On the occasion of circumcisions, weddings and other festivities in Ottoman times, processions featured decorative standards known as nahil. These beautiful standards, comparable in some respects to Christmas trees, were the work of special craftsmen known as nahilbent, who covered the iron stem and branches with diverse decorative objects made from wax and other materials. Nahil is an Arabic word meaning palm tree, and another Arabic word, nah referred in Central Asia to either a type of gold brocade or a tree laden with fruit or flowers. Both words are therefore symbolically associated with fertility and abundance, revealing a relationship with ancient ceremonies in the worship of Dionysus, god of wine of Anatolian origin. In ancient Anatolia, particularly in the region of Phrygia, double handled wine jars and vine stock, which were symbols of Dionysus, and nahil-like standards are known to have been carried before processions on Dionysian feast days. Similar standards were also used at festivals in Renaissance Italy, and may derive from the same ancient custom.
It is thought that the nahil was first used at Ottoman festivals in the 15th century, when they figured prominently in the wedding celebrations for Sultan Mehmed II. Nahils were carried at the head of both bridal and circumcision processions, and placed in the nuptial chamber or beside the bed of boys who had been circumcised. In the case of wedding processions for the sons or daughters of a high-ranking statesman such as the grand vezir, the largest nahil at the front of the procession would be accompanied by trays of sweetmeats and sweet pastries, wrapped bundles of candies, jugs of perfumed fruit drinks known as sherbet, bags of coins, caskets of jewellery and other gifts. Sacrificial rams would also be among these gifts. In royal processions the nahils would be supervised by a special official known as the nahil agasi.
The nahl’si iron stem and branches bore numerous hooks, on which were hung decorations made of wax in the form of fruit or sometimes animals, and tinsel.
The size and number of the nahils varied according to the importance of the occasion, so that a wedding procession with many large nahils indicated the high rank and wealth of the bridegroonns family, who were responsible for organising the wedding festivities. The largest of all were used at weddings of royal princesses and circumcisions of royal princes. At grandiose celebrations it was common to have not only several large nahils, but also twenty to thirty of medium size and numerous small ones. One of the most spectacular such events was the circumcision celebration for the future Mehmed III, son of Sultan Murad III, in 1582. Five large and around 360 medium and small sized nahils decorated with coloured wax ornaments were carried in procession around the city for a week.The historian Hammer wrote that at the wedding of Ýbrahim Paþa, grand vezir to Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, there were two large nahils decorated with sixty thousand and forty-six thousand moulded wax ornaments and wax plaques respectively.
Large nahils were between 10 and 22 metres in height, and it took two to three hundred people – usually workers from the naval arsenal or janissaries – to carry each one with rows of cables, further cables being attached to the upper part of the standards to maintain their balance. The highest could sometimes not get past the jutting bay windows or walls of houses on the narrow streets along the route, and carpenters accompanied the procession to demolish such obstacles, which were rebuilt once the festivities were over. Another type of nahil was in the form of artificial gardens whose flowers and other motifs were made of coloured sugar instead of wax, in which case the edible decorations were distributed to the crowds when the procession was over. The wax decorations could not be distributed in this way because the paints used to colour them were poisonous. The makers of the sugar decorations were known as sukker nakkaþi, literally sugar decorators. Some of these craftsmen were Spanish Jews who had taken refuge in the Ottoman Empire after being expelled from Spain, and they introduced motifs and techniques from Renaissance Europe. These sugar confectioners also made sweets for children that were sold by vendors known as Alci Balci. In the 16th century, nahils decorated with many lively and colourful compositions, including miniature gardens surrounding spheres, with grassy lawns, ponds with cypress trees and peacocks at the edge; tulip and rose gardens. Other flowers represented included crocuses, violets, carnations, hyacinths, narcissi, and anemones. There were fruit and nut trees, including the citron, apple, pear, quince and pistachio, and animals such as the horse, camel, lion, elephant and the fabulous phoenix. From the 18th century the elaborate nahils of earlier centuries were superseded by far simpler ones, decorated only with gold and silver tinsel and silk tassels. In some areas of central Turkey today vestiges of the traditional nahil continue to feature in wedding ceremonies.