Shadow theater puppet in Turkey. photos by Inka.
Karagöz and Hacivat Turkey – Folklore Inspired Travel
By Inka Piegsa Quischotte
When I first saw them, I didn’t pay much attention. But then, they popped up everywhere in the bazaars and antique shops of Istanbul: two colorful, beautifully crafted and quite bizarre puppets. I investigated and discovered not only a good story but also a fabulous city in Turkey I would otherwise not have visited.
Karagöz and Hacivat from Bursa
Shadow theater has a long tradition in Turkey and the main characters are called Karagöz and Hacivat. One is a street wise smart ass and the other a snob who thinks himself superior because he can read and write (just!). Although they are best of friends, they constantly have a go at each other to see who can outsmart whom.
The astonishing fact is, that they are not legend or fiction but were real people. Sometime in the mid 1300s they were construction workers on a mosque built in Bursa. Their jokes and pranks were the delight of their co-workers, to the extent that that they preferred to watch the two instead of getting on with the job at hand.
A situation which, in turn, annoyed Sultan Orhan who one day lost his patience and ordered them executed. But, the other workers became so sad and depressed, that they continued to enact the ‘plays’ of their unfortunate comrades and the sultan, feeling somewhat guilty because of his rash reaction, allowed the plays. And so, the shadow plays continue to this day.
When I also learned that Bursa has a museum dedicated to the two as well as having been the first capital of the Ottoman empire, not to mention the fact that the popular Iskender kebab was invented there, I didn’t need another incentive to take the next long distance coach and be on my way to Bursa.
Only 85 miles east of Istanbul and stretching out between the beaches of the Sea of Marmara and the snow covered Ulugad mountains Bursa has it all. History, art, beauty, great food, beach resorts in front, ski resorts at the back, all combined with the joys of a modern, very green and very wealthy city. What it does not have is crowds of tourists with the added annoyance of merchants and hawkers, jumping out at you at every step of the way trying to sell you yet another carpet or garish trinkets you definitely don’t want.
Visiting Bursa, I was left alone, making my way at my leisure from my lovely boutique hotel towards the old town to cast my eye over one of Bursa’s landmarks: The Green Mosque and Sultan’s tombs. Smaller than Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, the building’s green tiles sparkle even more. Green is in fact a byword for Bursa, because there are countless parks and trees and the surrounding countryside is full of orchards, poppy fields, streams and meadows.
I enjoyed the wooden bridge leading over a river which divides Bursa, lined with art and craft shops where I got a first glimpse as how the puppets are made. En route to the bridge and Green Mosque I came to another Bursa landmark: the old silk market, unique in all of Turkey. Located on the silk road in antiquity, Bursa is famous for spinning the finest silk and the Han documents the history. I couldn’t resist buying a beautiful scarf, at half the price I would have had to pay in Istanbul.
Before I took a taxi to reach the Karagöz museum, my stomach needed taking care of and I indulged in a massive kebab in Iskender’s original restaurant. He was a cook in Bursa, who one day had the bright idea to turn his meat spit vertical instead of horizontal so he could cut finer slices. The Iskender kebab was born and has since become world famous.Be warned: one portion easily feeds two!
Karagoz MuseumThus fortified I couldn’t wait to go and see the main purpose of my trip: The tomb and museum of the pranksters. The blue and cream colored house is already worth seeing, but what’s inside surpassed my expectation.
A vast collection of old and new puppets not only from Turkey but from other countries too. And I got lucky, because a performance of a shadow play was about to start. I met and talked to the puppet master who single handedly manages all the figures and speaks all the roles. It’s an admirable feat which requires long years of apprenticeship.
If you plan a trip to Istanbul, don’t miss out on a day excursion to Bursa. A ferry departs from Yeniköy in Istanbul every hour and reaches Yalova in about 45 minutes. From there it’s only a half hour minibus ride to Bursa.
Battalgazi and Eskisehir
My next ‘folklore inspired’ trip came about by chance. I was sitting on a plane from Munich to Istanbul and got talking to my neighbor. ‘I’m from Eskisehir,’ he said. ‘Have you ever been?’ I didn’t dare telling him that I didn’t have a clue where Eskisehir was, so I limited my reply to a simple ‘No’.
‘Oh,’ he continued enthusiastically, ‘ you must visit. It’s a beautiful city, half way between Istanbul and Ankara’, he added helpfully. ‘You can ride a Venetian gondola on the river, see an Italian opera in our opera house, buy French designer clothes in our boutiques and…’ he paused dramatically, ‘visit the tomb of Battal Gazi, a real giant and Muslim hero in the battle against the Byzantines.
He is buried in one of Turkey’s oldest mosques on top of a hill, only 30 miles from Eskisehir.’ ‘That’s a legend, no?’ I asked. ‘He wasn’t really a giant?’ Indignation spread on the face of my neighbor. ‘Of course he was. 6 meters tall. Go see his sarcophagus and his hand and foot prints!!’
Shadow puppetmaker. A giant, a Venetian gondola, French clothes and Italian opera, all in the middle of Anatolia which, until then I had more associated with old stone houses and peasant women scrubbing their laundry in streams than with high heels and arias? And, honestly, I didn’t believe the giant story either, so I just had to go and see for myself.
At the beginning of the 20th century, when the fashionable crowd boarded the Orient Express to Istanbul, many of them crossed the Bosporus to Haydarpasa train station on the Asian side and continued their journey on the equally luxurious and famous Baghdad train.
The most important stop on the way: Eskisehir. The flair and sophistication they brought with them has rubbed off on the city and persists to this day. Again, I found a fabulous boutique hotel and went to explore. First stop was the river which is quite narrow, but crossed by many pastel colored wrought iron bridges, one more beautiful than the next.
In the summer, boat trips can indeed be taken, in Venetian gondolas, complete with song and outfits. Unbelievable to find something like this in the middle of Turkey. Eskisehir is also home to two of the most prestigious universities in Turkey. Countless cafes line the river banks, full of students, chatting, drinking coffee and playing backgammon.
Between the bridges and the cafes I felt that I was in a mixture of Venice and Paris and only the language reminded me of where I really was.
And my neighbor was right. Nowhere outside Istanbul have I seen so many chic women. Italian, French and Turkish designer shops in a fabulous shopping mall, book stores galore along the river and like in Bursa, not a tourist in sight.
But, there is more. Meerschaum, a white mineral which sometimes is found floating on the Black Sea and more often is mined in the mountains around Eskisehir is as emblematic for this city as silk is for Bursa.
Uphill I an older part of town I did not only find original Ottoman houses with their jutting first floors but also a Meerschaum museum with antique, carved pipe heads of incredible intricacy. I have never seen anything like it.
The next day was dedicated to following the ‘giant’.
A bus took me from Eskisehir to the village of Seyitgazi, a half hour ride. Looming in front of me, up the hill, was the massive complex of the mosque, türbe (tomb), medrese (Islamic school) as well as kitchens and bakeries which form the entire complex.
Climbing up and entering through the archway, I put on my scarf, took off my shoes and…lo and behold, came face to face with the 7 meter long coffin of the hero Battalgazi, covered with a green cloth. Next to him is the sarcophagus of his wife Eleanor which hardly reaches his knee. So, the story of my neighbor was true.
I’m hooked now. I’ll continue to find destinations using ‘folklore’ as my guide. I have already discovered two wonderful places which I would otherwise not have thought of. There are bound to be more, in fact, next stop is Konya and Aksehir home to ‘The Hodja’, another popular folklore figure and the guy who rides backwards on his donkey.