The traditional lighting that hangs between the minarets of Turkish mosques, usually packed for evening prayers in the holy month of Ramadan, is urging Turks to stay at home this year as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic.
Known as “mahya,” the tradition of stringing up devotional messages in lights from the soaring minarets of Istanbul’s Ottoman-era mosques is unique to Turkey and dates back hundreds of years.
The process of hanging the lights is overseen by masters of the art. Working from sketches, they set lightbulbs on cords to spell out the desired message, before rolling them onto ropes draped between the minarets of the mosque using a pulley.
Suspended between the minarets, the lights typically declare religious messages in huge letters, visible from afar, and intended to reward and inspire the faithful who have spent the daylight hours fasting.
This year, with Turkey at the peak of the coronavirus outbreak at the start of the fasting month of Ramadan, the messages are different.
Kahraman Yildiz, one of the last remaining experts on the art, wears a mask for the first time in his long career as he hangs the lights between two minarets of the 400-year-old New Mosque in Istanbul’s Fatih district.
“We were giving nice religious messages during the month of Ramadan. This month, something different happened because of this pandemic,” he says.
“We are sharing (messages) related to that,” Kahraman adds, unfurling the string of lights that read: “Life fits at home.”
He then begins hanging the lights one by one on a rope between the minarets as he and his colleagues carefully abide by social distancing rules in a city that has borne the brunt of Turkey’s 112,000 confirmed coronavirus cases.
The lights are lit every evening during Ramadan at the time of the call to prayer that announces the end to the day’s fast.
“Mahyas have given beautiful messages with excerpts from verses (of the Koran)… for centuries. But this year for the first time, we have mahyas that we hung up aimed at protecting our health,” said Burhan Ersoy, General Director of Foundations.
He said other examples included “Stay responsible, stay healthy,” and “Stay home, stay healthy.”