Turkey’s Fascinating ‘Intangible’ Cultural Treasures

Whirling Dervishes, coffee culture among Turkey's UNESCO 'living heritages'
March 9, 2016 Updated: March 15, 2016
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In 2003, UNESCO established an intangible cultural heritage list, the aim being to better protect important “living heritages” and promote awareness of their significance. The list includes oral and intangible traditions of humankind worldwide.

Many people know about the United Nations and its UNESCO-sited natural and man-made treasures. Canada has several, such as Old Town Lunenburg in Nova Scotia, the Historic District of Old Quebec, and Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the Alberta/NWT border.

UNESCO’s intangible cultural treasures, which flourish where people hand down artistic and cultural traditions from generation to generation, are not as well known. Although Canada has no listed intangible cultural treasures, countries that do include China, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Croatia, France, Belgium, Mongolia, Turkey, and India.

Turkey has approximately a dozen, with several more waiting for official recognition. Among the listed ones are the following four fascinating customs, two of which—Whirling Dervishes and a coffee ceremony—I have had the good fortune to enjoy.

Whirling Dervishes

“The Mevlevi Sema Ceremony,” inscribed in 2008, is a dance performed by Turkey’s famous Whirling Dervishes.

The dance dates back to 1273 when it was started by an ascetic Sufi order founded in Konya, Turkey. The order spread throughout the Ottoman Empire, but today its activity is mainly found in Konya and Istanbul, although many Turkish communities around the world practice versions of the dance.

Coffee is regarded as an important part of Turkish cultural heritage and is celebrated in literature and song.

The dancers traditionally fast for several hours, then with vocal and instrumental music including a flute player, kettledrums, and cymbal players, they start to rotate, eyes open but unfocused, using their left foot to make short twists, while the right foot is used to drive their bodies around the left foot.

The whirler has to be supple as the dance lasts for several hours. Dancers once received 1,001 days of reclusive training, learning about “ethics, codes of behavior, and beliefs by practicing prayer, religious music, poetry, and dance.” In 1925, as a result of secularism, the Mevlevi order’s houses were closed, but the 1990s saw a revival of the tradition.

Turkish Coffee Culture

“Turkish Coffee Culture and Tradition,” inscribed in 2013, involves a special preparation and brewing technique with “a richly communal traditional culture.” Freshly roasted beans are ground to a fine powder; then the coffee, cold water, and sugar are added to a coffee pot and slowly brewed on a stove. The pot is taken off the stove when it boils and then returned to the heat until it boils again. This is done three times until the desired froth or foam appears. The beverage is served in small cups with a glass of water and is mainly drunk in coffee houses where people meet to talk, share news, and read books.

Coffee-drinking is a symbol of hospitality, friendship, and entertainment in Turkey and people from all walks of life enjoy it. An invitation for coffee among friends provides an opportunity of intimate talk and the sharing of daily concerns.

Coffee plays an important role on social occasions such as engagement ceremonies and holidays. The knowledge of its preparation is transmitted informally by family members through participation. The grounds left in the empty cup are often used to tell a person’s future. Coffee is regarded as an important part of Turkish cultural heritage and is celebrated in literature and song.

The Art of Marbling

“Ebru, Turkish Art of Marbling,” inscribed in 2014, is the traditional art of creating colorful patterns by sprinkling and brushing color pigments onto a pan of oily water and then transferring the patterns to paper. Known as marbling, the designs and effects include flowers, foliage, ornamentation, lattices, mosques, and moons, and are used for decoration in the traditional art of bookbinding.

Those who create this art use various methods to extract colors from natural pigments which are then mixed with a few drops of ox gall, a kind of natural acid. This centuries-old Ottoman art is transmitted orally and is an integral part of traditional culture, identity, and lifestyle. Training in the master–apprenticeship relationship takes at least two years. Ebru is believed to reinforce social ties and strengthen entire communities.

Shadow Theater

“Karagoz,” inscribed in 2009, is a form of shadow theater in Turkey. Figures called “tasvira” made of camel or ox hide in the shape of people or things are held on rods in front of a light source to cast shadows on cotton screens. A play begins with the projection of an introductory figure to set the scene and suggest the theme. Singing, tambourine music, poetry, myth, tongue-twisters, and riddles are called into play.

Usually comic, the story features the characters Karagoz (meaning Blackeye in Turkish) and Hacivat (Ivaz the Pilgrim), plus a host of others including a cabaret chanteuse. This traditional theater strengthens a sense of cultural identity and brings people closer through entertainment.

Susan Hallett is an award-winning writer and editor who has written for The Beaver, The Globe & Mail, Wine Tidings, and Doctor’s Review, among others. She is currently the European editor of Taste & Travel International. Email: hallett_susan@hotmail.com