It’s festival time!

There’s a festival or a festive atmosphere somewhere in Turkey every day of the year. Either to honor a tradition or to celebrate nature’s bounty...

As one who has written countless travel articles over the years, I know that any piece that starts with a title like ‘It’s Festival Time’ is going to exceed the suggested word limit and that I’m going to end up leaving a lot of things out.

Isn’t that just the way? In a country like Turkey that has festivals for everything from garlic and oranges to strawberries and cherries, where a wedding in one home can liven up a whole quarter, where a tradition like Hıdırellez lives on today and people dancing the ‘horon’ fill the mountains and highlands with joyful sounds every summer, nothing I write can do justice to the subject. And when you add to that the way that every little town and village has recently started holding its own festival, it becomes all the harder.

Let us first take a brief tour of Turkey’s festivals:  the Bursa Karagöz Culture Festival, the Greased Wrestling Matches at Kırkpınar, Çorum’s International Hittite Fair and Festival, the Zigana Highland Festivals, the Malatya Apricot Festival, the Dörtdivan Köroğlu Highland Festival in honor of the 16th century Turkish folk poet of the same name, the Zara Şerefiye Fair, the Gelibolu Sardine Festival, the Kazdağı Sarıkız Festival, the İkizdere-Ayder Honey Festival at Rize on the Black Sea, the Safranbolu Golden Saffron Regional Film Festival, the Konya Jereed Games, the Susurluk Ayran (Yoghurt Drink) Festival, the Summer Festival at Gölcük, home of the Turkish Fleet... the list goes on and on. Not even all the pages of the Skylife magazine would suffice to mention them all.

Perhaps we’d better set off now with the legendary Nasreddin Hodja, seated backwards on his donkey, and go to Akşehir to the festival held in his name. We can even add some starter to the lake and see if it turns to yoghurt... As long as it’s July.

Next we’ll turn our faces towards Isparta, where people rise early every year in May and June to go out to the rose gardens in dawn’s first light. Picking roses is not that easy. Scissors can’t be used because they could bruise the petals; only hands injured to thorns can do the job. The skilled pickers toss the cuttings into giant   canvas sacks. The roses that have bloomed by that day - the ones that in rose growers’ terminology have ‘peaked’ - have to be gathered in. Otherwise the sun will evaporate their ‘etheric’ essence and then the roses will be worthless. Returning from the fields after the harvest, young girls with rose-pink cheeks run merrily to the open area where the ‘Rose, Carpet and Tourism Festival’ is already in progress.

Every September thousands of people flock to the celestial throne on Mt Nemrut of King Antiochus, who had an image of himself here erected close to the gods. Symphony orchestras often regale this festival with concerts at dawn or dusk. Meanwhile on another mountain, Kazdağı, the otherwise year-round ban on scaling the summit is lifted for 15 days in August.   

On festival days people from the nearby nomadic villages visit the grave of the legendary Sarıkız or Fair Maiden. Some tie bits of cloth to tree branches, some light candles, some leave votive offerings, and some camp out overnight in search of a cure for disease.

Turkey’s numerous festivals are endless and overlapping. Apple, strawberry, peach, honey, grape, and highland festivals are held all over the country. In Muğla province’s Ula and Datça, for example.

Bulls wrestle at Kafkasör in Artvin. And early in the year camels kick up the dust in several towns and villages along the Aegean. Camel wrestling is like a prelude to the spring festivals in this region where the humpbacked beasts once toted silk, spices, bottles of fragrance, furs and textiles along the legendary Silk Road in its heyday. The Silk Road and the caravans that passed down it are no more, but once a year in January and February the latter-day generations of those sturdy beasts of burden become the lead players in an undying tradition. The people of the Aegean await the camel wrestling with impatience, because for them camel wrestling means not a display in which two animals kick and shove each other but an occasion for a social gathering. The camels are decorated, the people gather and a festive atmosphere reigns supreme...

Founded in 1842 and preserving its social fabric unspoiled right up to the present, Polonezköy  succumbs to ‘Cherry Festival’ madness at the beginning of every summer when musicians and folklore ensembles arrive from Poland to celebrate Polish-Turkish friendship in song and dance.

Turkey’s ski resorts welcome enormous crowds in winter when festivals go hand in hand with ski competitions at centers like Uludağ, Erciyes, Sarıkamış, Ilgaz and Palandöken. And the finale is almost always the same: Fire and ice together as the skiers glide through the night in a torch parade. Meanwhile, the Snow Festival at Davraz needs to be distinguished from Turkey’s other winter festivals. Here sculpture buffs compete with groups of high school and university young people from all over Turkey to produce snow sculptures, sometimes of a giant Janissary, sometimes of a chateau, sometimes of a mermaid and sometimes just a snowman.

Hıdırellez, a fusion of the names of the prophets Hıdır and Ilyas (Elijah) and the Harbinger of spring, is celebrated on 6th May. The night before, childless women hang tiny cradles on rose branches. On the day of Hıdırellez the community troops en masse to the orchards and vineyards. And at night, they take turns jumping over huge bonfires.

On a day in March, thousands of people congregate below the minaret of the Sultan Mosque in Manisa, where packet upon packet of ‘mesir macunu', a kind of taffy containing forty different spices, rain down upon them as they scramble to scoop them up from the ground. 

Mengen, the town which has given Turkey most of its outstanding chefs, every August becomes the stage for a tradition that began as recently as 1981. Meat and pilaff by the ton are prepared by dozens of skilled chefs and distributed all over town. Some years this festival is also an occasion for roasting giant kebabs. And while the people of Mengen cook, the people of Kaş recount ancient tales of ‘Lykia, Land of Light’ at their own festival on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile in Antalya’s Sarıveliler township, the ‘Snowdrop Bulb Harvest Festival’ in the village of Dumlugöze celebrates this bright white flower that signals the end of winter.

I said at the outset that I’d have to leave some things out. But let me conclude by listing a few more festivals: Gümüşhane Sacred Shrine Festival, Niğde Altunhisar Pottery Festival, Elazığ Sivrice Hazar Poetry Evenings, Ordu Hazelnut Festival, Tunceli Pertek Cheese and Molasses Festival, Göle National Kashar Festival, Devrek Walking Cane and Culture Festival. As the Turks are fond of saying: May your life be filled with festivals!