February 28, 2011

Reviving Carnival in Istanbul

Even in Istanbul, a city touted as a cultural mosaic, the sight of a few hundred costumed revelers parading through the streets in a pre-Lenten bash will certainly attract some attention.

“This is the only public Carnival in the Muslim world,” said the historian Haris Rigas, one of the organizers of Bakla Horani, which takes place on March 7.

For centuries, the local Greek communities throughout Istanbul celebrated pre-Lent Carnival with weeks of bawdy parades, lavish balls and street parties. Though led by the Greek Orthodox community, the celebrations were public and inter-communal, according to Mr. Rigas. Bakla Horani, the last day of Carnival season before Lent, brought everyone together for one final celebration in the Kurtulus district. The name of the event — which literally translates as “I eat beans” — is a reference to Lenten dietary restrictions and informs the traditional menu of the night: beans and other cold meze.

Until last year, Bakla Horani only lived in the memory of elderly city residents. The last public celebration in Istanbul was held in 1941. This tradition, it seems, was one of the cultural casualties of the near total destruction of the Greek community of Istanbul. Today, approximately 3,000 remain, down from 120,000 in 1923.

But this season, the organizing body, the Foundation of St. Dimitri Church in Kurtulus, is buttressed by a group of energetic, young Istanbul residents — both Greek and Turkish — who will be masked and dancing in the streets for Bakla Horani if not to prepare for Lent then to celebrate one part of this city’s diverse cultural heritage that was almost lost.

Read more on the New York Times: Reviving Carnival in Istanbul


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