Can Yaman turkish ambassador series : a closer look at Turkey
With the recent, unofficial appointment of Can Yaman, star of the upcoming Sandokan Series, as Ambassador of Turkey to Italy, we take a closer look at Turkish life and culture.
Having had the opportunity to travel to Turkey, I am fully aware that attempting to capture the life and culture of a country of this size is a herculean task better suited to a lifetime of scholarly endeavor with much research and countless articles to cover all of the different parts and pieces. But do not worry! This article is not intended as any kind of scholarly treatise but merely an attempt to present some hopefully interesting highlights about life in Turkey. A few facts about the history and cultural traditions will be a starting point for this limited foray into the subject.
Culture: The culture of Turkey is a mix of diverse elements from the cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean, Central Asian, Eastern European, and Caucasian traditions. Many of the traditions that still exist in modern-day Turkey were brought together by the Ottoman Empire. During the early years of the republic, the government invested large resources in fine arts such as paintings, sculpture and architecture – to modernize and deliberately create a cultural identity.
Religion: The majority of the population is Muslim, nevertheless Turkey is a secular country. In 1928, a constitutional amendment removed Islam as the “official state religion”. In addition to the Muslim majority, there are small populations of Jews and
Christians. Those who adhere to Christianity are divided between Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and other denominations.
Population: The people of Turkey live in cities, small towns, and in the more than 30,000 villages scattered across its seven regions. Population distribution is strongly influenced by the agricultural potential of the land. Overall, the population is fairly young with about half under the age of 30. The birth rate and the death rate are both slightly below the world average. Life expectancy is 78 years for women and 73 years for men.
Always a matter of human interest and curiosity is how the people live. In other words, the kind of houses that are common in the villages, small towns and larger cities of Turkey.
Village Houses: The typical Turkish village house is a rectangular flat-roofed building one or two stories high and the color of the local unbaked brick or stone from which it is made. The poorest home is a single room to house family, livestock, and possessions. A better village house may include joint households of perhaps 20 people living in a kind of compound with many rooms. The vast majority of homes in a Turkish village fall between these extremes with local variations, depending upon the region. In the forests of the northern mountain ranges of Turkey, for example, village homes are made of timber with red roofs. But brick, cement, and cinder block are common wherever people can afford them.
Town Houses: Traditional Anatolian town houses, still the most common residence in many smaller cities, were built in stone or wood, usually of two stories, with wooden floors and, sometimes, beautifully carved ceilings. The upper story often protrudes, cantilever fashion, into the street. We have all seen this style of house in every Turkish dizi or film we have ever watched.
With whitewashed walls and red-tiled roofs, the small towns of Turkey sometimes present a more modern appearance than most villages, though just as often the distinction between large villages and small towns is barely visible.
City Houses: In larger cities, the downtown areas have an increasingly European appearance. Traditional housing is still visible in the older neighborhoods and in old manor houses, like those that line the Bosphorus in Istanbul in the following photo.
Old Manor Houses on the Bosphorus in Istanbul
In contrast, the style of homes in newly-developed sections is becoming more characterized by simpler, more modern styles in brick, glass and concrete. An example is this stunning 6-bedroom villa in Istanbul’s Sariyer neighbohood.
Modern Villa in Istanbul
Land Use: About one-third of Turkey’s land area is utilized for agriculture, much of it extensively. About half of the agricultural land is used for field crops and one-third for grazing. A smaller proportion of cultivated land is used for vineyards, orchards, olive groves, and vegetable gardens. Landholdings are generally small, with family farms averaging only 15 acres. Turkey has a great variety of natural resources, though few occur on a large scale.
Education: Primary education is free and compulsory, beginning at age six and lasting eight years, including a four-year middle school program. Many of the primary schools are village schools and nearly all eligible children are enrolled. Secondary education in Turkey is also compulsory for an additional four years. The 21st century saw a rapid surge in tertiary education and the number of universities increased from about 60 at the turn of the century to more than 200 in 2020.
Health Care: Health care is provided by both state and private health services. Turkey has a sufficient number of doctors and other health workers, but most facilities are concentrated in urban areas. To counter this, the Turkish government operates a health care network to serve the villages.
Daily Life – Work: In rural areas, each season has different tasks and activities. Except in the south and west, winter is a period of frost, snow, and social activities. Animals are often kept indoors and fed mainly chopped straw. With the spring thaw, plowing and sowing are soon under way. After a month or so of less-urgent work, the hay harvest is followed immediately by the main grain harvest, a period of intense activity lasting some six to eight weeks. Everyone works the harvest, some people 16 to 20 hours a day. Most village areas contain weavers, masons, carpenters, and smiths.
A Local Village Market
It is impossible to summarize in a few words the culture of the small towns and cities. Not long ago, they were the central part of a great empire. As Turkey has modernized, the towns and cities have been profoundly influenced by European fashions and technology. Nevertheless, most small towns and villages still contain bazaars and markets, and simple lockup shops standing side-by-side in rows. Larger towns are more Westernized with modern factories, offices, and shops.
Then there is the granddaddy market of them all: The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Kapalıçarşı in Turkish, meaning “Covered Market”. It is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world with over 60 covered streets and over 4,000 shops covering a total area of 588,000 square feet! This market attracts between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily and can only be called the shopping trip of a lifetime. It has been listed as among the world’s most-visited tourist attractions and one of the first shopping malls in the world. It was built during the Ottoman reign when Istanbul was still known as Constantinople.
Having walked through a small portion of the Grand Bazaar, it is an experience not to be missed for any traveler to Istanbul. The sights and sounds, the mix of languages from around the world as locals and tourists meander through the bazaar were a delight to my eyes and ears. I always wonder what people are saying and how they can possibly understand one another when they speak so fast. And for a foodie and dedicated home cook like myself, my taste buds were tingling and singing with the incredible smells of the different herbs and spices. Imagining how they would taste and the different ways I could use them in my cooking and create the uniqueness of Turkish dishes in my own kitchen.
The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul
Larger towns are more Westernized with modern factories, offices, and shops. For many workers, commuting from sprawling suburban areas into major cities each day for work is typical.
Daily Life – Food: Many sources affirm that three major cuisines exist in the world: Turkish, Chinese and French. Over the centuries, Turkey has developed a cuisine which has a very pure quality. The variety and simplicity of Turkish recipes and the quality of the ingredients guarantees delicious meals. Tourist boards claim that Turkish Cuisine is always a pleasant surprise for the visitor. It is largely the heritage of Ottoman cuisine which is best described as a fusion and refinement of Central Asian, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, and Balkan cuisines. The Ottomans fused various culinary traditions of their realm with influences from the traditional cuisine of the Levant, (which covers a large area of the Eastern Mediterranean), along with traditional Turkic elements from Central Asia (such as yogurt and manti). This has created a vast array of specialties, many with strong regional associations.
Turkish cuisine varies across the country. For example, the cooking of Istanbul is done with a lighter hand in the use of spices, a preference for rice over bulgur, and more variety in vegetable stews. The cuisine of the Black Sea region uses fish extensively. The cuisine of the southeast is famous for its variety of kebabs, mezes, and dough-based desserts like baklava. The name of any specialty includes that of a city or region and may refer to the specific technique or ingredients used in that area. In foreign countries, meat-based foods such as kebabs are often presented as the mainstay of Turkish cuisine. However, the reality is that native Turkish meals largely center around rice, vegetables, and bread – with soup served at every meal, including the breakfast table.!
Growing up in the country in the USA, our mother always told her six children that we had to eat a good breakfast, to start our day off the right way. In Turkey, kahlvati (breakfast) is taken very seriously. And let me just say it is a thing of beauty, a feast for the eyes, and an incredible way to start the day! It is not just one dish, but rather a spread of Turkish delicacies, which varies by region. When or if you travel to Turkey, kahvalti will definitely be one of the experiences you will remember – and long for when you get back home!
Daily Life – Dress: Turkish men have generally adopted the styles and somber colors of European male dress. Fezzes and turbans were abolished by law in 1925, and most men in rural areas now wear cloth caps. The famous Turkish baggy trousers, exceedingly full in the seat, are still quite common in rural areas and among poorer town dwellers, but the traditional cummerbund and colorful waistcoat are rare. Village women still largely preserve the wearing of traditional attire with some local combination of baggy trousers, skirts, and aprons. In many areas, it is still possible to identify a woman’s town or village and her marital status by her dress. Village women in Turkey have never worn a veil but have traditionally covered their heads and mouths with a large scarf. In urban areas and larger cities, the dress for women is totally Westernized. Turkish women are as stylish as any European or American woman is and they love wearing the latest fashions.
Daily Life – Hospitality: The importance given to guests in the Turkish culture is quite remarkable. The Turkish people are known for their hospitality and take great pains to make their guests feel comfortable and happy. This is not only on a special day or celebration, or for a nationally-celebrated festival or holiday. Any guest visiting in a Turkish home is the single most important person in the house at that time. This tradition of hospitality also extends to shopkeepers who invite customers in with a smile and the offer of a Turkish coffee or tea. You may not buy a single thing from them, but you will still be treated as an honored guest.
Daily Life – Religious Practice: For the observant, Islam entails many duties. Men and women are to maintain a state of ritual purity, pray five times a day, fast during the month of Ramadan every year, and visit Mecca once in their lifetime, if possible. Islam provides basic ideas about the nature of morality, charity, transgression, reward and punishment, and relations between men and women.
Social Roles – Male and Female:
In rural areas, the main responsibilities of the men are the heavy agricultural work, looking after the livestock, and making all contacts outside the home, both official and economic, including shopping. Women might do men’s work but men never undertake women’s tasks. Women have the care of children, their houses, and the preparation and cooking of food – along with the milking, caring for the chickens, making cakes of winter fuel from dung and straw, weeding vegetable plots near the village, and reaping barley and other short-stemmed crops.
In urban areas, the role of women is related to social class. Women were given the right to vote in 1930, were first elected to parliament in 1935, and a woman first held the prime minister’s seat in the 1990s. Women are found in medicine, science, and the arts, and increasing numbers of women work in industry and the service sector.
Marriage, Family Life, and Kinship: The traditional rural household consists of a man, his wife, his adult sons and their wives, and his young children and grandchildren., with perhaps other random relatives. Upon the death of the head of household, it breaks up into as many first-generation households as there are sons. Then the process repeats itself. Most villagers probably live some part of their lives in such a household.
Traditional village weddings involve elaborate ceremonies and last several days. Large transfers of wealth are often involved. Practices vary considerably between regions but it is still common for a man to make a marriage payment to the father of his son’s bride and also pay for the wedding. The total cost can amount to as much or more than one year’s total income for an average household.
Among the urban, educated classes in Turkey, these traditions have largely broken down. Traditional and Western courtship styles have intermingled. Families may still arrange for an introduction between potential spouses and then, if they are compatible, the couple may choose to enter a period of courtship. This can result in a longer period of time between the initial meeting and a marriage ceremony. So, couples tend to be older when they marry. Many couples meet one another on their own, begin dating, and then seek approval from their families to marry.
Kinship carries strong obligations of mutual support. People look to their kin for day-to-day sociability, for hospitality in other villages, for help in trouble, for cooperation in weddings and funerals, for aid in urban migration, finding jobs, and securing official favors. Kinship and marriage ties have important political and economic implications, both at higher levels of power in cities and towns, and in links between towns and villages.
Social Change: Changes in Turkey have come about from shifts in the economy and in demographics. For example, nowadays young people are able to establish economic independence more easily. With a formal education system, and possibilities for upward social mobility or migration for work, the young people of Turkey have a view of the world that is far different from that of their ancestors.
Arts and Media: During the 20th century, Western forms of art, music, and literature assumed a place in Turkish national culture, alongside traditional cultural expressions. While many writers, artists, and musicians have abandoned traditional Islamic modes in favor of Western ones, Turkish culture has adopted a strong nationalistic slant. This can be seen in the use of the vernacular in literature, the depiction of village scenes in visual arts, and the popularity of folk ballads and other traditional forms in music. Western-style theatres, orchestras, and opera companies thrive as well as the popular arts.
There are many popular dances and games specific to particular regions. Folk instruments include drums, trumpets, flutes, tambourines, viols, and cymbals. Popular drama includes shadow plays, performed by puppets reflected on a linen screen, and the orta oyunu, a type of improvised comedy. Popular traditional literature takes the form of narrative (hikâye) and poetry (siir), recited by minstrels known as âşıks.
Formal cultural institutions are led by the Ministry of Culture, established in 1971. There are organizations devoted to the sciences and arts which include music conservatories, academies of fine arts, folklore societies, museums as well as scientific and professional societies.
There are several leading newspapers in Turkey, including Milliyet, Sabah, Zaman, and Hürriyet, all based in Istanbul. The state-run Turkish Radio-Television Corporation (TRT) operates four radio networks and five domestic television channels, as well as a major international satellite television channel. There are private radio stations and television channels.
Sports and Recreation: Football (soccer) is a favorite sport in Turkey. It was introduced in the late 19th century but was repressed by Ottoman officials, who believed that it was connected to rebellious activities. In 1923, Turkey became affiliated with a national federation of football and appeared in its first World Cup in 1954. Wrestling is another favored sport. In annual competitions, numerous athletes still compete in oiled wrestling, a sport practiced in the region for some six centuries. Turkey made its first Olympic appearance at the 1908 games in London, represented by a gymnast. Most of the medals won by Turkish athletes have been for wrestling.
The Ottoman Empire was multinational and multicultural. However, the new Republic of Turkey established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is more homogeneous in language and religion and has become increasingly secular and Western-oriented. Nevertheless, Islam continues to exert a profound influence on relations between the sexes and on family life. The strength of this influence varies between the regions of Turkey, between urban and rural populations, and between the social classes.
Culturally, Turkey sits between East and West and draws elements from both. The territory that now constitutes the Republic of Turkey has experienced a wide range of cultural influences. This has left a rich legacy of culture and tradition from the civilizations of Europe and the Islamic Middle East that is part and parcel of the daily lives of the Turkish people, whether they live in a village, a small town, or a huge metropolis like Istanbul.
The Bosphorus in Istanbul; it separates the European and Asian Sides of the city.
Hot Air Balloons over the Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia
Ephesus, on the UNESCO World Heritage List
Written by Mary Bloyd,
Resident Editor of Can Yaman International.
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