The Day of Ashura and its Place in the Religious Life of the Ottoman Empire

The Day of Ashura was celebrated in the Ottoman period by Muslims according to the identity of their sect, either as a day of mourning or as a day of celebration. Throughout the Ottoman period, leadership in the Ashura traditions belonged to the palace. The necessary ingredients for cooking the Ashura pudding would be sent to the Topkapı Palace kitchens from the royal larder a few days before and preparations would start. The helvacıbaşı (chief sweet maker) would cook the Ashura pudding at the palace. The Ashura pudding would first be presented to the sultan and the royal family in the large vats in which it had been prepared, and then to leading statesmen, and finally it would be distributed to the charitable institutions and the people.

During the reign of Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) the people of Istanbul waited with great impatience for the distribution of the Ashura which was prepared in the kitchens of the Yıldız and Beşiktaş palaces. There were two ways in which the pudding was distributed:

In the first tablakar (servants who carry trays on their heads) would take the Ashura in the palace jugs and bowls to Besiktas, Ortakoy or even more distant areas, bringing it to the homes of high-ranking public servants, scholars and wealthy statesmen. On the next day, according to the tradition of "cevap" (response) the empty jugs and bowls would be sent back to the palace by the homeowners, full of chocolate, almonds, nuts, etc.

The second and actual distribution was for the people. In every one of the palace kitchens the Ahsura would be cooked in large vats, with two or four handles, with wheat, raisins, dried apricots, chickpeas, broad beans, etc and the "daneli". On the night of 10 Muharram 50-60 vats would be put on poles and carried by porters and taken to the Yıldız parade ground and arranged in orderly rows. Early in the morning the director of the Matbah-ı Amire (royal kitchens), the vekilharç (the major domo) and the helvacıbaşı (chief sweet maker) would don their official clothing and wait in the square; after the sultan announced that the Ashura should be distributed the seccadecibaşı would inform the imam of the kitchen and the prayer would begin.

At the end of the prayer the people would open the barred doors and lines would form in front of every vat with the bowls the people had brought being filled up with Ashura. In addition to the preparations in the palace the sultanefendis (the sultan's daughters) would have Ahsura pudding cooked in the kitchens of their palaces and distributed to the residents and poor people of their neighborhoods. Members of the royal family would put the Ahsura that they sent to one another in valuable porcelain, crystal, copper, silver or brass dishes, known as Aşuralık. These gifts would be kept on the shelves of the display cases in the corners of the palaces and mansions. The week following 10 Muharram Ashura pudding would be cooked and distributed in the mansions of the statesmen and pashas.

In the last era of the Ottoman Empire, as the Ashura containers began to attract more interest than the Ashura itself, the glassware merchants and silver/gold merchants filled their shops with a great variety of Aşuralık, bowls, cups and jugs. The people who purchased these were thus able to present valuable presents to their close relatives and neighbors; these gifts were commemorated in the homes to which they had been presented with the givers' name, for example "the bowl of the lady at the palace" or "the cup of the Mufti". In addition to the preparation of the Ashura pudding, on the same day sherbet would come from the fountains, and spring water and even cooked meat would be distributed. Sometimes guilds would organize among themselves, and, taking the cooking vats of the charitable foundations, would make Ashura, distributing it among the tradesmen and the people.

From 10-17 Muharram each family, according to their position and needs, would make Ashura with whatever rich ingredients were available at that season. The Ashura would be cooked in a large pot and when it was taken off the heat the eldest member of the house would stir it and read Surah Yasin; a tray would be placed over the top of the vat and this was covered with a white cloth. When the Ashura had thickened, the tray was removed and the pudding was distributed among the family from the eldest to the smallest. After everybody had sent blessings to Prophet Muhammad, the condensation from the steam, known as the "sweat of the Ashura", which had been collected on another tray, would be wiped over the eyelids and foreheads for good health. There used to be strange folk beliefs connected with Ashura. For example the first broad bean that came into one's mouth while eating would be taken out without chewing it, washed and dried and put in the money purse as "blessed bean" or "Ashura bean".


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