Ottoman gravestones survive the test of time

  • Abdulaziz Ahmet YASAR
  • 26 Jul 2019

Known for their decorations and symbols, Ottoman cemeteries are still a mystery for many.

Ottoman-era gravestones in the yard of the Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul. ( AA )

It is a rainy day in Suleymaniye, one of the seven historic hills of Istanbul, where the area’s famous mosque was finished in 1557 after seven years of construction.

Many unique features distinguish the mosque and its complex, which until last century included several university colleges (madrasas), a hospital, a hamam, a charity foundation and its cemetery -  alongside Sultan Sulayman’s tomb. 

Most of these facilities are lost, but one still remains and gives tranquillity to visitors passing through the yard of the mosque complex - the cemetery.

The rows of tombs are located at the front of the complex so that they can be seen as a lesson on the importance of death by those praying inside. The graves serve as a reminder that man is mortal and that his presence on Earth is temporary.

A painting of the Karacaahmet cemetery in Istanbul's Uskudar, 17th century.()

But they also serve to preserve the artistic interest the Ottomans had in gravestones.

“The Ottomans had a cemetery and tombstone art culture. Some cemeteries are at a mosque yard, others in the middle of a neighbourhood,” Associate Professor Suleyman Berk Associate Professor at Yalova University and expert in Islamic-Turkish Arts History tells TRT World

More significantly, he explains that every tombstone is unique in its characteristics and story. 

“It represents the biography of the deceased person”.

The gravestone of Captain Ibrahim Pasha. Who died in 1711. His tomb is at the graveyard of the mosque in Istanbul named after him, at the Ibrahim Pasha Complex.(TRTWorld)

One tomb shows the graveyard of the naval captain (Kaptan-ı Derya) Ibrahim Pasha, who passed away in 1725. 

According to the historian Talha Ugurluel, this tomb shows a captain with an anchor, rope, and broken mast who enters the ship that takes him to the afterlife, his final resting place.

The ancient tomb with two stones, belongs to the young woman Fatma Müşerref Hanım from Thessaloniki. She passed away when she was engaged, why on the left gravestone is a bridal dress.

This tomb belongs to a young women Fatma Müşerref Hanım, passed away in 1910 and originally from Thessaloniki. She was engaged and passed away before she married, wherefore on the left tombestone, there is a bridal dress.(TRTWorld)

On the right tombstone of the same grave is a broken rosebud, marking the death of a female family member. The tomb was built by her father, Mustafa Fevzi Bey.

The right gravestone.(TRTWorld)

The graves of different Sufi orders and their dervishes are also distinguished with different coloured cloth and head coverings.  

Their symbols have been appended to their gravestones. For instance, this man was a dervish from the Bektashi order. 

Bektashi-sufi grave. The round hat is a common cloth of sufis belonging to the Bektashi order.(TRTWorld)

People of knowledge and sultans

"The reality of death was seen as a form of balance in our culture graves have a high value. One prays for the deceased when one passes cemeteries and graves. The special thing about gravestones from the Ottoman period is their aesthetic character. Cemeteries have a lively atmosphere,” tells us Ass. Prof. Suleyman Berk.

Some gravestones have different colours to depict details of the person’s life. For instance, green was a common colour used by scholars and leading intellectuals in science. 

A gravestone of a painter. His brushes and paint table can be seen on the top of the stone.(AA)

Artists graves are marked with their occupation. Writers with books, pencils, and paper.

 Ottoman sultans don’t have gravestones, but instead have their own tombs. The turban or fes they wore was put on the top of their tombs. 

The tomb of Sultan Sulaiman the First, or known as Sulaiman the Magnificent in Fatih, Istanbul.()

These "spiritual resting gardens" created by Ottoman society were designed to memorialise the deceased as well as the culture they inhabited. They can still be experienced today, especially in Istanbul.