The phenomenon of the Turkish bath, or hamam, is almost as old as Turkey itself. It has its roots in the importance for cleanliness in Muslim cultures and draws equally from Roman and Byzantine bathing traditions. Nowadays, we tend to think of the hamam as an indulgent spa treatment where you’re scrubbed within an inch of your hide in a steaming hot sauna room, but it also holds a vital role in everyday Turkish life. The Turkish hamam is a space where Turks of all walks of life congregate to trade gossip or discuss the day’s big issues. It also retains a ceremonial role in events surrounding births, marriages and deaths.
If you spend any time in Turkey, you will undoubtedly see an Evil Eye. These striking dark blue eye circular eye symbols are everywhere – on plates, amulets and trinkets and hung in the doorways of shops and restaurants. But don’t be alarmed; the ‘evil eye’ (or ‘Nazar Boncuğu’) is simply a good luck charm, intended to keep bad fortune at bay. They make a great souvenir or holiday gift and you can take comfort in the knowledge that the vast majority are still manufactured in Turkey. In fact, some of the more intricate ones are made by artisans, keeping a 3,000 year old master trade alive.
The Coffee House (or ‘kahve’) remains a thriving Turkish institution that’s refreshingly different from the coffee houses in the UK. Here, you can enjoy a small cup of super-strong, thick black Turkish coffee, poured from a special Turkish coffee pot and sweetened slightly by a spoonful of sugar crystals, while ruminating on the day’s events.
Coffee was introduced to Istanbul in the 16th century from Yemen. Such was its place in Turkish culture that the sultans even appointed their own Chief Coffee Makers (or ‘kahvecibaşıs’). Many kahves also double up as al fresco spots where you can partake in the hubbly bubbly or ‘nargile’ pipe, while locals play backgammon or chess outside.
Markets are another important strand of Turkish life and, as in most neighbouring countries, haggling is practically mandatory. At a Turkish market you’ll find everything from crafts and antiques to spices and delicious Turkish food. However, the most quintessential Turkish shopping experience can be enjoyed at a carpet shop.
When you enter one, expect to be welcomed with a cup of sweet, fruit tea and some enthusiastic chit chat about your hometown. You’ll be treated to an elaborate unfurling of beautifully woven carpets, accompanied by a running commentary on their history and the meaning of their patterns, before finally getting down to the serious business of which one you like best and how many lira you’re willing to part with for it.
Perhaps the most famous of Turkey’s many folk traditions is the spinning dance performed by the whirling dervishes. A dervish is a holy man who launches himself into an impressive display of spinning in order to be closer acquainted with God. Whirling is an important ritual of Sufism, a religious order of Islam that prides itself in its mystical and tolerant beliefs. You can watch the dervishes in Istanbul and especially in Konya, the inland city and birthplace of the medieval Sufi poet Rumi.