The Islamic world has a long tradition of honoring its famous dead, and many mosques have at their heart a mausoleum or tomb containing the relics of important Muslims, religious, political, literary or otherwise. What is not common in the Islamic world is the preservation of important religious objects, with at least one major exception: The Sacred Trusts, the world’s largest and most sacred collection of Muslim artifacts. This collection, which is kept in the Imperial Treasury at the Topkapi Palace, has a magnificent assortment of items that include several personal effects of the Prophet, as well as odds and ends which belonged to his early followers and other prominent Muslims of later periods. The Topkapi Palace is part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The history of the Sacred Trusts began in the 1517 AD, when the Ottoman Empire conquered Egypt, the last holdout territory of the nearly eight century old Abbasid-Mameluke dynasty. In that year, the title of caliph passed from the Abbasids to the Ottomans. In token of this, Mutawikkil III, the last Abbasid caliph, presented the Ottoman Sultan Selim I with the Mantle of the Prophet. This ancient cloak, which had once been worn by Muhammad himself, was considered one of the greatest artifacts in all of Islam. How Mutawikkil got a hold of it is uncertain, though it had probably been in the possession of the Abbasids since the time they seized it from the Umayyads in Damascus, who in turn had received it from Uthman, the third Rashidun Caliph. How it survived the Mongol sack of Baghdad is a mystery.
The collection of ancient Islamic artifacts became an obsession with the Ottoman caliphs. One of the next early pieces acquired, and the second most important in the collection, was the Banner of the Prophet. While both the origin and authenticity of the banner is in dispute, there is no doubt that it was in the possession of the Ottomans by the late 16th century. It was carried into a number of battles in the late 1500s, particularly against the Christian realms of Europe. It made periodic appearances in later years during times of strife within the Ottoman Empire.
Over the next few centuries, the Ottomans scoured the world for other important Muslim objects, and acquired a significant collection. Their main interest, of course, were those artifacts related to the Prophet himself, and soon they had in their possession his swords, seal, a letter bearing his signature, one of his teeth, some of his beard hair and a stone with his footprint in it. The Ottoman sultans also managed to get their hands on a number of weapons and other artifacts that belonged to Muhammad’s companions, as well as a highly dubious collection of objects which date to early Biblical times. Among the latter are the Sword of King David, the Staff of Moses, a pot which had belonged to the Patriarch Abraham, and some writings attributed to John the Baptist.
The peerless collection was gathered and kept at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the seat of the Ottoman dynasty from the 15th to the 19th centuries. The objects were considered so sacred that all but the sultan were forbidden to enter the chamber where they were kept, and he would only enter on one day every year. In 1922, after the Ottoman dynasty collapsed, the new Turkish Republic took over the Topkapi Palace, eventually converting it into a museum. The ancient collection of the Sacred Trust, no longer forbidden to the general public, was put on display for all the world to see. Hundreds of thousands of tourists, both Muslim and non-Muslim, descend on the palace every year to gaze at the objects of the priceless collection.
The Topkapi Palace and its grounds are an absolutely immense affair, on a par with the Forbidden City in Beijing. Blending late medieval Islamic architecture with hints of European influence, the Topkapi is one of the greatest royal residences ever built and a superb example of early Ottoman styles. Built in stages over several years, the somewhat haphazard layout consists of a series of great pavilions and open courts, all dominated by the sultan’s private residence, known as the Harem. The Harem, the centerpiece of the palace, has hundreds of rooms where the sultan lived, worked and enjoyed himself. Many of the palace’s most interesting and beautiful rooms are in this building.
The highlight of the Topkapi Palace, from a pilgrimage standpoint anyway, is the Imperial Treasury and the Privy Chamber, both of which are located in pavilions off of the Third Court. The Imperial Treasury is now used to display only a few of the palace’s greatest artifacts, which include a selection of arms, jewelry, the royal throne and, oddly, part of the relic of John the Baptist. The smaller Privy Chamber, which was once the private offices of the Sultan, contains the most venerated objects in the Islamic world, including the Mantle and Banner of the Prophet, and most of the rest of the Sacred Trust collection. Also of interest is the Miniature and Portrait Gallery, which houses a number of very old copies of the Qur’an.
The Topkapi Palace covers the entire tip of the city of Istanbul, where the Bosphurus meets the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara. Visitors of all faiths and backgrounds are welcomed. It is open Wednesdays through Mondays from 9:00am-5:00pm. The cost of admission is YTL10.00. Web: www.topkapisarayi.gov.tr (official website of the Topkapi Palace Museum)
As home to the seat of the Islamic Caliphate for well over four centuries, it is not suprising that Istanbul boasts more major Islamic sites than any other sites except perhaps Cairo in Egypt. In addition to the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul is also home to the following major mosques: the Hagia Sophia, which was once the world’s largest church; the jaw-dropping Masjid Sultan Ahmet, generally considered to be the definitive Blue Mosque; the Masjid Suleymaniye, Mimar Sinan’s masterpiece; the Masjid Eyup Sultan, where one of the Companions of the Prophet is buried; the Masjid Eyup Sultan; the Masjid Fatih; the Masjid Yeni; the Masjid Beyazit; and the Masjid Ortakoy. Istanbul is also home to the more modern Dolmabahce Palace, where the sultans resided during their last few years in power.