Just north of the old town district in Istanbul, where the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque stand prominently facing one another, is another monument of important historical significance. This monument is known as the Eyup Mosque. It is located just outside the north Walls of Constantinople near Pierre Loti. This mosque houses the tomb of one of the most important Muslim historical figures, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari (or Eyup in Turkish), that participated in the siege of Constantinople. However, this was not the siege of 1453, but the siege of 670 AD.
Abu Ayyub al-Ansari was born as Khalid ibn Zayd ibn Kulayb from the city of Yathrib in the year 576 AD. This city, Yathrib, was an agrarian community that was roughly 340 kilometers northeast of Mecca in present day Saudi Arabia. As with much of Arabia at the time, the town was locked in tribal feudalism and warfare. Invited to lead the city and mediate between the warring factions, the Prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca, where he and his followers fled persecution, to Medina in 622 AD. From this point forward, Yathrib became known as “Medina al-Munawara” or the “Enlightened City.” Over time, its name was abbreviated to Medina. When the Prophet arrived at Medina, he decided to stay in Abu Ayyub al-Ansari`s residence for seven months while his house was being built. His choice of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari was based on being the closet relative of the prophet Muhammad residing in Medina at the time.
This incident was the first recorded significant mention of Abu Ayyub in history texts. Having lived with the Prophet and learned him for seven months, he became one of the teacher`s of Islam during its early years. Several years later, after the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 639 AD, Abu Ayyub migrated to Fustat, the newly built city, which later became Cairo. He moved to Fustat along with several other prominent figures from early Islam, all of which were his long time friends and neighbors in Medina. They all settled in Egypt with the goal of establishing the Islamic way of life in Egypt.
Although Abu Ayyub resided in Egypt for more than thirty-five years, he frequently departed Egypt to join military expeditions against the Persians and Byzantines. In his final battle against the Byzantines, the Muslim army was led by Yazid, the son of the Caliph Muawiyah of the Umayyad dynasty. Yazid was to launch a surprise attack on the Byzantine capital directly, bypassing its land defenses and landing by ship near the northern walls of the city. Yazid was inspired by a statement that Prophet Muhammad mentioned years ago, “They shall conquer Constantinople. Glory be to the prince and to the army that shall achieve it.” He desired to hold the title and honor of being the prophesized prince.
The siege was launched in 670 AD. At this time, Abu Ayyub was 94 years old. Despite his old age, he insisted on enlisting in the army that would commence the siege. After a short engagement in the battle, he fell ill and was forced to withdraw from the battle. Yazid came to him to ask if he had any wishes in case he died. Abu Ayyub requested that upon his death, the army was to penetrate deeply into the territory of the enemy and go as close as he can to the Walls of Constantinople and to bury him there. Abu Ayyub shortly died of his illness and Yazid fulfilled his request and buried him close to the northern walls of Constantinople.
As winter approached, the besiegers withdrew to an island some 80 miles away from Constantinople. At the start of Spring, the siege continued. This cycle would continue for another 4 years. The turning point was when a Syrian Christian named Callinicus of Heliopolis had invented a new weapon for the Byzantine empire. It was called “Greek Fire”. It enabled the city defenders to launch fire projectiles into the water without being extinguished by the water. Using this technology, the Umayyad navy was decisively defeated by the Byzantine navy and the siege was lifted.
This raid was the first Muslim attempt to capture Constantinople. Over a period of nearly 800 years, there would be 30 other attempts. In each attempt, the Muslim armies would vie to be the army prophesized by the prophet Muhammad. The last such attempt was in 1453 by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II al-Fatih. His spiritual leader, Shiekh Aq Shams al-Din, would always be at his side reminding him of the prophecy. By this time, the Umayyad Empire had disappeared and was replaced by the Ottoman Empire, which was at its height. The Byzantine Empire, on the other hand, was in its late stages of decline, controlling only the city of Constantinople and some areas of present day Greece. Attacking the city from the same location as the first siege in 670 AD, Sultan Mehmet II`s soldiers uncovered the tomb of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari. The Sultan immediately ordered a mausoleum and mosque to be built at the site where Abu Ayyub`s tomb was found. This mosque is now known as Eyup Mosque.
Today, the mausoleum around the tomb is well maintained and visitors are allowed to observe, but not to touch the tomb of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari. The mosque that stands today was actually built in 1800 under the orders of Sultan Selim III. The original mosque was destroyed after a devastating earthquake in 1766. Both the mosque and the mausoleum are frequented by the local Turkish Muslim population as well as thousands of Muslims from around the world every year. To them, the tomb`s location all the way out near Constantinople is a reminder of the passion that early Muslims had towards their faith. In fact, it is estimated that out of the 140,000 Muslims that came in direct contact with the Prophet Muhammad, only 10,000 were buried in the Arabian peninsula. The others ventured far out of their homes with the intention of establishing the Islamic way of life in faraway lands.