Master electrician Kahraman Yildiz produces from his pocket a folded piece of scrappy paper. Its distressed state disguises the fact that it contains the phrases that are designed to illuminate Istanbul’s mosques during the holy month of Ramadan and inspire the city’s Islamic faithful.
The celebrated craft of “mahya,” meaning “writing in the sky,” is a distinct tradition of Istanbul, where lights have been hung between the minarets of city mosques for just under 400 years, dating back to the construction of the Blue Mosque in 1619.
Nowadays, electric light bulbs are used to form the mahya words, but from the 17th century until the early 1930s, oil lamps formed words in intricate Ottoman script or, sometimes, pictures of roses, aircraft or tulips, which could burn for four hours before the lamps’ oil had to be refilled. Each mosque had its own team of mahya masters; nowadays, a group of seven electricians install and maintain the light systems for the five main mosques in Istanbul that feature mahya.
This year, Ramadan commences July 20 in most Muslim nations, the following day in some places.
To read the full story
Jonathan Lewis is a freelance photojournalist based in Istanbul.