Heritage Spotlight

The Folk Culture of Turkey

The story of Turkey begins as early as the Stone Age, and as such the country has a rich and extensive history of folklore and folklife. It reflects the history of the region, where Anatolia (or Asia Minor) comprised the Asian half of the country and Eastern Thrace comprised the European half, the history of the Turkish people themselves, and the influence of the Islamic religion. Some of the best documented forms of folklore and folklife include Turkish customs and traditions, stories, folk heroes, music, dance and art—and it is those that we will highlight here.

Perhaps the most famous Turkish tradition (which has also become a popular souvenir of the region) is the use of the Boncuk, a glass stone with the image of an eye painted at the center that is said to protect one from the “Evil Eye.” This mysterious evil force, which spawned from a Turkish folk tale, is often blamed for sickness, death, and other unfortunate events.

Other important aspects of Turkish folklore are folk tales, legends and jokes, many of which are centered on different folk heroes. Perhaps the most common of these is Nasreddin Hoca, a folk figure who at first appears to be comical, but actually reveals the foolishness of others through a variety of witticisms and sayings. Another popular figure is Karagöz, who is often featured in shadow puppetry. Although the stories typically represent Karagöz as a jester character outsmarting his richer, more self-important friend Hacivat, these two characters are supposedly based off of real men who worked on the construction of the Bursa Ulu Mosque. Legend has it that their satirical humor was so distracting that the two were ultimately sentenced to death by the sultan, although their stories and wit were never forgotten.

More famous forms of Turkish folklife can be found in the arts. There are several traditional folk dances practiced in Turkey. Some of the most popular are the Horon, a fluid dance performed only by men that originates from the Black Sea region, the Kasik Oyunu or “Spoon Dance” which is performed by both men and women holding wooden spoons, and the Kilic Kalkan, a military danced that celebrates the conquest of Bursa by the Ottomans.

Folk music is a popular genre in Turkey. Turkish folk songs called “türkü” are written about the experiences of daily life and typically tell a story.  Like most folk music, the songs are anonymous and passed on by word of mouth. Performers will often improvise by changing around traditional lyrics or adding new lyrics, so that the songs exists in different forms.  Türkü are performed with a variety of stringed, wind, and percussion instruments, including the saz, which is similar to a lute with a long neck, the Qanún which resembles a dulcimer, the clarinet-like sipsi, and the Tulum, a type of bagpipe without a drone (a pipe that produces a single note for harmony). Folk music is performed in Turkey every day for celebrations, religious ceremonies, or for simple entertainment, but has also more recently been commercialized by a new generation of recording artists.

Turkish arts and crafts are perhaps the only form of Turkish folklife to achieve international acclaim. Some of the oldest Turkish art forms include calligraphy, a primarily Ottoman tradition that was practiced even on commonplace records; glass art, which originated from the Turks in central Asia and was further developed by the Ottomans; and ceramics, an Anatolian tradition that began as early as the 13th century. Turkish carpets are considered some of the finest in the world, and the tradition of carpet-weaving in Turkey began at as early as 300 BC. Rugs were woven to reflect the life experiences of the weavers, and different forms emerged as the Turkish people migrated and expanded their territories, incorporating new designs and new cultural influences.

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