The Tespih Works in Mysterious Ways
By Stacie Leone
"Ooh, what a pretty necklace," I exclaimed when I first laid eyes on a colorful string of tespih, or Turkish prayer beads. Fortunately, my Turkish guide immediately pointed out the beads' religious significance, preventing a big faux-pas on my part. His words were especially pertinent, as we happened to be traveling through Urfa at the time, a major place of religious worship in southeastern Turkey.
Tespih, sometimes also called "worry beads," have played an important role, not just in Islam but other religions, according to the Turkish Cultural Foundation, a charitable organization which funds and promotes Turkish culture and heritage. Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindu Brahmanists also use prayer beads. Although Islamic prayer beads usually have either ninety nine or thirty three beads, mystic sects sometimes used 500 or 1000 bead tespih with very large beads.
The word tespih means prayer beads or rosary and originates from the word "Süpha" (also pronounced sebha), which means to recite the glories of God, according to the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Necip Sarici, an expert on the subject and collector of rare and antique tespih beads. Strings of tespih with ninety nine beads signify the ninety nine names of God in Islam. The main entreaty repeated by believers while fingering each of the first thirty three of the ninety nine beads is, "Süphanallah" which comes from the Koran and means "Praise be to God." For the next thirty three beads, one says "Glory be to God," or "Elhümdülillah," in Turkish and for the final thirty three beads, "Allahuekber" which means God is most great, is repeated. With a shorter, thirty-three bead string of tespih, believers simply turn the strand over and over and repeat the same three prayers as for the ninety-nine bead tespih. After these repetitions a final prayer is said, bringing the total number of prayers, as dictated by the Koran, to one-hundred. Why one-hundred? Because the Prophet Mohammed is said to have given the command: "Whoever completes a hundred, by telling these beads, all his sins shall be forgiven even if they are as great as the waves of the ocean."
During the prophet Mohammed's age, date stones and pebbles were used, while in Ottoman times rock crystal beads with silver tassels were preferred, especially in summer for their coolness to the touch, and for the play of light diffracted by the facets. Today only a few artisans continue to make handmade tespihs. Most of those sold today are made of mass produced synthetic beads. Antique tespih, on the other hand, were often works of art which took craftsmen months to make. They were made from gold, silver, ivory, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl, amber, meerschaum, ebony, agalloch wood, and scores of other materials. Tespih made of fragrant woods were kept in closed boxes to retain the fragrance. While materials to make tespihs often came from as far away as Africa, India, Egypt the or even South America, the original craftsmen were located primarily in Istanbul and sold to buyers throughout the Islamic world. Although, not everyone who carries tespih beads is necessarily saying his or her prayers, the power of the beads can apparently even help those who want to quit smoking.
"Mine are inexpensive black, plastic beads. I started carrying them when I quit smoking 10 years ago, just to keep my hands busy," says Sukru Ugur, a retired business man from Istanbul. "I take them everywhere I go. It's just become a habit for me to turn them over in my fingers, whenever I feel myself reaching for a cigarette. But, I don't think of them as having any religious significance, or for good luck or anything like that," he says.
The most renown tespih makers became famous for their skill at carving the beads. Drilling holes through the tiny beads is one of the most difficult parts, the finer the hole, the more skill required. Tespih beads are made using a small lathe, often made by the craftsmen themselves. A simple tool, the lathe, makes extremely fine adjustments required for such tiny objects. Each piece of the chosen material is first pierced and then cut into the desired shape: spherical, pyriform, oval, flattened spheres, or faceted. For a 99-bead tespih the craftsmen makes 110-120 beads, and then chooses those that match best, saving the remainder for making 33-bead tespih. The other parts of a tesbhi consist of: the nisane, a disc which marks each 33 beads, the pul, a tiny bead marking the seventh position, the imame, which is a long piece marking the beginning of the string, and the tepelik at the extremity of the imame. A small socket is gouged in the imame to conceal the knot of the string. All these pieces must also match. Although the best tespih have beads of equal size, some have beads graduated in size, threaded from largest to smallest. In the past breads were strung exclusively on silk thread, but today nylon thread dyed to the correct color is most frequently used. Finally the beads may be fitted with bands, engraved with inscriptions, and otherwise decorated, before being strung together, and a tassel attached.
The tesbih I did eventually purchase in Urfa are a long ninety-nine strand of small wooden beads, with silver ends and bright red fringe tassels. I may not use them to say my prayers, I'm not ready to quit smoking, and certainly won't be wearing them as a necklace. But, they do look beautiful draped over a white paper lampshade in my bedroom.