HISTORY PAVILIONS OF THE SACRED RELICS The Sacred Trusts, Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul by Hilmi Aydin The Light. Inc, 2004 352 papes. 1932099727 Hb

This is no ordinary book. The Sacred Trusts is a beautifully illustrated, comprehensive album presenting the marvellous collection of the Holy Relics at the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. The first of its kind, this splendid compilation brings to light relics that have never before been photographed or seen by the public.

The collection includes the Prophet Muhammad’s mantle, standard, a piece of his tooth that broke at Uhud, soil he used for ritual ablution, and his seal (May the Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him). It also includes a fragment of John The Baptist’s forearm, a strand from Abu Bakr’s beard, the Qur’an that is believed to be the one Caliph ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan was reading when he was assassinated, swords of the Prophet’s companions, Fatima al-Zahra’s mantle, Imam Abu Hanifa’s robe, the cap of Abd al-Qadir alJilani and the bowls of JaIaI ai-Din Rumi. These are just some of the objects in a collection of over 600 items. For the lovers of Allah, His messengers, the Companions and Saints of Islam, each turn of the page is an overwhelming experience.

To further the experience, the design of the book cover and its case is based on the original ornate chest at the Topkapi Palace in which the mantle of the Prophet (Allah’s blessings and peace upon him) is kept today. The box opens from the top, with a double “winged” lid, is golden and has a textured surface. It is embossed with Ottoman motifs and is foil blocked in imitation of the real gold case inlaid with rubies and emeralds. It is like uncovering a jewel in which even greater treasures lie.

The collection at the Topkapi Palace started with Sultan Selim I, following his victory in Egypt in 1517. When Sultan Selim returned to Istanbul, he brought with him the Sacred Relics from the treasury in Alexandria, as well as those in the possession of the Abbasid caliphs in Egypt and of the governor of Mecca. Sultan Selim’s successors continued adding to the collection until the beginning of the last century.

It is remarkable how these relics have managed to survive through the centuries. Relics such as: the Holy Mantle which the Prophet (May the Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him) gave to the poet Ra’b ibn Zuhayr. In later years, Mu’awiya ibn Sufyan wanted to buy the mantle, but Ka’b would not sell it. After Ra’b died, Mu’awiya bought it from his heirs for 20,000 drachmas of silver. Protected by the Caliphs, the Holy Mantle was cared for in turn by the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Mamluks and finally the Ottomans. The Mantle of Fatima al-Zahra (May Allah be pleased with her) was donated to the Topkapi Palace after it was found among the belongings of Princess Fatima, heiress to the Rhanate of Crimea. The Prophet’s letter to Muqawqis Leader of the Copts was discovered inside the cover of a Coptic Bible in an Egyptian monastery by a Frenchman in 1850. Generally, documentation surrounding the history of the relics is scant Those items belonging to the Prophet are called “Trusts” (Amanat) as they are regarded by the Muslim community as sacred objects entrusted to their care, hence the title of the book. Whereas, the items belonging to other great Muslims or sacred places are ‘ called Sacred Objects (Tabarrukat).

One source of fascination the reader gleans from the book is the extraordinary reverence the Sultans showed the relics. From the outset, the Sultans assigned the collection to the most precious rooms in the palace. The Privy Chamber is the most important section of the apartments in the Pavilion of the Sacred Relics. From the reign of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror (d.1481) until the second half of the 16th century, the Privy Chamber was where the sultans slept and spent most of their time. Until 1808 when the Sultans began residing in palaces along the Bosphorous, the building was solely used for the preservation of the Sacred Relics.

Such care was taken over the Relics that even the dust cleaned from the Privy Chamber was collected. Incense made according to an elaborate recipe burned in special holders giving the Privy chamber a pleasant and unique fragrance. It was in front of the Pavilion of the Sacred Relics on a marble platform, that deceased sultans were placed when the funeral service was held. The Sultans “kept this holy place . . . always active and illuminated by Qur’anic recitations read by the best hafiz, exhibiting a dizzying love for the Prophet and all the messengers as well as the righteous ones.” To this day, when one visits the Holy Mantle, there is a continuous, live Qur’anic recitation.

The official ceremonies of the Ramadan Visit to the Holy Mantle and the Procession of the Honoured Standard reveal the prestige and importance of these Amanat. Perhaps the greatest ceremony surrounding the Holy Relics was the tradition of visiting the Holy Mantle at Topkapi Palace on the 15th day of Ramadan. This was a ceremony initiated by Sultan Selim I:

“In 1517 and the years following, an air of anticipation would grow among the members of the palace as the day of visit approached. Receiving incense water in decorative bottles as invitations, high officials and scholars . . . shared in the excitement … After the noon prayer on the 15th day of Ramadan, the sultan would open the chest with a golden key and remove a golden casket wrapped in seven green silk velvet scarves embroidered with silver thread and pearls. The ruler would then open this casket, with two wings on top, with another golden key, and the Holy Mantle wrapped in seven scarves, would be taken out All the while . . . the imams … as well as muezzins kneeled and recited the Holy Qur’an. The sultan would then kiss the Holy Mantle and touch it to his face and eyes asking for intercession from the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. In turn … other individuals designated by the sultan, reverently kissed the Holy Mantle, touched it to their eyes, and stepped backward into a corner of the room . . . After the ceremony, and at the breaking of the fast in the evening, a special dinner was given to celebrate the day’s event.”

Furthermore, it became customary for the sultans to take the standard on military campaigns. Mehmed III was the first sultan to take it, along with the Prophet’s Mantle, on the Egri campaign in 1596:

“About 500 descendants of the Prophet accompanied the standard, reciting Surat al-Fath. After the fall of the fortress of Egri, an army of 100,000 Ottomans marched upon the Crusaders, numbering 150,000, at Hajova. The Ottoman army was routed, and the tents of the sultan and grand vizier fell into enemy hands. With the Honoured Standard on a hill overlooking the battlefield, the sultan considered retreating, but Hodja Sadeddin Efendi took hold of the ruler’s horse and said: “My Sultan, you must stand firm. This is a war, and a similar turn of events happened in the time of our ancestors. God willing and with a miracle from Prophet Muhammad, victory will belong to the followers of Islam …” Taking courage from Hodja Sadeddin Efendi’s words, the sultan put on the Holy Mantle, and the tide of battle immediately shifted … The Ottoman army returned victorious to Istanbul.”

According to custom, the Honoured Standard was taken from its chest and hung on a flagpole forty days before the army went on campaign. On the day it was brought out, there would be an elaborate ceremony where the ruler would kiss the standard and hand it to the grand vizier, appointing him to go to war and wishing him success. “The ceremonies performed when the Honoured Standard was sent off on campaign and welcomed back again had special significance for the residents of Istanbul. They filled the streets … to see the honoured Standard as it was considered a meritorious act as well as a means of hope for the ill, young children and those in difficulty.”

“The Sacred Trusts” is to an extent, just as much about Ottoman art and history as it is about religious artefacts. Aydin Hilmi outlines the elaborate artwork decorating the walls of the Pavilion such as, Ka’b ibn Zuhayr’s “Ode to the mantle” (Casida alBurdä) which is written in exquisite calligraphy above a band of 16th century Iznik tile panels. Through the personal accounts and descriptions accompanying the impressive photographs of the relics, we come to know intimate details about the Sultans and the Palace.

One of the last Ottoman rulers, Sultan Abdulaziz (1861-1876) wrote a letter to the Prophet and sealed it and sent it to Medina to be placed at the Prophet’s tomb. Preserved in the apartments of the Holy Mantle, there is no record of how it was returned to Istanbul. However, in the letter the Sultan asks for the Prophet’s assistance both in this world and the next. It is a touching testimony to the love and respect that this sultan had for the Prophet (May the Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him). Towards the end of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries, relics were sent to Istanbul for protection out of fear they would be damaged or destroyed at the hands of the Wahabis who thought reverence to such objects amounted to polytheism.

The timing of this collection is excellent, when so many disheartening events are taking place involving our community worldwide. The Sacred Trusts is uplifting and will be treasured for generations to come. These Holy Relics invite us into their time. They cause us to reflect and imagine what they have witnessed and the blessed hands that have touched them. As it says in the introduction of the book, “When we view them … we have refreshed our bonds with those exalted persons to whom they are connected, and we sense their glory . . . [they] enable believers to satisfy, in part, their longing for the Prophet.”

See our Current issue


Join our Newsletter

Follow us on