The lights of Ramadan: Istanbul’s mahya tradition

The lights of Ramadan: Istanbul’s mahya tradition

Joshua Bruce Allen
May 31, 2017

Visiting Istanbul in 1854, French writer Theophile Gautier described an incredible sight from his hotel in Beyoğlu: “On the other side of the Golden Horn, Constantinople glows and sparkles, like the crown of carbuncles of an oriental emperor. The minarets blaze with rows of lamps from all their galleries; and from spire to spire run, in fiery letters, verses of the Kuran, written upon the azure as on the pages of a Divine book.” Gautier was describing the mahya lights, a Ramadan tradition that originated in Ottoman Istanbul.

The word mahya derives from the Persian māhī, meaning “monthly”, in reference to the holiest month of the Islamic calendar. There is no definite proof of when this practice began, but German traveler Salomon Schweigger described words and pictures formed with lights strung between a mosque’s minarets in the sixteenth century. Aside from giving a religious message, the mahya lamps also illuminated the streets for the people eating and socializing after iftar. Words from the Quran and Hadith, names of God, and phrases such as “Welcome Ramadan” were common, as well as figures such as flowers, fountains, and crescent moons. These images had to be planned to suit the height of the minarets and the distance between them—for example, only a large mosque such as Beyazıt Mosque could hold a phrase such as re’sü’l-hikmeti mehâfetullâh in one line.

Mahya

Nowadays it is quite easy to create moving mahya, because the mosques use LED lights. But the mahya masters of the Ottoman period had to be more skillful. One example was the “walking mahya”, where men would pull the ropes supporting the hanging lamps to make them go back and forth. In the 1870s, muezzin Abdüllâtif Efendi created a mahya carriage above Süleymaniye Mosque, with another line of boats and fish underneath. By pulling the ropes, he made the figures move like a fiery film. So keep your eyes on the skies this Ramadan, you never know what you might see.