As a European Capital of Culture for 2010, Istanbul likes to show its modern, western side. But in the Eyup district, a holy site for Muslims, life is veiled in centuries of tradition.
The Eyup Sultan Mosque plays in important role in local traditions like circumcision
It is afternoon in Eyup. The call of the muezzin rings out over the square in front of the mosque. Women in colorful headscarves lead their children by the hand as men with prayer beads amble towards the entrance to the mosque.
Pairs of newlyweds pose for photos in front of the fountain; the brides' wedding dresses shimmering in the sunlight. A young groom exclaims, "We are here to pray to Allah for a good marriage!" His mother says softly, "God willing, they will always be a happy couple."
A few meters away, a couple proudly presents their five-year-old son. The boy looks like a little sultan. He is wearing a shiny white suit with gold edging and a turban-like headpiece. In a few days he will participate in the "sunnet" - the Turkish circumcision ceremony.
Before this important event, the boy's parents take him to the Eyup Sultan Mosque. "You pray before circumcision - that's the practice laid down by our prophet," explains the boy's father.
Eyup is a popular place for wedding ceremonies
Pilgrims and tourists
According to theologian and Eyup's cultural affairs coordinator Irfan Calisan, the district gets many regular visitors. Each year, Eyup is visited by up to four million people - one and a half million in the fasting month of Ramadan alone.
"On days of particular religious significance, like the Festival of Sacrifice, we sometimes have 100,000 visitors per day," said Calisan.
Muslims flock to Eyup not only for special occasions or religious events. There is also an old tradition, dating back over 500 years, of visiting the gravesite of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari - the companion and standard-bearer of the prophet Mohammed, believed to have died there in the seventh century. The gravesite, located in the mosque's inner courtyard, dates back to the 15th century. The Eyup district owes its name to this famous religious figure.
"Many Mecca pilgrims make a stopover here," said Calisan. "We call this tradition from the Ottoman times 'little hajj.'"
Hopes and prayers
Traditionally, the Abu Ayyub al-Ansari gravesite is also visited by unmarried and childless women, who come to pray for a husband and offspring, as well as by students and the sick, who pray for good exam results and health.
The sarcophagus of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari is an important holy site
Those who come here have the chance to take advantage of the so-called "wishing window" at the entrance to the Abu Ayyub al-Ansari mausoleum. They can stand in front of it and pray in the hope of having their wish granted.
The graveside is decorated with precious carpets and tiles. The sarcophagus of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari is in a separate room, behind a silver lattice door. Only the hafiz, the Koran reciter, is allowed to enter it. The mufti of Eyup, Isa Gurler, gave Deutsche Welle the chance to look inside.
"As the prophet left Mecca and went to Medina, he spent seven months in Abu Ayyub al-Ansari's house," explained Gurler. "After the prophet's death, Ansari became a leading Islamic scholar. He told the Muslims about the deeds and statements of the prophet."
After visiting the gravesite, many pilgrims head to the old cemetery behind the mosque to honor the dead. Only very few can be buried there - it is reserved for special dignitaries. But the spiritual atmosphere of the place puts a spell on everyone present, regardless of why they are there.
Irfan Calisan smiles wisely. "That's how it is in life is - happiness and sorrow are not far from each other. It's the same in Eyup."
Author: Claudia Hennen (ew)
Editor: Kate Bowen