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”

Walking in Tel Aviv the Night Before Flying Home

My feet take me westwards through a soft white night of street
Lights low and gentle. Outlined high rises climb up behind the city asleep
In the shadow of Shabbat. Coming to the shore of the Great Sea I pass by
Arab families circled on the sand laughing as the smells of low little grills alight
Mingle with the sea’s salt scent drifting skywards. Girls in head scarves
Bob along the surf’s edge blurred in the darkness. Ah, this is where I end up,
My own limbs laced with certain rhythms, effortless.
How many tongues, how many cartographies and lays of land
Jumble in me, palimpsetting one on another and in arabesquing interlace? The sand
Is soft on my unshod feet. Around the shore’s curve
The lights of old Jaffa glow, soft, against the dark rising sea.

Verses From Jerusalem

If I forget thee O Jerusalem—but how much do you, O Jerusalem, forget? Here
Is what you forget: all the lives lived and buried under your warm old stones, and
Stones that lie buried under newer stones, that give way to older cold stones,
Fenced and labeled, dead stones, an inner bark exposed to the air, the sap dried.
You forget too much, and not enough, O Jerusalem. If I forget thee—but how
Could I? You are lodged in me like the new old name of God lodged in the tongue
Of the mystic from Buffalo roaming your streets,
Like the crosses and the names sunk in the threshold of the holy Tomb.
Will you forget me after the dust of my feet has risen up into your air
And fallen east over the ridgetop settlements, over the bright waters of En Prat,
Over the high concrete walls, over dead forgotten cities in the desert,
Over Nabi Musa’s stark domes, over sad black tarps in the nomad camps?
What is the skill of your right hand, O Jerusalem? Gathering stones,
And in another time or in the same time, scattering them. Yet, in your left hand
Is remembering, rising up like scents in Suq al-‘Attarin, all your names
And the names within names in the many tongues
Pooling in your left palm, ephemeral, eternal,
But the right hand, it does not know what the left hand has.


September Beside the Potomac

Persimmon fruit hangs sweet and heavy in the air-
Bottomland forest along the Potomac,
First leaf falls whisp in and out, acorns, walnuts
Scatter and plop to the sandied floor, soundings.
Cool breeze washes the warm dense scent of the river
At end of summer up to us, promise of change. Memory’s scent,
Of my own late summer childhood nestling in
The sun-warmed receding pools, focusing the gentle force of drawn-
Down cascades in the Piney River, sniffing in the little river,
Shivering as the sun got low in afternoon
And we got out of the water. Now, my little son
Reaches out to feel the great round bole of a silver maple,
Smiling, two vigors, connecting. Together, we take in the
Touch, the forest and the river’s wafting multiplicities,
Such lines of continuity, untamed worlds, wild rivers,
Seasons in their turns and turns and turns.

Southern Monuments

There our monuments red gritstone grave markers on a low rise
South of the Sipsey River, river where amongst the cypress knees
Whispering trace of baptisms in the tannin water flow silent and slow.
Jesus behind every sacred tree and over every fireant hill.

These our monuments kudzu covered loess hills
Towering above where the River once ran
Some blood bled white there, and the blood of our others went free.
One day we’ll all go free, a hot wind in August says low.

The man who tells you anything is any other than tragedy and transcendence
Is a fool or a liar or both. That is all there is here, that is all there is anywhere.
Here, here it is sharp and bright, engraved.

These our monuments the lilting into earth house our greatgrandfather built,
Where for a few seasons buzzards roosted.
The floorboards splattered white, in spring, the face of the world there renews,
Snowdrops scattered under the oaks the tornado three years back just missed.

These our monuments the burial grounds of ancestors and ancestors’ slaves,
Hollowed bald cypress, an arrowhead cupped in hand,
Concaved thunderheads looming in July longleaf heat.

These our monuments my sharecropper granny’s fingers that
Picked cotton like nobody’s business, coaxed bloom and beauty for
Year and years from the tough soil and the takings of time.

These our monuments on red clay and muddy water, grave and ghost,
Sweat on brows, the thick air filling up our lungs,
Life and death, hate and love, pedestals untoppled and unwreathed.
Memory, we fear and pray, eternal.


As a child I would for hours crouch along
The gentle rise of that old refuse pile, its last discarded
Entry from well before the Depression. Rhizomed grass and dropped leaves,
The archivists. I delved gently into the covering soil,
Turned black and loamy with the century past, and worked
Out bits of blue-and-white, medicinal bottles, metal melted back
Into elemental shape, and met the roots
Of the nearby sweetgum piercing the far more ancient sky above.
Beyond the daylilies nodded, following the sun. And so
I began to learn what it is to feel, rough and dark and smooth and giving-way, all,
The traces of the lives of others past, welling, up from the mothering ground.

Who Can Say What the Years Will Bring


We skirted the fencing, no trace of official care
Here. Up above, marble framed portals,
For balconies long crumbled
Where the purple-robed gazed upon the Marmara,
Hang on, to the end of time, Constantine’s return.
Below, across this ruined threshold
The stench is strong. Human debris, traces, wreckage.
The years have not been kind,
The present years least of all. Behind us, tour buses idle. Dogs
Wander and loll. In this sunsick city for the
First time in days, grey clouds
Skiff down. The waves across Kennedy Boulevard
Lick the shore, slicked and black in the lowing light.
If there are any Byzantine ghosts here, they keep close
To the earth, don’t raise a sound. The walls are charred.
We leave as quickly as we came.
‘The future slips imperceptibly away,
Who can say what the years will bring?’ says Tu Fu,
Surveying a similar scene,
Knowing what all who wander ruins know. I bow
My head, trying to remember. Our years,
Spare and thin, meet with the ruins. We cannot


My body slips further and further along, its
Numbered days receding. This is always known—
We come forth in fear, so already close to death.
These gyres turn and turn, that river of flux flows
Me closer, how I start to feel it. The rot and ruin. Yet,
I gather flowers from the roadside in autumn, and am glad.