When you’re woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of someone walking through your neighborhood banging on a drum, you know it’s Ramadan in Istanbul.
Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish) is a month of strict fasting from sunrise to sunset observed by Muslims all over the world. The drummer’s purpose is to wake people for prayers and sahur (the pre-dawn meal before the fast). It’s an ancient tradition that is carried on in many parts of the city. Although some people can be edgy due to the fast (especially later in the day), I always enjoyed being in Istanbul during this time of year.
Not everyone observes the fast and restaurants are open during daylight hours, but my friends who do observe always invited me to iftar, the dinner in which their fast is broken at sunset. Sometimes I would visit their homes for a huge feast with all kinds of amazing Turkish foods, but my best memories are from picnics at Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque).
My friend Duygu said it’s a Turkish tradition to break the fast during Ramadan by having a picnic on the grass outside the Blue Mosque. She often invited a group of friends, both Muslim and non-Muslim, to join her.
We would ride the tram to Sultanahmet and arrive about an hour before sunset to find a place on the grass. We would wait patiently, stomachs growling, for sunset. As soon as we heard the ezan (call to prayer) from the minarets, we would open up the basket and dig into our meals, starting with hurma (dates).
The Sultanahmet area is festively decorated at this time of year. There are lights strung between the minarets of the mosques with a special message. After dark, it’s even more jam packed with people shopping in the makeshift markets and partaking in the iftar.
A couple times we were lucky enough to see the Mehter Band giving a live concert. The Mehter are the oldest marching band corps in the world. Accompanying the Ottoman military since at least the 13th century, the sound of their drums would strike fear into the hearts of their opponents on the battlefield. If you have a chance to see the band perform while visiting Turkey, it’s a great experience.
All in all, Ramadan is a wonderful time to visit one of the most beautiful cities in the world and a great way to experience firsthand and get to know more about an important Islamic holiday.