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Fairs And Festivals In Turkey: Transformations From The Early Republic Into The 21st Century

Session X-06, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
Fairs and festivals offer rich possibilities for exploring Turkey’s history and culture. Fairs and festivals are often conceptualized differently, as they have different origins and different ostensible purposes, yet they share a great many features and functions. They hold symbolic value for the participants and economic value as drivers of tourism for the towns or regions hosting them. They serve to create a sense of community among the participants, and others who support the event. While there is more substantial scholarship on the festive culture in the Ottoman period, the scholarship is still quite limited for the republican era. The papers on this panel discuss a sampling of fairs and festivals in post-Ottoman Turkey from different religious traditions as well as secular small-town fairs from different provinces. Fairs and festivals have transformed over time in response to challenges that might be economic, political, demographic, or technological. The four papers here show how festive culture evolves with, and adapts to, changing circumstances, taking on new forms if necessary. The first paper, on the Greek-Orthodox religious festivals Baklahorani (Tatavla Panayırı) and Apokries, reveals how these carnival festivities moved from the streets into the private sphere of İstanbul’s Greek-Orthodox residents as a result of a rapid demographic transformation, combined with an unwelcoming political climate. It further argues the persistence of these Greek-Orthodox carnivalesque celebrations as a commemorative ritual within the community has enabled individuals to sustain their Rum identity. On the other hand, after decades of rural to urban migration weakened communal ties and the Topçu Baba commemoration came to a halt in the 1970s, the Alevi-Bektaşi community in Thrace has turned the commemoration into a festival with more secular entertainment aspects, in an effort to preserve the Alevi-Bektaşi cultural identity. As the paper on the Balıkesir fairs shows, small-town panayırs had a period of growth under the early republic. That growth reached a climax by the 1960s, followed by a gradual decline. As the final paper shows, while some panayırs have disappeared in recent decades, others have transformed into new forms such as cultural and food-related festivals, and a few (like the Pehlivanköy panayırı) are flourishing. The decline of the fairs has provoked an explosion of nostalgia for panayırs, and significant efforts at documenting and preserving them. These different fairs and festivals and their ongoing transformations offer a useful lens for understanding Turkey’s history and culture in an inclusive way.
  • Until recently annual fairs known as panayırs offered an important venue for trade, entertainment, and socialization in small towns across Turkey. In recent decades panayırs have been in a gradual yet seemingly irreversible process of decline due to factors such as urbanization, improvements in transportation and communications, and the spread of alternative forms of entertainment. One recent study documented that more than two thirds of the small-town fairs known to have existed since the 1920s have disappeared in recent decades. Parallelling the decline of panayırs has been an outburst of profound nostalgia for the fairs, along with the rise of efforts to document and preserve the surviving panayırs. Filmmakers and photographers such as Mehmet Eryılmaz, Serdar Güven and Yusuf Darıyerli have produced a number of documentary films and photography collections in an effort to document the panayır, to draw attention to the decline of the fairs, and to help with their revival and preservation. The past two decades have also witnessed an explosion of amateur documentary videos and photography about small town fairs, many of which are shared through social media and circulate freely on YouTube and similar Internet venues. Taken together, these works provide an enormous volume of visual and ethnographic sources for exploring small town fairs, their twenty-first century remembrances and their ongoing transformations. Relying on both professional and amateur films and photography, and existing scholarship (such as recent theses and Vedat Çalışkan’s works), this paper examines both the recent transformations of the fairs and the motivations of the artists producing panayır films and photography, focusing on the Pehlivanköy fair in Thrace and the Kastamonu fairs in the Black Sea region. The Pehlivanköy fair is among the oldest fairs in Turkey and is the only surviving fair in Thrace, whereas the Kastamonu fairs have only survived in the form of festivals. This paper argues that a coalescence of factors such as the awareness of the panayırs as objects of cultural heritage preservation, heritage tourism, urban nostalgia for childhood panayırs and provincial Anatolia, along with local social and economic factors such as small rural communities’ continuing need for shopping and entertainment, support the persistence of the fairs in one form or other.
  • Carnival festivities in late Ottoman and early Republican Istanbul were important opportunities for public revelry and reversal of everyday life. These pre-Lenten festivities, taking place annually at the end of February or beginning of March for three weeks, were often referred interchangeably as Apokries in Greek, Apukurya in Turkish or as Baklahorani, the name for specific fair taking place on the last day of the period exclusively in former Tatavla and today’s Kurtuluş. According to personal and collective narratives, it is believed that carnival festivities were banned by Turkish state in 1941. They have recently came to light especially due to various revival efforts between 2009-2014 and 2020-2021, as part of the increasing interest in and nostalgia for the cosmopolitan past of Istanbul. Drawing on oral history interviews, memoirs, textual and visual material from the early Republican Turkish press, Son Posta, Akşam, Milliyet and Cumhuriyet, this paper explores the period that lead to disappearance of carnival festivities from the public sphere in Istanbul in the period between 1923 and 1945. The first part of my paper focuses on the social and spatial expansion of the festive and carnivalesque atmosphere by exploring the increasing visibility of women and participation of people from remote parts of Istanbul as well as the appropriation of the period by the new regime’s institutions such as Red Crescent, Press Association and People’s Houses to organize costume balls and raise funds. I will also focus on the specific cases from 1929, 1930 and 1931 when carnival and Ramadan festivities overlapped. In the second part of the paper, I will explore the discourse employed in the Turkish press, which associated carnival festivities with Christianity, Greek nationalism and criminal activities despite its popularization and expansion. Finally, I will problematize the assumption about the state ban and suggest that it might rather be a conscious attempt by the Greek-Orthodox people to retract in private spheres with concerns over their lives and security. This paper aims to first construct the history of carnival festivities in a systematic manner and secondly contribute to the understanding of early republican society through the lens of carnivalesque which offer a unique opportunity to ordinary people for unusual manifestations and encounters. It also offers an opportunity to problematize nostalgia and complicate the early Republican period in modern Turkey by underlining Greek-Orthodox experiences.
  • This paper discusses the efforts at preserving and reviving a festival, Commemoration of Topcu Baba, which is a marker of Alevi-Bektashi identity in eastern Thrace during the second half of the twentieth century. Utilizing secondary sources and field work completed in Turkey, in this paper I examine how festive culture has facilitated the revival and recovery of some aspects of the Alevi-Bektashi tradition in new, festive forms. All around the world, festivals, celebrations, and commemorations bring people together for a variety of purposes. They often provide a cheerful and lively environment, and/or opportunities for thrilling, therapeutic, or cathartic experiences. The figurative space created by cyclical and recurrent festive cultural practices has become a significant site for reaffirming collective identities. Regular recurrence of festive events, repetition of ritualistic acts, and reiteration of performances establish the process for social change. In the past, festivals helped to normalize and internalize modernity through several traditions, sometimes borrowed from antiquity, sometimes invented anew. Because of this, festive culture has been a very significant site for construction of new identities, such as national identities, as well as for the maintenance of traditional, communal identities that have come under pressure due to social change. In the modern era, festivals have played an important role in the production of traditions that stabilized societies in times of deep crises. “Invented traditions” that fill the festive space are intentionally constructed phenomena with an anonymous and ambiguous nature at times. The focus of this paper, the Commemoration of Topcu Baba, is an example of how unofficially organized social groups often practiced the socially invented traditions within the festive culture in order to construct new identities as well as revive and maintain older ones. Alevi-Bektashi faith, a minority religious practice in Turkey, is often presented as a heterodox Shiite tradition with diverse characteristics. During the second half of the century, Turkey experienced a very high rate of migration from rural to urban areas during the 1950s and 1960 and lost the connection to their spiritual guides and traditions. In this process, communal veneration of Topcu Baba has come to a halt during 1970s and faced complete disappearance from the Alevi-Bektashi cultural context. However, communal efforts to preserve the local tradition resulted in the innovation of the veneration of Topcu Baba as a public festival and demonstrated the importance of festive culture in adapting to large scale social transformations and preserving cultural traditions.