Ramadan in Istanbul: culinary traditions and the glowing messages

Ramadan culinary traditions: must-haves in iftar dinner

As the sun sets during Ramadan, families and communities meet to break their fast with a meal known as iftar. Unlike some other countries with a predominantly Muslim population, eating and drinking in public during the holy month is not forbidden in Turkey. The vast majority of restaurants stay open, and in many parts of Istanbul, it’s hard to notice any real difference. In some of Istanbul’s more observant neighborhoods, however, many people will be more discreet when eating and drinking in public, out of respect for those who are fasting.

Ramazan Pidesi: A must for breaking fast, Ramazan pidesi is baked specifically during this time. This puffy and circular pita bread is made from 100% white flour and adorned with sesame and nigella seeds, laying the groundwork for the rest of the meal. Look for a freshly baked Ramazan pidesi straight off the baker’s oven, as iftar time approaches.

Şerbet: made from the addition of melted sugar to water, spices and/or various fruit pressings, şerbet is the thirst quencher of choice for the Ramadan period. The most notable flavor is demirhindi or tamarind, prepared with 40 different spices.

Güllaç: Brittle, translucent leaves of dried corn starch soaked with rose water and sweetened milk, and often garnished with pomegranate seeds and ground nuts, güllaç is the number one dessert during the month of Ramadan, thanks to its light and easily digested nature. Read more about güllaç and how to make it at home.

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Istanbul’s mahya tradition: glowing messages in the sky

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.

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.

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