Threads of Tradition: Textile practices and material culture of Sufism in Istanbul. Some field notes

Yarn of the man who may never have been here at all. Fringes of an old piece of fabric, Istanbul (Esther Voswinckel Filiz).

Threads of Tradition: Textile practices and material culture of Sufism in Istanbul. Some field notes

Author: Esther Voswinckel Filiz

4 June 2021

Perhaps this yarn is the only thing that holds this man together/

some say he was never here at all…

(Tom Waits, Swordfishtrombone)

The above quoted lines of a song lingered in my thoughts while going through field notes on textiles and religious practices in Istanbul’s Sufi tradition. In these lines, we hear about an utmost strange person: a man of whom some people say that he was never here at all. The only thing that perhaps holds this man together, the song goes, is yarn, i.e. a thread, a string made out of fiber of one kind or the other, or – if we wish to understand yarn figuratively – a tale. In order to get a hold of a mysterious presence, of this man who may never have been here at all, we may cling to some threads.

To spin yarn (in German: Seemannsgarn spinnen) is a well-known expression for telling lengthy, intertwined and improbable stories. This meaning of yarn most likely originates from the vocabulary of sailors. When the sea was calm, workers on the ships spent their days mending ropes. While doing so, they would entertain each other with wondrous accounts of past and future travels into the realms that unfold between bir varmış (there may have been) and bir yokmuş (there may not have been).[1] The lines of the song quoted above are themselves a piece of yarn, of storytelling, and at the same time they arouse curiosity about the physicality of threads and what they ultimately compose – textiles – as tangible elements that hold together and connect what is present and what is absent, what is here and what may never have been here at all. It is precisely this aspect of threads and textiles as materials or media[2] for ritually relating to volatile and ephemeral beings that I wish to follow up in my field research in Istanbul. In the following paragraphs, I will share some preliminary findings (a Turkish word for such clues or findings is ipuçlar, literally meaning ‘ends of thread’[3]) of this enquiry.

Yarn as a word for storytelling could be called a metaphor, i.e. something that has by convention come to stand for something else. Yet, such an understanding privileges concepts (a story) and things (a rope or a thread) and leaves aside the question how the interplay between hands and materials (e.g. the hands of the ship workers and the ropes) may matter in the emergence of a story.[4] We are used to thinking of the activity of the hands and the production of artifacts as something separate from the realm of words and texts, and for centuries, the study of religion has been focusing mainly on the latter. In order to see how words and threads may be interwoven in the act of making a piece of textile, let us look more closely at an example of personal devotion that is very common among elderly women in Istanbul: needlework.

Annem evde kuran okuyor ve oya yapıyor (my mother is at home reading the Qur’an and making needlework) was the answer a friend recently gave me when I enquired about her mother, an old lady called Meftune Hanım, who lives in the area of Ayvansaray by the Golden Horn, close to the Theodosian city walls. This part of old Istanbul is scattered with tombs of Muslim saints. On her walks through the neighbourhood, Meftune Hanım often visits the mausoleums of several companions (sahabe) of the Prophet Muhammad who came to Constantinople during the first Muslim besiegement of the city and are believed to be buried here, both inside and outside the city walls. She also visits the tombs of some famous Sufi saints (evliya) in the area, for example the tomb of Toklu İbrahim Dede, the tomb of Pir Ümmi Sinan in the nearby district of Eyüp, or the mausoleum of Pir Nureddin Cerrahi that is situated up the hill, in Karagümrük. “It is because of them that we are living,” Meftune Hanım says.

In her youth, Meftune Hanım lived in Brooklyn, she proudly told me. The melody of her old Istanbulites’ Turkish is mixed with exclamations in English. Maybe it is since those times that she likes to dress extravagantly. With her glittery robes that friends and relatives have brought her from distant places such as Mecca and Medina, or India, with her wooden walking stick and a shiny blue turban that hardly covers all of her red hair, she looks like a circus diva of a bygone era. Later in her life she returned to Istanbul where she acted as an extra in the movies. She lives on the second floor of a wooden house, where the noise of woodworms can still be heard.

When I first heard that Meftune Hanım was reading the Qur’an and doing needlework, I imagined that these activities happened separately from each other. Only when I visited her in her home did I witness that while her fingers were making complicated meshes of golden yarn with a thin crochet needle, her lips constantly moved. Meftune Hanım spends her days making very long, shiny pieces of lace for the borders of the green pieces of cloth that cover the cenotaph of a saint in the mausoleum close to her home. She has been spending years of her life making items for this kind of trousseau; a textile decor not for a bride, but for a saint.

While working, she recites the kelime-i tevhid (lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāhu[5]), the praise of the Prophet or the shorter chapters of the Qur’an that she knows by heart. Daha güzel oluyor, ‘it becomes more beautiful,’ she explained to me, referring to the lace she was making. By saying so, she did not imply that the textile in her hands would become charged with meaning or with the power of sacred words. More humbly, she assumed that the meshes were of better quality when her heart and mind were engaged in recitations (and were not diverted by TV series, for example). The constant repetition of the movements of her fingers, the thread and the needle become attuned to the rhythm and melodies of her recitation. Meftune Hanım’s needlework is a personal rite of commemoration (zikir). When the lace bordures are sewn onto the green covers of the saintly cenotaph by a tailor who looks after several shrines in the vicinity, a piece of Meftune Hanım’s lifetime, her words, her breath, and also her stories (stories of Brooklyn and tales about saints) become attached to the place of the saint, and it is not surprising that Meftune Hanım told me: bu yere bağlıyım, ‘I am bound to this place’. Her laces are a very literal kind of binding.

The needlework of elderly women has not received much attention from philosophers. One exception is Jacques Derrida who pays homage to the textile handicraft of women that he witnessed during his childhood in Algeria. By mentioning their conversations on the diminishing of meshes that is necessary when, for example, knitting a hat, he speaks of them as wise ladies (one could maybe call them filosophers) who perform movements of thought with their agile fingers and threads.[6]

Expertise in different kinds of needlework has been commonly considered to be a female domain. Yet, in Istanbul we also encounter oral and written accounts about the knitting skills of a famous imam, mevlidhan (someone who recites the Mevlid poem), calligrapher and Rufaʽi sheikh with the long name Said Paşa İmamı Hasan Rızâ Efendi (d. 1890).[7] He spent most of his life in the Sandıkçılar Sufi lodge (tekke) in Üsküdar, in the courtyard of which he is buried. He is remembered as always carrying with him some balls of wool and knitting socks or caps. When someone asked him why he did harm to his eyes by knitting all the time, he is known to have replied that by knitting, he protected his eyes from all distractions from Allah.[8]

Turning back to the ship ropes and the word yarn mentioned in the beginning, let us conclude with a piece of local lore of Istanbul that is about ship ropes, too. This anecdote was shared with me in a place very close to the Orient-Institut, in the courtyard of the Cihangir mosque. Before the closure and legal banning of the Sufi lodges in 1925, this mosque with its view of the Bosporus, the historical peninsula, the Asian shore and, on clear days, the islands, used to be both a mosque and a Sufi lodge.

Historical view of the Cihangir mosque and the ships on the Bosporus Picture from the 1880’s by the Abdullah Brothers. Pierre de Gigord collection of photographs of the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey. Series III (Getty Research Institute; free access,, last access 2 June 2021)

In its courtyard, there is the mausoleum of Hasan Burhaneddin Cihangiri (d. 1663), the founding saint (Pir) of the Cihangiri branch of the Halvetiyye order. In this mosque that was at the same time used as the main hall for the ceremonies of the Sufi order, the kelime-i tevhid (lā ʾilāha ʾillā -llāhu) was recited in a special melody. This melody is called Cihangir tevhidi, and even though Sufi ceremonies have nowadays ceased to be performed in this mosque, the piece of music has remained a well-known part of the repertoire of contemporary Sufi musicians in Istanbul. According to tradition, Hasan Burhaneddin Cihangiri received the inspiration for this piece of music when watching the workers on the ships in one of Istanbul’s harbors. While pulling the heavy ropes, they sang a melody in order to syntonize their movement.[9] The Cihangir tevhidi is not only a melody that is attached to a place – the Cihangir mosque – and a landscape (the Bosporus). It also brings to our attention once more the vital relation between the rhythm and movement of hands and bodies (the arms of the seafarers and workers of Istanbul’s harbors) and oral practices such as singing and handing over the story about this piece of music. When listening to a recording of the Cihangir tevhidi in today’s Cihangir as it mixes with the shouting of seagulls, the fog horns of the ships, construction noise, the loudspeakers of a company selling “Aygaz”, the announcements of the nearby primary school and the voices of ambulant street sellers[10], we may think about Istanbul as an urban fabric that constantly comes into being as a composition of uncountable threads; sound threads, pieces of yarn, or Meftune Hanım’s golden threads[11], for example.

Scholars of religion have for a long time debated the usefulness of the concept religion and its possible meanings. While one prominent etymological explanation of the word religion references the Latin verb relegere (‘to read again’), others have claimed that religio is related to religare (‘to tie back,’ ‘to bind again’).[12] The examples of local lore and of engagements with threads as acts of binding oneself to saintly places illustrate how these two meanings of religion – its textual and its tactile and textile aspect – happen to be interwoven in local ritual practices.


Alvan, Türkan. 2013. Said Paşa İmamı Hasan Rıza Efendi. İstanbul: FSMVÜ Yayınları.

Auffarth, Christoph & Hubert Mohr. 2005. “Religion”. Metzler Lexikon Religion. Gegenwart – Alltag – Medien, Vol. 3. Edited by Agnes Imhof, Silvia Kurre, Christoph Auffahrt, Jutta Bernard & Hubert Mohr. Stuttgart: Metzler. 161.

Derrida, Jacques. 2001 [1998]. “A Silkworm of One’s Own. Points of View Stitched on the Other Veil”. Acts of Religion. Edited and with an introduction by Gil Anidjar. London/New York: Routledge. 311–326.

Endres, Johannes, Barbara C. Wittmann & Gerhard Wolf (eds.). 2005. Ikonologie des Zwischenraums: Der Schleier als Medium und Metapher. München/Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink-Verlag.

Ginzburg, Carlo. 2012. Threads and Traces. True False Fictive. Oakland: University of California Press.

Hallam, Elisabeth & Tim Ingold. 2014. “Making and Growing: An Introduction”. Making and Growing. Anthropological Studies of Organisms and Artefacts. Edited by Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold. Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate. 1–24.

Ingold, Tim. 2010. “Transformations of the Line: Traces, Threads and Surfaces”. Textile (8/1), 10–35.

Meyer, Birgit. 2011. “Medium”. Material Religion (7/1), 58–65.

Özcan, Nuri. “Hasan Rizâ Efendi, Said Paşa İmamı”. TDV İslam Ansiklopedisi, Vol. 16, 346.

Tatçı, Mustafa & Yasin Şen (eds.). 2016. Cihângîrde Bir Aşk ve İrfân Ocağı: Hasan Burhâneddin Cihângîrî ve Menâkıbnâmesi. İstanbul: H Yayınları.

Esther Voswinckel Filiz is an anthropologist of religion. In 2020, she completed her Ph.D. with a thesis titled Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi in Istanbul – Biography of a Place. Since June 2020, she has been a research fellow at the Orient-Institut Istanbul responsible for the research field “Religious History of Anatolia.”

[1] Bir varmış, bir yokmuş (‘There was, there wasn’t’) is the opening phrase of fairy tales in Turkish.

[2] Cf. Meyer, 2011 and Endres et al., 2005.

[3] On following up threads and traces as a methodology in microhistorical and anthropological research, see for example Ginzburg, 2012 and Ingold, 2010.

[4] On artisans’ engagements with materials as a kind of storytelling, see Ingold & Hallam, 2014, 2–4.

[5] “There is no God but Allah.” This first part of the testimony of faith (shahada) is referred to as kelime-i tevhid (‘word of oneness’) in Turkish.

[6] Derrida 2001, 311.

[7] Oral information. See Alvan, 2013.

[8] Özcan, 1997.

[9] Oral information. A written version of the legend can be found in the book of memoirs of Nehci Mustafa Efendi (d. after 1680), edited by Tatçı & Şen, 2016.

[10] Cf. Demirtaş, 2021.

[11] Meftune Hanım buys these threads from an Armenian wholesaler on the Çakmakçılar slope close to the Grand Bazaar. My visits of this shop and conversations with its owner revealed that Meftune Hanım’s devotional needlework is by no means a practice exclusive to Muslims. Much like rose water with its ritual use in Muslim and in Christian settings, similar techniques and materials of needlework can be encountered in the contemporary making of textile devotional objects in Muslim and Christian settings. Following up the ways of some golden threads from the wholesaler to Istanbul’s shrines, churches, and homes may reveal a very literal kind of entanglement of local devotional culture.

[12] See Auffarth & Mohr, 2005.

Citation: Voswinckel Filiz, Esther. “Threads of Tradition: Textile practices and material culture of Sufism in Istanbul. Some field notes,” Orient-Institut Istanbul Blog, 4 June 2021.

Islamicate world; Ottoman Empire; Turkey; Istanbul, 21st century; research project; material culture; Sufism; everyday religiosity; Muslim saint veneration; OII-Religion