Travel: A mystical experience at the Eyüp Sultan Mosque in Istanbul

A trip to Istanbul is incomplete without a visit to the burial site of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari

Ferya Ilyas February 10, 2016
PHOTO: Ferya Ilyas

It was a Thursday afternoon and the clouds matched Istanbul’s skyline which is punctuated with grey domes and minarets. I arrived in the Eyüp neighbourhood – the city’s ‘holy district’ – from the touristy Sultanahmet area after taking two trams and walking several feet. A few minutes later, following some fruitful communication using abstract hand gestures, I started walking towards Eyüp Sultan Mosque.

PHOTO: Ferya Ilyas

As I walked down Eyüp İskele Street, two pointy minarets and a grey-tiled dome began to take shape in the distance. A road sign read ‘Eyup Cami’ and I took a sigh for being on the right track. Fifteen minutes of walking and I finally reached the square which hosts Istanbul’s first mosque and the remains of Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) companion Abu Ayyub al-Ansari. Famously known as Sultan Eyüp in Turkey, Abu Ayyub’s resting place is a pilgrimage site of sorts. Crowds of Muslims visit his grave and offer prayers every day in what many describe as a spiritual exercise.

PHOTO: Ferya Ilyas

At around 1:00pm, the area was crowded as the muezzin gave the call to prayer. While tourists waited patiently near a fountain outside the mosque, worshippers hurried to another one inside the mosque’s courtyard for wuzu. Women in colourful scarves sealed their shoes in plastic bags and walked inside a separate hall designated for females, while children bought grains from a nearby kiosk to feed the hundreds of pigeons that reside around this holy abode. These guests of Ayyub convene in this area for their love of God, his Prophet (pbuh) and Ayyub.

Who is Ayyub?

In the summer of 622, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) arrived in Madina on divine orders as persecution of Muslims in Makkah escalated. He was greeted warmly by the new Muslims, eager to catch a glimpse of their prophet and speak to the messenger of God. Rich and poor alike came forward to offer help to the immigrants, while many vacated their rooms to accommodate the holy guest.  The Prophet (pbuh), however, left the decision of his temporary abode to his camel; it was decided that Muhammad (pbuh) will stay wherever his camel will rest.

PHOTO: Ferya Ilyas

It is narrated that the camel strolled a little and passed by several mud houses. It stopped near a house for a brief moment and started moving ahead again. But the camel turned back and sat outside the same house, marking the territory of Muhammad’s (pbuh) temporary residence.

Apart from having the privilege to host Muhammad (pbuh) during his early days in Madina, Ayyub had a celebrated military career and was said to be the standard-bearer of the Prophet (pbuh). He took part in almost all the battles fought from the time of Muhammad (pbuh) till his death. Because Muhammad had promised that the first army to conquer Constantinople will enter Paradise, Ayyub enlisted in the army during the first Arab siege of the city in the 670s despite his old age. However, he soon fell ill and had to withdraw from the battlefield. As his last wish, Ayyub asked the Muslim army to bury him near the walls of Constantinople. Though the soldiers of Islam failed to conquer the important city, it is believed they pushed further enough to fulfil this old warrior’s last wish.

Seven centuries later, his grave was discovered when a Muslim army, headed by Mehmed the Conqueror, marched into the city, marking the end of the great Byzantine Empire. The Sultan ordered the construction of a tomb above the grave and a mosque to commemorate Ayyub.

Eyüp Mosque complex

Situated outside the city walls on the European side of Istanbul, the mosque near the Golden Horn is wrapped in centuries of tradition, drawing visitors from across the city. The mosque is extraordinarily crowded on Fridays and during Ramazan when free food is served to break the fast. Sunshine reflecting off the white, marble floor as worshippers kneel down in devotion is a sight to watch.

PHOTO: Ferya Ilyas

For being the holiest of holy mosques in Istanbul, this place had been the venue where new sultans were girded with the sword of Osman - a ceremony which marks the formal ascension to the throne. Also, many rulers of the Ottoman Empire, wishing to be buried near the Prophet’s companion, were laid to rest in the area. One of the oldest and largest Muslim cemeteries in the city, Eyüp Cemetery is also home to grand viziers, court officials, military men as well as poets and intellectuals. A walk in the area leaves one fascinated by the sheer number of graves and their stories. The graves here, like the rest of the city, have headstones reflecting the deceased’s lifestyle.

PHOTO: Ferya Ilyas

In the courtyard, one can see newlywed couples and little boys dressed like sultans walking around ecstatically. It is a tradition for couples to visit Eyüp and pray for a happy marriage while parents bring their young boys before they are circumcised.

The inside of the mosque is a different world altogether. Plush carpets, low-hanging chandeliers and stately domes are elements typical to Turkish architecture, but there is something unique about this place, or perhaps it is the people who visit it.  Praying inside the hall, however, doesn’t complete the experience. It would be a crime not to visit Ayyub’s grave in the inner courtyard right opposite the main entrance. Men, women and children alike take turns to stand near the glass window through which they can see the tomb of this holy man. The outer wall of the mausoleum is in complete contrast with the mosque; covered in ceramic tiles with glazed designs, the burial chamber bursts with colour and shine.

Towards the end of your trip to this sacred place, do visit the small shops set up around the mosque selling pocket-size copies of the Holy Quran and rosaries. You can also walk up the hill for a cable car ride to Pierre Loti Cafe for a panoramic view of the Golden Horn and a hot cup of Turkish tea.


Muhammad Asim | 8 years ago | Reply No doubt was a great experience to visit this place.
Bunny Rabbit | 8 years ago | Reply Would luv to visit one day ...
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