Timur Hammond on the Landscapes of Islam in 20th-Century Istanbul

Emerging Scholarship is a series showcasing the research and interests of new voices emerging from academia that focus on the social worlds, histories, and traveling cultures of Central and West Asia.

Timur Hammond completed his dissertation in Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles in June 2016. His research explores the changing place of Islam in the urban landscape, with a particular focus on Turkey’s 20th century transformations. He is currently a lecturer in the Department of Geography at the University of Vermont but will be joining the Department of Geography at Syracuse University in August 2017.

BB: Hi Everyone, Thank you so much for joining us for another installment of Ajam Media Collective’s emerging scholarship series. We’re here with Dr. Timur Hammond, who recently defended his PhD at UCLA in 2016. We will be discussing his his book project, “Mediums of Belief: Changing Landscapes of Islam in 20th century Istanbul.” Dr. Hammond, It’s so good to have you here today.

TH: Thanks so much for having me here.

BB: We’re also joined by my Co-editor Rustin Zarkar, and I’m Beeta Baghoolizadeh. Timur, please tell us about your very fascinating book project, “The Urban Landscape of Islam in Istanbul.”

TH: This book project grows out of my dissertation research. My research focuses broadly on the relationship between Islam and the built environment. I ask, in the way that many scholars do, “How does the material landscape of a city provide a way of understanding and practicing Islam?”


1) BB: How do you go about studying this? What sorts of sources are you using?

TH: My work is a little bit different is in part because of my training. I come from the Geography department as opposed to the History or Anthropology department, which gives me a different set of conceptual tools, even if I do borrow a lot from History and Anthology in my work. The work that I do is partly archival in nature, so I spent time in Istanbul working in a variety of different archives. It’s also ethnographic in scope, so I spent time doing participant observation, interviews, taking photographs, and trying trying to understand the complicated material landscape of the district at the center of my book project: Eyüp.

For anyone who’s been in Istanbul, Eyüp is the district along the Golden Horn, just outside of the old Byzantine city walls. It is a neighborhood of historical and religious significance; it takes its name from the companion of the prophet Muhammad, Khalid bin Zayd Abu Eyüp Al-Ansari. After the prophet flees Mecca for Medina in 622 CE, he stays at Khalid bin Zayd’s house, and he is known as one of the model companions. Late in his life, despite his advanced age, he joins the Arab siege of Constantinople (674–678) and dies somewhere outside the city walls. As the story goes, his grave was lost.

In 1453, the Ottoman Fatih Sultan Mehmet lays siege to Constantinople, and Khalid bin Zayd’s grave is miraculously rediscovered. It is taken as both divine sanction for the conquest of the Byzantine Christine city, and the tomb that is later built on the gravesite becomes a key part of Ottoman religious life. An incredibly dense cluster of medrese [religious schools], tekke [Sufi lodges], cami [mosques], and other tombs soon dot the neighboring area, and by the 17th and 18th centuries, it also becomes a center of Ottoman courtly protocol. The tomb becomes the place from which the Ottoman sultans were girded with the Sword of Osman (or the Sword of Gazi). As the Ottoman social life moves out towards the Bosphorus in the beginning of the 19th century, Eyüp falls by the wayside and starts to become an industrial neighborhood. My research starts in the 20th century.  

The Eyup Sultan Mosque at dusk (Photo Credit: Timur Hammond).

2) RZ: You are focusing on a neighborhood. In urban history, how is this different from looking at Istanbul as a city at large?

TH: Various neighborhoods of cities feel different– they carry different meanings and can be associated with different practices. Certain types of behavior that are appropriate in one place are absolutely inappropriate in another. Some of my key questions were: Why does this neighborhood have the reputation of being one of Istanbul’s most religious and socially conservative districts? What does the history of this neighborhood tell us that might diverge from the trajectory we generally use to understand how Istanbul has transformed over the course of the 20th century? Focusing on one neighborhood can provincialize the urban history of Istanbul, but it also can help us think more broadly about Turkey’s transformation in the 20th century.


3) BB: I think that’s a great way to transition to your actual book chapters. You spell out the historical trajectory of Eyüp in three parts: from making Eyüp Modern, to Global, to Ottoman. Could you tell us what you mean by each of these for our listeners?

TH: The book is organized into two sections. The first section is, as you pointed out, historical in nature. The second section of the book is more ethnographic. “Making Eyüp Modern” roughly corresponds from the 1920s to the late 1950s. “Making Eyüp Global” picks up after the 1980 military coup d’etat and ends in 1994. “Making Eyüp Ottoman” covers the time between the Welfare Party victory in the 1994 Istanbul municipal elections and 2011-12, when I began my ethnographic field work.

It is divided it that way based on the sources I found while working in a couple of different archives, particularly at the Historic Preservation Board as well as the Council for the Preservation of Antiquities. They have a large number of documents regarding various mosques and medrese, as well as efforts to conserve, demolish, or reuse them. I also worked in the Prime Minister’s Republican archives in Ankara, and there I found an interesting debate about building a Republican People’s Party headquarters in the neighborhood. If I put these two things dialogue with each other, how would it complicate our understanding of what it means to be modern in this religiously significant district.


4) RZ: We think of Eyüp as this religious center. In what ways was this different from the visions of the new Turkish state’s idea of what modernization was?

TH: The early reforms of the Turkish Republic are often organized around regulating the presence of Islam in public space. This was accomplished by regulating forms of dress, but in the urban landscape this meant by closing down or controlling access to particular buildings, such as turbe, medrese, and libraries (and then transferring materials to new state institutions). What was great for me was finding out that the architectural heritage boards that were responsible for the preservations of buildings were also really invested in their social life.

I was able to track how Islam continued to a be a site of devotion even in the midst of these secularizing reforms, which were regulating and creating a new geography of religion in public life.

A photograph from the Ali Saim Ülgen Archive (SALT Research Center).

5) RZ: Could you talk about the how the discourse of heritage was being used in Eyüp during the secularization period?

TH: Beginning in the late 19th century, there is a new kind of sensibility about these Ottoman buildings, and some intellectuals and administrators came to see these structures (which had been part of the social life for hundreds of years) as antiquities. How does one manage a building as a monument as opposed to an actual center of social life? Of course with the declaration of the Turkish Republic, some buildings ceased to act as centers of social life, and in many cases, they began to decay.

It should be noted that In fact, the process of decay had already begun and was not simply due to the Turkish Republic’s supposed antipathy towards Islam. Many of these buildings were quite old, were lacking money, and had already fallen into a state of disrepair.

But are these buildings important as cultural sites? As examples of the Ottoman genius? Or the examples of Islam? It depends on who you ask. One of the people at the center of the “Making Eyüp Modern” chapter is an architect and historian named Ali Saim Ülgen. The SALT Research Center in Istanbul has done an amazing job of digitizing his archive and making it accessible. Ülgen is at once a distinctly modern figure— a product of the Republic and the secular educational opportunities available to him, he was also deeply invested in understanding the social texture of a lived experience of Istanbul. He saw Islam as a central part of social life.


6) BB: On the topic of religious life, one of the most obvious displays of religiosity in the public sphere is Ramadan. How does that play out in a space like Eyüp, which is so saturated with religious significance?

TH: To understand what makes Ramadan fascinating in Eyüp, it is useful for me to sketch out the geography of the mosque and the district centers. You have the mosque where the tomb of Khalid bin Zayd is located, and adjacent to it you have a big public square. Its existence does not date back to the Ottoman period as one would expect, but to the modernization of Istanbul in the 1950s, when a number of roads were built in order to open up the city to new automobile traffic. Later on in the 1980s and 1990s, as part of a heritage project, there were a series of attempts to clean out the area and transform it into a new pedestrian square. I say this to remind you that the physical space of the city today and the forms of religiosity that are practiced in Istanbul are almost always connected to a longer urban histories that are not immediately reducible to just “Islam in public life.”

The pedestrian square is open to everyone, and I was there for Ramadan in 2012 and 2013. There was very little official organization in the square during the 2012 Ramadan season, but many of the people who lived in the neighborhood (and who tend to be working class), would come to the picturesque square to celebrate. But the square was also used for public prayer, as the mosque is not large enough to accommodate all the visitors. So there was this conflict between people setting up their sofra [their dinner setting] and the need to transform the square into a clean prayer space immediately afterwards.

In order to address the issue of space for the 2013 season, the municipality built a set of fiberglass arcades explicitly modeled on the Ottoman arcades that are found around the Kaaba in Mecca. People often refer to the mosque of Eyüp Sultan as the “İkinci Kabe,” or the “second Kaabe,” as if to say that going to Eyüp Sultan was a kind of consolation for those who did not have the opportunity to go on hajj. Of course, echoing the religious atmosphere of Mecca provokes a wide range of opinions. Some people think it is great, while others believe it is simply fake and hollow. However, it is emblematic of the debates about how Islam should be practiced and realized in very specific and material forms in Istanbul today.

Prayers written on the nylon screen surrounding the turbe (Photo Credit: Timur Hammond).

7) BB: So how does the past influence the practices of Islam? We were talking about superstition (hurafe or khurafat). How does that play out in the square, mosque, or Eyüp at large?

TH: The past isn’t simply an abstract thing— it’s very tangible, as you can literally see the traces left by prior generations. For a long time, those traces were expressed in terms of hurafe or khurafat, these superstitious rituals like the tying of strings on the grills surrounding the turbe, People leave pots near the shrine, or lighting candles.

Beginning of the 1990s with the rise of the Welfare Party and political Islam, there was a simultaneous project of cleaning out the project of hurafe, particularly in a place like Eyüp. So now if you go to Eyüp and you go turbes in istanbul, you’ll see a list of signs that say “Don’t do these things.” They’ll say that in the religion of Islam, these practices are forbidden. Secondly, you’ll see enforcement of it. Third, you’ll see mosque authorities actively trying to erase anything that happens. In Eyüp today, you don’t see the lighting of candles or tying string. But you do see that people are started to write on walls.

When I was there, they were restoring the turbe of Eyüp Sultan, so they had put up a nylon screen over it because they were taking down the tiles. The problem with nylon is that it is really easy to write on. So people would come and leave their prayers—you don’t want to write on the tiles, but you can write on the nylon. People would write, “I wish for a wonderful spouse for my daughter,” “I wish for a job for my son,” “I wish for health for my family.” Every so often, authorities or other people would come and try to wash it out. There was this running battle between people writing prayers, and those who were erasing them.

I remember in Turkish, they would say, “Bu hurafedir, bu günahtır. Islam dinimizde böyle bir şey yoktur” [This is superstition, this is a sin. In our religion, Islam, there is no such thing]. But you you wouldn’t have been able to write those prayers on tile, which gets back to the question on materiality: how do people create some connection between themselves and the divine? It actually becomes a question of how people learn about what is “correct” Islam, as well as their relation between power and authority, which enables certain practices and prohibits others.


9) BB: Who were the people who were coming to write these prayers? Were they from the older generation?

TH: They were from all walks of life. It is one of the things that make Eyüp different from some of the other religiously conservative neighborhoods of Istanbul. Eyüp is quite open— it is an incredibly diverse neighborhood economically, politically, etc. Even though it has a religious importance, a wide spectrum of people, from all political persuasions and classes, think of Islam as being important to their lives. So, the debate becomes, “How should Islam be practices as a socially collective religion? What are the ways in which Islam should or should not guide questions of political association?”

Often times, people will share on social media that a famous model or actress came to Eyüp. Recently, the players from the Fenerbahçe football club came to the neighborhood before their derby match with Galatasaray, and said they would sacrifice a ram at the butcher shop just down the road from the mosque. This complicated set of devotional practices are not really captured in a simple conservative or religious framework.

A Drinking Fountain at Eyup Sultan Mosque (Photo Credit: Timur Hammond).

10) RZ: Eyüp seems like this place with multi-layered histories, different social relations, contesting powers, and visions of an ideal public space. How can people learn by doing various media projects in a place like Eyüp?

TH: The neighborhood is transforming rapidly; even the Eyüp of the 1980s or 1990s is no longer there. Religious centers and peripheral neighborhoods alike are changing very quickly. Urban transformation continues to be hotly debated topic in Turkey more generally, and it is looking increasingly likely that many of the nearby neighborhoods are going to be redeveloped one way or another. There is still a need to go through and photograph the neighborhood, and people in Eyüp are building visual archives. I should mention the work of a local historian and third-generation resident of Eyüp, Şener Türkmenoğlu who has done an incredible job of building a photographic archive of the neighborhood. There are a couple of Facebook groups, and every so often someone will post a photo, and you’ll see these incredible memories and narratives. The sense of Eyüp as a living neighborhood with a living history is incredibly strong. Istanbul has all these pockets that tell similar, yet different stories. Thinking in terms of the mehelle is useful because it helps us complicate oftentimes received narratives that we have about modernization, globalization, industrialization. It helps us capture some of the on-the-ground complexities of urban life.



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