This is my Istanbul

The things that shape how I experience the city

This is my Istanbul: Hidrellez May 17, 2010

Filed under: Events — Rebecca @ 10:11 pm
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During my time in Ankara I’d heard vague stories of a holiday celebrated each spring where girls wrote down their wishes for husbands, houses, etc. on slips of paper and buried them under rosebushes, but never really figured out what it was all about. Thanks to a few fortuitous events, I’ve figured out the holiday and now started celebrating it here in Istanbul. The mystery holiday? Hidrellez.

Hidrellez is a bit hard to pin down accurately, because it’s truly more of a mishmash of coming-of-spring rites melded together from the Caucasians, Central Asians, Anatolians, Balkans, etc. There are both Muslim and Christian elements – in fact, although the holiday is celebrated on May 5/6 in the Gregorian calendar, Wikipedia tells me it’s celebrated on April 23 in the Julian: April 23 is St. George’s Day, and the Greek Orthodox celebrate it with a whole lot of rituals eerily similar to the Hidrellez traditions, down to making wishes on slips of paper.

Hidrellez at its most essential welcomes the coming of spring, or I guess more accurately truly warm weather. In Muslim tradition it’s the day that the prophet Al-Khidr (or Hizir) met the prophet Elijah (or Ilyas) – the name Hidrellez is a portmanteau of Hizir and Ilyas. Hizir is apparently considered a saint and is very important in Sufism (the whirling dervishes, among others). He appears with a long white beard and is said to be immortal. Once a year, if you ask nicely and if he feels like granting, you may petition him with your wishes. He has the power to grant wishes, which he does when he feels the wishmaker is well-meaning and benevolent. While it seems that traditionally the wish-making is done almost solely by women, at Istanbul’s Hidrellez festival I saw both men and women making their yearly wishes. This is accompanied by lots of folk songs, and later at night people jump over fires.

On to Hidrellez in Istanbul: Hidrellez is still very much a traditional village celebration, so I was surprised to literally stumble into Istanbul’s official Hidrellez celebration on my way home from work on May 5. Apparently about a decade ago the celebration started out as a street Hidrellez festival, and grew steadily until the municipality stepped in to manage it and then move it off the streets because it was just so big. Currently, Istanbul’s Hidrellez is held at Ahirkapi Park, on the shore of the Marmara about midway between Sirkeci and Yenikapi.

Istanbul’s Hidrellez is half traditional Hidrellez and half Springfest. Following the crowds of people headed towards the entrance, I saw more beer being sold on the side of the street than I’ve ever seen in my neighborhood, total. The dress code seemed to be boho/gypsy skirts, flowers, ribbons, and scarves in your hair. I saw a fair number of fedoras as well. It was also most decidedly bring-your-own-tambourine. Once in the gates, it was utter mayhem. People everywhere. The municipality’s website said in 2009, over 100,000 people attended, and they were expecting more this year. There were smaller tents and stages set up with musicians and dancing, but the main eye-draw was the giant pole (looked like a May Pole) set up with ribbons fluttering down and liberally covered with scraps of paper and fabric. This was the wish tree. Actually, there were several smaller wish trees surrounding the main pole as well, to hold the sheer volume of wishes. Some people came prepared with their wishes already written out, but the municipality had paper and pins for those of us last-minute wishers.


In addition to the wishing tree, Istanbul’s Hidrellez had a large open area with commercial booths, large statues and figures of Hizir to take your photo with, and other things that wouldn’t be out of place at a country fair. Past the food booths, though, was the second main attraction: the main stage. Istanbul’s Hidrellez has turned into a bit of an outdoor spring concert, with Balkans music, beers, and in-crowd tambourine-offs. All quite fun, if not at all part of the traditional Hidrellez celebrations.

Hidrellez is a new part of my Istanbul. Now that I know what’s behind the wish-burying and –tying, I can’t wait for next year’s celebration of spring and hopes and kismet, with a little concert thrown in, because burasi Istanbul.

Evening of May 5; sometimes April 23
Ahirkapi Parki, Eminonu


This is my Istanbul: Exercise Parks March 24, 2010

Filed under: Things — Rebecca @ 12:30 am
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Turks, on the whole, are not exactly the most gung-ho about physical fitness. While Switzerland is dotted with wanderwegs and the Brits seem to love a good country walk, the exercise thing is still somewhat novel, football match-ups aside. I started the Istanbul Marathon this year (as I am also not as gung-ho as I should be about fitness, I just ran across the Bosporus Bridge, not 42km), and by and large folks didn’t really stretch or anything beforehand. A friend who ran the Nike Human Race last year reported people actually smoking as they jogged.
To remedy this, in the past few years the country has installed hundreds, probably thousands of exercise parks, in most cities. These exercise parks are pretty neat – they have a variety of equipment, and involve cardio and strength training. Since they were all installed in the past few years they’re generally in good repair. They range in size from two or four machines to over a dozen, and usually are attached to a park. The ones in my area are on the Marmara, for a particularly scenic workout.
It’s hard to use the exercise parks near me at times, because they’ve become a sort of teenage guy hangout, but when they’re not it’s usually me and a headscarved/full skirted woman or two. I think it’s different in other neighborhoods but around my neck of the woods I’m usually the only one in exercise togs. I enjoy that, it keeps working out pretty low key.
The exercise parks definitely help make up for a dearth of gyms and fitness centers in the city. While Istanbul does have an increasing number of gyms, their price range is better suited for those on expat salaries. Also, there are none in wider Fatih. None. That probably speaks better than anything as to the class divisions in who uses gyms and fitness centers (there are a few amateur sports clubs in Fatih, mainly for children’s football initiatives). Exercise parks, though, are in every neighborhood. They’re in the middle of Fatih. They’re along the Bosporus in Kurucesme. They’re up north in Emirgan, where football teams go to work out on weekends. I really like the universality of them, as they’re literally everywhere and open to literally everyone. I’ve seen people from all walks of life working away on the exercise equipment.
In the end, the exercise parks aren’t really a must-see, or a tourist attraction. But they are definitely a facet of my Istanbul.