Istanbul has been an important city for the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, obligatory to those Muslims who have the financial means.

Even though travel is much easier today than it used to be, hajj, or pilgrimage, is still an arduous form of worship. It is solely for this reason that those who are able to perform the hajj are viewed with respect, and are given the title of Hajji. Istanbul, as all other regions of the Ottoman geography, showed great respect to those who went to Mecca and Medina; ceremonies were held to see off those who were going on hajj and to greet those returning from hajj. 

For this form of worship, which required a long journey in a large group, to be completed in safety it was necessary to organize not only the departure, but the entire route; the Ottomans did this with success. The prospective hajjis from all the different regions of the empire would come to Istanbul, setting out for the holy lands by ship until the 19th century, and in the beginning of the 20th century by train.

Now Turkish Airlines has taken up the baton! The global carrier takes those coming from Anatolia and from outside Turkey to the holy lands in comfort. Turkish Airlines, which has a special team dedicated to the hajj operation, has routes to Jeddah, Medina and Taif. Those leaving for hajj from Istanbul and the Marmara region first visit Ayyub Halid ibn Zaid al-Ansari (r.a.), Yahya Efendi, Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi, and Merkez Efendi. Istanbul continues to be a starting point for the hajj journey.

An Important Stop on the Hajj Journey: Istanbul 

When Selim I added the holy lands to the Ottoman territory in 1517, the capital Istanbul became an important stop on the hajj journey for the entire Muslim world. 

Muslims in the Balkans, in North Africa, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, in Afghanistan, India, and China would come to the new center of the caliphate before setting out on hajj, even if it meant this made their journey much longer; they would visit the burial site of Ayyub al-Ansari and other Companions. They would become familiar with the residents of Istanbul and purchase the goods they needed for the journey. The Ottoman government would help the prospective hajjis to prepare for their journey, with special guesthouses and accommodation for prospective hajjis from Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and India, and they would be assisted in meeting their needs for the journey. 

The Ottoman sultans, which were known as Hâdimü’l-Haremeyn (Guardian of the Holy Lands), would help secure the property and life of the prospective hajjis while also caring for the infrastructure of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, ensuring that the needs of the hajjis, like accommodation and food and even daily cleanliness and hygiene, could be met.

Sürre Procession 

The word sürre means money purse; this term was used during the Ottoman era to refer to the money, precious goods and other presents that would be sent by the palace and wealthy inhabitants of the state to be distributed to the people and pilgrims in Mecca and Medina when it was time for hajj. The first sürre was sent during the Abbasid period. The Ottomans continued the tradition from the first sürre, supposedly sent during the era of Bayezid I, and which continued until the collapse of the empire. This aid, which was sent in very large amounts, would set out starting from the palace and was known as the Sürre Procession. On the 12th day of the month of Rajab, the people who had been invited to see off the Sürre Procession, which departed from Istanbul, would gather at the palace; the Sürre-i Hümâyûn sacks would be sealed by the sultan and delivered to the Sürre Emin. In the era of Süleyman the Magnificent, a cover for the Ka'ba was added. The camels would be loaded with presents from the sultan and the sürre sacks and the Sürre Procession would depart from the palace, leaving from the Bab-ı Hümâyûn to Beşiktaş. From here it would travel on large sailboats for Üsküdar, passing through Harem. This would be the first meeting point for those who were going on hajj from Istanbul, and was given the name “Harem” in reference to being the starting point for this long journey which would end at the Haremeyn-i Şerifeyn (Ka'ba and Masjid an-Nabawi). The magnificent ceremony, in which people from both sides of the Bosphorus would join, became a ceremony that had a religious nature. After visiting the tombs of Aziz Mahmut Hüdayi and Karacaahmet Sultan, the Sürre-i Hümâyûn and the hajj procession would set out for the holy lands, accompanied by prayers.

Ayrılık Çeşmesi and the Holy Journey

Until 1869, until the invention of steamships and the opening of the Suez Canal, the hajj processions would leave from Istanbul. Those who were well-off would ride, while those who could not afford a mount would undertake the hajj journey on foot. At this time the journey to Mecca and Medina could take more than 12 months and was a very difficult undertaking. Some of those who set out on hajj would catch contagious diseases before reaching the holy land or would lose their lives in attacks by bandits; while some would not be able to withstand the harsh conditions in the Hejaz and would die at the Ka'ba. 

The final point in Istanbul for those going on hajj was Ayrılık Çeşmesi (Departure Fountain) in Kadıköy. Both military campaigns and people going on hajj would set out from here, accompanied by prayers. The prospective hajjis would fill up their water containers here. Those seeing the travelers off would throw water behind them, praying that they would go and come back like water. 

After Ayrılık Çeşmesi more people would join the procession and it would grow until it reached Konya. The procession would rest in this city for three days and then set off for Adana. They would rest for another three days there, and after more people had joined the procession, they would set off for Damascus. Damascus was a kind of safety point, and people from Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and other neighboring provinces would join the procession here. The procession would head south from Damascus, traveling about 50 kilometers a day, finally arriving in the Hejaz after a long journey. Because security was secure substantially after Damascus, the caravan would travel during the day and rest at night.

The beylerbeyis and sancakbeys (governors) along the way were responsible for the safety of the Sürre Procession. It had now become a large caravan with the people who had joined, and magnificent ceremonies were held to welcome it as it proceeded towards the holy lands. 

The Era of Going on Hajj by Sea and Train 

When it became possible to go on hajj first by sea and then by train, the time it took to get to Mecca and Medina became shorter, and a large part of the problem of security was eliminated. 

When the Suez Canal opened in 1864, the Sürre-i Hümâyûn and the hajj procession would set out on a Friday ship from Üsküdar’s Paşakapısı Port and from Izmir. As it was now easier to make the journey, the procession would leave on the 15th of Shaban. In 1908, the first stage of the Hejaz Railway, the Medina Station, was opened and the journey became even easier. The line was planned to run from Medina to Mecca and Jeddah, and from here to Yemen; however, the war that broke out at the beginning of the 20th century and the conditions meant that this was not realized. 

With the end of WWI, the countries that lay on the hajj route which had been under Ottoman control were reformed; this was followed by the outbreak of WWII. Due to a lack of currency and other reasons, Turkish hajjis did not use this route again until 1949. The first official hajj procession of the Republican era set off in this year. Turkish Airlines, with hajj flights flying to Jeddah in the 1960s, played an important role in making this journey quicker and easier. The number of people able to make the pilgrimage increased with the introduction of flights to the area. Today, Turkish Airlines carries more than 120,000 prospective hajjis to the holy lands from Istanbul as well as Anatolian cities and African countries, making a contribution to continuing the mission that this geography has carried out throughout history. 

The Hajj Tenhiye Ceremonies

Residents of Istanbul would greet the people returning from hajj with what were known as hacı tehniye cemiyetleri; these were known as Seyâhatü’l-Kübrâ, Sefer-i Saâdet, and Rıhle-i Kebîr. 

Upon arrival in the Hejaz, the hajjis would send letters to their families, letting them know the approximate dates of their return. Families and friends would train their eyes on the roads that led to Mecca. 

As the time for return neared, the door of the house of the hajji would be painted green, to make it easy for everyone to come and congratulate him/her.The rooms would be prepared for a tehniye cemiyeti, and new clothes would be bought for the hajji. 

The day that the hajjis set foot back in Istanbul would be like a holiday. They would be greeted with prayers and congratulations; people would kiss their hands, the scent of their clothing, as it carried the scent of the holy lands, would be inhaled, and they would be accompanied to their houses. 

When the hajji arrived at their house, the imam, the hajji, and their family would all pray together, praying for those who had not yet made the journey; during this time, sherbet would be offered to close relatives who had come to visit. Those who were of the same age would shake hands with the hajji, people who were younger would kiss the palm of their hand. 

Three days after the hajji had returned, the visits of congratulation would begin. First, the men would come, and then the women would visit. The visitors would be given dates, Zamzam water, rose water, and Turkish delight. Henna and Zamzam were the best gifts that the hajji could give. For those who could afford to do so, gifts of silk prayer mats, cloth, pocket watches, prayer beads made from precious stones, and silver rings would be given. 

Soil or bricks from the Ka'ba, cotton kufiya, miswak, and carnelian rings were also given as gifts. There would be a hajji feast, as thanksgiving that the hajji had returned. The Mawlid an-Nabawi (the celebration of the birth of Prophet Muhammad) would be recited during this feast. 

The hajjis would be referred to as Hajji Baba, Hajji Mother or Hacci’l Haremayen out of respect.

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