Their travelogues and memories encapsulate Ramadan of a bygone era with intimate details about how the city functioned while the faithful showed their utmost devotion to God.

In 1840, Horatio Southgate, a 28-year-old Christian missionary from the US, visited the Ottoman lands following his archbishop's orders. He was startled by the sound of a cannon on December 8 noon, announcing the next day as Ramadan. 

Through his writings, Southgate made some astute observations about life in Istanbul, a bustling commercial centre, especially during Ramadan. 

"The bazaars are open and business continues, though not with its wanted activity and vigour," he writes in one of his memoirs. 

"The exhausting effects of the fast and the nature of the season repress secular activity and enterprise. All make it, as far as circumstances permit, a time of physical inaction. The more devout spend much of it in the mosque, or in reading the Koran at home”.

Tasked with establishing ties between the Protestant Episcopal Church of America and Syriac Orthodox, East Assyrian, Nestorian and other Christian sects, Southgate chronicled his journey in his two books.

While the zealous evangelist pursued his goal to connect with his Christian counterparts, he also took a keen interest in studying the Quran and Islamic jurisprudence -- one of his books starts with a Quranic verse that commands fasting. 

Soutgate's journey embodies the West's long-standing interest in understanding the East. In the eyes of a Westerner, the Islamic world was undoubtedly represented by the Ottomans for many centuries.

The image of a powerful yet mystical Turkish empire led by a powerful yet benevolent sultan, who ruled from the picturesque capital city Istanbul, has tickled the Western imagination of the Islamic world for a long time, especially from the 16th century onwards. 

Southgate's written work reflects the same spirit as he intimately describes the city straddling Europe and Asia, ringed by low-lying hills and adorned by majestic mosques and minarets; its colourful bazaars where shopkeepers hawked their wares to people with gaudy costumes, and boisterous children playing on the streets. 

As new modern modes of transportation such as railways and steamships enhanced mobility, many Europeans flocked to the Ottoman lands in the 18th and 19th centuries to satisfy their longing to see the East.    

Along with these large hordes of travellers came Christain missionaries, especially Protestants, driven by a zeal to reform the heathen. Some of them also turned out to be extraordinary chroniclers of the times, leaving behind a rich body of literary work that gives us an insight into Muslim life and special events such as Ramadan.

The boatmen near the Golden Horne of Istanbul back in the early 1900s.
The boatmen near the Golden Horne of Istanbul back in the early 1900s. (Sultan Abdul Hamid II collection)

Azan sounds rolling along the water

Southgate says that the Ramadan fast, which coincided with the summer, was very difficult, especially for the poor workers who have to work from morning to evening. 

Sharing an anecdote, Southgate says that he once hired a caique along with two rowers to visit a distant village. The boatmen rowed the boat for the entire day and at sundown, as the sound of the gun followed by mesmerising sounds of Azan read by hundreds of Muezzins announced the end of the fast, they began following the ritual.     

“The boatmen who, though apparently quite exhausted, had tugged at their oars with patience that no one, in such circumstances, know better how to exhibit than a Turk, now rested upon their seats and prepared to break their fast. With no other expression of emotion than a placid exclamation of joy, as the voice of the Muezzin rolled along the water, they ate and drank just sufficient to allay the pain of abstinence, and then resumed their oars,” Southgate writes. 

Southgate does not neglect to convey the colourful atmosphere in Istanbul after iftar. According to him, sunset is the most interesting event of the day. 

In his words: "As the sun declines, the whole Musulman population seems suddenly to awaken. The coffees left to Christians during the day begin to fill with Turks, and they calmly wait for the night cannon with their sticks in their hands. The street corners are filled with crowds rushing in all directions in an unusual liveliness, while the bakeries are surrounded by their customers. Confectioners, on the other hand, display their most exquisite delicacies with their lined and beautifully decorated counters."

The thousand and second of the Arabian Nights

One of the Westerners who witnessed Ramadan in Istanbul was the wife of British statesman Edmund Grimani Hornby, who died in 1866. In her work In and Around Stamboul, Hornby appears as someone who contemplates Ramadan of Istanbul with the naivete of a Westerner. According to Hornby, the assimilation of cultures of different nations in Europe had led to the loss of originality. Hornby blames trains and steamships for this destructive role, and complains that a person who has the opportunity to travel from one side of Europe to the other can no longer encounter anything different in these countries.

According to her, this situation has not been entirely successful in Türkiye. Ottoman geography is sufficiently original. In particular, the month of Ramadan is a period when the oriental atmosphere is revived. Hornby writes in her work:

 “… This (Ramadan) is, therefore, the most interesting time for a European, who can get, by a stroll through the streets, more insight into the character of Mohammedan life than by the study of volumes….”

Hornby continues her narrative with post-iftar impressions. She says that after breaking the fast, hands are washed and cigarettes are lit. After a while, she adds, the sharp voice of the muezzin calls the believers to the Taraweeh prayer.

Hornby's memoir on Ramadan also describes how Istanbul's mosques were brightly illuminated, and countless cafes, grocery stores and restaurants remained stacked with ice creams, lemonades, and candies. 

According to Hornby, the fantastic image created by thousands of paper lanterns held by thousands of people and the countless lights emitted by them was even more remarkable than the most interesting moment of the last Roman Carnival she had attended. Hornby also shares her thoughts about his visit to one of the mosques. 

“This is the hour when one ought to go and see the mosques. The simple grandeur of some of these masterpieces of Eastern architecture is only to be felt, not to be described. That solemn abstraction from all surrounding earthly objects which characterises the prayer of the Moslem, rises to a kind of stern enthusiasm, which strikes even the most sceptical with awe”.

She explains the scene outside, which she finds having "increased in animation", after the prayers are over.

"Everybody is visiting everybody; the crowd is so dense that you can scarcely pass through the main thoroughfares; all the seats in front of the cafes and shops are occupied, everywhere you hear chanting, singing, and music. The mosques have increased in light. On a rope stretched from one minaret to another, figures formed of ingeniously hung lamps, representing flowers, animals, birds, ships, and other objects, swing about high in the air," she writes. 

 "A thousand Buyouroun, (Please) invite the passers-by to the shops, and mix with the hum of the busy crowd. And all this host, without anybody to direct its movements, is orderly and quiet; no pressing or jostling, no acute noise or excess. This is, perhaps, the most wonderful part of the whole, and gives to the scene an air of mystery, which impresses you almost with the belief that you are witnessing the thousand and second of the Arabian Nights."

Source: TRT World