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Ch. 26: The Night of Predestination


Constantinople in Ramazan--The Origin of the Fast--Nightly Illuminations--The Night of Predestination--The Golden Horn at Night--Illumination of the Shores--The Cannon of Constantinople--A Fiery Panorama--The Sultan's Ca´que--Close of the Celebration--A Turkish Mob--The Dancing Dervishes.


"Skies full of splendid moons and shooting stars,
And spouting exhalations, diamond fires."

~John Keats.


Constantinople, Wednesday, July 14, 1862.


Constantinople, during the month of Ramazan, presents a very different aspect from Constantinople at other times. The city, it is true, is much more stern and serious during the day; there is none of that gay, careless life of the Orient which you see in Smyrna, Cairo, and Damascus; but when once the sunset gun has fired, and the painful fast is at an end, the picture changes as if by magic. In all the outward symbols of their religion, the Mussulmans show their joy at being relieved from what they consider a sacred duty. During the day, it is quite a science to keep the appetite dormant, and the people not only abstain from eating and drinking, but as much as possible from the sight of food. In the bazaars, you see the famished merchants either sitting, propped back against their cushions, with the shawl about their stomachs, tightened so as to prevent the void under it from being so sensibly felt, or lying at full length in the vain attempt to sleep. It is whispered here that many of the Turks will both eat and smoke, when there is no chance of detection, but no one would dare infringe the fast in public. Most of the mechanics and porters are Armenians, and the boatmen are Greeks.

I have endeavored to ascertain the origin of this fast month. The Syrian Christians say that it is a mere imitation of an incident which happened to Mahomet. The Prophet, having lost his camels, went day after day seeking them in the Desert, taking no nourishment from the time of his departure in the morning until his return at sunset. After having sought them thus daily, for the period of one entire moon, he found them, and in token of joy, gave a three days' feast to the tribe, now imitated in the festival of Bairam, which lasts for three days after the close of Ramazan. This reason, however, seems too trifling for such a rigid fast, and the Turkish tradition, that the Koran was sent down from heaven during this month, offers a more probable explanation. During the fast, the Mussulmans, as is quite natural, are much more fanatical than at other times. They are obliged to attend prayers at the mosque every night, or to have a mollah read the Koran to them at their own houses. All the prominent features of their religion are kept constantly before their eyes, and their natural aversion to the Giaour, or Infidel, is increased tenfold. I have heard of several recent instances in which strangers have been exposed to insults and indignities.

At dusk the minarets are illuminated; a peal of cannon from the Arsenal, echoed by others from the forts along the Bosphorus, relieves the suffering followers of the Prophet, and after an hour of silence, during which they are all at home, feasting, the streets are filled with noisy crowds, and every coffee-shop is thronged. Every night there are illuminations along the water, which, added to the crowns of light sparkling on the hundred minarets and domes, give a magical effect to the night view of the city. Towards midnight there is again a season of comparative quiet, most of the inhabitants having retired to rest; but, about two hours afterwards a watchman comes along with a big drum, which he beats lustily before the doors of the Faithful, in order to arouse them in time to eat again before the daylight-gun, which announces the commencement of another day's fast.

Last night was the holiest night of Islam, being the twenty-fifth of the fast. It is called the Leilet-el-Kadr, or Night of the Predestination, the anniversary of that on which the Koran was miraculously communicated to the Prophet. On this night the Sultan, accompanied by his whole suite, attends service at the mosque, and on his return to the Seraglio, the Sultana Valide, or Sultana-Mother, presents him with a virgin from one of the noble families of Constantinople. Formerly, St. Sophia was the theatre of this celebration, but this year the Sultan chose the Mosque of Tophaneh, which stands on the shore--probably as being nearer to his imperial palace at Beshiktashe, on the Bosphorus. I consider myself fortunate in having reached Constantinople in season to witness this ceremony, and the illumination of the Golden Horn, which accompanies it.

After sunset the mosques crowning the hills of Stamboul, the mosque of Tophaneh, on this side of the water, and the Turkish men-of-war and steamers afloat at the mouth of the Golden Horn, began to blaze with more than their usual brilliance. The outlines of the minarets and domes were drawn in light on the deepening gloom, and the masts and yards of the vessel were hung with colored lanterns. From the battery in front of the mosque and arsenal of Tophaneh a blaze of intense light streamed out over the water, illuminating the gliding forms of a thousand ca´ques, and the dark hulls of the vessels lying at anchor. The water is the best place from which to view the illumination, and a party of us descended to the landing-place. The streets of Tophaneh were crowded with swarms of Turks, Greeks and Armenians. The square around the fountain was brilliantly lighted, and venders of sherbet and ka´mak were ranged along the sidewalks. In the neighborhood of the mosque the crowd was so dense that we could with difficulty make our way through. All the open space next the water was filled up with the clumsy arabas, or carriages of the Turks, in which sat the wives of the Pashas and other dignitaries.

We took a ca´que, and were soon pulled out into the midst of a multitude of other ca´ques, swarming all over the surface of the Golden Horn. The view from this point was strange, fantastic, yet inconceivably gorgeous. In front, three or four large Turkish frigates lay in the Bosphorus, their hulls and spars outlined in fire against the dark hills and distant twinkling lights of Asia. Looking to the west, the shores of the Golden Horn were equally traced by the multitude of lamps that covered them, and on either side, the hills on which the city is built rose from the water--masses of dark buildings, dotted all over with shafts and domes of the most brilliant light. The gateway on Seraglio Point was illuminated, as well as the quay in front of the mosque of Tophaneh, all the cannons of the battery being covered with lamps. The commonest objects shared in the splendor, even a large lever used for hoisting goods being hung with lanterns from top to bottom. The mosque was a mass of light, and between the tall minarets flanking it, burned the inscription, in Arabic characters, "Long life to you, O our Sovereign!"

The discharge of a cannon announced the Sultan's departure from his palace, and immediately the guns on the frigates and the batteries on both shores took up the salute, till the grand echoes, filling the hollow throat of the Golden Horn, crashed from side to side, striking the hills of Scutari and the point of Chalcedon, and finally dying away among the summits of the Princes' Islands, out on the Sea of Marmora. The hulls of the frigates were now lighted up with intense chemical fires, and an abundance of rockets were spouted from their decks. A large Drummond light on Seraglio Point, and another at the Battery of Tophaneh, poured their rival streams across the Golden Horn, revealing the thousands of ca´ques jostling each other from shore to shore, and the endless variety of gay costumes with which they were filled. The smoke of the cannon hanging in the air, increased the effect of this illumination, and became a screen of auroral brightness, through which the superb spectacle loomed with large and unreal features. It was a picture of air--a phantasmagoric spectacle, built of luminous vapor and meteoric fires, and hanging in the dark round of space. In spite of ourselves, we became eager and excited, half fearing that the whole pageant would dissolve the next moment, and leave no trace behind.

Meanwhile, the cannon thundered from a dozen batteries, and the rockets burst into glittering rain over our heads. Grander discharges I never heard; the earth shook and trembled under the mighty bursts of sound, and the reverberation which rattled along the hill of Galata, broken by the scattered buildings into innumerable fragments of sound, resembled the crash of a thousand falling houses. The distant echoes from Asia and the islands in the sea filled up the pauses between the nearer peals, and we seemed to be in the midst of some great naval engagement. But now the ca´que of the Sultan is discerned, approaching from the Bosphorus. A signal is given, and a sunrise of intense rosy and golden radiance suddenly lights up the long arsenal and stately mosque of Tophaneh, plays over the tall buildings on the hill of Pera, and falls with a fainter lustre on the Genoese watch-tower that overlooks Galata. It is impossible to describe the effect of this magical illumination. The mosque, with its taper minarets, its airy galleries, and its great central dome, is built of compact, transparent flame, and in the shifting of the red and yellow fires, seems to flicker and waver in the air. It is as lofty, and gorgeous, and unsubstantial as the cloudy palace in Cole's picture of "Youth." The long white front of the arsenal is fused in crimson heat, and burns against the dark as if it were one mass of living coal. And over all hangs the luminous canopy of smoke, redoubling its lustre on the waters of the Golden Horn, and mingling with the phosphorescent gleams that play around the oars of the ca´ques.

A long barge, propelled by sixteen oars, glides around the dark corner of Tophaneh, and shoots into the clear, brilliant space in front of the mosque. It is not lighted, and passes with great swiftness towards the brilliant landing-place. There are several persons seated under a canopy in the stern, and we are trying to decide which is the Sultan, when a second boat, driven by twenty-four oarsmen, comes in sight. The men rise up at each stroke, and the long, sharp craft flies over the surface of the water, rather than forces its way through it. A gilded crown surmounts the long, curved prow, and a light though superb canopy covers the stern. Under this, we catch a glimpse of the Sultan and Grand Vizier, as they appear for an instant like black silhouettes against the burst of light on shore.

After the Sultan had entered the mosque, the fires diminished and the cannon ceased, though the illuminated masts, minarets and gateways still threw a brilliant gleam over the scene. After more than an hour spent in devotion, he again entered his ca´que and sped away to greet his new wife, amid a fresh discharge from the frigates and the batteries on both shores, and a new dawn of auroral splendor. We made haste to reach the landing-place, in order to avoid the crowd of ca´ques; but, although we were among the first, we came near being precipitated into the water, in the struggle to get ashore. The market-place at Tophaneh was so crowded that nothing but main force brought us through, and some of our party had their pockets picked. A number of Turkish soldiers and police-men were mixed up in the melee, and they were not sparing of blows when they came in contact with a Giaour. In making my way through, I found that a collision with one of the soldiers was inevitable, but I managed to plump against him with such force as to take the breath out of his body, and was out of his reach before he had recovered himself. I saw several Turkish women striking right and left in their endeavors to escape, and place their hands against the faces of those who opposed them, pushing them aside. This crowd was contrived by thieves, for the purpose of plunder, and, from what I have since learned, must have been very successful.

I visited to-day the College of the Mevlevi Dervishes at Pera, and witnessed their peculiar ceremonies. They assemble in a large hall, where they take their seats in a semi-circle, facing the shekh. After going through several times with the usual Moslem prayer, they move in slow march around the room, while a choir in the gallery chants Arabic phrases in a manner very similar to the mass in Catholic churches. I could distinguish the sentences "God is great," "Praise be to God," and other similar ejaculations. The chant was accompanied with a drum and flute, and had not lasted long before the Dervishes set themselves in a rotary motion, spinning slowly around the shekh, who stood in the centre. They stretched both arms out, dropped their heads on one side, and glided around with a steady, regular motion, their long white gowns spread out and floating on the air. Their steps were very similar to those of the modern waltz, which, it is possible, may have been derived from the dance of the Mevlevis. Baron Von Hammer finds in this ceremony an imitation of the dance of the spheres, in the ancient Samothracian Mysteries; but I see no reason to go so far back for its origin. The dance lasted for about twenty minutes, and the Dervishes appeared very much exhausted at the close, as they are obliged to observe the fast very strictly.


Bayard Taylor