An exploration of Istanbul's “religious life” helps in understanding the long and important history of a city that has acted as the home to two great empires; moreover, it helps in understanding the city as it exists today. In the past, all institutions, such as education, security, justice, health, finance and culture were derived from the “religion.” To what extent different facets of society were influenced by religion and in what ways this influence had an impact on the trajectory of the society is an issue of importance.
The most significant issue to be taken into consideration when deciding what sort of content belongs in this section is the knowledge that limiting some aspects of social life to being a part of a separate category of “religious life” reflects a secular point of view, and thereby distorts the metaphysical reality and historical context. Many issues contained in other parts of this work are actually related to religion. For instance, the Bohemian life of Pagan Byzantium, with altars, temples and an abundance of goddesses, was reshaped by Christianized Hagia Sophia-centered churches, monasteries and holy springs. Birth ceremonies and funerals, celebrations and holy days gave a new and unique flavor to the city. With the conquest of the city by the Muslims, the city again took on a new tone. The city did not weaken as it transformed, but rather grew stronger politically, culturally, economically and architecturally, taking on its own distinct spirit and rising to global prominence. Religious influence revealed itself in the naming of the city as Beldetün tayyibetün, Dârü'l-hilâfeti'l-aliyye, makarr-ı saltanat-ı seniyye and mahmiyye-i Konstantiniyye. Under the new government, the city established its mosque, madrasa, bath, fountain and külliye-centered settlements, while attaining a new skyline with its own architectural style. Beautiful workmanship was carried out for institutions that appealed to the heart and soul. Religious life was not only shaped by religion and religious institutions, but also by social and cultural ones. This made it difficult for the Ottomans to separate religion from social, literary or cultural life. Libraries, water foundations, coffeehouses, etc., were all by-products of religious life. Religious records were the juridical records kept by the state, madrasas were educational institutions and judicial offices further manifested religious life. Waqf foundations, established for immigrants and the poor in Istanbul, were not only places related to economic life in the city, but were also established for explicitly religious purposes.
In this sense, it would be difficult to categorize arts, such as religious music, tezhip (illumination), ebru (marbling) or calligraphy as parts of religious life, separate from the social sphere. On the other hand, omitting the title “religious life” would run counter to the expectations and understandings of the reader. Therefore, as other sections address different matters, this section will mainly focus on different religious groups and congregations, as well as the place that religion occupies in people's daily lives. The chapters regarding sufism and religious orders, prominent social institutions during the Ottoman era, find additional space in this section. Readers can find information on devotional aspects of the religious life in this section (relating to worship, ceremonies and rituals). Articles within this section offer a general picture of religion in daily life. If the reader wishes to learn more about religious facets in other fields, they should examine the other sections as well.
Certainly, Istanbul's religious life is vibrant; it is also as diverse as the races and nations that the city hosts, and as varied as the empires, civilizations, religions, orders and mystical movements that have existed in it. It is necessary to examine this very colorful world, a world with so many disconnections, conflicts, interactions and transitions between the sectors which make up the society, with the experience of living together; it needs to be examined on a level playing field and presented with harmony. The necessity of this research stems neither from an interest in history nor one of national pride. Rather it comes to the fore from the aspect of the need to discuss conflict and separation after the creation of nation states, as well as to use and share these experiences for creating a healthy future.
By taking the aforementioned matters into consideration, the religious life in Istanbul is being examined in accordance with the historical trajectory; starting with the pagan era, the Christian/Byzantine era will follow, and finally the Islamic/Ottoman centuries will be examined. Judaism in pre- and post-Byzantine Istanbul is discussed in a different section. During the last period of the Ottoman State, Istanbul's non-Muslim population was grouped into six categories: Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Karamanis, Galata Europeans and Galata Greeks. Of these groups, only the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Church and the Jewish Chief Rabbinate were officially recognized. Patriarchs and rabbis were elected by their respective religious organizations and they oversaw the internal affairs of their community. The Greek Patriarch and the notables of the Greek nation were given more privileges than the other two groups. The patriarchate managed various matters related to the Greek community; responsibilities increased in the 18th century, when the clergy was granted authority to collect taxes. Taking into account the vastness of the history, an attempt to present an equal amount of content on the different historical periods and religious communities has been made. In order to avoid subjective evaluations, articles were written by either acknowledged experts in the particular field or by members of the relevant religion or sect when possible.
The most important information regarding Istanbul's pagan past is to be found in archaeological data. In this context, the article, “Tombstones in Ancient Istanbul” is important. The transition from paganism to Christianity and then to Islam covers some of the most intense periods of conflict, transformations and new encounters in the religious experience of the city. The subject is addressed in the article, “Religion and Social Life in Christian Constantinople”, which includes in-depth and extensive research based on early sources. Ancient paganism consisted of a series of public occasions and was not a theology-backed religion that promised solutions to individual moral problems. In general, religious life in Byzantium was naturally shaped by Ancient Greek paganism. When Byzantium was transformed into Constantinople, in 390, paganism was outlawed by Emperor Theodosius. The Church of Constantinople, which was an unimportant episcopate at first, became the most important center of the Roman world between 381 and 553; the Patriarch of Constantinople competed fiercely with Alexandria and Rome. In Constantinople there were also different Christian groups outside mainstream Orthodoxy who continued to exist until the end of Byzantine. The city was not only filled other Christians, with serious ruptures such as iconoclasm occurring, but it also competed with the Roman Church, which represented the other part of the East-West fracture in Middle-East Christianity. During the Crusades, Constantinople experienced one of the greatest pillages in its history by the Latins for a period of almost sixty years (1204-1261); the fear of the Latins persisted as the hatred flared.
The religion that is today understood as Orthodox Christianity was largely shaped in Constantinople between the 5th and 15th centuries. Thus, it is important to understand the discussions which took place within this period for understanding the relation between religion and government.
The first of the complementary articles to this subject discusses the topic, “Religion in the Church, the House and Daily Life in Byzantine Constantinople”; the second discusses the religious life of the Greeks from the conquest of Constantinople to the end of the eighteenth century; the third article focuses on “Religion in the Social Life of the Greek Population in Istanbul”, exploring Greek life in the later period, from the reforms to the modern day.
The first article that focuses on the Armenian community is entitled, “Armenians of Istanbul: Church and Tradition.” Sultan Mehmed II allowing Armenians to be represented at the patriarchate level, while also preserving the rights of the Greek Church, led to the recognition of the Armenians as a single nation in Istanbul. The second article focuses on Istanbul's Armenian Patriarchate, the basic structure of the Armenian Church, the Church's formation in the Ottoman State, the Church-community relationship which determined the religious life of Armenians in Istanbul, funerals, feasts and Catholic Armenians.
It is notable that Syriac Christians are not united into a single sect in Istanbul. While Syriac Orthodox Christians constituted most of the population, Syriac Chaldees, who broke away from the main Church in 1445, the Syriac Catholics, who broke away in 1782, and the Syriac Protestants, who emerged in 1852 as a result of missionary activities in Anatolia, still survive in Istanbul.
Jews were the first Abrahamic religious group to appear in Istanbul during the pagan period. Addressing this issue, the article entitled, “Jews in Byzantine Constantinople” claims that Jews lived in Istanbul long before the establishment of the city by Constantine I. In the sixth century, Jews arrived in the city amid unrest in Syria. The Latin invasion of 1204 had a dramatic toll on the Jewish minority in the city and added to the chaotic nature of the city; Byzantine, Venetian and Genoese Jewish groups lived in different neighborhoods, with different rights and privileges. When Constantinople was conquered in 1453, Byzantine Jews, known as Romaniot, welcomed Sultan Mehmed II as their savior. Many Jews who were living in Europe began to immigrate to Ottoman lands in search of a better life. The atrocities committed against Jews in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in European countries gave rise to mass Jewish immigration to the Ottoman State. Continuing to immigrate to the Ottoman territories at the end of sixteenth century, Jews defined themselves as Sephardic, a Hebrew word meaning “from Spain”, while European Jews were Ashkenazi, referring to the Germans.
The different Jewish communities that make up the Jewish community as a whole in İstanbul are described in the framework articles. In the first of these Karaites are discussed; this group was the first to identify their ethnic identities with their beliefs. The second framework article is about Sabbateans. During the Tanzimat era, great changes took place in Jewish communal life, and it branched off into three different groups, Karakaş, Kapancı and Yakubi in the eighteenth century; from these groups a cultivated, educated and distinguished group emerged. Three framework articles depict Jewish life with descriptions of their synagogues and cultural centers, explaining the presence and activities of the Jewish community in Istanbul.
Given that Christian and Jewish communities from various sects lived in Istanbul before and after Islam arrived in the city, there are numerous cemeteries belonging to these communities. During the Ottoman period, non-Muslim cemeteries were under the control of their respective religious communities. With a law enacted in 1930, all the cemeteries were brought under the control of municipalities. A second article discusses Muslim cemeteries and burial areas, and the mystic aspects of these areas are discussed.
The first Muslims in Istanbul were Companions of the Prophet, who embarked on military expeditions to Constantinople with the aim of spreading Islam; this occurred soon after the death of Prophet Muhammad. The burial places of these Companions are covered in the article titled, “Companions in Istanbul”. The relationship between Byzantines and Muslims is covered in a separate article concerned with the life of Muslims under the Constantinople administration.
“The Life of Muslims in Istanbul after the Conquest” takes up a different period. The transformation of the city from a Christian to a Muslim city led to the transformation of the skyline and architecture of the city. As part of the historical process, first the Fatih külliye (complex) and then the Beyazıt külliye were built. Another külliye was built overlooking the Golden Horn by Sultan Suleyman I, first in the name of his father Sultan Selim I, and later in Suleyman's own name. In the early seventeenth century, the külliye which Ahmed I had built became the latest link in the chain of the buildings that occupied the hills of Istanbul from east to west. Religious life is described with the aspects that best define it: prayer in mosques, preparations for Ramadan, life in the neighborhood, rites related to birth, circumcision, marriage, wedlock and death.
Another element of religious life in Istanbul is examined in the article titled, “Darülhadis and the Buharihanlık Tradition”. This article examines the love for Prophet Muhammad and hadiths. The article entitled, “Holy Relics in Istanbul” focuses on the holy relics belonging to Prophet Muhammad in Istanbul. The article, “Religious Sites of Muslims in Istanbul from Past to Present: Tombs”, focuses on tombs in Istanbul and their effects.
The most important elements in religious life in Istanbul were undoubtedly the tariqas and members of the tekkes. Throughout history, hundreds of tekkes were established in the city; the members and the activities of the tekkes lasted for hundreds of years; naturally, their distinctive characteristics require an in-depth research. This subject is described in the article entitled, “Sufi Life in Istanbul”. The article discusses how Sufi life contributed to society, the relationships between Sufi organizations and officials, the ulema and the army, their visibility in society, guild organizations, literature, as well as music and aesthetic arts, such as fine arts. One of the articles details Ottoman Sufi life: “The Tradition of Masnawi Recitation and Masnawi Belief,” addressing Masnawi recitation, which still continues today. “Üsküdar Özbekler Tekke” is another example of tekkes which include a variety of religious lifestyles and practices which originated elsewhere, but later took a hold in Istanbul. The final article is on “Galata Mevlevihane,” representing the Mesnevihânes in Istanbul. Again, due to their influence during the last period of the Ottoman State and during the Republican years, the Kelami Tekke and Gümüşhanevi Tekke are examined.
The different dhikr ceremonies for each tariqa in the Istanbul tekkes were performed on different days of the week. What these ceremonies consisted of, how they differed from one another, how they were organized and who led them are examined here.
In the Republican period, the relationship between state and religion was handled by arbitrary decisions by the state, thus decreasing the influence of religion in support of modernization. Across the country, a transformation in socio-religious life was underway, with a series of prohibitions and restrictions, like the introduction of the Latin alphabet, the abolition of the caliphate and the banning of religious tekkes. In the article entitled, “Religious Life in Istanbul in the Republican Period”, this process is given a sociological reading. In addition, prohibitions on parts religious life are dealt with in the article on the adhan. In the article entitled, “Sufi Life in Istanbul in the Republican period”, how Sufi thought survived, despite prohibitions, controversy, the closing of tekkes and the prohibition of rituals, is examined. Cemevis and Caferilik (Jafariyya) are also included here.
During the Republican period, the religious life of Istanbul was of an exhausted and complicated nature. Istanbul remained standing with the same ideals, but undergoing changes in her spirit and way of life. However, in the chaos brought about by changing life conditions, people continue to search for serenity and structure in their life.