Once again, it’s the month of Ramadan, a month filled with centuries-old traditions and especially that of fasting during daylight hours and breaking one’s fast, feasting if you like, once it is impossible to distinguish a white thread from a black one.
The tradition of fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam and was laid down as one of the actions a good Muslim must undertake. Fasting occurs, however, in Judaism and Christianity and historians believe that the Prophet Muhammad, to some extent, based his ideas of how Islam should develop on what he knew about the practices of the Jews of his time. He first called on Muslims to fast on the Day of Atonement or Ashura, a Jewish religious day that commemorated the flight of the Jews from Egypt under the leadership of Moses and the drowning of the Egyptian pharaoh of the time and his forces who were chasing them. Historians speculate that he might have been trying to win the support of the Jews by emphasizing how close the revelations of Islam were to the teachings of the Old Testament.
Only after the Prophet, his family and followers fled Mecca and settled in Medina, where there was a larger Jewish community, did he change his mind and decree that Muslims should fast for a whole month. This was after he learned more about Jewish practices and Jews became hostile to him. It was also during the Prophet’s stay in Medina that he decided Muslims should no longer face Jerusalem when they prayed, but the Ka’abah instead. The date on which the Prophet Muhammad instituted the fast in the month of Ramadan is thought to be after the Battle of Badr, a victory of Muslim forces over enemies from Mecca in 624. (AH 3).
Fasting during Ramadan is supposed to clean the believer’s heart and thus obtain remission of his sins. It is also a time of atonement. There are some exemptions for young children, the very elderly, sick persons, nursing or pregnant women and travelers; however, the missing days should be made up.
Iftar or breaking the fast
The early 20th century traveler Eldon Rutter, during a stay in Mecca, observed the customs of the local people during Ramadan, noting how just before the sun went down in the evening, the mosque would become crowded with men carrying a small bundle of dates and bread. As soon as the gun sounded from the nearby fort, they would eat a few dates and the bread, sharing it with those near them. Then, after prayers, they would return home and have soup. After half an hour or so, they would proceed to eat meat, rice and vegetables followed by tea, smoking and conversation.
The tradition related by Rutter was centuries-old and probably dates from shortly after Muhammad instituted fasting. As fasting is incumbent on all Muslims, the ways of breaking it in the evening were accomplished in similar fashions throughout the Islamic world.
The most important feature is knowing when exactly one can start eating. In spite of the great strides Muslims made in astronomy, telling when the time for iftar had come was rather inexact. This was important, as eating beforehand meant your fasting was in vain. In Istanbul under the Ottoman sultans, the latter had to give his permission for the people to be informed that it was time. This was done by shooting off cannons, lighting minarets and on the largest mosques, the strings of light (mahya) between the minarets that spelled out various sayings.
The kitchens of the palace would start preparing for Ramadan at least two months before, since it required ordering many items from all over the empire. Pots and pans would be re-tinned for use. The cooks on a normal day had to feed about 5000 people and during Ramadan, that number might double.
Dishes would be sent to prominent people from the palace as well. Another tradition of the palace had the sultan sending big, silver trays heaped high with baklava to the Janissaries every day. The next day, the Janissaries would send the trays back in order to be filled with baklava.
The famous Sokullu Mehmed Paşa who was the grand vizier under Sultans Süleyman I, Selim II and Murat III, was as responsible for providing iftar feasts for the people under him as the sultan was. It became something of a scandal that he was providing such luxurious repasts and splendid gifts for those who attended. He is also known to have complained about the extraordinary expenses he was put to in order to maintain appearances.
Gossip went the rounds about Şeyhülislam Dürrizade Seyit Abdullah Efendi’s famous iftar. When Mahmud II heard about it, he decided to check it out for himself without sending word that he was coming. Everything was served on beautiful plates and in glasses until it came to the “hoşaf,” or compote, which was usually served with ice. The containers did not match the rest of the dinnerware.
So the sultan asked why the compote dishes were not very attractive. The host replied that he had done it so the taste would not be spoiled by placing the ice in the compote. Instead he had had the containers made out of ice.
Government officials and the wealthy imitated what the sultan did and provided lavish meals to which everybody passing could join. They also would have their staff start preparations early, especially since many items had to be ordered from outside of Istanbul. For example, flour came from Odessa at the beginning of the 20th century.
Author Samiha Ayverdi, in her memoir “İbrahim Efendi Konağı” describes how foodstuffs would be ordered from all over the Empire – cheeses from the Balkans, Egyptian rice, Antep dry baklava, sucuk, apricots from Damascus, Malatya and Tokat, Ankara honey, Kastamonu plums, dates from Bagdad and the Hijaz and Black Sea caviar, to mention a few items.
According to Ayverdi, preparations for the evening iftar would begin about half an hour ahead of time.
The table would be set with jams, cheeses, olives, sausage and simit. A break would be taken to attend to evening prayers. This first course then would be followed by different kinds of soups. Eggs made with ground beef and pastırma would be eaten before the meats, vegetables and pilav were brought to the table. Börek would be put on the table next before the sweets and fruits appeared. Then, the evening would end with cigarettes and coffee.
The novelist Refik Halit Karay wrote about the tradition in the grand mansions where anyone was invited to break their fast regardless of whether the master of the house knew you. He said you weren’t required to talk or even listen while you filled your stomach with the eight or 10 types of food that were followed by coffee. No one would find it odd or probably even notice.