A Night at Topkapi Palace

The events and characters in this story are entirely fictitious, some artistic license was taken in presenting the setting and period.


اَللّٰهُمَّ بِكَ أَمْسَيْنَا، وَبِكَ أَصْبَحْنَا، وَبِكَ نَحْيَا، وَبِكَ نَمُوْتُ، وَإِلَيْكَ الْمَصِيْرُ 

O Allah, by You we enter the evening and by You we enter the morning, by You we live and by You we die, and to You is our resurrection!

The skies were stricken with a cacophony of arresting fiery hues growing brighter at the horizon’s edge. It was like watching a comet frozen in place as it scaled the heavens with a lingering trail of warm light. The whole court glared eagerly at the sun that refused to set and make way for the quenching cobalt blue of the evening. 

Dusk always seems longer in Ramadan. 

اَللّٰهُمَّ بِكَ أَمْسَيْنَا، وَبِكَ أَصْبَحْنَا، وَبِكَ نَحْيَا، وَبِكَ نَمُوْتُ، وَإِلَيْكَ الْمَصِيْرُ 

O Allah, by You we enter the evening and by You we enter the morning, by You we live and and by You we die, and to You is our resurrection! 

The Emir made a point of making hospitality the spirit of the month, and as such the vast expanse of Topkapi’s courtyard was flooded night after night.

From wall to stoney wall were seas of people engulfing islands of tulip beds, apartments, libraries, and other grand chambers filling the palace. A sea rippling with curtains and floral screens partitioning private cohorts and families breaking their daily fasts and pass the brief hour before congregating for ‘Isha. The palace belonged to the city and tonight they made it known more than ever. For it was the 27th of Ramadan.

It was a cause for celebration in many respects, an atonement for troubled pasts and relief from present or future burdens. 

Larger parties in the apartments might have their own mu’adhin and entertainers, with Musallah’s spread at the ready for the evening prayer. Those without company simply occupied the open spaces between, and among them was an anxious young pauper—let’s call him ‘Fulan’. 

Servants of the sultan and other wealthy pashas sailed through the audience of attentive ears eager to hear the sound of cannon fire signifying the beginning of iftar which the city’s well-to-do class would on such occasions share with the public. 

For the pashas, the ‘ulema, the royal house, such acts of near festive generosity were an expiation, and our Fulan sought to take full advantage of it tonight. 

There was no chance he was going to let the night pass without his audience with the Sultan himself. 

اَللّٰهُمَّ بِكَ أَمْسَيْنَا، وَبِكَ أَصْبَحْنَا، وَبِكَ نَحْيَا، وَبِكَ نَمُوْتُ… 

O Allah, by You we enter the evening and by You we enter the morning, by You we live and and by You we d—

“Uncle, must you invoke so loudly?” he asked, turning upon an old shaykh beside him. Dishevelled and frail, he wore a woollen tunic with an izar around his waist, his cap was dusty with tufts of cotton slowly tearing away at the threads. His beard was no more well kept, patchy, scraggy and a mingle of darkest grey and white. The young pauper was hardly in a better state himself, nor did anybody in their vicinity. 

“Oulad, I’m only here for the same reason as you,” the shaykh said.

“And what do you know about my affair?” replied Fulan dismissively.

“You seek help from one you believe has the answer, as do I,” he answered. 

“Do I look like someone who needs—” It took a moment before the young man saw the milky white fog in his elder’s eyes and bit down hard upon his tongue.

He smirked and gave a heaving chuckle, hearing the sharp realisation that overcame him. “Only desperate men speak with such sharp haste.” 

“Senile old man,” he thought to himself as he turned back, clicking his tongue.

The fiery dusk above grew cooler by the minute as the sun disappeared into the horizon.

The sound of cannon fire cut through the white silence, followed by a symphony of holy criers as the dozens of mu’adhins across the complex made the call to prayer, and then came the frenzy within and beyond the palace walls. Pitchers of water, milk, sherbet and rich syrups accompanied with bowls of dates and nuts hovered about the crowd and each took to their spaces. 

Brief murmurs of chatter and laughter livened the moments between the beginning of iftar and the evening prayers. Many stayed only briefly before making their way to the masjid, others made their own congregations either privately or in the open courtyard. The sultan was yet to make an appearance.

“Maybe he went to the Jami’?” thought Fulan, his eyes scanning the scene as people shoved and nudged their way past him.

Small vessels for ablution also made their way around the crowd and everybody made their preparations for the prayer. Still no appearance from the emir.

The congregations proceeded, with one large gathering in the first courtyard. Throughout the prayer and beneath the Imam’s booming holy serination was the humming buzz from all the smaller gatherings in the apartments and chambers throughout Topkapi. For those few minutes the palace and the Jami’ were both houses of God before all others. Yet throughout it all, the pauper’s eyes wandered here and there, his mind following suit, wondering when the sultan might enter, where he would be seated, and how he might be able to approach him. 

The prayer concluded, the congregation dispersed and the “iftar proper” commenced.

From the second courtyard emerged a platoon of servants, first in single file and then fanning out in almost elaborate fashion. Each carried a platter from the palace kitchen, filled with steaming dishes of rice, chickpeas, yoghurt and various meats- the vizier was said to have donated a flock’s worth of lambs for the occasion.

Eating meat was a rarity for many of those in attendance, and for Fulan a distant memory. But tonight he was too distracted to even notice the dozens of platters practically passing under his nose. He was dead set on meeting his host. How exactly was still in the question, but his mind was far too clouded in conviction to be pragmatic. He stood vigilant of his host as others pushed and shoved passed to find their seats again. 

Eventually the bustling noise that filled the very air grew thinner as the sound of a marching procession came from the next chamber over. Through the dark, hollow arch at the far left of him came a cohort in yellow and red, each donning a tall, white bork draping over the back of their heads. With their chests puffed proudly and their hands at the hilt of their sabres. They were members of the Janissary corp, marching in unison in a squared formation around a sharp featured man sporting a dark green cloak patterned in gold foliage, crowned in a grand, imposing turban—he was here.

The sultan proceeded towards a platform laid out by some of the palace serfs, a raised cushioned seat beneath the trees on one of the grassy patios scattered across the grounds.

The pauper saw his opportunity, but as if in the blink of an eye a whole crowd swarmed the patio, and the janissaries took charge of pushing back the barrage. “Fulan (so and so), take your seat,” one said, shoving him back onto the cobbled stone floor.

As he stood up to dust himself off he searched around for any open gathering, just to loiter as he waited for a more opportune moment for his meeting. From where he stood there didn’t seem to be an open space in sight, as he continued his search he felt the sudden shock of a hand tugging at his wrist. He flinched, looking down to see the loud blind man from before. The pauper was taken aback, he seemed to appear from nowhere, like a djinn of sorts.

“Were you sitting there this whole time?” he asked.

“Ah,” the man grinned, “It must be written. I asked for my meal to be blessed with a second pair of hands to share in it, mashaAllah.” He sat atop a worn and tattered red rug, with a pitcher of ayran and a steaming platter of rice and chickpeas before him. 

Seeing that it was still near enough for him to reach the emir when the crowd dispersed, the pauper joined the blind man’s lonely party.

*****

Time passed in prolonged silence, the patio was as busy as ever and the platter grew cold. “You haven’t eaten,” The blind man said. “What host would I be if I filled my stomach before my guest”?

“I don’t need to eat,” Fulan replied inattentively.

“MashaAllah, a true sufi!” he continued, “You think you’re the first to try your luck begging as you are?”

At that Fulan’s eyes snapped back upon his elder with a look of anger boiling in his face… but then dissipated altogether, like a kettle that whistled fiercely before returning to a light simmer. Humility overtook him and slowly drew a tear from his eye. “Am I so plain that even you can read my face?” He asked with a slight croak. 

The blind man gestured to come closer. “Tell me your real story.”

“People from my village rarely venture out. For someone to gain the means to travel, especially in pursuit of knowledge, is something special. It took a lot of time and effort but my family had raised enough to fund my journey and residence here that I might study and come back to serve the masjid. Truth be told, I had other ambitions. I wanted an escape, and the chance to taste life in the city. I was reckless with my expenses and my trust. I left the madrasah within a month, attempted to establish a business, and lost everything in the process. That was almost a year ago,” he continued, “I know it’s a foolish thought, but I thought that coming and meeting… I could—”

“A good expectation doesn’t make you a fool. What makes you a fool is expecting good after wronging another.” The old shaykh said curtly. 

The pauper’s head sank in guilt as he sullenly agreed.

Darkness descended as the hour marched on. The sounds of chatter, laughter, melodious recitation holy scripture, and poetry serenading the blessed night filled the air. Small red pouches of coins and sweets were passed around to the children about the courtyard. It was a tradition the turks called Diş Kirası (tooth rental), gifted from the sultan who eventually prepared to take his leave, as did many of those in attendance, as the time for the night prayer approached. 

With that, Fulan stood up and bid farewell to his acquaintance, a faint sound of defeat rang in his voice. “I’m sorry, effendi, my adab clearly left me. You deserved better company tonight. God preserve you.” He said before kneeling to kiss the hand of his elder.

Before he could turn away he felt a tugging at his wrist. “Oulad, I will forgive you when you give me my right.” The elder nodded towards the platter before them. “Will you let an old man go hungry and be a poor guest? Bismillah.” 

Conceding to his request, the young pauper sat and took a morsel of cold rice. “Bismillah,” he repeated. 

*****

The courtyard slowly emptied out as the two of them shared their meal. They began to share stories, and a jovial spirit warmed the air between them. “My son, I don’t want us to part with you empty handed. Let me give you something for your troubles.” The old man said, reaching into the pocket of his patched tunic. 

Ashamed at the thought of inconveniencing a friend, the pauper refused, but his elder was persistent. Clasping his hand he felt a piece of paper. “What is this?” He asked.

“Provision, for your day and for your night.”

He unfolded to find a wird; a litany of invocations. “I didn’t think you would be in need of writing,” the young man remarked, smiling.

”Who said I needed it?” The shaykh smiled in kind, almost as if he could see for that brief moment. 

Before leaving, the young pauper took one last morsel of the dish, not knowing if he would find another meal the next day. Feeling a solid mass almost cracking his teeth, he spat out the morsel to find alongside his tooth a small lump of metal, covered in his blood and somewhat copperish in hue. “SubhanAllah.” He muttered.

“What’s the matter?” the shaykh asked.

The youth responded, “It’s nothing to worry about, effendi. Salam.”

“Wa alaykum Salam.”

He stood and looked around for the nearest servant to raise his complaint. “Who is responsible for this?” He growled, grabbing a young servant boy by the collar and showing him the small bloodied ingot.

Shaken and confused at the complaint, the servant boy said, “I-I don’t know. But you should ask Khalil Pasha, he helped cater for iftar.” He pointed towards the archway where the Janissaries entered from earlier that evening.

“I ate with an elderly blind man, he might have choked if I wasn’t there!” He said, dropping the boy who followed on, “what blind man?”

“Are you blind as well? He’s sitting righ—” He turned to find the place where the two had sat empty, his friend absent along with the ruddied rug and food. 

Sudden as his departure was, Fulan didn’t pay any mind to it and simply marched towards Khalil Pasha, who stood talking to one of his own personal guard, dressed differently to the Sultan’s. 

He was a slender man, with a slightly rounded face—more welcoming at a glance than the Emir. He looked young, a similar age to the pauper, with a well kept beard, a long red coat and turban wrapped in a somewhat squarish imama. 

“Khalil Pasha?”

He turned to greet the pauper with a smile. “Can I help you, effendi?” he asked softly. 

“Pasha, forgive my curtness but can you explain this?” He opened his palm to present his discovery, at which point the kind Pasha’s face darkened slightly.

“Where did you find that?” he asked, taking the metal ball from Fulan’s hand, though something seemed different.

‘Was it always golden?’ He thought to himself before answering, “It was in my food.”

The Pasha’s smile melted and was replaced with a questioning look. “Is this some kind of joke?”

The pauper was lost, and before he could express his confusion, the Pasha’s guard grabbed him by the arm, locking his shoulder firmly. “Don’t let him out of your sight,” he said before whispering something into the guard’s ear.

The guard simply nodded before shoving Fulan towards the palace exit, “Move!” he barked.

*****

He was dragged to the masjid of Sultan Ahmet—The Blue Mosque—as the congregation was about to commence. Several months had passed since he’d seen the inside of any of the city’s masajid, let alone one of such grandeur. The ground practically shook as the muadhin’s cry bounded from wall to wall up through the vaulted ceilings. Yet the ambience did little to inspire awe and reverence in Fulan, who for much of the hour of intense worship could not help but wonder what it was he had done to offend the Pasha, what he did to incur his anger and what he could do to escape the sword of the guard beside him throughout the congregation. At every rise and fall, at every station and break within the prayer he pondered over his options, how he might bargain, how he might plead for his life.

He began to ponder:

“Is this it? Do I deserve any better?”

And between the penultimate units of the prayer, he submitted. 

As the takbir—the opening declaration—of the final unit prayer was called, his face turned to the last place he had considered in all this time.

“Allah,” he murmured as they entered the last prostration.

“I was sent to your cause and I fled. I was given a trust and I broke it. I had every chance to seek from you and at every opportunity I sought from other than you.”

“I surrender, if you will have me. If what follows is the price of lifting my vice then I ask that you accept, but if you’ve written for me otherwise, then I ask that you grant me an escape from my burdens, enable me to right my wrongs, return me to those I abandoned and grant me what I denied myself—your company”.

What was a matter of moments felt like an eternity, but when the prayer reached its conclusion, he was dragged up to his feet. “Move,” the guard growled. 

He was escorted to a chamber of one of the madaris surrounding the mosque, a private study dimly lit with a candle wick upon a small, low bearing desk where Khalil Pasha was seated upon a raised cushion, and the pauper was promptly thrust down before him.

Khalil Pasha took the gold piece out from a pouch by his side and placed it on the desk. “Where did you say you found this?”

“In the platter you provided,” replied the pauper, collected and composed. The questions continued.

“And you have no idea why that might have been?”

“Are you going to kill me or not?” The pauper interjected, at which point his two captors broke into an uncontrollable, hearty laughter. 

The Pasha was heaving, wiping a tear from his eye he asked, “who are you?” 

“I… don’t understand,” his composure dropped and the same initial confusion washed over him again.

“You don’t have Diş Kirası where you come from?” The Pasha followed.

“I have heard of it”, the pauper replied, “though I did not imagine it to be so literal” he added, exposing his missing tooth.

Khalil Pasha went on to explain as he gathered himself again. “You must be from elsewhere, but Diş Kirası is something that differs from house to house here. It was a game my father used to play during iftar, he would hide one golden chickpea in the meal being served, I haven’t seen anything like this since I was a child.” 

“You mean you didn’t plan this?”

“No, somebody must have plotted some sort of ruse, and you were unfortunate enough to be caught in the middle of it. My apologies for your troubles.”

As he spoke the pauper’s hands rummaged in his pocket, trying to recollect what odd piece of parchment he was carrying, and it suddenly came back to him. He placed the small litany on the table. 

The Pasha opened the folded paper, and as he read the list of supplications inside his face grew pale. He looked upon the pauper again with the same accusatory look as before and asked once more, “Who are you?”

*****

They spoke throughout the night as the pauper recounted his entire story, from his deceitful arrival to Istanbul, to all his subsequent losses, his haphazard attempt to beg the sultan’s aid, and his encounter with a strange blind man who seemed to vanish as suddenly as he appeared. “And he gave you this?” the Pasha asked concerning the piece of paper.

“Yes, what about it?” 

He smiled once more, his eyes welling and his face growing red. “This is my father’s penmanship.” He mustered through his croaking voice. “To encourage me and my brothers in remembering Allah every morning and evening he would hide notes for us around our home, whoever would find and memorise the adhkar he wrote within them would be given some sort of treat. He told us this was where our provisions would be found.” He added, fighting through his tears. 

At that moment the adhan for the morning prayer had entered. “My apologies again, it seems I kept you from your suhur.” To which the pauper responded, “I might not have found much to eat in the first place.” The Pasha insisted that he accompany him for the morning prayer, and following the congregation escorted his guest out of the masjid. 

“Before we part, I owe you your prize,” he said. “You found the gold piece after all,” he continued. “The game was that whoever found it would have any debts or expenses paid off. That was their gift for Ramadan.”

The pauper was taken aback. “Whoever it was you shared your meal with, and however it is we happened to meet, you reminded me of something precious, and it would be disgraceful that I not honor you in kind. Whatever it is you wish—whether to resume your studies, or return to your home, consider it covered.” 

He was at a loss, the words “thank you” barely escaping his lips, but the Pasha still responded. “HayakAllah; God bless you” he said, placing the folded litany back in the pauper’s hands with a firm farewell. 

With that the two parted ways. The pauper made his way out of the masjid gate in time to catch the sunrise, and as he wandered the near empty square between the two great mosques of Istanbul, he recited aloud from his gift from an unlikely friend:

اَللّٰهُمَّ بِكَ أَصْبَحْنَا، وَبِكَ أَمْسَيْنَا، وَبِكَ نَحْيَا، وَبِكَ نَمُوْتُ وَإِلَيْكَ النُّشُوْرُ 

O Allah, by You we enter the morning and by You we enter the evening, by You we live and and by You we die, and to You is our resurrection

Photo by Latrach Med Jamil on Unsplash


About the Author: Ibraheem Ali is a junior copywriter and contributor at Traversing Tradition. A graduate of English Literature with a Masters in Global Creative and Cultural Industries. His interests include Literature, Film, Cultural Studies and Islamic History.

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