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Turkish Folk Traditions

From shadow puppetry to wandering minstrels, village dances to Ottoman military music, folk traditions pervade all areas and levels of Turkish life. Here’s a very brief introduction to a rich cultural legacy that stretches back hundreds of years.

Folk Dances

Each region in Turkey has its own special folk dances and costumes. Here are some of the most popular.

“Horon” – This Black Sea dance is performed by men only, dressed in black with silver trimmings. The dancers link arms and quiver to the vibrations of the “kemence” (a primitive kind of violin).

“Kasik Oyunu” – The Spoon Dance is performed from Konya to Silifke and consists of gaily dressed male and female dancers ‘clicking’ out the dance rhythm with a pair of wooden spoons in each hand.

‘’Kilic Kalkan” – The Sword and Shield Dance of Bursa represents the Ottoman conquest of the city. It is performed by men only, in Ottoman battle-dress, who dance to the sound of clashing swords and shields, without music.

“ Zeybek” – In this Aegean dance colourful male dancers, called “efe”, symbolize courage and heroism.

Folk Music

Lively Turkish folk music, which originated on the steppes of Central Asia, marks a complete contrast to the refined Turkish classical music of the Ottoman court. Until recently folk music was generally not written down, instead the traditions have been kept alive for generations by “asiklar” (troubadours and storyteller poets – in the same way that many ancient Greek myths survived until written up by Homer etc.)

Distinct from folk music is the old Ottoman military music, now performed by the “mehter takimi’’ (Janissary Band) in Istanbul, which beats out the rhythm of war, and is played with kettle drums, clarinets, cymbals, and bells. The mystical music of the Whirling Dervishes (“Mevleviler”) is dominated by the haunting reed pipe or “ney”, and can be heard in Konya during the Mevlana Festival in December.

Turkish Folk Heroes

“Nasrettin Hoca” – a 13th century humorist and sage from Aksehir. His witticisms are known throughout Turkey and are often used to make a point.

“Karagoz” – another jester, said to have lived in Bursa in the 14th century and now immortalized as a shadow puppet. Karagoz is a rough man of the people, who uses his ribald wit to get the better of his pompous friend, Hacivat. The puppets are made from gaily painted, translucent animal skin, held on sticks, and projected onto a white screen.

“Yunus Emre” – The 13th century philosopher poet is one of Turkey’s national treasures. His basic theme was universal love, friendship, brotherliness and divine Justice. His simplistic and pure writings are still celebrated today.

“Koroglu” – A 15th century folk poet, Koroglu was a role model for his contemporaries and a hero of his time. His adventures have been recounted for centuries with prestige and vigor and perhaps now with more interest than ever. Koroglu was one of the first people to pioneer the ideal of unconditional help for the poor and down trodden. He was also a great warrior against autocratic government control and harassment.


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