x0x MYSTIC SYMBOLS PASSING THROUGH THE FINGERS: PRAYER BEADS
- x0x MYSTIC SYMBOLS PASSING THROUGH THE FINGERS: PRAYER BEADS
By Mustafa Calik
Not only in Islam, but in many other religions prayer beads have played an
important role. In the past the loveliest tespih, as Muslim rosaries are
called were made by Istanbul craftsmen and sold to buyers throughout the
Islamic world. They were made from gold, silver, ivory, tortoiseshell,
mother-of-pearl, amber, meerschaum, ebony, agalloch wood, and scores of
other materials, some brought from as far afield as Africa, the Far East
and South America.
In an old three-storey house on Dogancilar Caddesi in Uskudar - Scutari -
lives Ahmet Duzgunman, a former herbalist, binder and marbling artist, and
a collector of antique clocks and prayer beads.
He has lived in Uskudar since 1917. He welcomed me at the door of his
flat, and as I entered scores of clocks ticked and chimed their own chorus
of welcome. I sank slowly into an armchair, feeling as if the clocks might
stop in surprise if I moved too quickly. I wondered if the sound made by
prayer beads being counted and the ticking of the clocks were what
attracted Duzgunman to both.
He began to tell me about his hobby, starting with how his interest was
fired by his brother Mustafa, who had a prayer bead collection when they
were running their herbal shop together. Ahmet decided to try his own hand
at making prayer beads, using the lathe which he used to repair clocks. He
learnt the necessary techniques from his uncle, the calligrapher and
marbler Necmeddin Okyay and the famous prayer bead maker Galip Bassaka. As
well as making prayer beads for himself, he gave away many to friends, and
at the same time started his own collection. He no longer makes them
today, however, because his hands and eyes cannot manage the precision
work involved. 'Making prayer beads admits of no mistakes,' he explains.
Diverse types of materials are used to make prayer beads. Precious stones
and minerals include emeralds, rubies, emeralds, rock crystal, turquoise,
lapis lazuli, chrysolite, jade, agate, jet, meerschaum, and amber - which
is actually a fossil.
Then there are metals like gold and silver, and organic materials such as
elephant ivory, walrus ivory, whale tooth, tortoiseshell, horn, camel
bone, pearls, coral and mother-of-pearl. There are countless types of
wood, including snakewood, ebony, agalloch wood, sandalwood, bloodwood,
olive, rosewood, m'kunguni, tamarind, tulip wood, satinwood, sugar maple,
teak, and Burmese sandalwood. These woods come from many parts of the
world, including India, Egypt, Madagaskar and South America. Another
category encompasses seeds and nuts like coconut, including a variety with
a wavy grain called sircali kuka, olive stones and date stones.
The best tespih makers became famous for their skill at carving the beads.
Drilling the holes through them is one of the most difficult parts, the
finer the hole, the more skill being required. A late 19th or early 20th
century tespih maker named Horozun Salih was one of the most renowned, and
Duzgunman related that his customers used to joke that if two threads
would fit through the holes they would not buy his beads.
According to Necip Sarici in a book on prayer beads published by Yapi
Kredi, tespih beads are made using a small lathe, simple but capable of
the extremely fine adjustments required for such tiny objects.
These lathes are generally made by the craftsmen themselves. Each piece of
the chosen material is first pierced and then cut into the desired shape:
spherical, pyriform, oval, flattened spheres, or faceted. For a 99-bead
tespih the craftsmen makes 110-120 beads, and then chooses those that
match best, saving the remainder for making 33-bead tespihs. Then he makes
the other parts: the nisane, a disc which marks each 33 beads, the pul, a
tiny bead marking the seventh position, the imame, which is a long piece
marking the beginning of the string, and the tepelik at the extremity of
the imame. A small socket is gouged in the imame to conceal the knot of
the string. All these pieces must also match. Although the best tespih
have beads of equal size, some have beads graduated in size, threaded from
largest to smallest. In the past they were always strung on silk thread,
but today nylon thread dyed to the correct colour is sometimes used
Finally the beads may be fitted with bands, engraved with inscriptions,
and otherwise decorated, before being strung together, and a tassel
attached. Tespih made of fragrant woods are kept in closed boxes to retain
the fragrance. In Ottoman times rock crystal beads were preferred in
summer for their coolness to the touch, and for the play of light
diffracted by the facets. These had silver tassels.
Not only Muslims, but Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews,
Buddhists, and Hindu Brahmanists use prayer beads. Catholic rosaries with
64 beads and a crucifix are part of the clerical garb. Although Islamic
prayer beads usually have either 99 or 33 beads, mystic sects sometimes
used 500 or 1000 bead tespih with very large beads. Today only a few
amateurs continue to make handmade tespihs. Most of those sold are made of
mass produced synthetic beads of no real value. Antique tespih, on the
other hand, were often works of art which took craftsmen months to make.
* Mustafa Calik is a journalist.