The Men and Their Beads
photo by mert_yuksel

When coming to Turkey for the first time, it was quick to notice many of the men walking with a string of beads in their hands.  Some were long, while others were very short, but always noticeable.  Some beads are simple, plain white or black, while others hold a more lavish gleaming stone version from the more expensive markets.  Many wonder what it is exactly they are holding.  Is it religious?  Or just something to hold on to pass the time?

The name of the beads is called tesbih, and they hold a few different meanings.  The first meaning holds a religious significance in the form of Islamic devotion called dhikr.  The tesbih usually is made of either 33 beads or 99 beads, which are to be counted to a total of 99, applying the Islamic belief of the 99 names of God.  When using a smaller tesbih, it usually totals 33 beads, and praying three times over, you reach the 99 names of God.  The method of prayer is for the holder of the tesbih to repeat “Glory be to God”, “Praise be to God” or “God is the greatest”, placing their finger and thumb over each bead as they count down.

Understanding this, many can apply this same prayer method and imagery to that of the Catholic rosary or the Orthodox Christian komboskini, which involves a similar repetition, where each bead represents a prayer.  In particular to the Orthodox komboskini (Orthodoxy being the main religion of Anatolia before the advent of Ottoman Islam), is usually found to have 33 (interesting), 50 or 100 beads.  However, these beads are made of rope, with each bead actually being a rope knot.

However, there is also a non-religious version of tesbih in Turkey, used by men to help pass the time.  Commonly translated as “worry beads”, they are more often just an extension of the hand.  They don’t really have anything to do with worrying per say, but give the person something to play with to pass the time.  The exact same string of beads are found in Greek culture, but are called komboloi.  The Greek design, which were first used amongst the Rebetiko circles from Izmir and Istanbul, became a staple of Greek culture in the 20th century.  Commonly made of amber or stones, the komboloi is seen amongst many men in Greece, but bares one significant visual difference from the Turkish version.  Unlike the Turkish tesbih, which has the beads strung together from one end to the other, the komboloi has a space within it, allowing the beads to slide along the chain or string within the middle.  This difference also allows a more playful approach to handling the beads, often being flipped over the fingers repeatedly, rather than counted.

Either in Istanbul, Izmir, Athens or Thessaloniki, you will see identical versions of the men, sitting on park benches or café tables, with a set of beads in their hands.  One can also join in and buy a pair from any of the local markets.  The price ranges differ, but they are typically low cost and represent the regional culture tremendously.  The main thing is to find one that suits your personality, because it will in the long run, become an extension of you.

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