Strung between the minarets of mosques, images and inscriptions in lights have brightened the nights of Ramazan in Turkey for close to 400 years. But few craftsmen still practice the art today.

The 400-year-old tradition of stringing lights between minarets, which developed in the Islamic world as a practice unique to the Turks, and especially to Istanbul, is a dying art. Rife with music and literature, with feasts and entertainments and visual spectacles, the Ramazans of old Istanbul were characterized by a magnificent festival atmosphere in which the imperial culture was displayed. The iconic symbols of this vibrant world were the ‘mahya’ strung between the minarets of the city’s major mosques against the night sky. It was only natural that these lights and the oil lamps that went with them would illuminate the nights of Ramazan in a city whose everyday life was already enriched with wonders such as moonlight cruises, nocturnal illuminations and other spectacles. In his Dictionary of the Ottoman Dialect, the lexicographer Vefik Pasha defines the term ‘mahya’ as ‘a picture in light hung between the two minarets of double-minareted mosques during the month of Ramazan.’ Creating a mahya means inscribing words and images against the dark of night by stringing tiny oil lamps from a rope stretched between the two minarets of a mosque. The idea behind the tradition is to express the gratitude felt to the Creator of the Universe for the joy, plenty and contentment Ramazan brings, to make the holiday more appealing to children, and to inspire the people to perform good deeds.

Rumor has it that in 1614 the calligrapher Hafız Ahmet Kefevi, one of the muezzins (prayer callers) of the Mosque of Mehmed the Conqueror, installed an elaborate artistic design with calligraphy at the center between the mosque’s two minarets and presented it to the reigning Sultan Ahmed I. And the sultan in turn, inspired by this gift that pleased him so much, ordered the stringing of mahya’s between the minarets of mosques on Ramazan nights, provided of course that they conformed with the injunctions of Islam. Implemented for the first time at the newly completed Sultanahmet (‘Blue’) Mosque in the Ramazan of 1617, this innovation would become an artistic tradition in the years that followed. In 1723 an order was given for the installation of mahya’s at all the imperial mosques during Ramazan, and a decree was even issued for the construction of two new, two-balconied minarets at the Mosque of Eyüp, whose existing minarets were too short for the purpose. While Vakıf (Pious Foundation) records up to the 18th century reveal no evidence of any sort regarding the decoration of mosques with mahya during Ramazan, the foundation records of the library that Sultan Ahmed III had built at Topkapı Palace include an imperial edict of 1724, for the installation of a mahya on the Hagia Sophia.

It was the famous chief mahyacı (mahya maker) Abdüllatif Efendi of Süleymaniye Mosque who enhanced the art of the mahya and endowed it with artistic style by stretching three ropes between the mosque’s minarets together with a free-hanging mahya that swayed from side to side in the wind. When Abdüllatif Efendi died in 1877, his sons took his place, and the art of the mahya continued to pass from father to son in the master-apprentice tradition.
Among the writers who have described life in old Istanbul are many who touch on the subject of mahya, among them Balıkhane Nazırı Ali Bey, Ahmed Rasım, Musahipzade Celâl, Sermet Muhtar Alus, Halit Fahri Ozansoy, Ercümend Ekrem Talu and Burhan Felek. In an article entitled ‘Mahyalar ve Sahurlar’ (‘sahur’ being the meal eaten before dawn during Ramazan), which appeared in the daily Akşam, Sermet Muhtar describes how the children of Istanbul used to wait impatiently for the 15th of Ramazan and how they took endless delight in seeing paddle steamers, rowboats and towers fashioned out of lights.
Halide Edip Adıvar, too, in her novel ‘Mor Salkımlı Ev’ (The House with Purple Wistaria), describes what a source of joy the lamps and mahya’s that illuminated the dark nights of Ramazan were for the children. The streets would fill with hundreds of lanterns, all moving in the direction of the mosque like a caravan of fireflies. Adıvar saw her first mahya that night: “What an eerie and surreal display of brilliance the inscriptions in lights stretching through the air between the minarets made in the blue dome of the sky. These writings in light to welcome Ramazan were probably as astonishing to me as the figures on the wall were to Belshazzar.”

Preparations for installing mahya at mosques commence fifteen days before the first of Ramazan. In the first half of the month, they consist of inscriptions; in the second half pictorial representations are added, such as the Virgin’s Tower, the star and crescent, flowers, rowboats and mosques. Expressions such as ‘Greetings Oh Ramazan’, ‘Fast and Be Healthy’, ‘Welcome to Ramazan’, ‘Sultan of the Eleven Months’ and ‘Alms Enhance Wealth’ at the start of the month give way to others like, ‘Intercede Oh Prophet of God’, ‘There is no God but Allah’ and ‘Farewell Oh Month of Ramazan’ towards the end.Messages of a social and political nature also began to be used in mahya’s starting from the period of the Second Constitution in 1908 when politics became part and parcel of everyday life. Some of these are: ‘Long Live Freedom’, ‘Assistance to Orphans’, ‘Remember the Red Crescent’, ‘Remember the Airplane’, ‘Buy Turkish’, ‘Long Live the National Pact’ and ‘Long Live Independence’. Today, inscriptions on social topics, sometimes even with propaganda purposes, are seen alongside those which are religious in content. Every year on the 29th of May, for example, a mahya is hung saying ‘May the Soul of the Great Conqueror Rest in Peace’, commemorating the conquest of the city on that date in 1453. Mahya’s continue to be used today at the Valide Mosque in Istanbul’s Üsküdar district, at Edirne’s Selimiye, Eskişehir’s Reşadiye and at Bursa’s Ulu Cami or Great Mosque.

Greetings Oh Month of Ramazan
Fast and Be Healthy
Welcome Oh Month of Ramazan
Sultan of the Eleven Months
Alms Enhance Wealth
Intercede Oh Prophet of God
There is no God but Allah
Farewell Oh Month of Ramazan

The İstanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture Agency, who has been preparing İstanbul for 2010 European Capital of Culture project, has undertaken to complete the first comprehensive study on the subject of ‘mahya’. The book, consisting of all the major texts written on ‘mahya’, also includes over a hundred examples of ‘mahya’ from past to present.

The inscriptions and the images implemented on the string stretched between two minarets is first sketched on paper. The inscription and the image is formed by marking the intersection points of the squares. The strings are treated like the lines on the paper and the marked points are located on the string. These points are used to make loops and as the oil lamps are attached to these loops the inscription and the image appears. After using electric bulbs instead of oil lamps, modern mahyas are mostly prepared by technicians.