Sacred Holy Relics

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Hilmi Aydın

THE FOLLOWERS of most religions attach importance to certain objects associated with the history of their faith. However, the significance with which they are invested varies in different societies. While in some cases these objects are venerated almost to the point of worship, in others they are believed to have metaphysical power and used as talismans, or, on the other hand, preserved out of respect for the religious figure to whom they belonged. The Arabic term for such relics is eser.

Sacred relics are a feature of many cultures and religions, but have perhaps been most prominent of all in Christianity. Among the early Christians it was believed that the souls of saints remained close to their tombs, and their possessions were preserved there. Fragments of the cross on which Jesus Christ was believed to have been crucified were discovered in Jerusalem in the 4th century, and were placed in churches; an event which gave rise to the institution of a church feast known as the Feast of the Cross. Sacred relics of this sort were an effective means of enhancing interest in newly built churches, and there was hardlya church without one or more of such objects.

Hırkai Saadet

Among the pre-Islamic Arabs, it was customary after visiting the Kaaba to take home some stone or soil in memory of the pilgrimage which it might not be possible to repeat. These were venerated by the tribe, who would perform ritual circumambulation around them. According to Ibn”ul Kelbi, this was one reason why idolatry had spread through the Arabian peninsula. The tradition of taking soil from a shrine, or from the grave of a prophet or saint is extremely ancient.

Foremost among the relics preserved for centuries in Mecca are the Hacer-ul Esved and the Makam-ı Ibrahim. The former is the sacred Black Stone brought from Mount Ebu Kubeys and built into the southeastern corner of the Kaaba to mark the starting point of the circumambulation, and the latter is a rectangular slab of marble carved with “footprints” alleged to be those of Abraham, who is said to have stood on it either during construction of the Kaaba or when calling on the people to perform the pilgrimage. Since Muslims interpreted the Koranic verse reading, “Take as your place of worship the place where Ibrahim stood ” , as meaning that they should pray by this stone, it was moved by Omar from its original position next to the Kaaba so that those who were praying did not obstruct the circumambulation.


Another sacred relic at the Kaaba was a pair of horns thought to belong to the sacrificial ram sent to Abraham by God in place of his son (identified as Ishmael in the Koranic and Isaac in the Biblical version). According to Azraki, when Muhammed entered the Kaaba following the conquest of Mecca, these horns were hanging on the wall but subsequently disappeared during the siege of Mecca by Hajjaj.

Even during Muhammed”s lifetime his followers collected keepsakes. Following his death the desire for such objects, which were regarded as sacred, became even keener. There were those who declared that they would rather possess a hair from the Prophet”s head or beard than the entire world. When the controversy over the caliphate broke out, the Omayyads wished to possess some of the relics of Muhammed so as to gain public support, and Muaviye purchased the Prophet”s mantle for twenty thousand drachmas. This mantle was to become one of the most venerated symbols of the caliphate, and following the death of Muaviye was passed down from caliph to caliph, who wore it on feast days. Following the collapse of the Omayyads, the first Abbasid caliph Ebu”l-Abbas Seffah purchased the mantle.

With the conversion of the Turkic peoples, Islam expanded over a wide area, and when the caliphate passed to the Ottoman dynasty in 1517, Istanbul became both the religious and political hub of the Islamic world. The holy relics which are today kept at Topkapı Palace have been reverently preserved over the centuries. As well as those belonging to Muhammed himself, there are some which belong to other prophets or to companions of Muhammed, another group associated with the Kaaba, and finally containers and wrappers in which the relics were transported.

The Ottoman sultans held all holy relics in respect, not only those associated with the history of Islam and fastidiously preserved them all for posterity. Following the conquest of Istanbul, Mehmed II ( 1451-1481) proclaimed that all the religious communities of the city were free to follow their own faith. The hand and fragments from the skull of John the Baptist kept in reliquaries in the Treasury are known to have first been brought to Topkapı Palace during the reign of this sultan. During the inventory of the relics carried out in 1924 after the palace became a museum, these were recorded as being amongst the other holy relics. John the Baptist was the cousin of the Virgin Mary and the son of Zachariah. He believed that Christ was the Messiah whose coming was prophesied in the Old Testament, and spread his teachings. He baptised Christ and many others in the River Jordan. He had earlier lived alone in the desert so as to be closer to God, eating only locusts to keep himself alive. He was beheaded by Herod for denouncing his marriage with the wife of his halfbrother.

Among the exhibits in the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle are many other relics attributed to Biblical prophets, including the sceptre of Moses, the saucepan of Abraham, the sword of David, and a wooden panel carved in relief with the Temple of Solomon and an inscription in Hebrew.

The relics at Topkapı Palace for the most part were brought here between the 16th and early 20th centuries, with a notable spate during the 19th century due largely to the spread in Arabia of the Wahhabi sect, which denounced the idea of material objects being endowed with sanctity. The relics were therefore taken to Istanbul to protect them from destruction at the hands of the Wahhabis, who demolished the tomb of Hussein and in 1803 occupied and razed the city of Mecca. Despite security precautions, the tombs of Othman and Ali were looted in 1898, and a considerable amount of treasure taken from the tomb of Muhammed which was also badly damaged. In November 1818 Abdullah bin Suud surrendered in Dir”iyye to the forces of Mehmed Ali Paşa, Governor of Egypt, and was sent to Istanbul, so preventing further attacks on sacred buildings. Abdullah bin Suud relinquished to Mehmed Ali three Korans and a casket containing around three hundred emeralds, pearls and a gold band that his father had stolen from the tomb of Muhammed. When interrogated, he asserted that some of the other stolen items were in the possession of prominent Arabs, inhabitants of Medina, and even the Sheriff of Mecca.

The holy relics to be sent to Topkapı Palace were delivered, together with an inventory, to the official responsible for transporting them. Abdullah bin Suud and several others involved in the theft of many relics and valuables from Ravza-i Mutahhara (the tomb of Muhammed), which had been looted by his father, the tomb of Hussein and other holy places, were later executed.

Prior to the evacuation of Medina during the First World War, it was decided to send the holy relics of the city and the precious gifts sent during the Ottoman period to Topkapı Palace for safe keeping. This decision of the Ottoman command was notified to Fahreddin Paşa, commander of the Hejaz Forces, on March 2nd, 1917. Fahreddin Paşa consulted Ziver Bey, governor of Medina, as to whether there was any religious objection to removing the relics, and on learning that there was not, sent them off to Istanbul. The subject of the holy relics and gifts was discussed at Lausanne, and the Turkish delegation rejected a demand that these objects be returned. Consisting of eighty-one pieces altogether, they include large diamonds, candelabra, chandeliers, lamps, hanging ornaments, fans, rare manuscripts, Koran cases, caskets for the Holy Mantle, and other objects of priceless spiritual and material value.

The Ottoman sultans traditionally sent precious gifts to Mecca and Medina every year, as did other prominent figures from parts of the Islamic world, and in this way the number of holy relics expanded over the centuries. In all the collection of holy relics at Topkapı Palace today numbers 765. During the reign of Mahmud II (1808-1839) those relics which were kept at the palace were placed in the Hasoda, under the care of forty palace officers.

The Koran was recited day and night in the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle over the centuries by forty hafiz (one who has memorised the Koran), out of respect for the mantle of Muhammed. Sultan Selim I (1512-1520) was himself one of these forty hafiz who read by turns “for the triumph of good over evil”. This tradition is still maintained today. The respect in which the holy relics have always been held means that even the brooms, dustpans, candles, wood used to repair the Kaaba, sandalwood and agallch wood, prayer beads, spoons and other artefacts employed in the Hasoda or kept here have been carefully preserved. The Pavilion of the Holy Mantle was first opened to the public on August 31st, 1962.


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Source: Art of Asia Magazine

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