinople (as discussed in this post), and which is still accessible at the tomb-shrine. The story suggests an awareness of continuity and a need to deal with the existence of Orthodox Christian holy places in the vicinity, such as the monastery and shrine devoted to the saints Cosmas and Damian that stood nearby (the name Kosmodion in reference to this shrine). Even more, it suggests a continuity among the Ottomans from the Orthodox Byzantines of ideas of what constituted a holy place, ideas that would continue to be re-manifest from time to time, as the account of Merkez Efendî’s ayazma indicates.

In other words, the Muslim saint that constitutes the strongest ‘link’ the Ottomans had back to Muhammad and the milieu of the early community appears in this account bound up with an Orthodox Christian monk-turned-Muslim and with a Muslim saint from rural Anatolia, whose work in uncovering the tomb is further supplemented by a shepherd and his sheep, the animals intuitively sensing the presence of a holy tomb below the ground. Sultan Mehmed and his retinue, far from being given an active role in the discovery, must be guided by the saint, and are implicitly dependent upon the original work of the Byzantine monk. Finally, the saint exerts his independence from the sultan by turning down his offer of a tekke-complex at the site, though this manifestation of independence from a sultan is more a feature of the sixteenth century than the era of Mehmed II and Akşemseddin, as sultans and their supporters increasingly sought to project sanctity and sainthood on the part of the ruler. This story rejects such a project: the sultan, even the Conqueror himself, needs the saint, but the saint does not need him. Mehmed is dependent upon other holy figures even in uncovering the tomb of his new capital’s founding Islamic figure. Political power, stories like this one argue, ought to recognize its place, and not try to usurp the role of the true Friends of God (where ever they may be found!).

[1] A mezâr is a place for ‘pious visitation’ or pilgrimage; an ayazma (see below for more) is a holy well, the word a Turkish rendering of a Greek original.

[2] Devlet is often translated ‘state’ or ‘polity,’ though neither term quite captures the subtle range of meanings or the reality of political organization and power conveyed by the original term, hence my preference for leaving it untranslated.

[3] Hânigâh and  tekye are both terms for structures devoted to lodging sufis and hosting their ceremonies, usually with living space for the şeyh and his family.

[4] Emîr Hüseyin Enîsî, Akşemseddin hazretleri ve yakın çevresi: Menâkıb-ı Âkşemseddîn, edited by Metin Çelik  (İstanbul: Ark, 2016), 54-55.

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