A Tale of Two Holy Wells in Early Modern Constantinople

The Living Fountain, 17th century
Fig. 1: A seventeenth century icon of the Zoödochos Pege, probably produced in Constantinople (Wellcome Library no. 44943i)

Just outside the Theodosian Walls of Istanbul is a spring which is today accessible from beneath a church of nineteenth century vintage, reached by a flight of marble stairs down into the living stone, a spring known as Zoödochos Pege (the ‘Life Giving Spring’) in Greek, Balıklı Ayazması (the ‘Fish Spring’) in Turkish, both names alluding to important features of this site of pilgrimage. One of numerous ayazmas, or holy wells, that appeared in and around Byzantine Constantinople and many of which have survived as places of veneration in modern Istanbul, the Zoödochos Pege is one of the most storied and most visited, from late antiquity to the present (it’s one of the handful of ayazmas I’ve visited, in fact). Long associated with the presence and activity of the Theotokos- as can be immediately surmised from the icon above- the spring’s veneration probably began during the reign of Justinian (527-565), though it might have begun even earlier, a vast trove of miracle accounts associated with the healing powers of the spring, blessed by the Theotokos, accumulating over the centuries. By Ottoman times, which are my concern here, the church above the spring had fallen into ruin, perhaps even before Mehmed II’s conquest of the city. Until the 1720s pilgrims visited a holy well that was, at least in part, out in the open, much as the icons I’ve selected here indicate (though they suggest a location on the surface of the ground, not essentially underground as was almost certainly true then and is definitely the case now.

The early modern Ottoman period seems to have seen a surge in interest in and veneration of this holy well, if we are to go by the numerous iconographic depictions that began to appear in the seventeenth, quite a few of which made their way into the Wellcome Collection (by a route unknown to me), from which I have drawn the two examples featured here. The above icon (fig. 1) lays out several repeating elements in these depictions, depictions which probably brought together a range of traditions and stories circulating among devotees: gathered around the stone basin of the holy well are representatives of miracle accounts, some whose stories we can easily put together- a man rising from his bed, a mother holding a healed child- others less evident to us now. The potency of the holy water of the well underlines each vignette, however, with the enthroned Theotokos and Christ rising above the waters, radiating holiness down into the well. The famed fish are also visible, themselves a part of the sacredness of the well, as the Turkish name indicates. This icon also features a row of ‘supporting figures’: St. John the Forerunner, Sts. Helena and Constantine at the Invention of the Cross, and a third saint, perhaps St. Mamas, an extremely popular saint during the Ottoman period. The icon is in rather rough shape, having been scratched or scraped at various points- not as iconoclastic damage (which would have targeted faces), but in order to use the scraped material for blessing, a way to participate in the holy power of the spring at a remove, as it were. The second icon I’ve included (fig. 2), at the end of this article, probably dates from the eighteenth century, and reproduces much of the same visual material as that above, but with the addition within the image of a stream of text coming from the Christ Child to a soldier, along with a gilded frame without. What drove this evident resurgence of interest in and devotion to the Zoödochos Pege? I am not sure, though, as I will hopefully soon discuss in a later post, early modern Ottoman Christians and Muslims alike expressed renewed devotions, often expressed visually, to their various holy places, from the seventeenth century forward. And indeed, it is possible, as the story of the second holy well might indicate, that it was not only only Orthodox Christians visiting this ayazma, but Muslims as well, which might help us understand the resurgence in interest of this particular ayazma, as a competitive process.

Less than a mile north of the Zoödochos Pege is the zaviye complex of a prominent Muslim saint of 16th century Constantinople, Merkez Efendi (d. 959/1552). While it does not seem to be very prominent today, this site also features a holy well, along with several other sites of veneration, at least in the early modern period, as described by Hafız Hüseyin Ayvansarayî in his late eighteenth century guide to the mosques and other religious structures in and around Istanbul: ‘There is an exalted ayazma in the vicinity of Şeyh Merkez Efendi’s tomb. One descends to it by steps. The abovementioned [Merkez Efendi’s] subterranean halvethane, which is like a cave, is still extant, and it is a place of pilgrimage for the Faithful [1]. The hamam located next to [Merkez Efendi’s zaviye] is one of its vakfs. The aforesaid [Merkez Efendi] had a private room in the hamam for bathing. At present the sick and invalid bathe [there] with purity of purpose and are restored to health.’ [2]

Continue reading “A Tale of Two Holy Wells in Early Modern Constantinople”

Two Ways of Dealing with the Jinn in the Ottoman World

Demons- the red king of the djinns, Al-Malik al-Ahmar. Demon portrait. From a 15th-century Arabic collectaneous manuscript known as Kitab al-bulhan.
The Red King (al-Malik al-aḥmar), from Kitāb al-Bulhān, produced c. 1390-1450, probably Baghdad (MS. Bodl. Or. 133, fol. 31a)

The presence and potential power of the jinn- beings neither human nor angel, but instead somewhere in-between, capable of both helping and harming humans but mostly just interested in their own devices- has been a constant throughout Islamic history, with the concept of the jinn probably pre-dating Islam considerably in fact. Ways of dealing with the jinn have varied considerably, though certain practices- the use of talismans and amulets, or other sacred or semi-sacred prophylactics- has been common across many Islamic societies. The two examples I’ve presented here demonstrate at least two ways in which people in the sixteenth century Ottoman world imagined and sought to control the power of the jinn.

The image above is of one of the most fearsome of the jinn, the ‘Red King,’ also referenced in the story below. He is surrounded by various other ferocious, indeed rather terrifying, jinn, sitting astride a lion. His malevolent nature, had it been in doubt, is emphasized by the decapitated human head he holds in one hand. This image comes from a 15th (or possibly late 14th) century compilation, the Kitāb al-Bulhān, produced in pre-Ottoman Baghdad, a book which features a range of material from the astrological to the occult- subjects and genres that hover somewhere among our modern categories of science, magic, and religion. The image itself contains prophylactic letters and numbers- visible to the left and right of the Red King’s head- which are meant to control this particular jinn’s manifestations. More interesting for our purposes, this manuscript was modified by later Ottoman owners: Ottoman Turkish has been added, and some of the images have been modified. This painting of the Red King bears the most striking modifications. Through some technique the paint has been removed from the jinn chief’s body at strategic points: his neck and hands have been ‘cut,’ his head ‘pierced,’ and his mount’s eye put out. As you might guess these are not accidental injuries to the manuscript, but were done deliberately, almost certainly by a 16th century Ottoman owner (at some point in the 17th century it was acquired by a English collector, who added his own cryptographic writing to parts of the text- but that’s another story!). What is going on here?

In her recent discussion of Ottoman and Safavid devotional artistic practices [1], the Islamic art historian Christiane Gruber drew attention to the physical interactions that audiences of manuscript paintings in both empires had with particular images. Along with ‘positive’ devotional acts like the addition of face-covering veils to images of Muhammad and members of the Ahl al-Bayt, kissing and rubbing depictions of Muhammad and others, and other types of practices that modified the image on the page, we also see evidence of symbolic devotional ‘violence’ in images: the faces of Muhammad’s pagan enemies being rubbed out, their necks and hands ‘cut,’ and, in Shi’i contexts, explicitly Sunni figures being ritually defaced. Gruber argues that these actions were seen as relating to the subjects depicted in some way: cutting the necks of Muhammad’s opponents de-fanged their potential power, while allowing the viewer to not just view but participate, albeit at a remove, in the drama being depicted in the picture. Something very similar is going on in this image: whoever modified this image sought to control the power of the Red King through symbolic ritual action, with the understanding that violence done to the jinn’s depiction ‘translated’ to the jinn himself. Note that this is not iconoclasm, at least not in the traditional sense: most of the pictures in this collection have not been modified at all, indicating both the lack of iconoclasm in the book’s audience and the apparently especially dangerous nature of the Red King, dangerous enough that even his image in an occult handbook needed to be ‘brought to heel.’

The second example of controlling the jinn- including the Red King- comes from the saint’s life of ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī (d. 1565), Tadhkirat ūlī al-albāb, by Muḥammad Muḥyī al-Dīn al-Malījī. The short story I have translated below is only one of numerous anecdotes in which the saint confronts jinn, both singly and in groups. In these stories a recurring feature, and one that long predated al-Sha’rānī, is the jinn’s occupation of particular places and spaces, especially abandoned human dwellings. The ability of saints to confront and control the jinn was also well established by the 16th century; al-Sha’rānī is shown using his saintly power to mark out spaces in the urban fabric of Cairo, not so much to defeat the jinn as to demonstrate his sanctity by moving into their space and avoiding any harm from them. Continue reading “Two Ways of Dealing with the Jinn in the Ottoman World”

An Ottoman Remix

Ottoman Qur'an Mounting

This curious piece, which consists of three early medieval (9th or 10th century) Qur’an folios written in un-voweled Kufic script pasted together then attached to a piece of paperboard and framed with lovely floral border devices, dates (probably) to the eighteenth century, and was produced somewhere in the Ottoman world. It is currently held in the Freer and Sackler Gallery (S1998.8).

Besides it intrinsic loveliness- the bold angular Kufic script contrasts nicely with the delicate flowing lines of the floral elements- this piece of artistic ‘remixing’ presents some questions which I at least cannot answer with any certainty but are worth asking anyway. What was the original setting and intention of this piece? Would it have been in a collected volume of similar pieces or of other ‘remixes’ (calligraphy, paintings, and drawings taken from their original contexts and remounted in new settings, primarily)? Or would it have been displayed, similar to a hilye-i şerif? How would an Ottoman viewer have understood this presentation: was it seen as a link with the far distant Islamic past, or perhaps as an especially potent means of connecting with the power of the Qu’ranic text? Or was the point of this display simply to show a nice instance of Kufic script, or perhaps to appreciate the folios as something along the lines of antiques? Was there something special about these folios- for instance, we know that very old Qur’an volumes and folios in the Ottoman world and elsewhere were sometimes treated as relics due to their assumed linkage with a key figure in the deep Islamic past. Was that the case with these folios? Or was something else entirely being done with this piece, something that is perhaps now unrecoverable for us?

A Human Figure in Profound Meditation

A12399.jpg
The Repentant Magdalen
c. 1635/1640, by Georges de la Tour (1593-1652),
oil on canvas (Nat. Gall. of Art 1974.52.1)

‘Georges de la Tour, like John Donne, is one of the rediscoveries of the twentieth century; and the admiration that both have evoked in our own time may be traced to the same fundamental causes. I do not mean simply the photographic realism of the composition, but rather the way in which every detail of the work is controlled by a human figure in profound meditation. This person’s thoughts are not abstract: the left hand, with its sensitive, tapered fingers, probes the eyesocket of a skull; the arm, so delicately clothed, conveys a rude sensation to the brain. Meanwhile the eye is focused on a mirror, where we are accustomed to pursue the work of preparing “a face to meet the faces”” that we meet: yet here the inquiring eye meets “the skull beneath the skin,” a skull that seems to devour the book on which it rests. Sight and touch, then, meet to form these thoughts, meditative, piercing, looking through the mirror, probing whatever lies beyond. For me, at least, it suggests simultaneously Donne and Yeats: Donne in his shroud and Yeats in his tower, especially the figure that ends A Vision: “Day after day I have sat in my chair turning a symbol over in my mind, exploring all its details, defining and again defining its elements, testing my convictions and those of others by its unity, attempting to substitute particulars for an abstraction like that of algebra.”

Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 1.

On ‘Influence’

‘Influence’ is a curse of art criticism primarily because of its wrong-headed grammatical prejudice about who is the agent and who the patient: it seems to reverse the active/passive relation which the historical actor experiences and the inferential beholder will wish to take into account. If one says that X influenced Y it does seem that one is saying that X did something to Y rather than that Y did something to X. But in the consideration of good pictures and painters the second is always the more lively reality. It is a very strange that a term with such an incongruous astral background has come to play such a role, because it is right against the real energy of the lexicon. If we think of Y rather than X as the agent, the vocabulary is much richer and more attractively diversified: draw on, resort to, avail oneself of, appropriate from, have recourse to, adapt, misunderstand, refer to, pick up, take on, engage with, react to, quote, differentiate oneself from, assimilate oneself to, assimilate, align oneself with, copy, address, paraphrase, absorb, make a variation on, revive, continue, remodel, ape, emulate, travesty, parody, extract from, distort, attend to, resist, simplify, reconstitute, elaborate on, develop, face up to, master, subvert, perpetuate, reduce, promote, respond to, transform, tackle… – everyone will be able to think of others. Most of these relations just cannot be stated the other way round- in terms of X acting on Y rather than Y acting on X. To think terms of influence blunts thought by impoverishing the means of differentiation.

Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Picture (Yale: Yale University Press, 1985) 58-59.