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Cemetery Culture
Oct 1, 2004

It seems a strange contrast to start a celebration by paying a visit to one’s parents or grandparents in their eternal resting places. But this is exactly what a great majority of Muslims all around the world do on the first day of Islam’s two major religious festivals, eid al-fitr and eid al-adha. Eid al-fitr is celebrated right after Ramadan, after a month of fasting, to remember the Almighty Lord as our sole Sustainer and Provider and our life-giving God. Eid al-adha, on the other hand, comes at the time of the “greatest prayer,” the hajj when believers glorify God with the utmost angelic humility swathed in their white robes. The rich share with the poor, neighbors visit each other, and senior members of every family become the center of attention and due homage, even when they are in their graves.

Both festivals are meant to serve different aspects of Islam; however, visiting cemeteries is one special component of these festivals which is carried out in the early hours of the first day. Right after the prayer, people leave the mosques and head to the graveyards. In a few minutes, the traffic is blocked in the overcrowded streets of major metropolises like Istanbul; but this time, however, the drivers manifest a phenomenal forbearance that is not to be seen on a normal day. Life and death meet one another as the living visitors stand by their host’s underground residences.

“Istanbul’s Vanished City of the Dead” depicts a cemetery which, although it does not exist today, exemplified the “cemetery culture” of a cosmopolitan Istanbul until just over one hundred and fifty years ago. “The Grand Champs des Morts was one of the world’s great necropolises with burial grounds for followers of both Islam and Christianity in close proximity. A realm where the living intermingled with the dead, it roused the interest and imagination of visitors to Istanbul, and, even more notably, in an age of reform and change, offered inspiration and a model for contemporary designers of cemeteries in Western Europe.” Many travel accounts and historical sources are cited in the article, with engravings portraying the now vanished necropolis.

The lead article, “Beauty and the Beautiful,” refreshes our perception of the world we live in and of the life we experience. All of creation is in complete harmony and is like a perfectly bound book, displaying every kind of beauty at the turn of each page. Most of us, however, become immersed in daily activities and cannot easily find access to these beauties; our daily engagements present a great obstacle between us and this level of insight. Only the light of belief enables us to realize how fortunate we are for having been granted the capacity to observe and reflect upon this beautiful existence: “Who created the seven heavens one above another; you see no incongruity in the creation of the Beneficent God; then look again, can you see any disorder?” (Mulk 67:3).