The Topkapi Palace Library is one of the world’s largest and most important repository of Islamic paintings and manuscripts. It thus came as a surprise to me when, after a decade of research in the collection, the librarian Zeynep Çelik Atbaş pulled me aside last summer to tell me that I should take a look at some glass bottles, which remain unknown and unpublished, and yet surely would interest me. Zeynep could not have been more correct in her assessment: I was left astounded when the staff brought out four large glass bottles into the reading room. These were no manuscripts, and I had never seen objects like these in my fifteen years of working in Turkish collections. Before me were three bottles containing hilyes, or verbal descriptions of the Prophet Muḥammad, while a fourth bottle housed a miniature Qur’an displayed on a wooden stand decorated with colorful beads. Executed by the under-glass painter Mehmed Refat and dated 1308/1891, this bottle has at least four companion pieces held in two other museums in Istanbul.
However, to my knowledge, the three hilye bottles are not attested to in any other publicly accessible institution in Turkey or elsewhere in the world. While one bottle emerged on the art market under the title “lodge hilye” (tekke hilyesi), it is evident from their preservation in Topkapi Palace that these artworks should not be restricted to Sufi practitioners. Rather, as my paper aims to demonstrate, these rare objects appear to have been used for both talismanic and curative purposes. Their therapeutic role in particular is suggested by the hilyes’ use in the production of gold powder, which in all likelihood was combined with water drawn either from local Constantinopolitan sacred springs or else the holy water collected from the Zamzam well in Mecca. As a result, these hilye bottles, I argue, provided a new kind of prophetic pharmacon, whereby Muḥammad was reified—and most likely imbibed—as the ultimate elixir vitae.
A close examination of the three hilye bottles lead us to a number of preliminary conclusions. Depending on use and location, such items could be shut closed, opened on demand, or permanently kept ajar. One functioned as a Muḥammadan talismanic art object destined to protect an individual and his home. In the latter case, no further interactions were necessary. In other cases, however, a chain and rope suggest more ritualistic uses, including carrying or suspension in festive commemorations of the Prophet or other religious holidays, including the celebration of his celestial ascension. In such cases, a removable cap and silkcovered stopper enabled the collection and extraction of gold flecks, rubbed off the gilt papers lining the hilye panels’ back sides. Last but not least, in at least one instance, this gold dust or pigment is equated with the nūr Muḥammad, itself the primordial and generative material used by God to create the entire world.
These newly uncovered hilye bottles raise a number of issues concerned with late Ottoman artistic traditions as these intersect with devotional practices dedicated to the Prophet, especially in a larger Constantinopolitan setting. Perhaps the two most important questions that arise are: first, what were the uses and purposes of creating gold dust, and, second, what are the origins and hence symbolic meanings of these icon bottles? Examining related textual and artistic evidence can help us expand and refine our range of possible interpretations, chief among them the bottles’ likely use in late Ottoman magico-medicinal practices that involved the mixing of sacred dust or soil with holy water in order to produce liquid suspensions and curative potions believed saturated with prophetic baraka.
In addition, these bottles—just like other contemporary devotional icons devoted to the Prophet—provided a material mechanism to make and gather gold pigments. The fact that one of them mentions the nūr Muḥammad leads us, in part, to associate such pigments with the Prophet’s primordial light. That two bottles included hilyesmeant to scrape at the inside walls further strengthens this hypothesis. In addition, at this time, the collecting of the water run-off from the ritual washing of the Prophet’s footprint and mantle was a well-known practice in Ottoman palace quarters. This prophetic liquid was then preserved in small flasks, imbibed to break the evening fast during Ramadan, and administered as a curative potion throughout the year. Libations that came into contact with Muḥammad’s relics were understood as the ultimate panacea, and such magico-medicinal liquids quite possibly included other tonics and potions into which were mixed gold prophetic precipitate extracted or poured from hilye bottles. Lastly, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries these hilye bottles formed part of a larger production of vessels produced to contain the consecrated water of the Zamzam well in Mecca. Known as Zamzamiyyas, these flasks were made of both transparent glass and imported Chinese porcelain, their necks often fastened shut with a rope or thread in a manner reminiscent of the hilye bottles. The sacred water contained in these Zamzamiyyas was thought to heal the sick and bring them baraka through the process of imbibing and hence physical absorption.
Still acting as the carriers of Meccan blessings to the present day, Zamzam water bottles are sold to pilgrims to the holy city. They also remain a staple product in stores located around the Eyüp shrine in Istanbul, which sell devotional goods, souvenirs depicting the Prophet’s relics, and, above all, a wide range of hilyes made in both monumental and miniature size.
In sum, it appears that these newly discovered hilye bottles essentially provided a new type of prophetic pharmacon in the Ottoman palace during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in particular. At this time, the Prophet’s verbal icon transformed from an amuletic object of visual meditation to an encased relic whose golden by-product was most likely mixed into medicinal paste or Zamzam water destined to be ingested and therefore alloyed with the body of the faithful. Such pious engagements involved multiple senses, especially sight, touch, and taste. Late Ottoman multisensorial practices that involved the imbibing of prophetic baraka heralded a new turn in Muḥammad-centered devotional products as these intersected with proto-medical practices in elite spheres. Like other healing tonics, these new products essentially provided a new kind of prophetic antidote promising cure for illness and a long life. They also reasserted Muḥammad’s supreme standing as the ultimate healing agent ready to be primed, gathered, absorbed, and, above all, embodied by his pious followers.