Vol. 2  Issue  1-15 May 2007
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    Topkapi Museum, Istanbul     By Professor A. R. Momin

Istanbul—known as Constantinople in earlier times—is Turkey’s largest city and its cultural and financial capital. It is located on the Bosphorous strait along the natural harbour known as the Golden Horn. Istanbul is the only city in the world which is located at the intersection of two continents, Asia and Europe. In the course of its long and chequered history, Istanbul served as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empires. During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent Istanbul witnessed the zenith of its efflorescence, especially in arts and architecture. The legendary Turkish architect Sinan (d.1588) designed scores of mosques, madrasas, caravanserais, bridges, public baths and public hospitals, which are still in existence and testify to his genius and vision. The architectural monuments of Istanbul have been listed in the Unesco World Heritage. The current population of Istanbul exceeds ten million.

Istanbul attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year from Europe, North America, Japan and the Middle East. Visitors to the city get wonder-struck by its picturesque location and landscape, its architectural monuments, its fascinating museums, its amazing bazaars and its vibrant culture. Topkapi Saray Museum is one of Istanbul’s greatest tourist attractions. I had the good fortune to visit the city twice, in 1994 and then in 1998.

Topkapi Saray Museum

A few years after the conquest of Istanbul, Sultan Muhammad the Conqueror ordered the construction of the Topkapi Palace, which was completed in 1465. The Palace is located on the Seraglio Point between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, from where one gets a breath-taking view of the city. For nearly four centuries the Topkapi Palace served as the headquarters of the Turkish emperors. After the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 it was turned into a museum.

The Topkapi Saray Museum complex comprises royal residential quarters, sprawling gardens and open spaces, and several pavilions in which holy relics, a large collection of porcelain, weapons and armour, miniature paintings, magnificent specimens of calligraphy, jewellery, clocks and other exhibits are on display.

Entrance of Topkapi Museum

Caliph Uthman’s Quran Copy

The Holy Quran was revealed piece by piece over a period of 23 years. As soon as the verses of the Quran were revealed the Prophet would memorise them and, at the same time, ask one of his Companions to write them down. The number of Companions who were assigned the important task of writing down the verses of the Quran was about forty. The chapters and verses of the Quran were arranged according to a divine scheme as instructed by the Prophet.

During the Prophet’s time the verses of the Quran were written on stone tablets, ribs of palm branches, camel ribs, shoulder blades, pieces of wooden board and parchment. During his lifetime the written fragments of the Quran existed in a scattered state. During the caliphate of Abu Bakr, seventy Companions of the Prophet, who had memorized the Quran, were killed in the battle of Yamamah in the twelfth year of the Hijra (633 A.D.). This unfortunate event caused great anxiety and apprehension to the Prophet’s senior Companions, particularly to Umar, who suggested to Abu Bakr to have the scattered fragments of the Quran collected in one volume. After initial hesitation Abu Bakr agreed to the suggestion and commissioned Zayd ibn Thabit, who had served as the Prophet’s secretary, to undertake this task. Zayd wrote down the complete text of the Quran after cross checking each verse on the testimony of at least two Companions who had memorized the Quran. The work of compilation and arrangement was completed in a year.

The completed manuscript of the Quran was kept in the custody of Abu Bakr, who passed it on to Umar before he breathed his last. After Caliph Umar’s assassination the manuscript came in possession of his daughter and the Prophet’s wife Hafsa, who had also memorized the Quran.

During the caliphate of Uthman, a Companion of the Prophet, Hudhaifa ibn al-Yaman, took part in the battle of Armenia and Azerbaijan and thereafter travelled far and wide in the course of his other military campaigns. He was astounded and disturbed to find, in the course of his travels and expeditions, that Muslims in the farther regions of the Islamic state pronounced certain words of the Quran differently from those of mainland Arabia. On his return to Madina he approached Caliph Uthman, informed him about the disturbing situation he had witnessed and requested him to have a phonetically standardized copy of the Quran prepared.

Realising the gravity of the problem, Caliph Uthman requested Hafsa to hand over the manuscript of the Quran which was prepared at the instance of Abu Bakr, so that it could be used as a model for the preparation of a fresh codex. He then appointed a four-member committee, which included the veteran Zayd ibn Thabit, to oversee and execute the preparation of a standardized text of the Quran according to the Arabic diction of the Quraysh, to which the Prophet belonged. The committee prepared seven copies of the standardized text, and the original copy was returned to Hafsa. These copies were dispatched to the provincial capitals of the Islamic state along with an accredited reciter (qari) who would recite the verses of the Quran according to the standard Arabic diction. One copy was kept in the Prophet’s mosque at Madina. Historians and travelers have testified to the existence of these copies in different parts of the Islamic world.

Caliph Uthman’s Quran copy

Fortunately, two of these copies are still extant. One of them, in its complete form, is preserved in the Topkapi Museum. This is the copy which Caliph Uthman was reading when he fell to an assassin’s sword. Traces of his blood spilled over the verse (but Allah will suffice you against them…..2:137) are still visible. The copy measures about two feet in length and about the same in width. The ink appears to be of dark brown hue.

The fact that the text of the Quran has remained absolutely unaltered and tamper-proof since its revelation more than fourteen centuries ago is attested even by Western Orientalists who generally have an unsympathetic attitude towards Islam. In the early part of the 20th century, the Institut fur Koranforschung at the University of Munich in Germany had collected and collated some 42000 complete and incomplete copies and manuscripts of the Quran from all over the world, and after several years of research had reported that there were no variants in the copies. Unfortunately, the building in which the Institute was located was destroyed in the American bombing of Germany during the Second World War.

The Prophet’s letter to Muqauqis

Shortly after the Treaty of Hudaybiya in 6 A.H., the Prophet decided to reach out to emperors and rulers in Africa, Egypt, Byzantium, Yemen, Syria and other regions so as to invite them to Islam. He sent out letters to these rulers, which were carried by his personal emissaries. The renowned Islamic scholar Professor Muhammad Hamidullah has collected all such letters, including treaties and other documents pertaining to the time of the Prophet and the four caliphs, in his monumental work Al Wathaiq al- Siyasiyyah. Fortunately, five of the Prophet’s original letters have survived the vicissitudes of time. These extant letters are addressed to Mundhir ibn Sawa, the governor of Bahrayn, Emperor Heraclius of Rome, the Emperor of Ethiopia, the Emperor of Persia, and Muqauqis, the governor of Egypt.

The letter sent by the Prophet to Muqauqis said: “In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Merciful. From Muhammad, the slave and messenger of Allah to the ruler of the Copts. Peace be upon one who follows the path of guidance and virtue. I invite you to Islam. Therefore enter the fold of Islam and you will find peace. If you do so, Allah will reward you twofold. If you turn away, you will be burdened with the sins of all the Copts. Say: “O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you: That we worship none but Allah; that we associate no partners with Him; that we will not have, from amongst ourselves, lords and patrons other than Allah. If then they turn back, say: “Bear witness that we are Muslims.” Muqauqis treated the Prophet’s letter with respect, but did not embrace Islam.

A young French scholar Barthelmy, who had a deep interest in Coptic manuscripts, chanced upon an old parchment manuscript in a Christian monastery at Akhmim near Cairo in 1850. When he carefully detached the pages of the manuscript he found about ten folios on which fragments of the Bible were written in the old Coptic script. He then noticed some Arabic writing on a thin fragment of parchment, which was used as a covering for the folios. He carefully detached the parchment and tried to decipher the writing. After much effort he managed to decipher the word ‘Muhammad.’ He subsequently discovered, to his amazement, that this was the original letter sent by the Prophet to Muqauqis, the governor of Egypt. After a few years he sold the letter to Turkey’s Sultan Abdul Majid for 300 gold coins. It is now preserved in the Topkapi Museum.

The Prophet’s letter to Muqauqis

I have seen this letter twice at the Topkapi Museum. The thin parchment on which the letter is inscribed measures about nine inches in length and about the same in width. The colour of the ink seems to be dark brown. The writing has considerably faded due to the ravages of time, but most of the words are still legible.

The Prophet’s Mantle

The Holy Mantle Pavilion (Khirqa-i-Sa’adet) at the Topkapi Museum has on display some relics of the Prophet and his Companions. These include his mantle, one of his teeth (which was uprooted during the Battle of Uhud), some hair from his beard, his standard, his swords, his bow, and his footprint.

Before his conversion to Islam, Ka’ab ibn Zuhayr was a die-hard enemy of Islam and the Prophet. His father Zuhayr was one of the most accomplished Arabic poets during the pre-Islamic era. Ultimately, Ka’ab had the sense to realize his folly and he decided to enter the fold of Islam. In order to make amends for his antipathy towards the Prophet, he wrote an ode (qasida) in his praise. One day he traveled to Madina to visit the Prophet and to seek his forgiveness. He presented himself before the Prophet, revealed his identity and sought his pardon. The Prophet generously forgave him. Ka’ab then recited the qasida that he had composed. The celebrated qasida begins with the following line.

Suad (the poet’s beloved) deserted me,
Leaving me heart-broken…
My heart is like a captive,
With no one to set it free…

When he came to the following verse

Undoubtedly, the Prophet is (a source of) illumination,
Whose glow lights up the world...
He is (like) a mighty, unsheathed sword,
From amongst the swords of Allah…

The Prophet was pleased with Ka’ab’s sincerity and devotion and took off his mantle and gave it to him as a gesture of his appreciation.

The casket in which the Prophet’s mantle is preserved

After the Prophet’s demise Caliph Muawiyah offered Ka’ab 10,000 silver dirhams in exchange for the Prophet’s mantle, but he refused to part with it. After his death his descendants sold it to Caliph Muawiyah for 30,000 dirhams.

The Prophet’s mantle was brought to Istanbul, together with other relics, by Muhammad Abu Numayy, son of the Sherif of Makka, after the conquest of Egypt by the Ottoman ruler Selim I. This mantle, preserved in the Topkapi Museum, is black in colour and has wide sleeves and a cream-coloured woolen lining. It is now wrapped in seven silk velvet cloths, embroidered with gold thread.

(Another mantle of the Prophet, said to be the one sent by him to the celebrated Sufi saint Oways Qarni, is also preserved in Istanbul. It was brought by Shuk Allah Efendi in 1617 and is now kept in a mosque known as Khirqa Sharif Jami, built by Sultan Abdul Majid’s mother in 1851. The mantle is taken out for public display between the 15th of Ramadan and the laylat al qadr).

The holy relics on display at the Topkapi Museum include some hair from the Prophet’s beard, which are preserved in a silver casket ornamented with exquisite filigree design. Another relic is the Prophet’s standard. In earlier times the Ottoman rulers used to carry it in battle in view of its blessed association. With the passage of time it has been reduced to shreds. It is now covered in a velvet-covered wooden casket.

Golden casket in which the Prophet’s tooth is preserved

Also exhibited in this section are two swords which are believed to belong to the Prophet. They are placed on a silver reliquary covered with a velvet pad. The scabbard, hilt and guard were made with solid gold and studded with precious stones. Swords believed to belong to Caliph Abu Bakr and Caliph Ali are also on display in this section.

The Prophet’s swords

Caliph Uthman’s Seal

When the Prophet decided to send out letters to kings and rulers, some of his Companions suggested that he should have a seal made, which would lend authenticity and credibility to his letters. The Prophet agreed with the suggestion and had a silver ring made in which the words “Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah” were inscribed. The five extant letters of the Prophet bear the identical impress of this seal, which clearly testifies to their authenticity.

After the Prophet’s demise this ring came successively in possession of the four caliphs. One day it accidentally fell from Caliph Uthman’s hand into a well and despite much searching could not be recovered. Then Caliph Uthman had another ring made. This ring is preserved in the Topkapi Museum.

In commemoration of the 15th century of Hijra, the Turkish State Mint brought out a gold coin in 1980, on which a replica of Caliph Uthman’s seal is embossed.

Gold coin on which Caliph Uthman’s seal is embossed


One of the pavilions in the Museum has on display some of the masterpieces of Quranic calligraphy. One of them is by the celebrated calligrapher Yaqut Mustasimi (d.698 A.H.), who is known as the ‘Sultan of Calligraphy.’

Naskhi calligraphy written by Yaqut Mustasimi

Quran in Naskhi script written by the celebrated Turkish calligrapher Hamd Allah (15th century

Quran in Nastaliq style, written by Shah Mahmud al-Naisaburi (16th century

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