Notes from the Underground was abroad recently—in Istanbul. The seat of the Ottoman empire, Istanbul—formerly Constantinople—is a treasure of a city. The Ottoman empire began with Osman the First and eventually became the most important sultanate in Southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Before the Muslims took over Istanbul, the Christian Byzantines ruled the city. Istanbul, subsequently, is a rare and delightful blend of Christian and Muslim history that has been preserved in equal measures. Mosques like the Hagia Sophia began life as churches, as the name suggests, which were converted by the Ottomans by adding a mimbar and some Quranic calligraphy. The name, Saint Sophia, remains. They left the Christian mosaics intact though, so when one wanders around the building, there are gold-leafed mosaics of a brown-eyed Prophet Jesus, flanked by various Byzantine emperors and empresses who sponsored the art. The mosque also has, at multiple points around the inside dome, huge circles of linwood painted black. Each circle features a calligraphed name of either the Prophet Muhammad, his grandsons Hassan and Hussain, and the first four caliphs. In Istanbul, whenever these names are displayed, they are always together. It’s a symbolic gesture of unity, and utterly lovely. The Hagia Sophia also has a resident cat, who was spotted by yours truly having a snooze on a ledge near the mimbar.

When one enters the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, the first building on encounters is a church belonging to a Christian female saint, Hagia Irene. One wanders down further to where the Muslim sultans then had their rooms and courtyards; Sultan Ahmed III’s library is a treasure of high ceilings, blue tile work and bookshelves. The original books are of course not on the premises, but Sultan Ahmed III’s collection, included Sahih Bukhari, the collection of hadith made by its eponymous scholar. The Topkapi palace also houses a host of Muslim holy relics, collected over time by several Ottoman sultans after they decided they were going to be Caliphs of the Ummah too. After that, they took over the maintenance and guardianship of the Kaaba, and the display of relics include items like several ornamental keys to the Kaaba, a case that housed the Hajr-e-Aswad. Most fascinating and moving is perhaps the collections of swords belonging to the Prophet and his companions. There is Hazrat Ali’s famous sword, amongst others. There is Khalid bin Waleed’s and Jaffar Tayyar’s. There is the Prophet’s bow, his official seal, hairs from his beard. There is what is purported to be a saucepan used by Prophet Ibrahim and a turban of Prophet Yunus. Most beautiful of all, other than the cool of the blue-tiled, domed rooms with their Arabic calligraphy, is the low sound of someone reading from the Quran. It’s not recorded— an actual person is sitting in an alcove, reading from the Book. The experience is wondrous for a Muslim: being surrounded by the magnificence of an empire of wealth and learning, sultans who plated the gutters of the Kaaba in gold and collected books and set up printing presses, and built beautiful buildings and wrote the Ayatul Kursi on them. One wanders the world, looking at other histories, other palaces, other art and it is so seldom that one encounters a civilisation that one can relate to like this, through shared beliefs, that is equally as lavishly lovely and as important as any other.

One thing that lingers is the idea that the history and relics of two major religions can not only coexist but be equally prioritised because they form part of the city’s culture. Istanbul’s Christian past is as important as its Muslim one, and one does not feel like it is being slowly erased to whitewash Istanbul’s history. Eliminating one does not glorify or magnify the other; Istanbul is an ancient city, and it seems like it is proud of its cosmopolitan place in history. It’s a model we could learn from, seeing as how we’ve already borrowed their jangla (their tram system bisects the city much like our red Metro bus) and the network of underpasses. Lahore was never the centre of a massive empire the way Istanbul was, but it is just as ancient and just as important in the cultures of more than one group of people. The area that comprises Pakistan is a wealth of Buddhist and Hindu mythological sites and relics, not to mention dinosaur fossils excavated in Balochistan and the Indus Valley civilisation. Instead of harping on our Muslim past, which is brief, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could broaden our historical horizons to include the ancient past we share with this land? Imagine the depth of understanding we could achieve about ourselves and where we come from, what it means to be part of this particular corner of the world. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are of this soil, and our histories didn’t begin with Mohammad bin Qasim. They go back farther into history than we like to believe, and there’s no reason we can’t own it and be proud.


The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.