Why did Ottoman sultans safeguard Islam’s holy relics in Istanbul?

  • Murat Sofuoglu
  • 11 Jun 2019

With Topkapi Palace, the administrative and residential power centre of the house of Ottomans, the Turkish government has inherited many valuable holy relics including the Prophet Muhammad's personal belongings.

The picture shows the Pavillion of the Holy Mantle of Prophet Mohammed, where the Prophet’s cloak has been kept in a symbolic coffin in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. ( Credit: Topkapi Palace Museum / TRTWorld )

ISTANBUL — On a recent Ramadan day, as the hot sun rays fell over Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, a large number of local and foreign tourists flocked to the historic building where the Ottoman sultans resided from the conquest of Istanbul in 1453 until the mid-19th Century.

After visiting the different columns of the palace, where the antique series of watches, cutlery and dinner sets are exhibited, many tourists moved further to stand in a long queue outside what is called the Chamber of the Holy Relics. The space houses some of the most precious relics of Islam, from the Holy Mantle of Prophet Muhammad, whom Muslims consider the last messenger of God and honour him by adding the term ‘peace be upon him’, to swords that are believed to be used by him and his four companions: Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, Ali ibn Abi Talib. 

The museum also features other materials believed to be used by prophets such as Moses, Abraham, Joseph and David. 

Although many tourists look at the relics with awe and admiration, they probably miss another important historical fact —  that the white-washed building where they stood has served as both the house and the office of the Ottoman sultans. They called this intimate space Has Oda, which means private room, where they discussed the most sensitive policies and issues.  

“[Ottoman sultans] wanted to keep the Holy Relics close to themselves because they thought that the location of the relics [in the Topkapi Palace] would have qualified Istanbul as the centre of the Islamic world,” said Mustafa Sabri Kucukasci, President of the Topkapi Palace Museum, who is also a professor of History of Middle Ages at the Marmara University. 

“The Prophet’s cloak, which is called the Holy Mantle, has been used as a sign of [Muslim] caliphate since the Umayyads,” Kucukasci told TRT World. 

Tourists flock to the Privy Room in Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Ottoman sultans had ruled a large part of the world from this particular room, where they also kept the Prophet’s Holy Relics close.(TRTWorld)

The Umayyads were a Muslim Arab dynasty in the 7th Century, emerging from the civil war between the fourth Islamic caliph and Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib and Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, the founder of Umayyad dynasty. The Umayyad dynasty ruled for 89 years until it was toppled by Abbasids, another Muslim-majority Arab dynasty.  

The Ottoman sultans inherited the treasured relics in different times and eras. It was when Sultan Selim I conquered much of the Middle East in 1517 from the Mamluks, that many Islamic relics were brought to Istanbul from the Arab world.  

As the Ottoman Empire spread across what is modern day Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula, Sultan Selim I not only defeated the Mamluks but also claimed the caliphate from them, bringing most of the Holy Relics from Cairo to Istanbul. 

“Since Selim I, the Ottomans had given a great deal of importance to collect the goods of the Prophet in Istanbul as a result of their commitment and loyalty to him. This collection effort had continued even after Selim I, bringing more [holy relics to the city],” said Kucukasci, who has extensively researched the subject, writing several comprehensive articles. 

Ottoman sultans had collected the most precious items of Islamic heritage, placing them inside Topkapi Palace, the headquarters of the empire, in Istanbul.(TRTWorld)

The Privy Room becomes the House of Caliph

The decision to safeguard the relics in Has Oda, or private room, — arguably the most secure compound in the palace — carries a symbolic weight.   

In the Has Oda Ottoman sultans ascended to the throne taking the oath of allegiance (biat). In the Has Oda they also slept and were ritually bathed after they passed away. The space was first built by Mehmed II, the conqueror of Istanbul. 

Since Mehmed II, the building has been restored several times. By the time Selim I brought the holy relics, the imperial house unexpectedly turned into a Muslim shrine of sorts, where sultans and their officialdom held ceremonies to kiss the Prophet’s cloak, while paying their respect to other relics to exhibit their faith in Islam.  

“As a result, the Ottoman capital earned a reputation of being the political and religious centre of the Islamic world,” Kucukasci wrote in one of his articles. 

In the 17th Century, the palace’s head architect, Mustafa Safi, called Has Oda Beytu’l-hilafe, which means the House of Caliphate, as he was listing the holy relics located in the chamber, defining “the space as visualisation of the Ottoman caliphate claim,” according to Kucukasci. 

The lock and key of Kaaba, which is the most sacred site according to Islam, regarded as the House of Allah by Muslims.(TRTWorld)

Ahmet Cevdet Pasha, one of the most prominent Ottoman statesmen and jurists in the late 19th Century, argued that the Abbasid caliphate had lost grip of much of the Islamic world as the Mamluks used them as an instrument to gain legitimacy in the Islamic world. 

According to Pasha, it was the Ottoman leadership that restored the Islamic order after Selim I defeated the Mamluks and took the Caliphate from the Abbasids.   

“Joining the sultanate with the caliphate, the Ottoman state reached a higher level, which it deserved. With this union a strengthened Nation of Islam found its direction,” Cevdet Pasha said in his writings. 

The Ottoman leadership had a special interest for the holy relics and their fascination toward them went beyond Prophet Muhammad's time. “There is a culture of trust [about these relics]. There have also been goods believed to belong to other past prophets,” Kucukasci said. 

Among 600 sacred items, the chamber also has relics that are believed to be Prophet Abraham’s pan, Moses’s staff and Joseph’s turban. 

A staff, believed to belong to Prophet Moses, is also exhibited in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.(TRTWorld)

In the early 19th century, Sultan Mahmud II decided to leave Has Oda and dedicate the space exclusively to the holy relics. His son Abdulmecid I, who staunchly pursued policies of modernising the Ottoman state, left the Topkapi Palace in 1856 and moved into the newly built Dolmabahce Palace, a French neo-baroque style architecture along the Bosphorus strait. 

By 1918, when the Ottoman Empire was on the brink of falling apart, one of its generals Fahrettin Pasha exhibited remarkable defiance. As the commander of the Ottoman forces in the holy city of Medina, Pasha refused to surrender before the allied forces, brushing aside the orders of his superiors.

"Soldiers! I appeal to you in the name of the Prophet, my witness. I command you to defend him and his city to the last cartridge and the last breath, irrespective of the strength of the enemy. May Allah help us, and may the prayers of Muhammad be with us,” he famously said to his soldiers during the siege of Medina. 

In January 1919, Pasha was arrested by his own officers on the grounds of disobeying the orders from Istanbul, 72 days after the Ottoman Empire’s armistice agreement with the Allied forces. 

But during the standoff, Pasha rescued many significant holy relics and transported them to Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.