Ottoman Building Inscriptions II

A hierarchy of rule? 15th century Ottoman building inscriptions in Bulgaria and Thrace II [DYNTRAN WORKING PAPER 5, October 2015]

by Georg LEUBE

After having discussed two rather conventional Ottoman building inscriptions from Edirne, I would in this post like to turn to a highly unusual building inscription. This text does not adorn an imperial building in the Ottoman capital. Instead, the Hamza Bey or Eski Cami of Stara Zagora in modern day Bulgaria was founded in 1409 CE by a certain Hamza Bey serving under the Ottoman rulers.

Hamza Bey external viewThe building is at present used as a museum and is said to have lost its minaret in an overnight operation sometime in the 1970s. The most interesting founding inscription, however, is still extant over the main portal. Due to its location, it is somewhat difficult to photograph, therefore I give an overview of all the pictures I have cobbled together in the writing of this article as an annex. The material seems to be a big slab of grey marble.

Inscription Hamza BeyThe inscription was first mentioned by Franz Babinger in his Beiträge zur Frühgeschichte der Türkenherrschaft in Rumelien (14.-15. Jahrhundert) (pp. 8-9) and later edited by Machiel Kiel in an article entitled “Some Early Ottoman Monuments in Bulgarian Thrace” (pp. 639-640). The inscription, which Kiel calls “very difficultly readable”, was read in a joint effort by M. Kiel, H. İnalcık and F. Dijkema (Kiel “Monuments”, p. 639, note 10). While the version of the text given in the original article features lacunae at the beginning of lines 1) and 2), a later, reprinted version of the article silently fills in the lacunae while, however, suggesting a couple of readings I would rather not follow: Apart from some missing nuqūṭ (line 2) ḥallada instead of khallada etc.), there is, for example, in line 2) a misplaced change of salṭanatahū ‒ given as such in the original article ‒ into sulṭān. Based on my photographs and comparison with other building inscriptions (see earlier posts and below), I propose to read sulṭānahū.

Based on pictures I took this August in Nova Zagora, I propose to read the inscription as follows:

1) Qāla l-nabī, ʿalayhi l-salām, man banā li-llāhi masjidan banā llāhu lahū baytan fī l-jannati. Atamma inshāʾa hādhā l-masjidi l-mubāraki bi-amri dawlati l-sulṭāni l-khaṭīri l-muʾayyadi l-muẓaffari, sulṭāni

2) l-islāmi wa-l-muslimīna ẓilli llāhi taʿālā ʿalā l-ʿālamīna khudāwandkār al-amīri Sulaymān bni Bāyazīd bni Murād khān, khallada llāhu sulṭānahū,

3) Al-amīru l-khaṭīru ẓillu llāhi fī l-arḍi jalālu l-dawlati wa-l-dīni Ḥamza bīk adāma llāhu dawlatahū wa-waqaʿa l-farāghu min[hu] fī nihāyati l-ʿāmi iḥdā ʿasharati wa-thamānmiʾah.

1) The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: Who builds a masjid for God, God builds him a house in paradise. The construction of this blessed mosque was completed by order of the state of the mighty, righteous, and conquering sulṭān, the sulṭān

2) Of Islam and the Muslims, the shadow of God, may he be exalted, on the worlds, the lord and commander Sulaymān, son of Bāyazīd, son of Murād, the Khān, may god make his reign eternal,

3) By the mighty commander, the shadow of God on earth, the splendour of the state and the religion Ḥamza Bīk, may God make his state lasting. The completion of [it, the mosque] fell into the end of the year eight hundred eleven.

Like the building inscriptions of the Eski Cami and the Üç Şerefeli Camii in Edirne discussed in the last post, the structure of this inscription does not adhere strictly to the lines it is arranged in. The phrase sulṭān al-islām wa-l-muslimīn, sulṭān of Islam and the Muslims, is written in an enjambment over the end of line 1) into the beginning of line 2). The main enjambment is, however, offered by the huge Hyperbaton of the main sentence of the inscription. While the verb atamma, he has completed, is given immediately after the introductory ḥadīth in line 1), its subject, namely the founder of this mosque, only follows in line 3). Since an exact reproduction of this rather convoluted Arabic syntax in English would necessitate some forced construction such as “It has completed … The mighty commander … Ḥamza bīk etc.”, I have in the above translation used a passive clause where in the original there is none. The syntactic construction of the original can only be reproduced by disregarding the structure of the lines of the inscription by something like: “Ḥamza bīk has completed the construction … by order of the sulṭān Sulaymān etc.”

There is, however, a compelling reason for this complicated syntax of the Arabic inscription offered by the two-layered hierarchical structure of the two sulṭāns somehow jointly responsible for the construction of this blessed mosque. After giving a short overview of the elements of this inscription along the lines proposed for the other inscriptions discussed earlier in this blog, I would like to discuss the conceptual implications of such a hierarchy among rulers in the remainder of this essay.

The opening ḥadīth stressing the responsibility of the ruler to provide places for worship and the rewards to be expected in paradise for fulfilling this responsibility has already been discussed in the context of the building inscription of the Eski Cami of Edirne in the last post. Here as there it serves as the beginning of the inscription establishing Prophetic command for engaging in costly building activities. The mosque is qualified as mubārak, blessed, before the Ottoman overlord is described in the end of line 1) and the beginning of line 2) as al-sulṭān al-khaṭīr al-muʾayyad al-muẓaffar, sulṭān al-islām wa-l-muslimīn, the mighty, righteous, and conquering sulṭān, the sulṭān of Islam and the Muslims. The qualifications of sulṭān offered here all stand firmly in the tradition of normative-Islamic alqāb or titles current in the pre-modern Islamicate, compare the magnificent complex of the Mamlūk ruler al-sulṭān al-muʾayyad near Bāb Zuwayla in Cairo and the “dynasty” of the Muẓaffarids in 14th century Southern Iran, named after its eponymous founder.

The following phrase ẓill allāh taʿālā ʿalā l-ʿālamīn, the shadow of God, may he be exalted, on the worlds, is highly curious and basically caused my journey to Bulgaria single-handedly: I will discuss it in detail below. The titles khudāwandkār and al-amīr, translated here as the lord and commander, are again well established. While the latter belongs to the normative Arabic sphere of an Islamicate iconography of authority, the title khudāwandkār or rather khudāwandgār is Persian and translated by Steingass in his Dictionary sub lemmata somewhat freely as Creator of the world; the Lord, author and perfector of everything; a king, a great man. There may come another time to return to the fields of authority adduced in this title, its Ottoman use is, however, well-established at least since the time of Murād I., the grandfather of Sulaymān I. mentioned in this inscription, whose most beautiful mosque near the baths of Çekirge outside Bursa is known to this day simply as Hüdavendigar Camii.

The rest of line 2) is rather straightforward. The pedigree of Sulaymān b. Bāyazīd b. Murād establishes the Ottoman overlord as a brother of Muḥammad I., who completed the construction of the Eski Cami in Edirne. This Sulaymān was involved in a struggle against his brothers Mūsā and Muḥammad after the catastrophic capture of their father Bāyazīd at the hands of Tamerlan at Ankara 1402. The title khān and the eulogy khallada allāh sulṭānahū, may god make his reign eternal, also appear in the building inscription of the Eski Cami in Edirne and numerous contemporary coins of the Ottomans and the Akkoyunlu.

The key to the curious structure of this inscription lies in the proclamation of a second ruler in line 3). This Ḥamza is introduced as al-amīr al-khaṭīr, the mighty commander, in the beginning of line 3), echoing al-sulṭān al-khaṭīr, the mighty sulṭān, among the titles of his overlord Sulaymān. A hierarchic distance is, however, clearly expressed by Ḥamza’s more humble title of amīr, commander, as opposed to Sulaymān’s title of sulṭān.

This curious subordinate paralleling of the sulṭān’s titles is structurally continued in the following titles of ẓill allāh fī al-arḍ, shadow of God on earth, mirroring ­Sulayman’s title of ẓill allāh taʿālā ʿalā al-ʿālamīn, shadow of God, may he be exalted, on the worlds. The titles of jalāl al-dawla wa-l-dīn, the splendour of the state and the religion, structurally stand in the space occupied by Sulayman’s khudāwandkār al-amīr, the lord and commander. The Persianate title of bīk, here used as a subordinate parallel of khān, appears curiously enough sporadically on coins and surcharges of the Akkoyunlu sulṭāns Uzun Ḥasan, Yaʿqūb and Rustam. Thus a surcharge reads ʿadl Ḥasan bīk, [this coin is] true, [as guaranteed in the name of] Ḥasan bīk and a coin from Rasht reads as-sulṭān al-aʿẓam / Yaʿqūb bīk [tamgha QQ] bahādur khān / khallada llāhu sulṭānahū / ḍuriba Rasht, the most mighty sulṭān / Yaʿqūb bīk [tamgha QQ] bahādur khān / may God make his rule eternal / minted in Rasht. Finally, the concluding eulogy adāma allāh dawlatahū, may God make his state lasting, is in all likelihood a conscious parallel of the common enough eulogy khallada allāh sulṭānahū, may God make his reign eternal, concluding the titles of Sulaymān.

The hierarchy resulting from this double set of ruler’s titles has been explained both by Babinger and Kiel with the employment of a certain Ḥamza, who may be identified with one of a number of statesmen of Sulaymān bearing this name, who is seen as descended from a family of Anatolian rulers serving the Ottomans while entitled to keep a residue of their former titular flourish. The complex implications of such a hierarchy of more and less sovereign rulers become obvious from the rather forced subordination of bīk under khān and adāma under khallada in the titles and eulogies of Ḥamza and Sulaymān respectively.

There is, however, also a rather great deal of terminological confusion caused by this uncustomary use of a hierarchically structured parallelism of patrons. Thus the title amīr, serving in the beginning of line 3) as a subordinate parallel of Sulaymān’s title of sulṭān in line 1) appears again as part of Sulaymān’s superior titles in line 2) and the dawlah, state, used in the concluding eulogy of Ḥamza in line 3), as a subordinate parallel of Sulaymān’s sulṭān at the end of line 2) is used in the context of Sulaymān’s overlordship in line 1) to describe his supervision of the construction of the mosque.

This confusion becomes nowhere more apparent than in the use of two hierarchically structured versions of “being God’s shadow”. This dilemma was, hypothetically, caused by Ḥamza’s insistence on his claim of being called ẓill allāh fī al-arḍ, shadow of God on earth. The title of ẓill allāh taʿālā ʿalā al-ʿālamīn, shadow of God, may he be exalted, on the worlds, which seemingly developed out of the necessity to find a superlative to “God’s shadow on Earth”, alludes to Qurʾānic appellations of God as rabb al-ʿālamīn, Lord of the worlds, for instance in the first verse of the first sūrah of the Qurʾān. While Fraenkel suggested a borrowing of the whole phrase from the Hebrew ribbōn hā-ʿōlamīm, Lord of the worlds, Horovitz in his Jewish Proper Names, p. 200 / 56, is rather more careful about this while noting that the word ʿālam, indeed borrowed into Arabic from Hebrew or Syriac, is not used in the Qurʾān in its singular form at all.

The theological implications of the Ottoman ruler’s designation as shadow of God, may he be exalted, on the worlds, are rather interesting. It has already been noted that the introduction of this title offered the potential of hierarchically structuring the confusing array of sulṭāns of the 15th century Islamicate. While sulṭān is used in the Qurʾān in the sense of divinely sanctioned worldly authority (see ʿAbdalbāqī Muʿjam), it was used at least since the time of the Seljuks to denote holders of worldly authority other than the caliph.

When thinking about the additional worlds shadowed by Sulaymān in opposition to his subordinate Ḥamza, it may be admissible to turn to a slightly later commentary on the Qurʾān, the Tafsīr al-Jalālayn by the two eminent Egyptian scholars al-Maḥallī and as-Suyūṭī. Here, the phrase rabb al-ʿalamīna, Lord of the worlds, in verse 2 of sūrah 1 is glossed as jamīʿu l-khalqi mina l-insi wa-l-jinni wa-l-malāʾikati wa-l-dawwābi wa-ghayrihim, the whole creation including humans, spirits, angels, animals and others. This association of the additional worlds with spirits, angels and animals turns out to be surprisingly congruent with the incumbent Ottoman ruler’s being named after Sulaymān, remembered in Islamicate history of thought as a just ruler over humans, spirits, angels and animals alike ‒ it may be a bit amiss to point to Kipling’s story of “The Butterfly That Stamped” in this serious context, nonetheless this is one of the nicest renderings of the theme I’m aware of.

The close congruency of the innovative title of shadow of God on the worlds with the name of the incumbent Ottoman ruler, however, also highlights the transience of a hierarchy of rule like the one that can be traced in the building inscription of the Eski Cami of Stara Zagora. Sulaymān eventually lost the struggle for succession and the experiment of the sovereign ruler claiming a role of God’s shadow over spirits, angels and animals alike was, as far as I know, not repeated in epigraphy anywhere else.

Georg Leube (Marburg, October 28th 2015)


As I found out after finishing this article, a Bulgarian translation of the inscription following the late Ibrahim Tatarlı’s reading, mentioned already by Kiel, is available online on Wikipedia:

I have by now consulted Ibrahim Tatarlî’s book Turski Kultovi Sgradi i Nadpisi: Turski Kultovi Sgradi i Nadpisi v Bîlgariâ in the edition of Sofia 2003. The text he gives is the same Kiel prints in the second edition of his article, by all likelihood Kiel is quoting Tatarlî.

ʿAbdalbāqī, Muḥammad Fuʾād Al-Muʿjam al-mufahras li-alfāẓ al-qurʾān al-karīm, revised by Muḥammad Saʿīd al-Laḥḥām, Beirut 2005.

Babinger, F. Beiträge zur Frühgeschichte der Türkenherrschaft in Rumelien (14.-15. Jahrhundert), Brünn 1944.

Fraenkel, S. De vocabulis in antiquis arabum carminibus et in corano peregrinis, Leiden 1880.

Horovitz, J. “Jewish Proper Names and Derivatives in the Koran” in: Hebrew Union College Annual, Vol. II, pp. 145-227, Ohio 1925, Reprint Hildesheim 1964.

Kiel, M. “Some Early Ottoman Monuments in Bulgarian Thrace,” Belleten, 38, pp. 635-654, Ankara 1972. Reprint in M. Kiel Studies on the Ottoman Architecture of the Balkans, VII, Aldershot 1990.

Steingass, F. A comprehensive Persian-English Dictionary, Bury St. Edmunds 1984.

Tafsīr al-Jalālayn, Jalāladdīn Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Maḥallī and Jalāladdīn ʿAbdarraḥmān b. Abī Bakr as-Suyūṭī, ed. Marwān Sawār, Beirut 2000.

Appendix: Additional pictures of the Eski Cami / Eski Džamiâ in Stara Zagora

Appendix 1

To quote this publication:

Leube, Georg, “Ottoman Building Inscriptions II. A hierarchy of rule? 15th century Ottoman building inscriptions in Bulgaria and Thrace”, DYNTRAN Working Papers, n° 5, online edition, October 2015, available at:

Cite this blog post
Georg Leube (2015, October 29). Ottoman Building Inscriptions II. DYNTRAN: Dynamics of Transmission. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from

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