THE FOLLOWERS of most religions attach importance to certain objects
associated with the history of their faith. However, the
significance with which they are invested varies in different
societies. While in some cases these objects are venerated almost to
the point of worship, in others they are believed to have
metaphysical power and used as talismans, or, on the other hand,
preserved out of respect for the religious figure to whom they
belonged. The Arabic term for such relics is eser.
Sacred relics are a feature of many cultures and religions, but have
perhaps been most prominent of all in Christianity. Among the early
Christians it was believed that the souls of saints remained close
to their tombs, and their possessions were preserved there.
Fragments of the cross on which Jesus Christ was believed to have
been crucified were discovered in Jerusalem in the 4th century, and
were placed in churches; an event which gave rise to the institution
of a church feast known as the Feast of the Cross. Sacred relics of
this sort were an effective means of enhancing interest in newly
built churches, and there was hardlya church without one or more of
Among the pre-Islamic Arabs, it was customary after visiting the
Kaaba to take home some stone or soil in memory of the pilgrimage
which it might not be possible to repeat. These were venerated by
the tribe, who would perform ritual circumambulation around them.
According to Ibn'ul Kelbi, this was one reason why idolatry had
spread through the Arabian peninsula. The tradition of taking soil
from a shrine, or from the grave of a prophet or saint is extremely
Foremost among the relics preserved for centuries in Mecca are the
Hacer-ul Esved and the Makam-ı Ibrahim. The former is the sacred
Black Stone brought from Mount Ebu Kubeys and built into the
southeastern corner of the Kaaba to mark the starting point of the
circumambulation, and the latter is a rectangular slab of marble
carved with "footprints" alleged to be those of Abraham, who is said
to have stood on it either during construction of the Kaaba or when
calling on the people to perform the pilgrimage. Since Muslims
interpreted the Koranic verse reading, "Take as your place of
worship the place where Ibrahim stood " , as meaning that they
should pray by this stone, it was moved by Omar from its original
position next to the Kaaba so that those who were praying did not
obstruct the circumambulation.
Another sacred relic at the Kaaba was a pair of horns thought to
belong to the sacrificial ram sent to Abraham by God in place of his
son (identified as Ishmael in the Koranic and Isaac in the Biblical
version). According to Azraki, when Muhammed entered the Kaaba
following the conquest of Mecca, these horns were hanging on the
wall but subsequently disappeared during the siege of Mecca by
Even during Muhammed's lifetime his followers collected keepsakes.
Following his death the desire for such objects, which were regarded
as sacred, became even keener. There were those who declared that
they would rather possess a hair from the Prophet's head or beard
than the entire world. When the controversy over the caliphate broke
out, the Omayyads wished to possess some of the relics of Muhammed
so as to gain public support, and Muaviye purchased the Prophet's
mantle for twenty thousand drachmas. This mantle was to become one
of the most venerated symbols of the caliphate, and following the
death of Muaviye was passed down from caliph to caliph, who wore it
on feast days. Following the collapse of the Omayyads, the first
Abbasid caliph Ebu'l-Abbas Seffah purchased the mantle.
With the conversion of the Turkic peoples, Islam expanded over a
wide area, and when the caliphate passed to the Ottoman dynasty in
1517, Istanbul became both the religious and political hub of the
Islamic world. The holy relics which are today kept at Topkapı
Palace have been reverently preserved over the centuries. As well as
those belonging to Muhammed himself, there are some which belong to
other prophets or to companions of Muhammed, another group
associated with the Kaaba, and finally containers and wrappers in
which the relics were transported.
The Ottoman sultans held all holy relics in respect, not only those
associated with the history of Islam and fastidiously preserved them
all for posterity. Following the conquest of Istanbul, Mehmed II (
1451-1481) proclaimed that all the religious communities of the city
were free to follow their own faith. The hand and fragments from the
skull of John the Baptist kept in reliquaries in the Treasury are
known to have first been brought to Topkapı Palace during the reign
of this sultan. During the inventory of the relics carried out in
1924 after the palace became a museum, these were recorded as being
amongst the other holy relics. John the Baptist was the cousin of
the Virgin Mary and the son of Zachariah. He believed that Christ
was the Messiah whose coming was prophesied in the Old Testament,
and spread his teachings. He baptised Christ and many others in the
River Jordan. He had earlier lived alone in the desert so as to be
closer to God, eating only locusts to keep himself alive. He was
beheaded by Herod for denouncing his marriage with the wife of his
Among the exhibits in the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle are many other
relics attributed to Biblical prophets, including the sceptre of
Moses, the saucepan of Abraham, the sword of David, and a wooden
panel carved in relief with the Temple of Solomon and an inscription
The relics at Topkapı Palace for the most part were brought here
between the 16th and early 20th centuries, with a notable spate
during the 19th century due largely to the spread in Arabia of the
Wahhabi sect, which denounced the idea of material objects being
endowed with sanctity. The relics were therefore taken to Istanbul
to protect them from destruction at the hands of the Wahhabis, who
demolished the tomb of Hussein and in 1803 occupied and razed the
city of Mecca. Despite security precautions, the tombs of Othman and
Ali were looted in 1898, and a considerable amount of treasure taken
from the tomb of Muhammed which was also badly damaged. In November
1818 Abdullah bin Suud surrendered in Dir'iyye to the forces of
Mehmed Ali Paşa, Governor of Egypt, and was sent to Istanbul, so
preventing further attacks on sacred buildings. Abdullah bin Suud
relinquished to Mehmed Ali three Korans and a casket containing
around three hundred emeralds, pearls and a gold band that his
father had stolen from the tomb of Muhammed. When interrogated, he
asserted that some of the other stolen items were in the possession
of prominent Arabs, inhabitants of Medina, and even the Sheriff of
The holy relics to be sent to Topkapı Palace were delivered,
together with an inventory, to the official responsible for
transporting them. Abdullah bin Suud and several others involved in
the theft of many relics and valuables from Ravza-i Mutahhara (the
tomb of Muhammed), which had been looted by his father, the tomb of
Hussein and other holy places, were later executed.
Prior to the evacuation of Medina during the First World War, it was
decided to send the holy relics of the city and the precious gifts
sent during the Ottoman period to Topkapı Palace for safe keeping.
This decision of the Ottoman command was notified to Fahreddin Paşa,
commander of the Hejaz Forces, on March 2nd, 1917. Fahreddin Paşa
consulted Ziver Bey, governor of Medina, as to whether there was any
religious objection to removing the relics, and on learning that
there was not, sent them off to Istanbul. The subject of the holy
relics and gifts was discussed at Lausanne, and the Turkish
delegation rejected a demand that these objects be returned.
Consisting of eighty-one pieces altogether, they include large
diamonds, candelabra, chandeliers, lamps, hanging ornaments, fans,
rare manuscripts, Koran cases, caskets for the Holy Mantle, and
other objects of priceless spiritual and material value.
The Ottoman sultans traditionally sent precious gifts to Mecca and
Medina every year, as did other prominent figures from parts of the
Islamic world, and in this way the number of holy relics expanded
over the centuries. In all the collection of holy relics at Topkapı
Palace today numbers 765. During the reign of Mahmud II (1808-1839)
those relics which were kept at the palace were placed in the
Hasoda, under the care of forty palace officers.
The Koran was recited day and night in the Pavilion of the Holy
Mantle over the centuries by forty hafiz (one who has memorised the
Koran), out of respect for the mantle of Muhammed. Sultan Selim I
(1512-1520) was himself one of these forty hafiz who read by turns
"for the triumph of good over evil". This tradition is still
maintained today. The respect in which the holy relics have always
been held means that even the brooms, dustpans, candles, wood used
to repair the Kaaba, sandalwood and agallch wood, prayer beads,
spoons and other artefacts employed in the Hasoda or kept here have
been carefully preserved. The Pavilion of the Holy Mantle was first
opened to the public on August 31st, 1962.
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Armagan, Istanbul, 1984, pp. 51-58. Hamldullah, Muhammed,
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Source: Art of Asia Magazine