The Turkish Language

Warning sign about falling rocks, Hasankeyf

Warning sign about falling rocks, Hasankeyf. Audio of me reading the sign.

You may recall from my first post that my primary goal for traveling to Turkey was to learn the Turkish language. At PSU, I was able to study Turkish for two years before moving here, so I had a basic knowledge of the language when I arrived. Being here has reminded me that there’s a huge difference between studying a language’s words and grammar and being able to use it “on the street,” but that both are necessary to achieve fluency. Applying my book knowledge of Turkish to daily situations like haggling for a pair of boots or trying to find a concert venue has required lots of creativity and willingness to look like a goofy foreigner.

However, this task has been at least as rewarding as it has been demanding. Istanbul hosts more tourists than most cities in the world, and only a tiny fraction of them know any Turkish. Because of this, when they see an obvious foreigner like me with intermediate Turkish abilities, they almost always react with exuberance. Knowing some Turkish has granted me access to a slightly different status than the average tourist, which, believe me, has saved me lots of money in addition to making my daily interactions more complex and meaningful.

In this post, I want to share a little bit about the Turkish language, as well as some bigger linguistic ideas that will give you an idea of what’s going on with the world’s languages.

Some important differences between English and Turkish

Studying Turkish as opposed to, say, Spanish, has a unique set of challenges for English speakers. For example, both Spanish and English have a ton of words that came from Latin, so if I don’t know how to say “allegation,” I know there’s a good chance I can pronounce the same word with Spanish phonetics – alegación – and it will work. On the other hand, Turkish is entirely unrelated to English, so I have to learn almost every word by memorization. There’s no way to guess that the same word translates in to Turkish as iddia – you just have to know.

Another big difference between Turkish and English is the order of words within sentences, known in linguistics as syntax.

Syntactically, English sentences use the order subject-verb-object (SVO):

The cat ate the food.
(S)          (V)         (O)

In Turkish, the order is subject-object-verb (SOV):

Kedi yemek yedi.
The cat food ate
(S)           (O)    (V)

This is simple enough in preschool-style sentences about our pets enjoying a nondescript meal, but unfortunately, life is more complicated than that, and word order can get challenging. Take the sign in the picture above, for instance.

Its most literal translation to English would be:

Attention! Above-from rock pieces-of fall-can and large rock masses-of move-can. Please rock bottom-of-to approach-don’t

It’s not so bad though! Learning a language takes a lot of work, but the process is so intellectually and socially rewarding that you hardly notice.

Turkish, Kurdish, and English: How are they related?

After my post about southeast Turkey, many of you asked if Kurdish and Turkish were similar at all. The short answer is no. But there’s a long answer, and it requires explaining the concept of language families:

All of the world’s languages came from one common language, which we know very little about. When groups of people moved to different parts of the world and became separated from one another, their languages developed in unique ways. The process repeated itself and more languages were created as people moved and created new communities.

Indo-European language family tree (source: linguatics.com). Kurdish (omitted) is part of the Iranian subfamily.

Indo-European language family tree (source: linguatics.com). Kurdish (omitted) is part of the Iranian subfamily.

Linguists represent this process by making family trees of languages. As you can see on the image on the right, English comes from a Germanic language, which comes from an ancestral language called Indo-European, which came from the world’s first language. The Indo-European family also includes Czech, Spanish, Russian, Persian (Farsi), and Hindi, to name a few.

Kurdish, perhaps surprisingly, also belongs to the Indo-European family. It is a close relative of Persian.

Turkish has a much different bloodline. It comes from an ancestral language called Turkic, which came from a language called Uralic, which came from the world’s first language. This is to say that Turkish and English, as well as Turkish and Kurdish, do not have a common ancestor except for the world’s first language.

Turkish and Kurdish, then, are just as unrelated as Turkish and English. In southeast Turkey, I found that I couldn’t converse with young children because they spoke Kurdish as their native language. Eventually, they will  become bilingual when they learn Turkish in school.

The Turkish alphabet

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk introducing the new Turkish alphabet, 1928.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk introducing the new Turkish alphabet, 1928.

You may remember from before that Turkish used to be written using the Arabic script, but it now uses letters from the Latin alphabet like English, with a couple modifications. Thankfully, this fairly new way of writing is highly phonetic, which means each letter only makes one sound.

This is what the alphabet looks like,

Aa Bb Cc Çç Dd Ee Ff Gg Ğğ Hh Iı İi Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Öö Oo Pp Rr Ss Şş Tt Uu Üü Vv Yy Zz

And this is what the alphabet sounds like.

Here’s a recording of me introducing myself. This is the text:

Merhaba. Benim adım Seth. İstanbul’da oturuyorum. En sevdiğim renk yeşil.

Hello. My name is Seth. I live in Istanbul. My favorite color is green.

My experience learning a foreign language

There’s an unfortunate stereotype that Americans are monolingual English speakers with little interest in other languages. While this isn’t true (it’s a stereotype after all), it also makes sense since in America, English is very isolated compared to Europe, where large language communities are densely concentrated next to each other. This means Americans are less often faced with other languages, so maybe we perceive less of a need to learn them. Of course, there is the exception of Spanish, whose speakers constitute a giant minority population in the US, but English-speaking Americans still lag far behind Europe in terms of bilingualism.

When people learn foreign languages, they reduce the distance between them and other cultures, allowing for greater understanding and tolerance, and who doesn’t want that? There are so many other reasons, too, like the fact that studying foreign languages is great intellectual exercise, or that being bilingual makes it easier to get jobs, or that people will give you discounts on Turkish delight because you speak some Turkish. The list goes on.

Metin and Uğur, confectioners, Istanbul.

Metin, Uğur, and their lokum (Turkish delight), Istanbul.

In the comments, feel free to ask questions and talk about your experience with foreign languages. Have you studied any? Did you grow up speaking a language other than English? What languages would you like to learn?

Bonus: If you make a recording of you introducing yourself in Turkish (like the one I made), it would make my week. Plus, I’ll bring you extra lokum in when I see you!



Turkish/Kurdish Breakfast, Tea


Breakfast in the Hasanpaşa Kervansaray (General Hasan Caravan Fortress), Diyarbakır

Sorry about the quality of this photo of the week. I took it while very hungry and anxiously anticipating eating the pictured meal.

The Turkish word for breakfast is kahvaltı, which literally means “before coffee.” Despite this, I rarely see Turks drinking coffee after breakfast. This may come as a surprise considering the famousness of “Turkish coffee” in the Western world. While Turks do indeed drink Turkish coffee on occasion, they much prefer çay (tea – pronounced the same as “chai”), which they drink during all waking hours. One day during my trip to Turkish Kurdistan, I decided to count how many cups of tea I drank. The number was 12, and I had turned down no fewer than four.

Çay, unless otherwise specified, is a strong black tea that comes from the Black Sea region of Turkey. It’s served strong with a couple of sugar cubes on the side – sweeten to taste, but don’t even think about adding milk. The typical vessel for çay is a small, tulip-shaped glass with a saucer.

Fun fact: Per capita, Turks drink more tea than people in China, England, India, or Japan.

Breakfast is a huge deal in both Turkish and Kurdish cultures. There’s no arguing that it’s the most important meal of the day here. It’s also a trademark of Turkish and Kurdish hospitality; hosts always serve breakfast to overnight guests. (I was even served koç yumurtası last week, without warning. Feel free to look it up.) At home, breakfast is served on the floor atop a special “breakfast rug.”

The general theme of breakfast is very similar all across Turkey, but some ingredients – mostly fruits and vegetables – vary depending on the season and location.  A standard Turkish breakfast consists of:

  • bread
  • jam (flavors like rose, sour cherry, and apricot are popular)
  • a hard-boiled egg
  • green olives
  • fresh vegetables: tomatoes and cucumbers, maybe spinach
  • beyaz peynir (“white cheese,” similar to feta, but softer and less sharp)
  • çay

Lyla and the class vegetarians – afiyet olsun (bon appétit)!

Our Kurdish breakfast at the Kervansaray was essentially a Turkish breakfast of monstrous size and quantity. I contained the following (from left to right, as if you were reading a book):


Soft eggplant sauce, crushed hot red peppers with oil, potatoes, seasoned fried eggs with beef, beyaz peynir with thyme, börek (a Turkish pastry with a beyaz peynir filling), cooked eggplant, tahini with honey, crumbly and sharp beyaz peynir, baked bell pepper sauce, sautéd  bell pepper, super salty Diyarbakır-style beyaz peynir, fresh spinach with lemon, local-style black olives, fresh and peeled tomatoes, fresh cucumber, beyaz peynir #4, beyaz peynir #5 (strikingly reminiscent of string cheese, but less labor-intensive), local-style green olives, yogurt with pomegranate preserves and seeds, çay, banana with oranges and oats, honey and kaymak (sweet, buttery Turkish cream), fresh bread

I’m a tad embarrassed to admit that my two companions and I nearly finished this breakfast.

How do these breakfasts sound to you? Do you normally eat breakfast? I certainly hope so. Any favorite Portland brunch spots or dishes?

Türkiye’dekİ Kürtler

The Kurdish People of Turkey

Merhaba arkadaşlarım! 

(Hello friends!)

First off, please forgive me for not responding to your recent comments. I was without a computer for most of last week. My priority now is to keep up on the posts, so I’ll begin by doing that. You should know that I love your comments; your your impressive insight, humor, and criticism really enriches this blogging experience. Thanks!


My trip: İstanbul>Diyarbakır>Urfa>Batman/Hasankeyf>Mardin> Diyarbakır>İstanbul

Late last night, I returned from an incredible trip to Southeast Turkey. My roommate Ruşen was invited to play some concerts in the region and he invited me to tag along. It was a 2.5-hour plane ride from Istanbul to Diyarbakır. Traveling with Ruşen and me was an ethnomusicologist from Harvard, doing field research on Kurdish music.

When I arrived in Diyarbakır, my first impression was, “I’m definitely not in Istanbul anymore.” Duh, but the difference between the two places was immediately apparent. The weather was warmer and more arid. The people dressed differently. Many people spoke a different language. Much of the city was surrounded by a wide fortress wall made of black basalt. The architecture was older and the buildings were weathered.

Although I was still officially in Turkey, I had landed in a place most of the locals call Kurdistan. The majority of people in Diyarbakır, and indeed in much of southeast Turkey, are members of a distinct ethnic, cultural, and linguistic group known as Kurds. The Kurds had a tense relationship with the Ottoman Empire, but things really got difficult after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923. As you may recall, one of the main goals of the new Republic was to establish a new sense of Turkishness, hence all of the reforms. By establishing and administering this national spirit, the Turkish government hoped to foster a more unified and socially homogeneous population.

But since most Kurds never identified as Ottomans or Turks in the first place, they resisted this process of Turkification. Aware of this fact, the government

Hasan Paşa Kervansarayı (caravan fortress), Diyarbakır

Hasan Paşa Kervansarayı (caravan fortress), Diyarbakır

passed a series of oppressive laws that prohibited the Kurdish language, changed the names of their cities, and even attempted to evacuate a Kurdish town. When the residents rebelled against the evacuation, the government engaged in a violent attack against the residents, killing thousands. Events like these eventually led to the founding of the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, which is actually an army. The PKK’s goal is to achieve a greater degree of independence, most radically in the form of a separate nation called Kurdistan, which would occupy parts of present-day Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Their methods have resulted in the deaths of numerous soldiers and civilians, leading many countries and organizations (including the U.S., Turkey, and the E.U.) to regard them as a terrorist group. Like most conflicts of this type, neither side is a pure protagonist or antagonist.

Although the Kurds are still experiencing oppression, the Turkish-Kurdish problem has slowly improved in the past few years and the PKK has agreed to a ceasefire. There is hope!

Kurdish Dengbêj singer, Diyarbakır

Much of what I learned about Kurdish culture was through the various musicians we met. After arriving in Diyarbakır, we visited the Kurdish cultural center where we met an elderly Kurdish man. He spoke Turkish with us for a few minutes before spontaneously performing dengbêj, a traditional Kurdish musical form wherein an unaccompanied singer tells a story through an improvised melody. Though I didn’t understand what he was singing, I could his song was full of joy and melancholy. I wondered how he practiced dengbêj in his younger years when Kurdish music was illegal. He clearly didn’t learn the art recently.

The amphitheater during sound check, near Urfa

The amphitheater during sound check, near Urfa. These children’s extended stares told me that the town didn’t see many blond-haired visitors.

After our afternoon in Diyarbakır, we went to a town near Urfa where Ruşen was to play bağlama  in a Kurdish music festival. The concert hosted a shocking percentage of this small town’s population. It was a spectacle of Kurdish pride, complete with Kurdistan flags, PKK banners, and traditional Kurdish clothes. Droves of Turkish police flanked the amphitheater; ambulances served as quiet warnings against upsetting them.



Our next stop was Batman, which turned out to be less superheroic and more of an an oil drilling town with a lot of cement buildings. We ate some kebap and headed for the nearby village of Hasankeyf, situated on the Tigris river.  This was a breathtaking ancient village that has been under the control of seven different empires. In a distant but unknown time, people lived in caves, thousands of which decorate the city’s cliffs.


Hasankeyf. Rumor has it, the prospective dam would raise the water level so high that the only thing you could see in the old city is the stork’s nest on top of the minaret (right).

Peaceful protestors in Hasankeyf

Kurdish protestors in Hasankeyf

We stuck around all afternoon and watched a small group of local Kurds march through the city. As it turns out, they were protesting a dam project downstream on the Tigris. If the government completes it, the water level in Hasankeyf will rise to cover nearly everything in the picture above. Turkey stands to make a lot of money from the dam, but it will destroy this stupendous piece of history, not to mention displace thousands of people, mainly Kurds, from their homes. As consolation, the government has already constructed apartment complexes uphill from the current village. We attended a discussion about the dam and a dengbêj performance that evening. During the concert, we drank tea and visited with a young Kurdish boy who said he would figure out how to live underwater so he could stay in Hasankeyf. There is still a chance that the dam project will be cancelled and the Hasankeyf residents won’t need to leave or grow gills.

İnşallah (God-willing), as they say.

Mardin. I stayed in one of those! (not my photo)

Mardin. I stayed in one of those! (not my photo)

The last part of our trip consisted of two nights in Mardin, a town near the Syrian border. Despite its proximity to a war zone, Mardin was safe, comfortable, and stunning. We spent our time wandering around the area visiting everything from silver shops to Assyrian monasteries and oasis-like outposts full of fig and pomegranate trees. On our last night, we went to a second-story bar in the old city. There, we found a handful of older Kurdish men drinking rakı (a Turkish black liquorice-esque spirit)  and eating meze (pita and plates of food intended for sharing). Ruşen and our host brought along their instruments and everyone sang Kurdish folk music Mardin. I stayed in one of those! (Source: Wikipedia) the kitchen ran out of provisions. I couldn’t sing along, but I was content to quietly soak up the ambience of age-old architecture and tradition. It was a peaceful occasion.

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The independent Kurdish sense of identity is still alive and well in southeast Turkey. I learned quickly to avoid referring to people and places as Turkish. I also learned some basic Kurdish phrases. These small gestures served as powerful tokens of friendship. In turn, the Kurds I encountered along the way were legendarily hospitable. They chauffeured us around, bought us meals, opened their homes to us, served us opulent breakfasts, and never let us go an hour without having a cup of tea.

Approaching foreign cultures with deference, humility, and curiosity seems to be an effective recipe for a valuable international experience. It’s a shame that pride and intolerance can so easily blind us to the beauty of cultural diversity.

Photo of the Week: GEZİ PARKI

Gezi Park

Gezi Park upon my arrival, September 2013

If you pay much attention to the news, chances are you heard something about Gezi Park last Summer. When I walked around the park in September, I could hardly believe that this had recently been the site of the largest political demonstration Turkey had seen in decades.

It’s a smallish park located next to Taksim Square in the Beyoğlu neighborhood. Last May, the Turkish government announced plans to demolish the park. In its place, they planned to build a nostalgic Ottoman building that would house a large shopping center. Most people in Istanbul were furious about this because Gezi is the only park around and, believe me, there’s no need for a shopping center in this district. So large-scale protests broke out in an attempt to save the park. The Turkish government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (EHR-do-wahn), responded by unleashing a massive police counter-resistance.

The protests began peacefully, but the police attempted to dispel the crowds with tear gas and water cannons. The protests continued for months, increasing in size as the police continued to exercise force against the protestors, resulting in many imprisonments, hospitalizations, and at least one tragic death.

The protests were somewhat successful. PM Erdoğan has decided to at least postpone the demolition of the park, but he was ultimately unwilling to cooperate with the protestors, instead calling them “looters” and saying they should “go live in a forest.”

Although the protests began as a response to the demolition of Gezi Park, the protestors claimed they were responding to the government’s increasing conservative Islamist policies like a ban on alcohol sales past 10 pm (remember that Turkey is officially secular). They were also upset about not being involved in the decision-making process that chose the park’s fate.

Most of the people my age in Istanbul seem to have participated in the protests. They recall them as very emotionally intense experiences, and many are thankful for the experience as it helped them feel more passionate about political involvement.

These protests were important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it put Turkish politics in front of an international audience.

We’ll talk more about the reasons for the Gezi Park protests soon.

I’m traveling to Turkish Kurdistan this weekend. My next post will be on Tuesday. Talk to you soon!


First of all, thanks for putting up with my lack of posting for a couple days. I was quite sick. Thankfully, my sickness coincided with a break from school for kurban bayramı, the most important Islamic holiday of the year. I celebrated this holiday with my roommate Ruşen’s family. It was a pleasant occasion full of food, pretending I knew what everyone was saying, tea, food, and excellent hospitality. And beef. I’ve been feeling much better since yesterday morning, so I’ve had the chance to do some exploring.

Since the primary posts have been so information-dense, I’ve decided to make this one a little friendlier and base it on photos and descriptions of what it’s like to spend a day wandering around Istanbul. Before we start, I apologize for the varied photo quality. My camera, the iPhone 4S, doesn’t handle night very well, and I took some photos discretely or while rushing to catch a train or kitten.

Let’s start with a map of Istanbul. The Bosphorus Strait separates the European side from the Asian side. I live and go to school in Sarıyer. The most historically-rich part of town is Fatih, which was the city center when Istanbul was the capital of the Ottoman Empire. These days, Beyoğlu, which features Taksim Square,  is like Istanbul’s downtown. I spent most of this day in Fatih, which is about 45 minutes away.


Menemen and çay (not my photo)

A proper Turkish morning starts with a huge breakfast featuring eggs (hard-boiled or scrambled), tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, honey, Nutella (if you’re at the right place), green olives, fruit juice, and çay (pronounced like ‘chai’), strong Turkish black tea served straight or with sugar in a tulip-shaped glass. Poor college students like yours truly tend to eat a more basic breakfast. I learned how to make menemen, a delicious breakfast dish consisting of sautéd onions, Turkish spicy green peppers, and tomatoes, scrambled eggs, and thyme. It’s simple and substantial.



After breakfast, I meandered toward the bus stop and took a picture of a couple impeccable kittens on the way. My ultimate destination was Fatih, sometimes referred to as the Old City, but I stopped at Taksim square.

To get to Taksim, I have to take a bus and a subway. The subways in Istanbul are new, immaculate, and very timely; that is to say, if you’ve experienced New York subways, these are roughly the opposite. Like New York’s subways, they get very crowded, however. This was probably the most empty I’ve seen the Istanbul subways.

Chestnut roaster in Taksim Square; Atatürk monument in background

Chestnut roaster in Taksim Square; Atatürk monument in background

Taksim Square, located in Beyoğlu, is the main social hub of Istanbul. In its center is a statue of Atatürk (or four Atatürks in one statue, actually). There are hundreds of restaurants, shops, and nightclubs on the streets surrounding it. The buildings in Taksim are several stories high, each floor accessible by narrow spiral staircases. Because of this, for every door on the street, there are usually five or six unmarked businesses. This makes it hard if you’re trying to meet people in this neighborhood!


While I was in Taksim, I stopped at a free art exhibition on İstiklal Street. It was called Annem, Ben Barbar Mıyım? (‘Mom, am I a Barbarian?’). Most everything in the exhibition was made of litter. It appeared to be a commentary on consumerism. I found it to be very cynical and funny. Here’s a mannequin with a stack of simitlar (Turkish round pretzels), a wildly popular street food snack, where her head should be.

Young buskers and a passerby sharing some tulum (Anatolian bagpipe) music with his phone conversation partner

Young Turkish buskers and a passerby sharing some tulum (Anatolian bagpipe) music with his phone conversation partner

There are always droves of people on İstiklal street. Many are shopping at the many name-brand outlet stores located there. Some are visiting beautiful old international consulates or cathedrals. Some, like me, are just wandering. Many come to İstiklal to make their day’s wages on the street selling snacks like chestnuts or mussels, or by playing music. Most of the music is Turkish folk, but I’ve also seen Gypsy jazz musicians and American buskers á la Hawthorne Blvd.


Beyran çorbası. In Turkish, we “drink” soup, but this I still needed a fork.

After walking on İstiklal for a bit, I decided to look for some food. Finding a meal is no difficult task in this city, but I wanted something other than typical quick food like döner kebap (seasoned beef roasted on a vertical spit), “wet hamburgers” (I haven’t dared yet), or fish sandwiches, so I traveled to a place that insiders tell me is the absolute best for a soup called beyran çorbası. While I wasn’t sure what this was exactly, soup sounded perfect since I had been sick, so I tried it out. It was outstanding – a rich and complex Middle Eastern lamb soup, and definitely the spiciest dish I’ve had in Turkey. I hadn’t been this excited about soup since I had pho on 82nd in Portland.

After soup, I wanted to do some sightseeing, so I met up with my roommate to visit one of the oldest churches in Istanbul. Now, before İstanbul was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453, it served as the capital of the Byzantine Empire. As you likely know, its name at this time was Constantinople. The Byzantines were Christians and left behind some beautiful churches, most of which the Ottomans would later convert to mosques. The grandest and most famous such case is the Hagia Sophia. On my day out, I visited the Kariye Kilisesi (Chora Church), a Byzantine church-turned-mosque-turned-museum that predates the Hagia Sophia by about 100 years. It is a small church in the Fatih neighborhood that was constructed in the 4th Century.

After wandering through this magnificent old church, Ruşen and I walked to the Şehzade (prince)  Mosque. This mosque was commissioned by Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent and built by architect Mimar Sinan (aka Sinan the Architect) in 1548. Sinan is undoubtedly the most important figure in Ottoman architecture, responsible for typifying the Ottoman style, and one of the most famous architects of all time. He worked under three sultans and designed over 300 structures. Şehzade is one of them, though it’s not considered his grandest. Instead, it’s just one of the numerous breathtaking mosques that cover Istanbul.

Since then, it has remained a mosque, but like all mosques in Istanbul, visitors are welcome as long as they abide by a few rules: no shoes, long pants for men, headscarves for women, and no photos while people are praying. No problem. Istanbul mosques are very hospitable to outsiders, and any religious persuasions aside, they are architecturally and esthetically compelling places that are perfect settings for just sitting and pondering or meditating.

Şehzade interior. Ottoman mosques feature massive, open sanctuaries with a central dome. Note that there are no representations of humans. Depictions of Mohammed are considered idolatrous and thus blasphemous. Instead, Islamic art relies on Arabic calligraphy (as in the medallions) and abstract shapes, always symmetrical.

Şehzade interior. Ottoman mosques feature massive, open sanctuaries with a central dome. Note that there are no representations of humans. Depictions of people, even Mohammed, are considered idolatrous and thus blasphemous. Instead, Islamic art relies on Arabic calligraphy (as in the medallions) and abstract shapes, always symmetrical.

We spent a good while in Şehzade, then had some spicy kidney beans for dinner and split ways. It was getting late, but I wanted to have a lot to post about for you guys, so I continued. I went to another Mimar Sinan mosque called Süleymaniye, but it was closed. Nonetheless, I enjoyed walking around the huge compound, which features mausoleums, a quranic school, and a Turkish bath. It’s considered one of Sinan’s finest works, and its minarets (the tall, narrow towers outside of mosques) can be seen on the Istanbul skyline. The weather was warm, nobody was around, and I felt lucky to be meandering around this peaceful part of town.

On my way back home, I wanted to try some classic Istanbul desserts. One is called boza. It’s a pudding-like dessert made from fermented millet. The place I visited – Vefa Bozacısı – is Istanbul’s only faithful boza maker. The drink reminded me of baby food, slightly sour, not too sweet. Across the street from Vefa Bozacısı is a chickpea roaster. Voza drinkers visit him first so they can add roasted chickpeas to the drink. We could call the resulting confection Istanbul bubble tea. I didn’t love boza, but I’ll come back. There are few things I appreciate more than an exotic drink, really.

I call this "çöp çarşısı" (garbage bazaar).

I call this “çöp çarşısı” (garbage bazaar).

On my way home, I walked through a bazaar strip that was closing down. Since it was almost Kurban Bayramı, a big shopping holiday like Christmas, the shopkeepers were cleaning out and getting ready.

The last destination of my adventure was Karaköy Güllüoğlu, reported to be the best baklava maker in Istanbul – a lofty claim! Nonetheless, I must say it’s the best I’ve had so far.

Well, that was my day. I wish you could have all been there with me, but I’m glad I could at least share a bit about what it’s like to wander around this city. In the comments, just share your thoughts or questions that came up when you read this.

A word about the Islamic calendar

NOTE: This is not a regular weekly post. I encourage you to read it, but there’s no expectation for you to respond (unless you have questions or just want to say hi).

Many of you were confused about my mention of the year 2613, and I understand why. Here’s an explanation that should be helpful.

The Gregorian calendar is the one we and most of the world use. Its first year is 1 A.D. ( or C.E.), which is estimated to be the year Jesus was born. Muslims believe that Mohammed, not Jesus, was God (Allah)’s last prophet. Because of this, their calendar begins on an important date for Islam; specifically, when Mohammed and his followers moved from Mecca to Medina, an event known as Hijra. This happened about 622 years after Jesus’ birth, so the Islamic calendar’s year one is 622 A.D. The Islamic calendar is also arranged in to 354- or 355-day years.

The Ottoman Empire used the Islamic calendar. Upon founding the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk implemented the Gregorian calendar, effectively changing the calendar year from 1342 to 1923.

If we are to imagine what it would be like to be a Turk during the Calendar Reform, we could compare it to the present year 2013 turning into 2613 (very approximately).

The Calendar Reform was a recent source of confusion for me too. I was recently walking through a graveyard in the nearby city of Bursa when I noticed many residents there appeared to have unusually long lifespans. Briefly convinced I had found a clue toward the Fountain of Youth, I was disappointed to realize that the Calendar Reform was to blame.

Here’s a picture from my stroll. Notice the gravestone of Ms. Yeşilbağ, rest her soul. With our knowledge of Turkish history and the Islamic calendar, a lifespan from 1307-1976 shouldn’t seem unusual at all.

IMG_0855 - Version 2

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the birth of the Turkish Republic

Hey everyone! Thank you so much to those of you who have introduced yourselves.

I hope you’ve had a relaxing weekend. The weather got rainy and bitterly cold just a few days ago. Now the streets of Istanbul are filled with umbrella vendors and rickety carts manned by old guys selling fresh popcorn and roasting hazelnuts (the latter of which make delicious hand warmers, I’ve discovered). The current wintery ambience in this city is lovely, but where did autumn go? Now I have a cold, but it’s nothing some spicy lentil soup and ginger juice shouldn’t fix. Writing that is making me realize how Portlandy my cold remedy is.

Alright, let’s get down to business and talk a little Turkish history. This is a perfect place to start because it will help you understand Turkish culture and politics, as well as some recent events that I will be covering soon. The overview will be brief, so I encourage you to do some internet research if you want to know more. As always, you can ask questions about this post in the comments, too.

Osman, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman is the English translation of Turkish Osmanlı, meaning "[follower] of Osman."

Osman, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. ‘Ottoman ‘is the English translation of Turkish ‘Osmanlı’, meaning ‘[follower] of Osman.’

From 1299 all the way until 1923, the Ottoman Empire controlled what is now Turkey. At its height, the Ottoman Empire also controlled a great deal of Southern and Eastern Europe as well as much of North Africa. The Ottoman empire was an Islamic state that was ruled by a monarch, referred to as a sultan. The sultan held almost complete power over the Empire’s political, financial, and military affairs. During the second half of the Ottoman Empire, the sultan also acted as a religious leader, and was regarded by his subjects as the highest living authority in Islam. The sultan and the majority of his subjects belonged to an ethnic group known as Turks.

Due to  its size and duration, the Ottoman Empire is considered vastly successful. However, military defeats, as well as corruption and organizational failures, contributed to its demise in the early 20th Century. One of the most significant events in breaking the Ottoman Empire was World War I (1914-1918), wherein the Ottoman Empire fought alongside Germany. As you may know already, Germany and the Ottoman Empire (as well as Austro-Hungary and Bulgaria) ended up on the losing side of World War I, and the results were disastrous. After World War I, the Ottoman Empire was divided up, and only a tiny fraction (which didn’t even include Istanbul, its capital) was left under Ottoman control.

Mustafa Kemal Pasha

Mustafa Kemal

You can imagine how after so much time occupying such a large, culturally rich, and strategic part of the world, this resolution did not bode well with the Ottomans. Eventually, an Ottoman general named Mustafa Kemal led a campaign against the countries occupying Ottoman land: Britain, France, Greece, and Italy. This campaign eventually became known as the Turkish War of Independence. In 1923, Mustafa Kemal’s army defeated the occupying forces and regained control of Istanbul and Anatolia – a large geographical region we could call the “heartland of the Ottoman Empire.”

The agreement that established these new rules, The Treaty of Lausanne, also recognized a new country in the Ottoman Empire’s place. This country was called the Republic of Turkey (or just Turkey) and it’s first leader was Mustafa Kemal.

Mustafa Kemal had long been unhappy with the Ottoman Empire and he was intent on making Turkey a much different place. Without wasting much time, Mustafa Kemal implemented a new constitution. Under this constitution, Turkey was to be a secular republic, which marked the end of Islamic law. In addition to this, Mustafa Kemal introduced a series of radical reforms aimed at making Turkey more Western and modern.

Click on the slideshow to learn about some of his reforms.

Most of the reforms were extremely drastic and made significant differences in everyone’s lives. Imagine if the same types of reforms happened now.

  • You have to toss your old clothes and buy new ones so you can fit in with the new, legally required style. Instead of jeans and normal shirts, everyone has to wear business suits.
  • You have to make up a new last name.
  • You can’t read street signs, grocery store prices, or the newspaper until you learn how to read, say, the Russian alphabet.
  • All of a sudden the year is 2613.
Relief of Atatürk's face (bottom left) watches us as we walk to class at Boğaziçi University

Relief of Atatürk’s face (bottom left) watches us as we walk to class at Boğaziçi University.

For better or worse, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk made a huuuuuuge difference in the everyday lives of Turks. His leadership also affected countless other aspects of Turkish life and politics. Though some of his reforms (like the clothing laws) have been abolished, his legacy is here to stay. Since its founding in 1923, Turkey has acted as a model for social values like gender equality and freedom of religion in the Middle East.

It is simply impossible for me to leave my house without seeing a portrait of Atatürk or a bumper sticker featuring his signature. I have talked to Turks from a wide array of political, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, and nearly all of them think of Atatürk very lovingly.

Atatürk died in 1938, but his memory is preserved not only by portraits and commemorative holidays, but by Turkey’s unique culture, which combines and reinvents concepts like “Eastern,” “Western,” “modern,” and “old fashioned.”

Thanks for reading this post about Turkish history. I hope it all makes sense. In the comments, please let me know if you have any questions about this topic. Also, what leaders can you think of, political or otherwise, who have sculpted American society in the last century?