A Meditation on Death in Istanbul

Xiwen Yang

This short piece has its origin in my grandmother’s passing, who lived her whole life in a small town in south-western China and left for another realm in 2019, may Allah forgive her. Throughout my childhood, she protected my spirit, stirred my imagination, and cheered for my pursuits. I miss her, night and day. Her departure weighs on my heart and forces me to recalibrate through the sorrows and joys brought by the vicissitudes of Fate.

In London’s Tate gallery, there is a picture by British pre-Raphaelite artist Sir John Millais, Ophelia, in which he depicts the tragic death of Ophelia, a character in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. In Millais’ rendering, Ophelia falls into the water in a botanical setting, surrounded by willow trees and flowers, with each reed swaying on the surface of the river. The painting is often seen as a direct response to contemporary critics of the mid- to late nineteenth century, who urged artists to go into nature and observe it in an exacting manner. Nature itself has a kind of spiritual power, so who were artists to mess with God’s work?

Ophelia’s dying in nature gestures towards the ultimate question of man’s position in the universe: their existence, their death, and their relationship with their physical surroundings. It surely is a difficult subject.

And there is no better place to meditate on this question than Istanbul.

Death amidst Life

While strolling around various neighborhoods in Istanbul, the graveyards, cemeteries and tombstones are the traveller’s frequent encounter. There is no need for the residents of Istanbul to go out of the city to remember the dead, for the dead live side by side with the living. More often than not, burial sites are located within the limits of city wall, becoming part and parcel of social life. Of different sizes, they sometimes are located in the courtyard of a mosque, a madrasa, or a waqf; or, there are large independent cemeteries which stand solemnly amidst men’s busy pursuit of worldly life.

Take the one at Edirnekapı as an example. Though part of it was already destroyed when a highway was being constructed on its western part, the Edirnekapı cemetery is an enormous piece of flat land densely occupied by gravestones, in it the souls of many luminaries from the past rest. Some of them were native to the city, who witnessed and even participated in its most glorious days, like the Ottoman poet Bakî and Shaykh Al-Islam Seyyid Abd Allah Bey Dürrizade, their imprints left in the city in verse and in custom. Some of them only came to the imperial capital later, but their intellectual achievements were no less. Such was the case for shaykh al-islam Kemalpasazade from Edirne in the sixteenth century and, more recently, Yusuf Akçura from Russia (d. 1935). These gravestones, regardless of its condition or size, crowd together shoulder by shoulder, unyieldingly announcing the arrival of Death to those who pass by.

Aside from these big names, the cemetery also accommodates those of humbler roots. There are many empty graves for soldiers died in the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915-16 — unknown, hidden and forgotten ones, they now lay, without a name, in the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Edirnekapı. The construction of a memorial site for those died in a war against foreign powers may well be the type of sensational material for some of us, whose imaginative power cannot go beyond the theories offered by secular liberal education, we rise and declare, ‘the martyr’s cemetery is no more than a promotion of imagined community and nationalism!’

The believer, however, sits and reflects upon what is above and beyond. The diversity of these men’s origin is a wonder in creation, testifying the power of Allah; yet their departure from the physical world in one way or another — a destiny shared by all men — is a reminder of Allah’s Sovereignty. As He himself has already commanded in the Quran,

“Every soul shall taste death…”

Al-Qur’an 3:185

The cemetery’s sheer size and central location, as well as the density of its gravestones, create an intimidating landscape for the believer. As one side of it sits just next to the metro and bus stations where people commute and transit, the sight of it disrupts one’s daily preoccupation with work, salary, children, or food. The moment the believer gets off from the bus which she usually takes to her workplace, and sees how many events of death are displayed in front of her in the open air, she is then immediately addressed ominously by the voice of Death in his meeting with graves, willingly or unwillingly.

‘”Verily, the death from which you flee will surely meet you…”

Al-Qur’an 62:8

These graves or, rather, the very event of Death without any concealable guise, brings the reality of al-hayāt al-dunyā (this worldly life) to the fore. Derived from danā, the word ‘al-dunyā’ means something that is being brought near — this life and what is in it are what are close to men’s consciousness, which distract men from their final, true and only destiny, al-ākhirah. By sewing Death into the very fabric of the mundane, that of which is close to the human mind, the city landscape of Istanbul has become an ayāt of the Creator, that shows the perfection of the cycle of life and death according to its own fitrah, and invites one to contemplate on the fleeting nature of al-hayāt al-dunyā. One stands in awe of the wisdom of Turkish saints of the past, whose exposition on life, death and faith is so fine, trembling. Death is part of the Nature in which we inhabit.

Perhaps it is this unique culture of remembering Death in every waking moment that gives birth to so many old men and women of saintly aura in Istanbul, who often sit in the courtyard of mosques, alone and silently; their hands and legs so tested by their Lord; yet their calm face, which shows no sign of corruption by their tests, carries a total obedience to the call of the Lord of the worlds. This is His Kingdom, we submit.

Life beyond Death

The thought of dying and death may be dark, pursuing it is poisonous enough to make a happy woman sad, a sad woman miserable.

She asks herself, ‘what am I afraid of?’, ’Me’, answered Death. ‘I am here’.

But the believer will not be seized by terror and frustration in this intimate conversation with Death, not in Istanbul, because Death usually greets her with fragrance and beauty. By virtue of their being in the middle of the hustle and bustle of city life, cemeteries and graveyards of Istanbul are never a sad and destitute existence. What is most exquisite about them is that these cemeteries are almost always accompanied by roses and rose gardens. Not the well organised gardens one finds in London or Paris, but a garden in which roses grow carelessly but intuitively, sometimes with a touch of dirt if it rains. Glamorous, certainly not; simple, humble but no less graceful, yes. Their pleasing smell and elegant shape soothe the mind in a place where her own existence is thrown into question.

Roses have long held its place as the flower most dear to the human heart. In Persian literary tradition, ‘the Rose and the Nightingale’ has been a powerful mystical motif, with the rose being the Beloved and the nightingale being the ever-searching and ever-longing lover whose soul perpetually moves towards the Beloved. The rose has been a metaphor for beauty and perfection –  another ayāt (sign) of divine grace, roses and rose gardens soften graveyards in Istanbul. One no longer waits for the arrival of Death with weary eyes and a tormented soul, lamenting on the passage of Life’s bliss. No, the believer weeps not — troubled still, but he moves not, and rages not.  The perishing of her golden dreams announces what is better, higher, sweeter, and certainly nobler! The faithful roses are her unwavering proof.

‘Submission brings sweetness’, the roses and rose gardens, the loyal company of the graveyards in Istanbul, gently advise the traveller. Sorrow retreats.

Yet guilt haunts. The hours wasted in chasing vain hopes and boyish dreams, the temper untamed that caused mother’s first wrinkle and white hair, and even, the expired goodbyes to friends who never returned. None of them seems to vanish from the human sight. After all, dear readers, life is full of regrets, and ‘deeper woe of sin’. Guilt lingers.

Still, there is comfort. When roses and rose gardens are absent, water fountains are another devoted friend of Istanbul’s cemeteries and graveyards. Though my memory of many of these water fountains I saw in Istanbul have faded, their charming susurration has stayed with me, a tender syllable against the crushing metropolis. Clean cold water purifies the body, settles the mind, and consoles the guilty self. In hot summer afternoons, it offers hope, preparing one for prayer and dhikr; and in aching recollection of the past, it invokes a love for reflection, repentance, reorientation towards the Beginning and the End — my Lord, forgive me if my youth was wronged.

Epilogue

If Death as presented in Millais’ fictional painting inspires one to seek an answer on the difficult question of the nature of Death, Istanbul’s cityscape offers an answer to the confused seeker by incorporating the purest and dearest elements of nature into men’s daily imagination of life and death, in reality and in an elaborately serene way.

If the large number of graveyards and cemeteries in Istanbul unveils the reality of Death, the withering youth, or the dimming love and light, what comes with them — the rose gardens and water fountains — reveals its felicity: Ophelia may be drawn into murky water and bidding farewell to the gifts of God — flowers and reeds; an Istanbulite does not have to, her death is purified by refreshing water and welcomed by aromatic roses — a door to Eternity! 

If Death can be so gently embraced in Istanbul, it can be done so by the servants of Allah in all other corners of the Earth created by Him, for He has cheerfully encouraged us at the end of Surah al-Fajr:

‘Return to your Lord, well-pleased with Him and well-pleasing to Him,
So join my servants
And enter my paradise’

Al-Qur’an 89: 28-30

Xiwen Yang was born and raised in south-western China, and later moved to London at the age of 16. She is a student of the languages, cultures, and histories of the Islamic Middle East. 

3 thoughts on “A Meditation on Death in Istanbul

  1. Thank you for your writing. It seemes that you expressed my feeling for Istanbul by your pen. The graveyards was so fearful to us in Chinese culture as we are afraid of death and the invisible souls of our dead ancestors. But holy quaran gave us an accurate answer for the life and death and soul and invisible unsafety. And it provides us ways to protect humans from unseen. It also reminds death for living souls to seek HIS pleasure. HE teaches us not to forget the death during seeking this worldly life by visiting graveyards. The fountain provides water to clean our body and then enter the mosques to purify our souls to meditate and ask forgiveness from the Creator and the sustainer of the worlds which are suitable for humans to live on, and include found and unfounded worlds. You mentioned the quaran verses I love most and reveal the truth of lives and best destinations for humans after testing or cultivation in this short worldly life and harvest best in eternal hereafter life. No matter humans believe or not, accept or not, the humans will experience different stages by the order of thr Creator, including souls, 9 months in mother’s womb this life, graveyard life and hereafter (paradise or hell).

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  2. Thank you for this beautiful reminder. Strange is the case of the believer that death is welcomed as a mercy. It is a powerful reminder that the troubles and sorrows of this world are limited, and the justice of the akhira awaits. May Allah bring death to us when we are in the best stage of our lives, in servitude to Him.

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