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A tired Muslim woman awakening early during Ramadan. (Odua Images/Adobe Stock)

In Centuries Old Tradition, Drummers Awaken a Sleeping Istanbul to Ramadan

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3,400 Muslim drummers dressed in Ottoman period costumes will march through 1000 Istanbul neighborhoods, reciting ancient poems before dawn, preserving “a beauty” from the month of Ramadan.

Selami Aykut runs a federation of mukhtars in Istanbul, and he is in charge of the traditional Ramadan drummers. The term "mukhtar" comes from Arabic and means "chosen" or "elected," and refers to someone representing a local community.

The mukhtars had completed “all their preparations for Ramadan in Istanbul,” said Aykut, before they set about preserving “one of the beauties” of the month of Ramadan - the Sahur ritual. But what on Earth is the Sahur ritual? And why is it regarded as one of the “beauties” of Ramadan?

Drumming To The Moon

The Ottoman Empire was founded by Osman I in 1299 AD in what is now modern-day Turkey, and between the late 13th century and the early 20th century it spanned three continents, including much of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa.

At the functioning heart of the Ottoman Empire was the Islamic lunar calendar. Used by Muslims around the world to determine important religious dates and events, based on the cycles of the moon, it consists of 12 lunar months with each lasting approximately 29.5 days, around 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar.

A drum similar to those played as an alarm for Ramadan Sahur. (FATIR29/Adobe Stock)

A drum similar to those played as an alarm for Ramadan Sahur. (FATIR29/Adobe Stock)

Beginning with the month of ‘Muharram,’ and ending with the month of ‘Dhu al-Hijjah,’ the first day of the month is determined by the crescent moon. The most important, or sacred, event in the Islamic lunar calendar is the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, during which Muslims observe a period of fasting from dawn until sunset.

Ramadan Is About Reflection

Fasting at Ramadan aims to purify the soul, and to remind followers of Islam of those less fortunate than themselves, who cannot always afford regular meals. Therefore, Ramadan is a time of increased spiritual reflection, prayer, and charity. “Sahur” (also spelled as suhoor) describes the pre-dawn meal consumed by Muslims before their daily fast during the month of Ramadan.

The tradition of ‘Sahur’ dates back to ancient Ottoman times when people woke up before dawn to eat and drink before their day's work. Modern Sahur includes the consumption of soups, stews, and sweets, which provide the necessary calories and carbohydrates for Muslims to fast throughout the day.

Ramadan is all about applying self-discipline and self-control, for self-improvement. As such, the Sahur fast involves relatively easy tasks like abstaining from food, drink, and other physical activities during the daylight hours, as well as attempting to fulfil much harder tasks, like for example, avoiding negative thoughts and actions.

Ever Consider the Origins Of “Breakfast”?

According to Daily Sabah, this year’s Ramadan was announced on Tuesday by the chairperson of the mukhtars association. The centuries-old tradition of ‘drumming’ to wake people up before sahur has endured into modern times, and this year, “3,400 drummers of different age groups” will take to the streets in Istanbul during the next 29 days.

“Iftar” is the name given to the meal that Muslims consume at sunset to ‘break their fast’ (breakfast) during the holy month of Ramadan. Typically comprising dates and water, followed by a full meal with family and friends, Muslims often come together to “break the fast,” and mosques hold nightly prayers and recitations of the Quran to spiritually renew followers' connection with God, and each other.

A tired Muslim woman awakening early during Ramadan. (Odua Images/Adobe Stock)

A tired Muslim woman awakening early during Ramadan. (Odua Images/Adobe Stock)

Ramadan concludes with a three-day celebration called “Eid al-Fitr,” also known as the "Festival of Breaking the Fast," which is another major Islamic holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Eid al-Fitr falls on the first day of the Islamic month of Shawwal, which follows the month of Ramadan.

The Ramadan Drummers Card

Selami Aykut told Daily Sabah that "We struggle to keep this ancient tradition alive with our 963 mukhtars and drummers in Istanbul.” Aykut added that he first chose the Ramadan drummers with the mukhtars (local leaders), and once they were selected “they were given Ottoman period clothes." This year, the chosen ones amounted to around 3400 drummers in total.

Aykut noted that this drumming tradition is often “kept alive over the generations and passed on from fathers to sons,” and that some of the drummers have been working in the same area for several generations.

Aykut explained that not anyone can become a Ramadan drummer, and that the selected few undergo intense training before earning their "Ramadan drummer card,” which enables them to play before dawn during Ramadan. Aykut concluded that the drummers help preserve one of “the beauties of Ramadan,” teaching children and youth the culture of Ramadan, and showing them what they need to actively preserve for future Muslims.

Top image: A Muslim is ready to face the blessed month of Ramadan while carrying a lantern at night. Source: Strabiliante/Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie



Pete Wagner's picture

The morning meal doesn’t make much sense, neither for our biology nor our culture.  What’s makes sense is a late evening meal, followed by sleep, then awake with some black coffee, which provides all the boost necessary for several hours of work.  Then, a mid-afternoon meal, and rest, followed by the pleasure of the night.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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