Life in Turkey is a rich variety of cultures and traditions, some dating back centuries and others more modern, an intriguing mix of east and west, past and present, exotic and avant-garde; a vibrant cultural mosaic waiting to be explored.
Turkish is spoken by over 200 million people and is the world’s 7th most widely spoken language. Modern Turkish is a member of the Ural-Altaic family of languages, evolved from dialects since the 11th century, and is related to Finnish, Korean and Japanese. Turkish is easy to learn as it based on the Latin script and alphabet – with the addition of just 6 different characters from English – and the language is phonetic (how a word is spelt is how it sounds).
Turkish people are always charmed when a visitor speaks a few words of their language. The most useful words are tesekkür (te-sheh-koor, thank you), merhaba (mare-hubba, hello) and iyi günler (eee-goonlare, good day).
Turkey is a secular state with no official state religion and is in fact the only secular Islamic country in the world where religion has no place in the running of the state. The majority of the Turkish population is Muslim but in Turkey religion is strictly a private affair; as with other European countries, the weekly holiday is Sunday and there is no dress code, except for when visiting a mosque. However, the call for prayer can be heard five times a day and there are two Islamic festivals in the country alongside the secular national holidays: Seker Bayrami at the end of Ramadan, and Kurban Bayrami. There are also Christian and Jewish minorities throughout the country, with 236 churches and 34 synagogues open for worship.
Hospitality is second nature to the Turks and visitors to Turkey are often pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the people and how they will go out of their way to assist and spend time chatting. Newly made friends will often invite you to join them to share a meal and often in their own home too. Turkey was for years on the silk road of trade between the east and west and the arrival of travelling strangers who needed to be fed and put up for the night became a normal part of the culture. It is also usual for Turks – even the men – to greet each other by kissing on both cheeks.
Recognised as one of the major cuisines of the world, Turkish food comes in a great variety and every region of the country has its own specialities. Because of the trade route which passed through its heart the people of Anatolia were constantly being exposed to new foodstuffs and herbs and spices, and new dishes were constantly created. The fertility of the land meant, and still does, that fresh fruit and vegetable were available in abundance for preparing delicious dishes. Generally speaking the cuisine of the eastern regions is hot and spicy and meat-dominated reflecting its proximity to the Middle East while the further west you are more likely to find seafood and olive oil vegetable dishes. As eating well is such an important part of Turkish culture wholesome freshly prepared food can be found easily wherever you go, even in the most basic establishments.
The Turks are nomadic in origin and weaving carpets (hali) and flatweaves (kilims) which would furnish their tents has been an important part of the culture for thousands of years. Traditionally a craft learnt by women, each carpet would be unique, its variations reflecting both the character of the maker and the place she was from. Thus each region of Turkey has evolved a style of carpet pattern and colours; these days chemical dyes are more common and carpets may be made from wool, silk and cotton. The density of the knots determines the quality of the carpet – the more knots per cm, the more hard-wearing it will be. If you decide to purchase a carpet, most sales-merchants will be happy to spend some time explaining the history and meaning of the many symbols in the weave – often over a glass of apple tea. In recent years, a number of ‘carpet schools’ have opened where traditional arts and processes are preserved and the process of carpet-making is shown to visitors.
Tiles The development of tile and ceramic art began in Turkey in the 11th century by the Selçuk Turks and reached a pinnacle in the days of the Ottoman Empire. During the 15th century, the great demand in tiles which were used to decorate the mosques and palaces built in the Ottomans’ new capital Istanbul meant a centre of production was established in Iznik, where at least 300 work-shops specialised in tile-making. For two hundred years Iznik produced tiles with swirling forms and floral motifs in an ever greater range of colours that reflect precious stones – emerald greens, lapis lazuli and turquoise blues and coral reds – and increasing sophistication. These tiles were also exported throughout the world via the island of Rhodes.
One of the best places to see Iznik ware is in the Blue Mosque; according to legend the artists of Iznik were so exhausted by its decoration that they went into decline soon after. Original tiles can also be seen at the Rustem Pasha Mosque in Eminonu and the Eyup Mosque complex at the top of the Golden Horn. You can also purchase Iznik tiles from specialist shops around the country.
There have been hammams or public bath houses in Turkey since medieval times, used both as a place to relax, get clean and as a social spot. The tradition reached its height during Ottoman times, when it became the social focus for women, for many of whom it provided a rare opportunity to leave their own home and see their friends – as well as eye up prospective future daughters-in-law. The men bathed in a separate section and even today, many of the Turkish baths still contain separate areas for men and women – or where a town has only one hammam, different times of day or days of the week. The only exception to this is the baths open to tourists in beach resorts, where it is not uncommon to have mixed bathing and even to be massaged by someone of the opposite sex, which would not happen in a traditional bath.
There are still historical hammams open for business, those most popular with visitors to Istanbul include the Cemberlitas designed by the master architect Sinan near Sultanahmet, Cagaoglu and the Galatasaray near Taksim Square.
When you enter the hamam you leave your clothes in a locker and wrap yourself in a towel or cloth called a pestemal which is provided along with wooden slippers. Once in the main bathhouse, you fill your bowl with water from the taps set along the walls and wash yourself by tipping the water from the bowl over yourself. When it’s your turn you lie down on the central marble slab or göbek tasi where you are scrubbed with a rough cloth (called kese) and then lathered with soap and massaged. There is usually an extra charge for these treatments.
The nargile, or hookah, is a Turkish water tobacco pipe that was very popular during the years of the Ottoman Empire and has recently seen a revival, especially among young people. Nargile cafes abound where one can enjoy a game of backgammon (tavla), puff on a nargile which comes in various flavours, including banana and apple, and watch the world go by.
Wherever you go in Turkey you will see the nazar boncuk, or evil eye charm, to ward off the ‘evil eye’. For sale as pendants or pins and often found hanging above doors, in car windscreens or used in designs for material or painted on to pottery, china and tiles, the ‘evil eye’, is usually made out of cobalt blue glass with a stylised eye design and can be of any size. A common symbol throughout the Middle East and dating back many thousands of years it is traditionally thought to ward off negative energy from others which can lead to bad luck. .
Turkey has a rich musical tradition of varied and often contrasting styles. From the folk music which originated on the steppes of Asia to the refined music of the Ottoman court; from the strident military music of the mehter takimi, the Janissary band, played with kettle drums, clarinets and cymbals to the mystical sound of the ney or ‘reed pipe’ which accompanies the Whirling Dervishes as they dance.
Classical Turkish music is monophonic, meaning all instruments essentially play the same tune. There are a number of instruments commonly heard such as the kemence or violin; ud or lute; kanun, which is similar to a zither; zurna similar to an oboe; and zil or cymbal.
With the formation of the Turkish Republic, a form of modern polyphonic Turkish music began to develop and there are now numerous successful classical composers. At the other end of the spectrum, there is also a thriving popular music industry in Turkey boosted by the MTV style TV channels playing non-stop music videos. There are a number of prominent music festivals in Turkey including the Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival which is held in June and July and the Istanbul Music and Jazz Festivals.
Turkey has a rich tradition of folk dancing with dances performed at all social occasions, from weddings and celebrations held for young men leaving for military service, to national and religious festivals, or local festivities. Each region has its own dances which reflect the cultural life of that region. Some of the most famous dances are the bar, originating from the province of Erzurum, the halay in the East and Southeast, the hora in Thrace, the horon in the Black Sea and the spoon dances in and around Konya. Recent developments in Turkish folk dance have seen the emergence of River-dance style troupes performing modern variations on the traditional dances in elaborate, spectacular, stage shows such as the Fire of Anatolia.
Mevlana – Whirling Dervishes
The order of Mevlevi, better known in the west as the Whirling Dervishes, was founded by the 13th century Sufimystic, Celaleddin Rumi, who was also known as Mevlana. He was a poet, who believed that music and dance provided the means to enter a religious state of ecstasy thereby discovering divine love, and formed a religion, or philosophy based on tolerance. His most famous poem represents the central beliefs of Sufism:
Come, come, whoever you are, come!
Heathen, fire-worshipper or idolator, come!
Come even if you have broken your penitence a hundred times,
Ours is the door of hope, come as you are.
Every year, thousands of people descend on Konya for an annual event in December to commemorate the Mevlana and watch the mesmerising whirling dervishes in their spiritual home.
Central to the philosophy is the sema ceremony, the climax of which is the whirling dance. It is performed in traditional symbolic costume of a conical hat or sikke, which represents the tombstone of the ego, and white robes or tennure, which represent its shroud. The dervish whirls with his right hand pointed upwards towards God and his left pointing down to the earth to the accompaniment of the ney or reed pipe.
Karagöz Shadow Puppets
A sort of Turkish Punch & Judy show, Karagöz is a shadow play performed by traditionally designed puppets, made of translucent stretched and painted camel skin. There are two main characters the eponymous Karagöz and Hacivat. Karagöz is a down-to-earth type who frequently finds himself at odds with his friend, Hacivat who is well educated in Islamic theology but ultimately unreliable.
The plays are humorous, drawing on double entendres, caricatures and mimicry. There is a strong element of satire, which was used during Ottoman times to provide a humorous critique of those in authority. During this period, Karagöz was one of the most important forms of entertainment with shows performed at festivals and feasts.
Nasrettin Hoca was a popular scholar born in 1208, whose tales are famous throughout Turkey for their satire, wit and humour, beneath which lies a serious message. He has acquired such mythical status, however, that fact and fiction have become muddled in the stories surrounding him and the anecdotes attributed to him. His stories refer to everyday situations amongst the common people of Anatolia and his wisdom opposes the stricter elements of Islamic law with humour, as he baffles those around him with his logic. Many of the stories feature his donkey, itself a symbol of suffering, which was an everyday part of village life.
The Van Cat
Indigenous to the area around Lake Van, these fascinating cats are sadly becoming increasingly rare. They are pure white and typically have one amber and one blue eye (although they can also have two eyes of either colour). The other unusual feature of the Van cat is that it is the only species of cat which loves swimming and playing with water.