x0x Cascades of light in Istanbul
- x0x Cascades of light in Istanbul
By Prof. Dr. METIN AND
In former times in Istanbul, events such as palace weddings, the birth
of Ottoman princes and military victories, were celebrated with
magnificent festivals, some of which lasted for weeks. During these
festivities, various illuminations were displayed at night. Rockets
and Roman candles were fired from the Seven Hills of Istanbul,
painting the dark blue sky as it were with bright yellow flowers;
thousands of lamps and torches were lit on the minarets and tall
columns, illuminating the city as if it were daytime. In more recent
times we have become accustomed to firework displays at large weddings
and commemmorative celebrations. But these are pale in comparison to
the illuminations of the past. In this article the richness of those
festivities will be displayed with the help of miniature paintings.
ISTANBUL: CITY OF LIGHT
First of all let us take a look at the lamplit spectacles. The
technique, still in use today, of stringing up lamps between the
mosque minarets in the month of Ramazan is known as mahya.
In the old times, not only were inscriptions written, but pictures
were also projected into the sky by such illuminations. Furthermore,
these were moving pictures. The illuminators referred to the pictures
of boats, ships and fish created by lamps, as `flying lamps'.
Sometimes a column was erected and a wheel set on top of it. The
pictures created by the hanging lamps on the wheel could be
manipulated to move both horizontally and vertically by means of
strings and pulleys.
Foreigners also used to hold festivities in Istanbul. For example, a
child was born to Louis XV, King of France in 1729 and in the first
month of the following year a celebration which lasted 3 days and 3
nights was held at the French Embassy. A battleship, complete with the
French royal coat of arms, was created in the Embassy gardens with
20,000 coloured glass lamps.
FOUNTAINS OF LIGHT IN ISTANBUL
Let us next look at the most important feature of any illuminations:
the fireworks. Fireworks first appeared in China and then later were
used as part of the décor in operas, especially in Italy. These were
known as the `Theatre of Flying Rockets' and started to be used in
Ottoman festivities of light.
The miniature paintings in this article originate from three sources.
Two of these sources record the festivity of legendary proportions
that took place in the Hippodrome in 1582 and lasted 52 days. This was
held to celebrate the circumcision of the future Mehmed III, son of
Murad III. These miniatures, which are in the Topkapi Palace,
illustrate the events day by day and are part of a manuscript
containing 427 miniatures.
The origin of the second miniature displaying the 1582 celebrations is
also to be found in Topkapi Palace as part of a manuscript containing
42 miniatures from the reign of Murad III.
The third source is from miniatures portraying the two week
celebration in 1720 for the circumcision of Sultan Ahmed III's four
sons and the wedding of his three daughters and nieces. There is also
an engraving belonging to the nineteenth century.
In this we can see the hillsides behind Dolmabahce lit by the
fireworks set off from two ships on the Bosphorous, celebrating the
8th anniversary of Sultan Abdulaziz's accession to the throne.
A `SEAL OF SULEYMAN'
As many as thirty names can be found in Ottoman Turkish texts to
describe fireworks with their different colours and shapes. Some of
them ascended to the sky in a straight line and then cascaded
downwards, whereas some of them stayed up in the sky. Others rose very
high and fell with a crashing sound, stars and tiny sparks scattering
across the sky. Another type of rocket, set in a circular disc,
sprayed fire in different directions as it revolved in the sky.
Some rockets were fired singly by
one person whereas some were attached to a frame and were lit
simultaneously. These frames were in the shape of pyramids, tents,
pavilions and castles.
Some of these were in the shape of a hexagon, a popular Ottoman
decorative design, known as the `Seal of Suleyman.' Some frames were
created by puppets representing people, animals and mythical
creatures. Rockets would be set inside them. These puppets which can
be seen in the miniatures illustrating the 1582 festivities are
interesting because they invalidate the idea that it was forbidden in
the Muslim world to make three-dimensional representations. The
puppets' costumes in the 1582 illuminations are of European and Jewish
style. There are also cockerels, a giant with horns and an angel
puppet. For a celebration in Edirne in 1675, a 'Noah's Ark' on six
wheels was created, 24.5 metres high and 7 metres wide. It looked as
if two dragons were pulling the Ark whereas in fact, it was being
pulled by forty people concealed in puppets. 13,000 rockets were fired
from the `Ark.'
As for the 1582 celebrations, a large mound of earth was
erected in the Hippodrome and puppets in the shape of goats, antilopes
and a flock of sheep were set on the top of it. There was also, a
flute-playing shepherd grazing his flock, caves, streams and grassy
When the gunpowder-filled mound was set alight, all the puppets
exploded into the air with a tremendous noise and when the rockets
were fired pandemonium ensued and everything was destroyed.
The fireworks were mostly made by Venetians, Dutch, Maltese and
Portuguese who had converted to Islam and had risen to the rank of
For example, Ali Pasha, organizer of many festivities, was in fact
In summing up we can say that the festivities in Istanbul were a
star-studded spectacle of fire and light.