The coronavirus has transformed daily life in Turkey, here is how the country has historically dealt with changing circumstances.

For the first time in more than 1,000 years mosques across Turkey, formerly part of the Ottoman state, have closed their doors and halted the Muslim Friday prayer known as jummah.

The spread of the coronavirus into a global pandemic has resulted in states taking seemingly unthinkable action by placing countries under lockdown and bringing economies to a standstill.

In Turkey, the country’s more than 80,000 mosques, a hub for worship and communal activity have been shuttered. The coronavirus has infected more than 9,000 people in Turkey and killed more than 130.

“It is unprecedented and a historic moment for jummah to be halted or mosques to be closed in the Ottoman or the Republican period,” says Zahit Atcil, Assistant Professor of Ottoman History at Istanbul Medeniyet University.

“Even during World War One or the War of Independence [ending 1923], I don’t remember the cancellation of the jummah prayer in general,” added Atcil speaking to TRT World, quarantined at his home in Istanbul.

The decision, therefore, is historical, albeit one that has been widely accepted in Turkey given the severity of the crises.

“This is the official cancellation of jummah for the first time,” says Atcil.

Employees of the Fatih Municipality wearing protective suits disinfect the Hagia Sophia to prevent the spread of the COVID-19, Istanbul, March 13, 2020.
Employees of the Fatih Municipality wearing protective suits disinfect the Hagia Sophia to prevent the spread of the COVID-19, Istanbul, March 13, 2020. (AFP)

Ottoman society and even the main successor state Turkey would have been accustomed to dealing with the plague and outbreaks that would occur every few decades.

In 1539, Ayas Mehmed Pasha an Ottoman-Albanian statesman and grand vizier during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificient was killed by the plague.

That year the circumcision festival of the Sultan’s young sons, Bayezid and Cihangir, was postponed from the summer to the winter, as it was believed the plague would be of lower intensity.

The Ottoman plague pandemic between 1812-19 killed hundreds of thousands of people depleting the resources of the state as it was engaged in battles with foreign adversaries.

Associate Professor Nukhet Varlik who wrote a book on ‘Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World: The Ottoman Experience, 1347–1600’ argues that pandemics had a “profound impact” on the Ottoman state.

“There were recurrent outbreaks of plague throughout Ottoman history and beyond, starting with the Black Death pandemic in 1347 and lasting all the way until 1947 in modern Turkey—six hundred years in total,” says Varlik from Rutgers University.

Pandemics as a turning point

The fallout from pandemics can be unpredictable, pushing society and its political institutions to breaking point and the Ottoman state learned to cope with an invisible unknown entity.

“They established new communal cemeteries outside the city walls, kept records of daily death tolls, and provided services for the funeral industry,” added Varlik to TRT World.

And in a bid to buffer the financial repercussions, Varlik said: “The state also offered tax relief to individuals and communities affected by the plague, and promoted the development of health services.”

All these actions feel eerily similar to action taken around the world in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

By the 19th century, the “Ottoman state established quarantine stations for the purpose of controlling and disinfecting individuals and goods that entered its borders” says Varlik.

Even during consecutive plagues, there is scant evidence that mosques of jummah were halted, says Varlik.

“On the contrary, we see examples of communal prayers organised for the lifting of the plague,” explains Varlik. Ottoman society would have seen the plague as a test from God and prayers would have sought to rid the society of the virus says Varlik.

A worker in a protective suit disinfects the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey March 14, 2020.
A worker in a protective suit disinfects the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey March 14, 2020. (Reuters)

The Ottoman state was a highly politically decentralised state, with local affairs often being dealt with by local authorities. Therefore it would have been almost impossible to impose a one-size-fits-all solution to a pandemic.

“The Shaykh al Islam (a high religious authority) during the Ottoman period may have issued a religious edict regarding jummah prayer or mosques but it would have been locally effective and not across the Empire,” says Atcil.

In the past, unlike today’s pandemics, it would not have impacted the whole world at once in all locations. It would have instead moved in waves.

“A religious edict by the Shaykh al Islam during the Ottoman period would have maybe impacted Istanbul and the vicinity but you wouldn’t expect a similar impact on Konya. The Shaykh al Islam would not have had a binding authority - his positions were advisory.”

The modern state, however, is a much more centralised entity, its reach extending over people’s lives more deeply and profoundly than in the Ottoman period.

The decision nowadays to close down mosques in Turkey is governed by the state acting through the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which was set up in 1924 as a successor to the role of the Shaykh al Islam. Its reach throughout the country is extensive.

The closure of mosques and the halting of jummah hasn’t stopped mosques, however, from continuing to play an important role in the lives of people in Turkey.

Leaders of mosques have taken to novel ways to reach the worshipers while still practising social distancing.

As people are sat at home imams at nine in the evening each day make short speeches and recite Quran to the faithful over the loudspeakers. A novel form of communication and outreach.

“There is a good deal of parallels in terms of social psychology, but the plague was a recurrent problem in the Ottoman Empire and people were familiar with its signs, symptoms, and its behaviour...What we are facing now is unprecedented in many ways, so it requires an extraordinary response,” says Varlik.

Source: TRT World