The Great Cemetry of Scutari. Turkish necropolis, the cities of the dead.

Cemetery, Scutari, necropolis, Istanbul, Constantinople, Turkey,
The Great Cemetry of Scutari.


Nr. 6.

Among the first objects that present themselves to a stranger entering Turkey, are the groves of cypress extending in dark masses along the shores. These are the last resting-places of the Turks; and their sad and solemn shade, far more gloomy than any which Christian usage has adopted, informs the traveller that he is now among a grave and serious people. The Turks permit the Jews, Armenians, Greeks, and Franks to plant their cemeteries with other trees, but reserve the cypress exclusively to themselves.

The cypress has, from early ages, been a funereal tree; the ancient Greeks and Romans so considered it; and the Turks, when they entered Europe, adopted it. Its solemn shade casting a dim religious light over the tombs it covers-its aromatic resin exuding from the bark, and correcting by its powerful odor the cadaverous smell exhaled from dissolving mortality-and, above all, its evergreen and unfading foliage, exhibiting an emblem of the immortal part, when the body below has moldered into dust and perished,-have all recommended it to the Mussulman, and made it the object of his peculiar care.

It is an Oriental practice, to plant a tree at the birth, and another at the death, of any member of a family. When one, therefore, is deposited in the earth, the surviving relatives place a cypress at the foot, while a stone marks the head of the grave; and the pious son, whose birth his father had commemorated by a platanus (Platanaceae), is now seen carefully watering the young tree which is to preserve the undying recollection of his parent. Thus it is that the cemetery extends by constant renovation. Whether it is that the soil is naturally congenial to these trees, or that it is enriched by the use to which it is applied, it is certain the cypress attains to majesty and beauty in these cemeteries, which are seen nowhere else; their stems measuring an immense circumference, and their pointed summits seeming to pierce the clouds, exhibit them as magnificent specimens of vegetable life. Sometimes they assume a different form, and the branches, shooting out horizontally, extend a lateral shade. These varieties have been by travelers mistaken for pines, which the Turks never admit into their cemeteries.

Note:  A Domestic. Servant to the Grand Vizier. Ottoman Empire.

But of all “the cities of the dead” in the Turkish empire, that of Scutari in Asia, at the mouth of the Bosphorus, is perhaps the most striking and extensive. It stretches up an inclined plain, clothing it with its dark foliage, like a vast pall thrown over the departed. It extends for more than three miles, and, like a large forest, is pierced by various avenues, leading to different places. Such is its size, that it is said the area it incloses would supply the city with corn, and the stones which mark its graves would rebuild the walls. Among the causes assigned for this increase, one is, that two persons are never buried in the same spot, so the graves are constantly expanding on every side; another, a prepossession unalterably fixed in the mind of a Turk: he considers himself a stranger and sojourner in Europe, and the Moslem of Constantinople turns his last lingering look to this Asiatic cemetery, where his remains will not be disturbed, when the Giaour *) regains possession of his European city; an event which he is firmly persuaded will sometime come to pass. Thus the dying Turk feels a yearning for his native soil; like Joseph in the land of Egypt, he exacts a promise from his people that “they would carry his bones hence,” and, like Jacob, says, “bury me in my grave which I have in the land of Canaan.”

*) Giaour or Gawur means “infidel”, a term historically used in the Ottoman Empire for non-Muslims or especially Christians in the Balkans.

Note:  Banyan tree in Kollupitiya. The journey is famous for its scenery.

Among the objects which distinguish a Turkish necropolis, is the stone placed to mark the grave. The island of Marmara, contiguous to the city, affords an inexhaustible supply of marble at a cheap rate, so that the humblest headstones are of this valuable material. They are shaped into rude representations of the human form, surmounted by a head covered with a turban, the fashion of which indicates the rank and quality of the person: on the bust of the pillar is an Arabic inscription, containing the name of the deceased. without any enumeration of his virtues: the Turks never indulge in such panegyrics: the letters are in high relief, generally gilded with such skill, that they remain a long time as perfect and beautiful as embossed gold. The stones which designate the graves of women have no such distinction: they are marked with a lotus leaf, and surmounted with a knob like a nail, and this is said to be an intimation of the disbelief in the immortality of a female’s soul, as connected with their want of intellect.

Notwithstanding the doubt thrown upon the subject, the living female supposes that, in this life at least, she is permitted to hold communication with those who have passed to another, and render such service as may please them. In our illustration, a woman is represented enveloped in her yasmak *) and feridge, performing this duty. On the grave is usually a trough or cavity, for the reception of plants or flowers, offerings of pious affection to the dead. Sometimes lattices of gilt wire form aviaries over the grave of a beloved person. Flowers and birds are among the elegant and innocent enjoyments of a Turk; and the amiable superstition of the survivor hopes to gratify her departed friend by the odour of one and the song of the other, even in his grave.

*) A Yaşmak (Turkish for veil) is a Turkish thin white head veil or niqab that leaves only the eyes exposed. It is used by some Muslim women to cover the face in public. Today, the garment is almost completely out of use in Turkey, while it was very much in fashion throughout the 19th century, especially in urban society. There is practically no lengthy travelogue in a Western language that does not mention or describe the Yaşmak at one point or another.

Thomas Allom, Scutari, Cemetry, Constantinople, Turkey

In the distance is a Turkish funeral, winding its ways through the solitude of this cypress forest. It is a group of men, for such processions are rarely attended by women, except those’ hired to lament the dead: as it is a belief that the body is sentient after death, and suffers torment till committed to the repose of the tomb, funerals are generally hurried, and sometimes with indecent haste: so, in this as in other things, the Turk is entirely opposed to European habits; the only hurry in which he is ever seen, is when going to his grave.

Note:  A female of Vercelli with peculiar head-dress. Italy Piedmont 1821.

Source: Constantinople and the scenery of the seven churches of Asia Minor illustrated. In a Series of drawings from nature by Thomas Allom (1804-1872). With an historical account of Constantinople, and descriptions of the plates by the Rev. Robert Walsh LL.D. (1772-1852). Fisher, Son, & Co, 1839. Newgate St., London; & Quai de L’Ecole, Paris.

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