"It has even changed death": coronavirus disrupts burials in Turkey
"Many of my relatives wouldn't come except for close family members and his sons who were authorised to attend only," Ucukcu told journalists. "We are just six or seven people."
The scaled-down ceremony took place at a cemetery in the city's Beykoz district on the Asian side, which was built in March when Turkey confirmed its first virus case. It already houses the remains of over 700 people who died of contagious diseases including COVID-19.
Ucukcu lost his father Ali to the virus after the old man was treated for 10 days. He also suffered from chronic illnesses. Gathered around the grave, Ucukcu and his close family – all wearing protective masks and standing a few paces from each other – say prayers after the coffin is buried. Before the pandemic a shroud would suffice.
Sufi shrines – the spiritual heart of Istanbul
Amidst the skyscrapers, tourist attractions and the hustle and bustle of the metropolis, Istanbul's Sufi shrines offer a world of calm and contemplation. Marian Brehmer visited some of the tombs.
For centuries, Istanbul was not only the capital of the Ottoman Empire, but also its spiritual centre. Hundreds of tekkes (Sufi monasteries) on the Bosporus served as spiritual schools and places of assembly
The visiting of Sufi shrines (ziyaret in Turkish) is an important devotional practice of popular Islam. For centuries, the holy tombs have attracted believers from all social strata who come to offer prayers, whether it be women hoping to conceive, businessmen hoping for better business, or statesmen faced with important decisions
The tombs of the Istanbul shaykhs, Sufi masters of bygone centuries, are visited by city residents and tourists to this day. One of the most important shrines located on the European side of the city is that of Yahya Efendi (1494-1569), a contemporary of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent
After Yahya Efendi received permission from his master to teach, he settled down in a garden in the district of Besiktas. This is where he pursued a spiritual life and received guests seeking his blessing. Today, many visit the tomb of Yahya Efendi, not least due to its stunning view of the Bosphorus
) The turban of a saint is placed on his sarcophagus, as shown here at the tomb of Yahya Efendi. The turban serves as a symbol of a master's spiritual rank and they differ in colour and form among the various Sufi orders
Typically, a Sufi tomb is attached to a mosque, so that the visitors can also perform ritual prayers. Many of the shrines have been elaborately restored in recent years
The shrine of Mustafa Devati, a Sufi master from the 16th century, is located on a popular shopping street in the Asian district of Uskudar. Many visit the tomb while shopping or on the way to work
The district of Uskudar is well known for its particularly high concentration of shrines and mosques. Many neighbourhoods and streets are named after illustrious Sufi masters or Dervish monasteries
The tomb of Aziz Mahmud Hudayi (1541-1628), located in the centre of Uskudar. Hudayi, founder of the Jelveti order, is also known as a poet of mystical poetry written in the Ottoman language. His tomb complex includes a Koran school and a library
Among the rituals practiced by visitors to the tomb of Aziz Mahmud Hudayi is the circling of his sarcophagus. Queues of visitors often form on weekends and holidays
The tombs of relatives, students and successors, as well as generations of shrine custodians are frequently found next to that of a Sufi master. They are also accorded due respect from visitors to the shrine
Despite the official ban on Sufi brotherhoods imposed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, there are still active Sufi communities in Istanbul today. However, they do not draw nearly as many people as do the tombs of the great Sufi masters of the city
Only an hour earlier, the group were at a nearby morgue where the body was washed by personnel in hazmat suits before being wrapped in cloth and placed in a coffin. A small collective prayer was then held outside the morgue with those attending respecting social distancing rules. The imam – also in a hazmat suit – led the funeral prayers for the deceased before the coffin was taken by hearse to the Beykoz cemetery.
Ayhan Koc, head of Istanbul's cemeteries department, said a fast burial without traditional Islamic rituals was an efficient and correct method given the current situation. He said in the past there would have been a funeral prayer after the midday and afternoon prayers, but now the aim was to ensure a speedy burial, without even taking the body to the mosque.
The government shut down mosques in March for mass prayers as part of efforts to stop the spread of the virus. And rituals are no longer allowed where people visit the family of the deceased to offer their condolences and where verses from the Koran are recited.
"A virus which could only be seen through a microscope has changed the world order, everything; customs, traditions and funeral ceremonies. It has changed even death," said Koc.
Turkey has recorded more than 4,200 coronavirus deaths and 153,000 confirmed cases, but daily death tolls have recently fallen below 100.
At the Beykoz cemetery, three women – a mother and her two daughters – wearing headscarves were sitting on the ground next to a headstone, reading the Koran, with tears in their eyes.
"Mosques are closed because of the pandemic. We cannot bury our deceased in the way we wanted," said Filiz, who lost her 76-year-old father last week. He died from an infectious disease, but was buried at Beykoz because he received treatment at a pandemic hospital although he tested negative for COVID-19.
"Only six people could join the funeral prayer: his grandchildren, daughters and son-in-laws. We buried my dad altogether," she said, adding the ceremony was at least "conducted in a proper fashion".
Relatives of the diseased respect the new rules "with no objections", said Koc.
Ahmet welcomed the new restrictive measures to protect people's health. "If there was a crowd, it would be more dangerous," he said.
Cengiz Aktas was the only one to join the funeral prayer for his grandmother Faize Kilic, who died from coronavirus at the age of 85. "I have nobody who could join the rites here but me. My mother aged over 65 is not allowed to go out," he said.
"This is such a damn disease that you cannot have a proper funeral prayer at a mosque," he lamented. (AFP)