Celebrations in Turkey include religious festivals, observed throughout the Islamic world on dates determined by the Muslim Hijra calendar, as well as annual cultural or harvest extravaganzas held in various cities and resorts across the country.
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The most important religious festival is Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish), the Muslim month of daylight abstention from food, water, tobacco and sexual relations. Otherwise, life carries on as normal during Ramadan, despite the fact that half the population is fasting from sunrise to sunset. Some restaurants close for the duration or severely curtail their menus, others discreetly hide their salons behind curtains, but at most establishments you will be served with surprisingly good grace. The Koran allows pregnant and nursing mothers, the infirm and travellers to be excused from obligatory fasting; immediately after dark there’s an orgy of eating (the iftar yemeği) by the famished in places public and private, and restaurants sell out of everything within an hour of sunset.
Kadir Gecesi (The Eve of Power), when Mohammed received the Koran from Allah, takes place between the 27th and 28th days of the month of Ramadan. Mosques – brilliantly illuminated for the whole month – are full all night, as it’s believed that prayers at this time have special efficacy. On Arife, the last day of Ramadan, it is customary to go to the cemeteries and pay respects to departed ancestors; many rural restaurants close that evening.
The three-day Şeker Bayramı (Sugar Holiday) immediately follows Ramadan, celebrated by family reunions and the giving of presents and sweets to children, and restrained general partying in restaurants; on Arife eve, the night after Kadir Gecesi, you will have to book well in advance for tables at better establishments.
The four-day Kurban Bayramı (Festival of the Sacrifice), in which the sacrificial offering of a sheep represents Abraham’s son Ishmael (a Koranic version of the Old Testament story), is marked by the massive slaughter of sheep and goats. Only wealthy families can afford to buy a whole animal, so part of the meat is distributed to the poor of the neighbourhood.
During the Şeker and Kurban festivals travel becomes difficult – reserve well in advance for a seat on any long-distance coach, train or plane. If you travel by road in national holiday periods, note that the already high traffic accident rate soars. Many shops and all banks, museums and government offices close during these periods (although corner grocery stores and most resort shops stay open) and when the festivals occur close to a national secular holiday, the whole country effectively grinds to a halt for up to a week.
Religious festival dates
As the Islamic calendar is lunar, the dates of the four important religious festivals drift backwards eleven days each year (twelve in a leap year) relative to the Gregorian calendar. Future dates of festivals given on Islamic websites are provisional, owing to factors such as when the moon is sighted and the international date line.
2013 Şeker Aug 8–10; Kurban Oct 14–20
2014 Şeker July 28–30; Kurban Oct 3–7
2015 Şeker July 17–19; Kurban Sept 22–28
2016 Şeker July 6–9; Kurban Sept 11–18
Cultural festivals are most interesting in cities and resorts that have the resources to attract internationally renowned acts. Almost every town has some yearly bash, though many are of limited interest to outsiders. Folk-dance festivals provide an opportunity to see Turkey’s best dance troupes perform a sample of the varied repertoire of Turkish dances in traditional costumes. There’s a full festival calendar for İstanbul, in addition to the summary given here.
Camel wrestling Selçuk. The festival itself takes place on the last two weekends, though bouts occur throughout Aydın province from December onwards.
İstanbul International Film Festival İstanbul wfilm.iksv.org/en. Full-length features and documentaries.
Conquest Celebrations İstanbul wibb.gov.tr. Week-long celebration of the Ottoman conquest of old Constantinople – concerts by the Ottoman Mehter military band, fancy-dress processions and fireworks.
Ephesus Festival Ephesus. The ancient theatre hosts folk dancing plus more conventional acts.
International Puppet Festival İstanbul t 0212 232 0224. A celebration of Turkish Shadow Theatre, or karağöz – silent puppets tell their tale behind a two-dimensional screen.
İstanbul International Theatre Festival İstanbul wıksv.org. Even-numbered years only; dance and workshops as well as theatre performances.
Hıdırellez Gypsy festival Edirne. Celebration of the coming of spring, with gypsy bands performing, dancing in the street and jumping over bonfires. May 5–6.
Takava Gypsy Festival Kırklareli. The same celebrations as at the Hıdırellez festival in Edirne. May 5–6.
Oil wrestling Yağlı Güreş, near Edirne. Competitors from all over the country tangle with each other in the country’s major, week-long oil wrestling event, plus lots of music and dance events. Late June or early July.
Kafkasör Festival Artvin. Bullfighting between young beasts in a beautiful alpine setting, plus performances from folk-dance troupes and musical events – and lots of drinking. Late June.
Pir Abdal Musa Tekke village near Elmalı. Rites honouring the second most important Alevî saint after Hacı Bektaş Veli; early June.
İstanbul International Classical Music Festival İstanbul wiksv.org. Performances by top soloists and orchestras, often in historic venues.
Efes Pilsen One Love İstanbul wicvb.org.tr/art-and-culture/. Moderately alternative city-centre weekend-long festival generally held at trendy Santralistanbul, with plenty of DJ-led dance sets and performances from international bands and local bands.
Rock N’ Coke Near İstanbul w rockncoke.com. A weekend of Western and Turkish rock held on an airfield 50km to the west of the city; buses run from Taksim. Headliners in recent years have included Franz Ferdinand and The Cure.
International İzmir Festival İzmir wiksev.org. Month-long classical music, pop, ballet and jazz festival with many international names performing at Ephesus theatre and Çeşme castle.
Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival Near Side, Antalya province waspendosfestival.gov.tr. The Mediterranean coast’s big highbrow event, now expanded to run from mid-June through mid-September.
İstanbul Jazz Festival İstanbul wiksv.org. Jazz as well as rock acts; early July.
Chef’s Contest Mengen, Bolu province. The region purportedly produces the country’s best cooks.
Hacı Bektaş Veli Commemoration Hacıbektaş village, Cappadocia. Bektaşis and their affiliates, the Alevîs, meet for a weekend of ritual singing and dancing; second half of Aug.
Bodrum Festival Bodrum. Centred on the castle, and emphasizing ballet and opera; early Sept.
İstanbul Biennial İstanbul wiksv.org/en. Art exhibition, held odd-numbered years, with dozens of projects; lasts into Nov.
Akbank Jazz Festival İstanbul wakbanksanat.com. A more traditional programme than İstanbul’s other jazz festival, in July.
Altın Portakal (“Golden Orange”) Film Festival Antalya waltinportakal.org.tr). A major fixture on the international festival circuit.
Grape Harvest/Wine Festival Ürgüp, Cappadocia. Featuring some of the better local winery products.
Watermelon Festival Diyarbakır. A showcase for the region’s most outsized fruit. Mid- to late Sept.
Tourism and Handicrafts Festival Avanos. A celebration of the town’s distinctive pottery.
Mevlâna Festival Konya. Whirling dervish performances at the home of the order. Dec 10–17.