Turkish Culture and Traditions: A Comprehensive Guide

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The richness and complexity of Turkish culture cannot be captured by a single definition, as it represents a fusion of traditions from numerous peoples across different regions including Anatolia, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the ancient world. It is noteworthy that prior to the 20th century, the Turks were not a unified nation, and thus, they brought unique elements from Central Asia which have been integrated into the modern-day Turkish culture.

Regarding the question of what constitutes Turkish culture, it is essential to acknowledge that historically, the Ottoman Empire – the predecessor of the modern Republic of Turkey – was synonymous with religious and cultural intolerance, as well as aggressive foreign policy. However, modern-day Turkey is recognized as one of the most tolerant countries in Asia, where different ethnicities coexist peacefully despite enduring centuries and decades of bitter conflict.

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Interestingly, the ethnic makeup of the population has never been officially determined, with the majority of the local residents identifying as Turks first and foremost, before identifying with any particular ethnic group. Exceptions to this include the Kurds (known as “dogulu” or “the people from the East”), the Circassians (a general term for people from the Caucasus region, including Meskhetian Turks, Abkhazians, Balkars, and others), Laz, and Arabs.

Religion and culture in Turkey

Turkey’s religious and cultural landscape is a well-known subject of interest, with the country being the historical home to three major religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While most of Turkey’s population identifies as Muslim today, it is worth noting that the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Christian Church is located in Constantinople (Istanbul), and as such, there are active Orthodox Christian and Roman Catholic churches in the country. Additionally, there is a Jewish community in Turkey.

It is important to recognize Turkey’s impressive history of religious tolerance, as demonstrated during the Ottoman Empire era when each religious community enjoyed autonomy. While some churches were repurposed as mosques by the Ottomans, many were not demolished, leading to fascinating sights such as Christian paintings on the walls of the Aya Sofya mosque in Istanbul.

Social Stratification in Turkish Society

Social stratification is a defining aspect of Turkish society, with wealth and education being the most prominent indicators of status. While money holds a significant role in Turkish society, the importance of education cannot be understated. University education is the minimum threshold for access to the higher echelons of society, regardless of one’s actual wealth.

Read more about education in Turkey

The bureaucratic and military elite that once defined the upper class has now shifted to successful doctors, businessmen, politicians, and high-level officials. This change has led to a noticeable “Westernization” of the urban upper class, who often speak foreign languages and are well-versed in global culture and politics.

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Conversely, the urban middle class, which comprises government employees, small business owners, skilled workers, and students, tends to hold onto traditional Turkish culture, even though they possess comparable levels of education to the upper class. This dichotomy, combined with rapid population growth and migration from rural to urban areas, has created a complex and mobile society that characterizes Turkish cities.

Around 30% of the Turkish population resides in rural areas as farmers and peasants, although the line between urban and rural has become increasingly blurred. Despite lower incomes, education levels in rural areas are relatively high for the region, with 83% of citizens considered educated in 1995. 

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The wealthy in Turkey typically favor western-style clothing, latest fashion trends, and luxurious lifestyles. They also demonstrate an affinity for European literature, music, and art. Language is also of great importance, with a preference for the Istanbul dialect of Turkish being prevalent across all segments of society, although many individuals are proficient in multiple languages and dialects.

In contrast, those with lower incomes tend to dress conservatively and favor local music and dialects. Despite these clear divisions, social tensions remain relatively low in comparison to other countries with similar wealth disparities.

Turkish family traditions, relationships and marriage

In Turkish culture, it is common for marriage to occur at a young age, and it is believed that a man should not lower the standard of living of his wife. Consequently, marriages between individuals from different social groups are rare, while unions within the same religious or ethnic group are more prevalent. Although inter-ethnic marriages are not unusual, the selection of future spouses and the wedding ceremony itself is typically conducted by the heads of families, with the newlyweds playing a minor role.

In 1926, the Turkish government abolished the Islamic family code and replaced it with a modified version of the Swiss Civil Code. The new family law mandates that civil marriage ceremonies are the only recognized form of marriage and that both parties must provide their consent. Monogamy is also required by law. Nevertheless, traditional Turkish society still values the rituals associated with weddings, and the blessing of the marriage by an imam is considered crucial.

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Turkish weddings typically last several days and involve numerous ceremonies that include family members, neighbors, and even entire villages. In Islamic tradition, the groom is expected to pay a bride price, although this custom is becoming less common. In some provincial communities, the cost of the bride price can be a significant obstacle to marriage.

While divorces are not considered sinful in Turkish culture, their incidence is relatively low. Divorced individuals, especially men with children, often remarry quickly, sometimes even with the same divorced partner. The modern legal code no longer recognizes the husband’s right to orally and unilaterally divorce his wife. Instead, a judicial procedure is required, and divorce is only allowed under six specific circumstances, including adultery, life-threatening behavior, criminal or unethical behavior, an escape from the family, mental infirmity, and incompatibility. However, the vague nature of these requirements means that divorce by mutual consent is not explicitly defined in local legislation and is relatively rare.

Read more about divorce in Turkey

Based on Turkish tradition, the family plays a central role in the life of any Turk. Close relatives tend to live in close proximity and provide daily contact, financial and emotional support, resulting in strong relationships despite the distance between family members. Consequently, abandoned elderly individuals and youth crime are not prevalent issues in Turkey.

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Turkish culture distinguishes between “aile” (family) and “hane” (household), with the former referring to close relatives living together and the latter including all clan members residing on a shared property. Additionally, male communities known as “sulale” play a significant role in the lives of noble families, particularly those with ties to the Ottoman Empire and tribal alliances. While unknown to most citizens, these communities hold substantial influence in the country’s politics.

Gender roles in Turkish families exhibit distinct differences between men and women. Typically, Turkish families are characterized by male domination, respect for elders, and women’s subordination. The father or oldest male in the family serves as the head of the household, and his authority is not usually questioned. Although women have historically been responsible for household duties and child-rearing, men bear the burden of providing for the family, representing the family to others, and educating the children. Women are expected to respect and obey their husbands, take care of household tasks, and raise children. However, Turkish culture places considerable importance on women’s behavior and their ability to maintain the household’s honor.

Turkish women enjoy equal rights to private property, inheritance, education, and participation in public life. Despite the strict cultural norms that require women to dress modestly and wear traditional clothing, women have gradually gained more freedom in recent years.

In Turkey, children are highly valued and given special attention in various aspects of society. It is common to inquire about the plans for parenthood when conversing with childless couples, and children are a frequent topic of conversation among men. Sons are particularly cherished, as they elevate the mother’s status in the eyes of her husband and his relatives.

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Until the age of 10-12, sons spend much of their time with their mother before transitioning to a more male-dominated education. Daughters, on the other hand, typically live with their mother until they get married, and their relationship with their father is often more formal and less openly affectionate.

Siblings have an easy and informal relationship until the age of 13-14, after which the older brother takes on some parental responsibilities towards his younger sister. Similarly, the older sister may also become a second mother figure to her brother, as it is believed to prepare her for future roles as a wife. In larger families, grandparents also play a significant role in raising children.

Children are welcome in most public places, such as restaurants and cafes, and there are usually high chairs and special tables available for them. Many hotels also offer playgrounds and child-sized beds, although it’s best to order them in advance to ensure they fit the needs of non-local children. Car rental companies typically provide baby seats for children’s safety while traveling.

Social Relations in Turkish Culture

In Turkish culture, relationships between individuals of different generations and genders are governed by strict etiquette and manners. When in public or not close friends or relatives, it is customary to show elders respect and courtesy. Even relatives of the opposite sex typically refrain from displaying affection in public, and during celebrations, attendees are quickly divided into groups based on age and gender.

When it comes to greeting customs, friends or close relatives of the same sex may hold hands, greet each other with kisses on the cheek, or give hugs, but this behavior is not acceptable in any other situation. Men shake hands with each other as is customary in European culture, but they do not shake hands with women unless explicitly allowed to do so. It is worth noting that many foreign tourists have experienced incidents where they have extended their hand to locals, which is interpreted as an invitation to become better acquainted.

In public transportation such as buses, dolmus, or theaters, it is customary for women to sit next to other women, while men cannot sit next to a woman they do not know without her permission. This is an important rule in Turkish culture that should be observed.

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Turkish etiquette and manners

Turkish culture places great importance on formal etiquette as a means of social interaction, with a specific oral form required for various occasions. Turkish hospitality, or misafirperverlik, is a fundamental aspect of the culture, particularly in rural areas where friends, relatives, and neighbors frequently visit each other.

The act of inviting a guest is often accompanied by an elaborate set of proposals, and it is necessary to decline politely to avoid offending the hosts. Visitors should not expect to bring gifts or pay for meals, as it is considered impolite to do so. Instead, small gifts or photos sent after the visit will be appreciated.

Despite the common misconception, the Turkish are very tolerant of guests who are unfamiliar with their customs and will easily forgive minor faux pas. Traditionally, meals are served on low tables with guests seated on the floor, with dishes being shared and taken from a large tray by hand or with a shared spoon.

In urban areas, however, European-style tables and individual serving dishes are more common. In line with Islamic tradition, food from a shared plate should be taken with the right hand only, and it is considered rude to speak without the homeowner’s permission or to take special pieces from a shared plate. Additionally, guests should avoid opening their mouth too wide or using toothpicks without covering their mouths.

Dining etiquette in Turkish culture

It is worth mentioning that Turkish culture places great value on communal eating, as the practice of eating alone or snacking on-the-go is not customary. Typically, meals are consumed three times a day in the company of family members. Breakfast consists of bread, cheese, olives, and tea. Lunch is served later in the day when all family members are present, and typically includes three or more courses, each served with a side of lettuce or other greens. Inviting guests, neighbors, and friends to dinner is commonplace, with meal times and menus being arranged in advance.

While Islamic laws prohibit the consumption of alcohol, it is not uncommon for dinners to be served with raki, wine, or beer (the latter not being considered an alcoholic beverage in most regions). Meze, a selection of snacks including fruit, vegetables, fish, cheese, meats, sauces, and fresh bread served on small plates, is often served as a mandatory prelude to the main course, which is chosen in consideration of the range of snacks provided. Kebabs are typically served with vegetable salads, fish or chicken with rice or hummus, and soups with tortillas topped with meat, cheese, and pickles.

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Public consumption of alcohol, including beer, is considered inappropriate, and selling of alcohol in public places is prohibited in Turkey. However, alcoholic beverages are readily available in many shops, with the exception of Ramadan when shelves are either closed or blocked.

Pork is entirely absent from local cuisine, and there are other foods that are avoided despite not being formally prohibited by Islamic standards. For example, the Uruk tribe abstains from all seafood except fish, the Alevi Order avoids rabbit, and central regions of the country abstain from snails.

Additionally, there are visible culinary influences from the people who inhabited Turkey before the arrival of the Turks, with dishes such as Georgian chicken in sacivi sauce, Armenian lahmacun (similar to pizza), and meze of Greek and Arab origin being considered Turkish. Rural residents often consume very simple meals, with a large portion of their diet consisting of bread, onions, yogurt, olives, cheese, and jerky meat (known as “pastirma”).

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Turkish hospitality

In Turkish culture, hospitality is highly valued, however, it is not acceptable for guests to stay up too late. It is also recommended that guests wait for an invitation from the host before starting a meal or tea, and it is considered impolite to smoke without the permission of a senior male or the organizer of the meeting.

In terms of business etiquette, it is customary to precede business meetings with tea, and it is not acceptable to immediately jump into business discussions without some preliminary conversation. Music plays a significant role in Turkish culture, and it is common to have music and songs at social events.

It is important to note that Turkish homes have separate areas for guests and private use, and it is considered impolite to ask for a tour of the entire house. Additionally, it is customary to remove shoes when entering private homes or mosques, as shoes are viewed as inherently dirty.

In public places, shoes can be worn, but some establishments such as offices, libraries, or private shops may offer slippers or shoe covers. In crowded places like mosques or public organizations, shoes can be folded into bags and taken inside.

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Turkish language of gestures

Body language and gestures are highly valued in Turkish culture, with a complex and varied system that may be difficult for foreigners to understand. For instance, snapping the fingers indicates approval of something, while clicking the tongue is an abrupt denial, often accompanied by a raised eyebrow.

A quick head swing from side to side signifies a lack of understanding, while a single tilt of the head to the side can mean “yes”. It is important to note that there are many of these gestures, and each region of the country may have its own unique set.

Therefore, caution should be exercised when using gestures familiar to us, as they may have a completely different meaning in Turkish culture.

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Clothes in Turkish Culture And Traditions

The Turkish approach to clothing reflects a blend of Islamic tradition and the modern style. Business attire such as suits, jackets, and ties are commonly worn by men in the corporate world, as well as during national holidays and celebrations. In contrast, women tend to express themselves more creatively, with the national costume being a popular choice in everyday life, especially in rural areas. Colorful dresses, complemented by various accessories, are also preferred during festive occasions.

Tourists visiting Turkey do not have to adhere to strict dress codes, as the local hot and dry climate permits comfortable attire. However, when visiting places of worship and rural areas, it is recommended to dress modestly, as revealing clothing may not be well-received outside of beach areas.

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Visitors to mosques and temples should ensure that their clothing covers their legs and body up to the head and wrists, with women advised to avoid wearing mini-skirts or pants. Shoes should be left at the entrance, and women are required to cover their heads with a headscarf when entering the premises.

During the holy month of Ramadan, it is customary for believers to refrain from eating, drinking, or smoking from sunrise to sunset. It is considered polite to avoid eating or smoking in front of those who are fasting. The end of Ramadan is celebrated with great joy for three days (Ramadan Bayram), and therefore, it is recommended to book seats in restaurants, as well as travel tickets and performance tickets, well in advance.

Turkish traditions that you’ll find interesting

Turkey is a country rich in diverse and fascinating traditions, making it a great destination for travelers who are interested in exploring different cultures. Below are some of the unique customs that you should discover during your visit:

Nazar (The Evil Eye)

The blue glass eye is one of the most popular Turkish traditions, found in every home in the country. Turks believe that this blue eye protects them from envy, and it is usually hung on the door as a symbol of good luck.

Turkish Tea

Served in tulip-shaped glass cups, Turkish tea is a prominent part of the country’s hospitality culture. Whether you’re at someone’s home, a store, or a hair salon, you’ll likely be offered tea as a sign of welcome.

Suspended Bread

Askıda ekmek, or suspended bread, is a tradition that involves hanging extra bread outside homes for the needy to find. The remaining bread is usually crumbled and given to birds and animals.

The Henna Night

The night before a wedding is significant in Turkish culture, as it is dedicated to girls only. The bride wears a red dress, and her friends sing a folk song called “Yüksek Yüksek Tepeler,” which talks about the girl’s separation from her mother.

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Hand Kissing

Hand-kissing is a traditional way to greet or bid farewell to someone in Turkey. It is a sign of respect and love, and people typically kiss the hand of those who are older than them.

Throwing Water

Throwing water is a western custom in Turkey that is believed to bring good luck and make the traveler’s journey smooth. It is done while bidding farewell to loved ones who are setting out on a long journey by road.

Shoes and Slippers

Turks usually leave their shoes at the entrance or on the stairs and wear special slippers inside the house. They also expect their visitors to remove their shoes before entering the house, and they often provide slippers for their guests.

Turkish Hammam

The Turkish Hammam is an important tradition in Turkish culture and dates back to the Roman era. It involves staying in a steam-filled room with a pool of water once a week, and it is performed by both men and women.

Breakfast

Breakfast is an essential part of the day for Turks, who have a whole community devoted to it. It usually consists of bread, cheese, olives, eggs, tomato and cucumber salad, jelly, sugar, and butter.

Asking for Hand in Marriage

When a couple decides to get married, their families get involved in Turkish culture and traditions. The groom and his relatives visit the bride’s family’s home, bringing roses, cookies, and cakes, and engagement rings. If the woman’s family agrees, they proceed to the wedding ceremony.

Circumcision

Circumcision is a significant ceremony for boys in Turkish culture, and it is still practiced based on Islamic traditions. It is usually performed by physicians in hospitals, and some families prefer to have their sons circumcised between the ages of 5 and 12.