We have a cultural history which takes the Prophet Muhammad’s words “We will not go to sleep full as our neighbors are hungry” as its motto. Proof of this lies in our cities, which, from the time of the Selçuk Turks through the Ottoman period, were always filled with imarethanes (alms houses).
These are in fact an institution one can see throughout the Islamic world, from Egypt to Syria, from Konya to İstanbul, built by either foundations or the state itself to provide food and water for those in need. It has gone on like this for centuries, the rich have shared their food and the poor have filled their stomachs. Nowadays, however, these alms houses of the past are really only a part of our collective vocabulary as those “incredible architectural feats” eliciting praise. This is because some have fallen apart and become unusable, while others
were simply razed to the ground during city development.
Those that have survived unscathed until today have been forced to close, unable to find philanthropists willing to share their wealth. All except for one, that is. The alms house built in 1766 by architect Mehmet Arif Ağa on the orders of and in the name of Ottoman Sultan Selim III’s mother, Mihrişah Valide Sultan. Unlike other aşevis (soup kitchens), this institution continues to provide help for the poor to this day, and has now been serving society for exactly 225 years. Every morning at 10, families in need line up to get their share of the food being cooked in the kitchen of this old alms house located on Boston Iskelesi Sokak in Eyüp. This Ottoman imarethane stays open thanks to support from both philanthropists and the General Directorate of Foundations. And thanks to the funds provided by these sources, this alms house is able to distribute food to 2,000 families in need each day. As for the families, there is a series of official procedures to identify them. In other words, the alms house takes steps to ensure it helps those who need help the most. People in need apply at the alms house and fill in special forms. The alms house scrutinizes the applications and picks families that really have no sources of income or social insurance. Following this, special passes are distributed to the families selected to receive help. With these passes, families can come to receive food every day, or they can even ask that the food be brought to their homes. The financial statuses of these families are monitored from time to time. Bekir Çepken, the director of this venerable alms house, says that most families don’t really need much monitoring, noting on the whole the families are quite careful to inform the institution when the time comes that they no longer need its services.
Here is how the alms house works
The kitchen opens at 5 in the morning. There can be little question that one of the most important aspects of an alms house is its kitchen. The doors to this kitchen, which is the object of so many thankful prayers, open at 5 a.m. and work begins. From chefs to butchers, there are many people employed in this kitchen and everyone has a special set of duties. Some work preparing the ingredients for the food to be cooked the next day, while others prepare the meat that has been donated from sacrifices. Meals are ready by 9 a.m. and food to be sent off to individual homes is put into special travel containers. The kitchen’s menu is set every 12 days. From soups to garnishes, nothing is overlooked on the alms house menu. The alms house has its own depot where dried provisions are kept. These are packed up every month and distributed to families that have been specially selected.
The Eyüp address known by those in need: Mihrişah Sultan İmareti
After the food is sent out to those who live far from the alms house, the doors at the Mihrişah Sultan İmareti open at 10 a.m. for people who come here to get their meals. In this way, the other 1,000 families selected get their food. As for the actual distribution of the meals from the alms house, it is done according to the lines formed here. The atmosphere is nothing like the chaos you might imagine. There is no pushing or shoving; instead, people sit in the generous courtyard of the alms house and chat, sharing details about their lives, just talking. One such person is Nebahat. She tells us how her husband passed away, how she has no source of income and how her son is doing his military service. In line is her companion, Nurten, who says: “I have no one close to me in İstanbul. May Allah bless those who built this place. It will meet my food needs until my son comes back.” As the clock turns towards noon, the activity in the courtyard calms down further.
1,500 animals donated to the alms house every month
Another factor helping keep the Mihrişah Sultan İmareti on its feet is the religious kesimhane (slaughterhouse), donations for which are organized by the General Directorate of Foundations. The person donating the meat first picks the animal to be sacrificed at the sales point, then pays the price, according to the weight of the animal in question. The animal is then sacrificed according to Islamic ritual and the meat is sent to the kitchen of the alms house. Some of the meat is frozen and sent out to poor families all over Turkey. The number of animals donated for sacrifice every month is around 1,500.
Lunch also served up at the alms house
The other great wave of activity at this imarethane starts at 11:30 a.m., when the kitchen opens its doors to fill the stomachs of those who live on the street. Every day, there are anywhere between 100 and 200 people who eat lunch here. Faces change all the time, but there are some who are regulars as well. One of these is 102-year-old Mehmet from Bingöl. All of his children are married now and his wife died many years ago. He lives all alone and eats lunch here every day. Luckily, he is able to joke about his situation, saying, “Well, I’m not about to start setting the table myself at this point.”
Every day, vehicles send food out to 1,000 families
Around 1,000 of the 2,000 families who receive help from the alms house live in districts far from Eyüp, such as Beyoğlu and Alibeyköy. For this reason, vehicles set out from the kitchen at 9:30 a.m. to bring food to these families. Thus these specially prepared and packaged meals reach individuals selected for this service.