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:

Ottoman Velvet

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]

Ottoman Velvet

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. Continue reading “Converting Constantinople after the Conquest: Akşemseddin’s Finding of Ebû Eyyûb”

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”

A View of Constantinople, 1756

The following effusive description of Ottoman Constantinople/Istanbul is from the pen of Timothy Gabashvili, a Georgian cleric who embarked, in the mid 18th century, on a long journey across the Ottoman realms visiting sacred sites, various Orthodox communities, and other sights and places along the way, all of which he would later describe in his Georgian-language record of his pilgrimage. Timothy’s perspective is a somewhat unique one: Georgia in the mid 18th century was still within the Ottoman orbit, but was being aggressively courted by an expansive Russian empire. Timothy himself had previously visited Moscow and the new city of St. Petersburg. Yet in much of his narrative his treatment of the Ottomans is remarkably positive- all of his interactions with Ottoman officials were amiable and productive, and the relationships he managed to forge enabled the success of his pilgrimage. In a relatively few short years- unbeknownst to Timothy or anyone else- the Ottoman world would change a great deal, and a pilgrimage of this sort, and the relationships that made it possible, would be forever lost. In 1756, however, a pious Georgian pilgrim could still feast and drink with Muslim Ottoman notables, and wax poetic in praise of the the Ottoman incarnation of the City of cities.

Panorama of Istanbul, Ottoman, late 18th – early 19th century, 58 x 27.1 cm, SHM 12449 – İ.1285 / From the Sadberk Hanım Museum, Istanbul


Now, I’ll say something about the city of Constantinople. The lure of the city’s radiance has spread its beauty to distant parts of the world and even the capitals, because in no other place can one find Asia and Europe together. Among them, running down from the Black Sea, there flows a narrow sea like a river. It runs, with spouts of foam. Constantinople is founded on it and on the mountains by the hand of Sabaoth. The mountains are lavishly covered with spruce trees and Lebanese cypresses. The city has been built on both sides of the sea that flows in a narrow stream. The structure of the walls, the towers and the battlements are splendidly coloured. The windows of the palaces sparkling in different ways, resembled Eden.

Some of the palaces, vaults and bazaars of the city were covered with lead, the gilded roofs of the palaces and springs shone like the sun shining on the city, and the colour of other buildings in the city was scorched clay, or purple, a hue also like the sunset. The ships in the city stood erect like the trunks of poplar trees. Among the groves of selvinu, ghaji, and cypress trees, there was a glimpse of the royal palaces, and the buildings were veiled in the forest of pine and spruce groves. This capital seemed to me like the brightest among the stars, like a rose among the flowers of Eden, like a jacinth among the precious emeralds, like the rainbow in the clouds, and Augustus Caeser among the kings. I found it very difficult and sad to be leaving Constantinople, as I, who had come here after a great many sufferings and hardships, would never see it again. My eyes and my mind competed in emotion when viewing this marvelous city

Timothy Gabashvili, Pilgrimage to Mount Athos, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, 1755-1759, trans. by Mzia Ebanoidze and John Wilkinson