Traditions and customs of Turkey

What traditions and customs are there in Turkey?

From the former Ottoman Empire, the customs and traditions of Turkey.


Food in daily life

Turkish cuisine includes many different vegetable and meat stews (mainly lamb and beef); borek skewer dishes, and dolma; and a sourdough bread eaten with almost every meal.

Borek is a dough made of many thin layers of dough interspersed with cheese, spinach, and/or ground meat. Kebab is the common word for meat roasted in chunks or slices on a skewer or as meatballs on a grill.

Dolma is the generic name for dishes made from vegetables (for example, tomatoes and peppers) and leaves (for example, grapes, cabbage, and eggplant) that are stuffed with or wrapped around rice or bulgur pilaf, ground meat, and spices. The Turks are especially fond of eggplants.

In winter, many Turks eat bread with hot soup for breakfast. In the warmer seasons, they usually eat bread and jam, hard-boiled or soft-boiled eggs, a white cheese made from sheep’s milk, salted olives, and hot milk or hot milk tea. A typical midday meal consists of a vegetable and meat stew with a side of rice or Bulgarian pilaf and salad, with fruit for dessert.

Borek or dolma can substitute for the stew. Sweet desserts, such as baklava, are served on special occasions. Dinner is usually lighter, consisting of leftovers from midday or a kebab with salad. Normally, only water is drunk with the midday and evening meals.

Food preferences and preparations vary by region and ethnicity. For example, the Black Sea is known for its fish dishes, especially anchovies, while the eastern region is known for its spicy foods.

Circassians are famous for preparing chicken in walnut sauce, while Georgian cuisine is characterized by thick cornbread and corn soup. Lahmacun, or Armenian pizza, originated in the southeastern provinces once occupied by the Armenians.

All cities have numerous restaurants and fast food stalls. Many specialize in a limited number of foods, such as kabobs, soups, meat wraps made with pide (flatbread), cakes, and fish. Others offer a variety of foods, including stews, pilafs, vegetables, and desserts.

Cheap restaurants cater to workers, who typically only eat breakfast and lunch at home. High class restaurants usually reserve a section for women and families. American fast food chains have become popular in big cities.

The main food taboo in Turkey is pork, which is forbidden to Muslims. Although the Koran also prohibits alcoholic beverages, many Turks drink beer, wine, and spirits. Certain segments of the Muslim population consider other foods to be taboo even though their religion does not prohibit them.

For example, the Yürüks, a formerly nomadic Turkic people, avoid all shellfish with the exception of fish. Members of the Alevi sect of Islam do not eat rabbit because it menstruates. Turks in the northwestern province of Balikesir avoid snails, incorrectly claiming that the Koran forbids their consumption.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

Special dishes are associated with holidays and celebrations. In Gaziantep, yuvarlama (a mixture of ground meat, rice, chick peas, onions and spices served with yogurt) is a special dish for the Ramadan Festival at the end of the Islamic month of fasting. In some of the southern provinces, the special meal for this festival consists of lamb skewers served with tomatoes and borek.

For the holy month of Ashure, which comes after the Feast of Ramadan, many households prepare a pudding called Ashure to share with guests, friends, and neighbors.

According to tradition, Ashure must contain at least fifteen different ingredients, such as peas, beans, almonds, cereals, rice, raisins, rose water, pomegranate seeds, orange peel, figs, and cinnamon. In much of Turkey, wedding soup, a preparation of lamb meat on the bone, egg, lemon juice, flour, butter, and red pepper, is served at wedding celebrations.

Turkish drinks include tea drunk throughout the day, thick coffee usually drunk after a meal, ayran (buttermilk), boza (a fermented Bulgarian drink in winter), and rakî. (an anise-flavored brandy that is usually mixed with water).

Carbonated drinks have become popular with the young, and beer gardens in major cities have become men’s hangouts.


Turks expect adults to marry and have children, and the vast majority do. Because men are not supposed to lower their wives’ standard of living, they are not supposed to marry women of a higher economic class.

People generally marry within their own religious sect and ethnic group, although inter-ethnic marriages among Sunni Muslims are not uncommon. In traditional Turkish society, the selection of spouses and the marriage ceremony were controlled by groups of relatives.

During the prenuptial process, the people to be married played minor roles. Rituals, especially the imam’s marriage ceremony, are essential to a morally and socially acceptable marriage.

In 1926, the Turkish revolutionary government abolished Islamic family law and adopted a slightly modified version of family law in the Swiss civil code. The new Family Law only requires and recognizes civil marriage ceremonies.

It requires the consent of mature individuals for a binding marriage contract and only prescribes monogamy. Although the law prohibits parents from entering into marriage commitments or agreements on behalf of their children, arranged marriages without the consent of the brides have been common.

In a 1968 survey, 11.4 percent of women said their marriages had been arranged by their families without their consent, while 67 percent said they had had family-arranged marriages with their consent.

Figures for non-consensual arranged marriages ranged from 7.7 per cent for women living in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, and between 11.3 and 12.5 per cent for women living in cities, towns and smaller villages.

An impressive 49.9 percent of the husbands surveyed said that their parents or other relatives had made the final decision about their marriages. This response category ranged from 59.1 percent for village men to 15.3 percent for men in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir.

Today, the vast majority of marriages are concluded with the consent of the couple, but families still play a role in recommending and selecting potential spouses, especially their daughters.

Although divorce is not considered an Islamic sin, it occurs infrequently. Divorcees, especially men with children, quickly remarry, usually to divorced women. The new code removes the husband’s Islamic prerogative of verbal and unilateral divorce and prescribes a judicial procedure.

The law recognizes only six grounds for divorce: adultery; conspiracy against life, serious assaults and insults; crime or dishonorable life; desertion; Mental illness; and incompatibility. The evidentiary requirements are so substantial that it has been difficult to establish one of these grounds. A couple cannot divorce by mutual agreement.


Formal etiquette is fundamental in Turkish culture as it governs most social interactions and the use of space. Turkish culture has an exact verbal formula for practically all occasions. The etiquette requires the pronouncement of the appropriate formulas for these occasions.

Strict etiquette governs intergenerational and heterosexual interactions. Unless they are close friends or relatives, older people are treated formally. For example, older men should be addressed with the title “Bey” (Lord) and women with the title “Hanim” (Lady).

Young people are expected to be reserved in his presence. Adults of the opposite sex are expected not to act casually or show affection to one another in public. Same-sex friends can hold hands and greet each other with kisses on the cheek. When meeting, men shake hands, but a man does not shake hands with a woman unless she extends it.

People are not criticized for being late. Business meetings are often preceded by tea and unrelated conversations. Consideration for peers is important. You don’t drink, smoke, or eat something without first offering to share it with your peers.

The houses are divided into guest and private areas, and it is inappropriate to request a tour of the house. The soles of shoes are considered dirty, and shoes are removed when one enters a house or mosque.

Religious beliefs

Islamic tradition, ideology and ritual are very important. About 98 percent of Turkey’s citizens are Muslim, of whom 80 to 85 percent are Sunni of the Hanafi school and 15 to 20 percent are members of Shia sects (mostly Alevis)..

Turkish Muslims acknowledge the standard Islamic creed and duties, but only the most religious fast or make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Four percent of Turks identify as atheists and four percent as agnostics.

For most Turks, Islam plays an important role in rites of passage: naming soon after birth, circumcision for children, marriage, and funerals.

The state controls religious education and most religious personnel by overseeing schools that train Sunni imams and by certifying imams as state employees who work in community mosques.

In recent decades, a revival of fundamental Islam has been supported by about 20 percent of the population. A small proportion of the population participates in Sufi orders and brotherhoods.

The most important events in Turkey’s Islamic calendar are Ramazan, the lunar month of fasting; Kadir Gecesi (Night of Power), the twenty-seventh day of Ramazan, when Muhammad was appointed Allah’s messenger; Sheker Bayram is a three-day national holiday at the end of Ramazan in which people exchange visits and sweets; and Kurban Bayram (Feast of Sacrifice), a four-day national holiday celebrated during the lunar month of Hajj (Pilgrimage) to commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac.

Up to 2.5 million sheep have been slaughtered in Turkey on this holiday; most of the meat is shared with neighbors and donated to the poor.

Secular celebrations

Major secular celebrations and official holidays begin with New Year’s Day, January 1, an adoption from the West. Lots of people exchange greeting cards, and some celebrate Western-style.

National Sovereignty Day, April 23, commemorates the first meeting of the Grand National Assembly. Because April 23 is also National Children’s Day, much of the day is devoted to children’s activities such as dances and music recitals.

On May 19, the Day of Youth and Sports is celebrated, in commemoration of the birth of Atatürk. August 30 is Victory Day, which celebrates the victorious battles during the Turkish War of Independence.

October 29, Republic Day, commemorates Atatürk’s proclamation of the republic in 1923. Both Victory Day and Republic Day are celebrated with patriotic parades, music, and speeches.

The arts and humanities

Arts support

The Ministry of Culture has implemented a policy of promoting non-religious Western and Turkish art. It offers a limited number of scholarships for the study of art and music in Europe, especially in France. The ministry also supports the Academy of Fine Arts and art museums in major cities.

Most of the artists come from the middle and upper classes of the big cities. Graphic artists mainly depend on large corporations and the upper class to buy their works. They sell through private shows and a limited number of art stores.

Traditional artisan artists producing pottery, rugs and kilims, brass and copper ornaments, and embroidery have a broader market for their work. Most sculptors rely heavily on state commissions.


Until the mid-19th century, Turkish literature focused on the Ottoman court, which produced poetry and some prose. This literature represented a fusion of classical Persian, Arabic, and Turkish styles.

Western influences were introduced in the 1860s by a group of intellectuals who attempted to combine Western cultural forms with a simpler form of the Turkish language. This westernizing trend continued throughout the 19th century and became more pronounced just before the First World War.

After 1923, the republic produced an impressive number of novelists, poets, singers, musicians, and artists. Novelists who have gained international fame include Halide Edib, Resat Nuri Güntekin, and more recently Orhan Pamuk.

Several major works dealt with village life, from Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoglu’s Yaban (“The Stranger”) in the 1930s to Mahmut Makal’s A Village in Anatolia and Yasar Kemal’s Mehmet My Hawk, which won the world recognition in 1961.

Orhan Veli is generally considered the father of modern Turkish poetry, which has been characterized by a rebellion against rigidly prescribed forms and a concern with immediate perception. Some poets have experimented with obscurantist forms and ideas; many others have expressed concern about social democratic issues.

Graphic arts

Western influence on graphic arts began in the late Ottoman period with the founding of the Istanbul Academy of Fine Arts, which continues to employ European and European-trained Turkish artists. In the republican periods, Turkish art has involved a mixture of Western and indigenous styles.

Virtually all leading artists have studied at the academy or in Europe. Some have imitated European forms, while others have pursued a Turkish style and portray Turkish subjects such as towns and urban scenes in a representational manner. Many sculptors receive state commissions to create monumental works depicting Atatürk and other patriotic themes.

Performing arts

Foreign plays outnumber Turkish plays in the theater, but theater attendance has increased in recent decades and many Turkish playwrights who combine Western techniques with Turkish social issues have had the opportunity to present their plays.

Both Ankara and Istanbul have highly respected opera companies. The Presidential Symphony Orchestra gives concerts both in Ankara and on tour. Ankara and Istanbul have music conservatories that include ballet schools. Several Turkish composers, the best known of which is Adnan Saygun, have been acclaimed in Europe and America for fusing Turkish folk themes with Western forms.

The Istanbul Conservatory of Music has taken steps to preserve authentic folk music by recording it in all parts of the country. The annual popular arts festivals in Istanbul feature a wide variety of Turkish music and dance.

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