Istanbul, first the Byzantine and then the Ottoman capital, has thrived on diversity, both influencing and being influenced by others. Istanbul’s leading role and its cultural and geographic centrality also applied to the culture of entertainment, a major part of social life. An entertainment culture that benefited from being in a capital city and the home of the sultan was refined and took on its own distinctive style, representative of Ottoman civilization. This culture changed over time as some elements faded and others emerged.

Entertainment is a broad topic; it differs depending on its purpose, for example to alleviate grief or sorrow or merely to provide recreation. This article focuses on the forms of entertainment approved by the state and those that society adopts as a way of life—entertainment that is widespread and considered legitimate in every sense. It is also necessary to distinguish between forms of entertainment organized by the palace and the state, which can be classified as official, and civil, or public, forms of entertainment. The palace, with its own rules and lifestyle, was a separate, private space. Nevertheless, in some cases—for example, shadow-puppet shows and one-man theater performances—the palace’s and the public’s perceptions of entertainment coincided. It could be argued that palace entertainment set an example that the larger public followed. However, the palace’s perception of entertainment and official ceremonies will not be examined in this article.

1- People having fun in the festivities of 1582 (İntizami)

The main sources of information on entertainment and amusement in Istanbul are the şehrengiz (poems written about a specific city), the surname (accounts given by individuals), Evliya Çelebi’s Seyahatnâme, books written by travelers to Turkey, and recent memoirs. Researchers such as Refik Ahmet Sevengil, Reşat Ekrem Koçu, Cevdet Kudret, and Metin And also addressed this topic and produced valuable information. These books provide a general framework for this discussion.

Dancers and Other Entertainers

From the 16th century onward, groups of entertainers, both those who paid taxes and operated under state control and self-organized groups, appeared in the district of Tahtakale. Magicians, wrestlers, acrobats, puppeteers, jugglers, storytellers, folk poets, street artists, snake charmers, fire performers, trainers of bears, monkeys, donkeys, and lions, and those demonstrating their resistance to pain with knives and swords performed there for the curious public. Most of them regularly performed in the streets, but their true skills were demonstrated at a variety of special events, including festivals organized by the state and weddings. They had no permanent venue; generally, they gathered in coffeehouses or inns. People also hired them to entertain at weddings and other private functions. Later, puppeteers and theater troupes began to perform in the same coffeehouses and inns. Still later, the Tahtakale performers began to spread out to coffeehouses and other venues in a variety of districts in Istanbul, such as Aksaray and Galata.

Dancers were often accompanied by musicians. The first such performances that come to mind are the dances by the çengi (female belly dancers), the köçek, and tavşan oğlan (male dancers). These dances, which some researchers compare to ballet as they are based on a particular theme, were performed by men and women in separate groups. terms These groups resembled each other in dress and dance style. The male dancers had long hair and dressed and danced like women; they were trained by experts from a very young age. The çengis wore a headpiece decorated with gold with one golden coin hanging in the middle of the forehead, known as a kaşbastı; a short, sleeveless waistcoat embroidered with silver and with two rows of velvet buttons, known as a camedan; a decorated silk robe, the sleeves of which hung down to the knees, known as an üç etek; a silk blouse that revealed the upper part of the chest; a shawl around the waist with a silver belt; a shalwar beneath the robe; and a pair of flat embroidered shoes. The köçeks wore a silver embroidered silk dress with fringes, a hairpiece, a decorated belt, an embroidered shirt, and a round straw fez; the only significant difference between the çengi and köçek outfits and those of the tavşan oğlans were the shalwar (baggy trousers) and the cone-shaped hat. Male and female dancers made similar movements, including wiggling their hips, striking their heels on the ground, walking on tiptoe or even running, making coquettish movements of the head, shaking the shoulders and hips, and swaying or shaking the entire body. The dancers were required to perform the movements from the beginning to the end according to specific repertoires. These dancers, who performed together as a group, had wooden sticks measuring eight to ten centimeters on their fingers; these were known as çarpara and made a sound when struck together as the dancers performed. Some of the more experienced dancers displayed various other skills during their performances, such as spinning plates.

2- Aerialists showing their demonstrations in 1582 festivities (İntizami)

The dance companies, generally known as kol, were not made up only of çengis or tavşans; they also included singers and musicians, jesters, mummers, and mimes; the number of participants in a kol ranged from 200 to 400. Evliya Çelebi, who provided a great deal of information regarding life in 17th century Istanbul, listed 15 kols: the Parpul Kolu, Ahmed Kolu, Kapıcıoğlu Kolu, Osman Kolu, Servi Kolu, Baba Nazlı Kolu, Zümrüd Kolu, Çelebi Kolu, Akide Kolu, Cevahir Kolu, Patakoğlu Kolu, Hasota Kolu, Samurkaş Kolu, Garibani Kolu, and Postalcı Kolu. Sultans Murad IV and Ibrahim occasionally summoned the Çelebi Kol to the palace to perform.

Dancers and other entertainers performed mainly in venues such as taverns, recreation spots, festivals, and weddings. Female çengis performed only before women. These çengis lived mainly in the districts of Ayvansaray and Balat. During the reign of Ahmed III, famous performers included Sedef Zehra, Benli Hacer, Zilkıran Kamer, Fidan Ayşe, Kelebek Fırat, Saçlı Sümbül, Kemankeş Eda, Zülüflü Hatice, and Yandım Emine. Famous female çengi dancers in the 19th century included Hayriye, daughter of Tosun Pasha, Zehra, daughter of Hancı, and Küçükpazarlı Naile.

3- Aerialists showing their demonstrations in 1720 festivities (Vehbi)

Mazlum Şah, Küpeli Ayvaz Şah, Saçlı Ramazan Şah, Küçük Şahin Şah, Memiş Şah, Bayram Şah, Çaker Şah, Sülün Şah, Mahbubu Zalim Şah, Hürrem Şah, Fitne Şah, Yusuf Şah, Mirza Şah, and Nazli Yusuf were famous köçeks (male dancers) in the 17th century, while Çingene Ismail, Büyük Afer, Küçük Afet, Altıntop, Tazefidan, Kanarya, Yeni Dünya, Kıvırcık, and Tilki were among the famous male dancers of the 18th century. In 1856, under the Tanzimat reforms, male performers of these dances were banned by the state.

Karagöz (Shadow Puppetry)

Karagöz shadow-puppet theater has entertained Istanbul for a long time; its exact date of origin and the details of its history are unknown. Unfortunately, today this form of entertainment is struggling to survive, practiced only by a few devoted artists. The main characters are Karagöz and Hacivat, puppets that are operated on long rods from behind a curtain. Exactly when these plays came to the Anatolian region and Istanbul is unknown. Sheikh Küşteri was one of the founders of this theater form, which indicates that it was not originally intended solely as entertainment. The purpose of the plays, which were produced by sheikhs in dervish lodges to explain Sufi ideas to followers in an easier, more understandable manner, is apparent from the “curtain gazel,” the poetry read at the opening of the play. Nevertheless, as time passed, this aspect of Karagöz was lost, and it was practiced solely to entertain.

Karagöz, enjoyed by people of all ages, reached its apex in Istanbul, the city in which the texts of the traditional plays were produced and performed in the best possible way, and the city from which the most experienced artists emerged. The characters that appeared in the Karagöz plays were based on people who lived in Istanbul, or who had in some way come to the city, or belonged to sectors of society that were unique to the city. Most of these characters were Laz (indigenous people from the Black Sea coast), Albanians, Persians, Greeks, or Armenians; in addition, characters from Kastamonu, Bolu, and Kayseri were often criticized or mocked for failing to adapt to the culture of Istanbul. The difficulties these characters faced also bore a clear message for people who considered immigrating to Istanbul.

This branch of art and entertainment—which was at first referred to as zıll-i hayal or hayal oyunu (imaginary shadow or shadow theater), but became popularly known as Karagöz—attracted attention not only from the public but also from senior members of the state. In fact, the interest shown by the palace increased public interest in this form of art and entertainment. The clearest evidence of this is that Karagöz became popular in Istanbul following Yavuz Sultan Selim’s conquest of Egypt. Yavuz Sultan Selim was extremely impressed by Karagöz, which was performed for him after his victory over the Mamluks in Egypt; he commissioned the performers to return with him to Istanbul. Karagöz was approved by the palace, and its popularity began to spread. The question arose of whether this form of entertainment was permissible under Islam; it was legitimized by Ebussuud Efendi, the renowned sheikh al-Islam during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent, who issued a fatwa saying that there was no harm in Karagöz plays if they set an example.

In addition to weddings and other private events, Karagöz performers also entertained in coffeehouses. The public showed the greatest interest in Karagöz during the month of Ramadan, when performances in local coffeehouses followed the tarawih prayers, giving the Istanbul public, in particular the children, a chance to enjoy worldly charms within the boundaries of religious legitimacy.

The main venues where Karagöz was performed were in Tahtakale, in the coffeehouses of the Kadı Han opposite the Baltacı Han on Balkapanı Street, in Galata, and around the Egyptian Bazaar and Simkeşhane in Beyazıt. Those who wanted Karagöz performers to entertain at private functions visited these locations and bargained with the performers; once both parties agreed on the terms, a date and time for the performance was set. On the agreed date, the Karagöz performer arrived with his helpers, who not only carried the equipment but were also apprentice puppet-masters. The curtain was hung and the stage assembled, and then the performance began.

In the post-Tanzimat era, an increase in the number of coffeehouses, tea shops, and eventually gardens and theaters meant an increase in venues where Karagöz could be performed. Thus, in addition to plays and storytelling, Karagöz shows became one of the main forms of entertainment performed in local coffeehouses and tea shops. Researchers have identified the main locations for Karagöz shows as the Mehmed Efendi, Şems, and Fevziye Cafés in Şehzadebaşı; the Dilküşa Café in Yeşiltulumba; Arif’s Café in Divanyolu; the Trabzonlu Kamil Efendi Casino in Kasımpaşa; the Meserret Café in Sultanahmet; the Osmani Café in Vezneciler; the Sultanahmet Municipality Gardens; the Rıza Efendi Café in Cihangir; the Mahmud Ağa Café in Çeşmemeydanı; and the Taşçıbaşı Café on Çarşıyolu in Üsküdar. At the beginning of the 20th century, many new locations for Karagöz performances, in its modern form and with new scripts, emerged. The Nev İcad Hayal Theater in Şehzadebaşı, which opened in 1907 during the month of Ramadan, was just one venue that opened exclusively for this purpose. The Karagöz shadow play performed in Galata, a district populated by foreigners, addressed non-Islamic topics and sometimes staged scenes that were considered immodest. These performances, which are mentioned in the travel notes of foreign visitors to Istanbul, rarely if ever occurred outside Galata.

4- Various demonstrations watched by Sultan Ahmed III: The game of Çarpara, ram fighting, swinging, and the acrobats’ shows (Vehbi)

Famous Karagöz artists who performed in Istanbul during the Ottoman period, some of them at the palace, included Kör Hasanzade Mehmet Çelebi, Şerbetçi Emin, Şengül Çelebi, Kandillioğlu, Ahmed, Kör Musluoğlu, Sarı Ahmed, Bekçi Mehmed, Aktar Mehmed, Kasımpaşalı Hafız Bey, Hayali Said Efendi, Arap Ali, Arap Aziz, Müzika-i Hümayun Kolağası Üsküdarlı Arap Ömer, Hayali Memduh, Baba Müştak, Balıkçı Dikran, Bedestenli Hanende Piştov Rıza, Berber Mehmed, Beşiktaşlı Hulusi, Cerrahpaşalı Hilmi Efendi, Çarşambalı, Şefik Safi, Endurunlu Hakkı Bey, Endurunlu Nazif Bey, Müezzin Hafiz Aşki, Hafiz Mehmed, Hayalcibaşı Yusuf, Hayal Küpü Emin Ağa, Hazım (Körmükçü), Kantarcı Hakkı, Yekçeşm Arif Molla, Kör Mehmed, Küçük Ali, Küçük Ismail, Miralay Mehmed Ali Bey, Karagöz Mehmed, Katip Salih, Peder Mustafa Efendi, Rıza Efendi, Samatyalı Takvor, Şair Ömer, Şeyh Fehmi Efendi, Usturacı Mustafa, Üsküdarlı Hüsnü Efendi, Yemenici Andon, Yorgancı Abdullah, Yusuf Efendi, Zati Bey, and Zenne Said.

Traditional Open-Air Theater (Ortaoyunu)

Traditional open-air theater, known as ortaoyunu, was just as important as Karagöz for the Istanbul public. According to the information available today, these forms of entertainment, known as kol oyunu (street theater), meydan oyunu (public theater), taklit oyunu (mime theater), and zuhuri kolu (elite theater), developed in the early 19th century. This form of entertainment, based on music, dance, mime, and dramatic performances, became especially popular during the reign of Abdulaziz; it is believed to have originated in the street entertainment introduced by the Jews who emigrated from Spain at the end of the 15th century, who brought many forms of entertainment with them. Over time, the performances are believed to have acquired the traditional Ottoman form, with the addition of elements of Karagöz, meddah (storytellers), hokkabaz (magician), curcuna (dance), and puppet shows. The plays were performed indoors during the winter, and in open-air locations, especially parks, during the summer. They were performed before large audiences; the main characters were Kavuklu and Pîşekâr, the equivalent of Karagöz and Hacivat.

The ortaoyunu consisted of four parts, the giriş (introduction), muhavere (play), fasıl (musical overture), and bitiş (finale). Before the play began, the köçeks and curcunabaz (dancers) appeared and danced accompanied by the ney and çifte nara (double drums). Kavuklu and Pîşekâr, the main characters, joined in the noisy, colorful curcuna dance. When the dance ended, the performers left the scene; next, Pîşekâr came onto the stage in the introduction sequence carrying a wooden rattle called a pastal in his hand, accompanied by the ney. Pîşekâr opened the play by greeting the audience. The second sequence consisted of the dialogue, or riddle scene, in which Kavuklu and Pîşekâr competed. As in the Karagöz, this dialogue was irrelevant to the actual play. When this part of the play came to an end, the actual play began. Each play had a specific theme and the characters, led by Kavuklu and Pîşekâr, were represented in a way that was relevant to that theme. Like in the Karagöz, the characters portrayed events experienced in Istanbul, wore traditional costumes, and spoke with the appropriate accents.

5- Fireworks show organized as part of the festivities of 1720 (Vehbi)

As in other theatrical performances, these performers also directly or indirectly addressed the problems and issues of the period. Those who played the role of Zenne were men dressed up as women. In this section of the play, mime was used extensively and misunderstanding was a frequent theme; the aim of the performers was to entertain the audience and to display their personal skills in a particular field. In the final sequence, Pîşekâr returned to the stage and apologized for any errors or bad manners displayed during the performance. He then announced the name and place of the next performance. Concluding music, played on the ney, indicated the end of the show.

The ortaoyunu play that was known as kol was performed by theater and entertainment troupes. The ortaoyunu performed in Istanbul included Zuhuri Kolu, Han Kolu, Kirli Kolu, Yoran Kolu, Çifte Kanburlar Kolu, Hacı Bekçi Kolu, and Süpürge Kolu. Indoor areas where the ortaoyunu were performed included İskilip Hanı, Kadri Paşa Hanı, and Saraç Han in Tavukpazarı, the Esirci Theater in Esir Pazarı, and the Hayal and Kavuklu. Theaters opposite the mausoleum of Sultan Mahmud, as well as the Arif Coffeehouse on Divanyolu, the Dilkuşa Coffeehouse in Aksaray, the Bahçeli Coffeehouse in Tahtakale, Enver Efendi’s Place in Cinci Square, the theater in Çarşıboyu Demirciler, Üsküdar, and the theater in Fulya, Beşiktaş. The open-air venues for the ortaoyunu included Göksu, Çubuklu, Kağıthane, Bentler, Sarıyer, Haydarpaşa Çayırı, Koşuyolu, Merdivenköy, the Kavasın Bağı in Edirnekapı, the Büyükdere Çayırı, Fenerbahçe, the Havuzbaşı (fountain) at Çengelköy, Kazıklıbağ, Şifa Havuzu, Bağlarbaşı, Doğancılar, Libade, Küçük Çamlıca, the Papazınbağı in Kadıköy, Yoğurtçu Çayırı, Bakırköy, the Moda resorts and the Municipality Gardens in Sultanahmet, as well as Kadırga Square.

6- Fireworks show (Vehbi)

The historian Metin And identified a substantial number of famous performers of the ortaoyunu in Istanbul. These include Kavuklu Hamdi, Abdi Efendi, Abdürrezzak Efendi, Ali Bey, Aktar Şükrü Efendi, Armenak Efendi, Aşkı Efendi, Borazan Tevfik, Büyük İsmail, Dalgıç Takvor Efendi, Dümbüllü İsmail, Hafız Cemal Efendi, Hayali Said Efendi, Hazineli Çavuş Aziz Ağa, Kanbur Esad, Kanbur Mahmud Efendi, Kör Mehmed, Kasımpaşalı Salih, Karagözcü Pinti Hamid, Küçük Hüseyini Kel Hasan, Küçük Ali, Küçük İsmail, Küçük Hamdi Efendi, Meddah İsmet Efendi, Meddah Kadri, Meddah Şükrü, Musahip Zeki Ağa, Kurban Oseb, Ömer Gülşeni, Terzi Salih, Yemenici Salih, and Zenne Said; they were performers of Karagöz plays and meddah,. Like the Karagöz performers, the ortaoyunu performers pursued other professions as well as entertaining.

Meddahs (Storytellers)

The presence of an ancient narrative tradition in eastern culture is well known. In an era when reading and writing were not widespread and the publication of books was not yet common, the public’s demand for stories, tales, and myths was met by storytellers and other talented performers. The primary storytellers who continued this ancient tradition in Istanbul were the meddahs. Talented, perceptive, articulate, and clever meddahs performed in the palaces, but more often in the coffeehouses and tea shops. Their repertoire consisted for the most part of classic stories, excerpts, jokes, and quips from the Shahname (Book of Kings), Thousand and One Nights, Battal Gazi Legends, Tutiname (Tales of the Parrots), Abu Ali Sina, Hançerli Hanım (Lady with the Dagger), Tayyarzade, and Tıfli. The meddah arrived at the coffeehouse or tea shop at a pre-arranged date and time, sat before the audience, and made his final preparations with the handkerchief and stick he used throughout the performance. He opened the one-man performance with the words “Justice, my friends, justice.” After repeating certain routine phrases, he related stories from his repertoire.

7- Ladies and gentlemen of Istanbul watching the festivities of 1720

8- The game of çarpara (Vehbi)

9- The acrobats’ shows (Vehbi)

During this performance, which never followed a set course, the meddah acted out his story with both words and actions. No matter how many characters were involved, he made each one come to life. The meddah also did impressions of animals in the stories; the only props used in the performance were the handkerchief and stick. Depending on the topic and character, the meddah might place the handkerchief on his shoulders like a scarf and use the stick as a noise-maker or weapon; depending on the audience, he would add or eliminate topics from the story.

Not only the meddahs told stories. Comedians performed in the marketplaces and bazaars; performers known as dalkavuklar entertained the residents of mansions with stories; and female storytellers entertained women in their homes as they sat around the tandır (stove) during the winter.

The coffeehouses and tea shops in which the meddah performed were the same places in which the Karagöz and ortaoyunu were performed, as described above.

10- The shows of the bears (Vehbi)

Some of the leading meddahs of the 17th century were Kurbani Ali Hamza, Şerif Çelebi, Tıfl, Ahmed Çelebi, Kör Hasanzade Mehmed Çelebi, Şengül Çelebi, Surna Çelebi, Ablak Çelebi, and Süleyman Çelebi. The famous meddahs and salon performers of the 19th century and the last period the storytelling were Meddah Salih, Çavuş Abdi Bey, Musahip Said Efendi, Kör Osman, Aşık Hasan, Piç Emin, Nazif Tespihçioğlu, Kız Ahmed, Kör Hafız, Ayvazoğlu, Mustafa Reis, Camcı İsmail, Mürekkepçi İzzet, Lüleci Mehmed, Kurban Oseb, Yağcı İzzet, İsmet, Aşki, Muhsin, Borazan Tevfik, Kadri, and Sururi.

Outdoor Leisure Destinations

After the conquest, the prime open-air spots frequented by the people of Istanbul were the mesire (promenades and picnic areas). Istanbul’s unique combination of land and sea boasts many recreation spots and green areas to meet the leisure demands of both the general public and the elite. Kağıthane, Silahtarağa, Karaağaç, Bahariye, Tershane Bahçesi, Aynalıkavak, Veliefendi, Rami, the slopes of Tophane, Beşiktaş, Emirgan, Kalender, Büyükdere, Tarabya, Bentler, Sular, Çubuklu, Göksu, Küçüksu, Kandilli, Mihrabad, Kavacık, Çengelköy, Kuleli, Fenerbahçe, Yoğurtçu, Haydarpaşa, Küçük Çamlıca and Büyük Çamlıca, Bağlarbaşı, Sultantepe, Arapzade, Kayışdağ, Alemdağ, Taşdelen, Sarıgazi, Beykoz, Tokatköy, Yuşa Tepesi, Sultaniye, and Hünkar İskelesi were the main rural areas and recreational and scenic spots that were popular with the people of Istanbul during the summer. The custom of visiting these locations became more widespread after the Tulip Era and soon became part of the culture.

Between 1718 and 1730, one leisure destination for palace residents, modeled on similar locations in France, was Sadabad Palace in Kağıthane. This lifestyle, which was based completely on consumption, was introduced by Grand Vizier Nevşehirli Damat İbrahim Pasha and Sultan Ahmed III; it was summed up by the famous contemporary poet Nedim: “Let us laugh, let us play, let us enjoy the delights of the world.” This entertainment took place in public view, not behind the closed gates of the palace as in the past. As with all other aspects of palace life, the common people attempted to imitate the leisure activities of the ruling class as much as they could. Clearly, the greatest influence the palace life had on the public during this period was an increase in the popularity of recreational and scenic areas.

11- Palace jesters (Castellan)

Despite the destruction of Kağıthane after the rebellion that brought the Tulip Era to an end, the area maintained its official identity with buildings that were later restored; it continued to be the most popular recreation spot for the people of Istanbul. The sultans sometimes lived in Sadabad during the summer. The main reasons for the increase in interest in the area included the public’s desire to see the imperial ceremonies, the fact that Kağıthane was more easily accessible than other scenic areas, the particular interest in the area, its spaciousness and natural scenery, including woodlands and a stream, the mansions and palaces with their fountains, and the fact that it was suitable to the taste and finances of all people. Kağıthane appealed to the general public. But some people did not find Kağıthane appealing and preferred spending leisure time privately with their families; after the Tanzimat, these people pursued more European-style leisure activities at other locations. Places like Bentler, Çamlıca and Fenerbahçe, Göksu and Küçüksu, Büyükdere, Yeniköy, and Tarabya were among the leisure destinations that most appealed to the elite. However, Kağıthane continued to represent the recreational and entertainment culture of the people of Istanbul and to provide significant information about their leisure culture.

Trips to Kağıthane began with the first signs of spring and continued until late summer. Naturally, people visited these destinations the most on holidays. Before the abolition of the Janissary Corps, most people visited Kağıthane on Thursdays and Fridays; after that, they came on Fridays (the Muslim holiday), Saturdays (the Jewish holiday), and Sundays (the Christian holiday). Intensive preparations were made days before the trip. Although Kağıthane was easily accessible by land, most people preferred to travel by sea. Those who preferred the sea route would travel in rowboats known as piyade, which could accommodate two or three people and were light enough to be carried. Those who traveled by land went on horseback or by horse-drawn cart.

Decoration of the piyade was considered important. Those who were not fortunate enough to own their own boat hired one at the shore a few days before the trip. Some set out on the journey after the Friday prayer at Eyüp Mosque. The first to arrive in Kağıthane would be the musicians, beggars, bear trainers, and peddlers. In the early period, when it was forbidden for men and women to walk together, one side of the stream was allocated to women and the other side to men; the spots beneath the trees were allocated to those who traveled to Kağıthane by horse and cart. Kağıthane attracted large crowds and soon became a venue that appealed to the tastes and leisure pursuits of all sectors of society.

The visitors, in particular families, brought food they had prepared days before and meat that was ready to cook. Some set up tents to protect themselves from the sun or to ensure privacy; covers known as ihram were spread on the ground. Lamb was roasted on a spit, and other types of meat were also cooked; these were eaten on the ihram with the dishes that had been prepared in advance. Those who sat on the shore allocated to the men hired musicians and watched the Romany dancers. Performances by actors, bears and monkeys, magicians, and acrobats were popular. While the children swung on swings hung from trees, adults who came to enjoy the fresh air strolled around the promenade with their friends, occasionally climbing the hills to get away from the crowds. Individuals from all sectors of society frequented Kağıthane—those who wanted to enjoy themselves according to their religious beliefs and to have a good time with their families, wealthy horseback riders displaying their skills, paupers who were in debt but still wanted to show off, womanizers who rode around in rented carriages and attempted to approach scandalous women, and those who wanted to squander their wealth, as well as hoodlums and ruffians.

12- Dancers of Istanbul (d’Ohsson)

13- Entertainment in Harem (Hörmann-Gemminger, Pera Museum)

14- Public storyteller (Medah) (Flandin)

15- A jester (<em>Costumes L’Empire Turc</em>)

Over time, the noise and persistence of peddlers became extremely annoying to other visitors. In particular, the irritating cries of the sellers of strawberries, oranges, chestnuts, halvah, candy, pudding, ice-cream, dried fruit and nuts, and cigarette papers and matches annoyed people. The persistence of the beggars was even more disturbing. Unable to ignore them, people threw coins in the air and the beggars rushed to grab the coins. In such mixed crowds, quite naturally there were sometimes arguments and other forms of disorder. Security officials attempted to maintain law and order, often using force.

16a- People’s entertainment around Bosphorus

16b- People’s entertainment around Bosphorus

Two hours before evening prayer, officers announced that the trip was over, and people began to prepare for their journey home. The return journey was never as peaceful as the trip to Kağıthane. Visitors continued to enjoy their amusements and entertainment on their way home. Those who traveled by sea sang accompanied by musicians; the fun, noise and laughter could be heard from a distance. The sounds of laughter, poetry, folk songs, and ballads mingled. In particular, the boats that gathered in Bahariye traveled so close together that it was possible to cross the Golden Horn by jumping from one boat to another. Those traveling by land followed the boats on their route home. Foreigners, including ambassadors, paused on the banks of the waterway in their carriages to witness these scenes.

Küçüksu, on the Bosphorus, was another popular excursion spot. Starting with Mahmud I, who succeeded to the throne after the Tulip Era (1754) and constructed a number of buildings there, the sultans took a particular interest in this area. Selim III ordered the construction of a public fountain, and Mahmud II made frequent visits. Finally, Sultan Abdulmecid commissioned the construction of the pavilion that exists today. All these undertakings increased the popularity of the district. In particular, the area in which the fountain was built was frequented on holidays by people living on the Bosphorus and in Istanbul.

A more modest leisure spot than Kağıthane, Küçüksu was more popular with female members of higher-class families and the women of the palace. As in other leisure spots, men and women were segregated. When the volume of visitors increased on Fridays, women boarded their decorated carriages and rode around the grounds. However, toward the end of the 19th century, this custom started to fade. Instead, people started to take trips in rowboats on the Göksu River, returning to Göksu in the early evening for a promenade. The women strolled leisurely in their long, colorful satin coats, holding umbrellas, while the men wore outfits in keeping with the latest fashion. However, with the Tanzimat, the trend of westernization, as with every aspect of life, started to change the concept of leisure and entertainment in Ottoman society. During this period, people wore their most elegant outfits to visit recreation and picnic spots, and went not only to meet others but to be noticed; in these places, Ottoman society’s social etiquette was on display.

17- Entertainment at a religious festival (Mimar Sinan University Istanbul Painting Sculpture Museum Collection MRHM)

Another destination that people from Istanbul visited on Fridays was the grounds of the Eyüp Sultan Mosque. Families visited the tomb; after the Friday prayer, the men went to the restaurants and cream sellers around the mosque, while the women ate in the mosque gardens with their children. The children would swing and play with the toys they purchased from the toy sellers.

Throughout history, the leisure and scenic areas that were popular with the people of Istanbul were closely controlled by the state. The state periodically published tenbihname (legal warnings) specifying which days people were permitted to visit, how they should behave, and the punishments for failure to comply with these rules. The tenbihname also stated the days and places that Muslim women were allowed to visit. According to a tenbihname published in 1861, Muslim women were not permitted to go to Kağıthane, Moda Point, Fenerbahçe, Hacı Hüseyin Bağı, Ihlamur, Beyoğlu Taksim, Küçük, or Büyük Su on the Bosphorus, Çubuklu, Hünkar Pier, or Akıntıburnu on Sundays, although they were allowed to visit these places on other days of the week. Women were not allowed to visit Bağlarbaşı Maşatlığı, Çiftehavuzlar Serbostan Bağı in Üsküdar, Susuz Bağ around Sultantepe, Arapzade Bağ above Kuzguncuk, Maslak, Şişli, Levent Çiftliği, Pangaltı, or Zincirlikuyu at any time or under any circumstances. The tenbihname established severe punishments for people who drank alcohol or made improper advances to women and for peddlers and beggars who harassed visitors.

There is some debate about how (if at all) these rules were implemented. Indeed, it is well known that before and after the tebihname, there were drinking parties, known as âb alemleri; these were held particularly in rowboats and in secluded parts of the scenic areas. After the Second Meşrutiyet, the restrictions on women visiting these destinations were lifted.

While men rode horses, women traveled to these locations in oxcarts, known as koçu. In the 19th century, when suspension carriages—called hinto, talika, or katip odası—came into use, riding in oxcarts fell out of fashion. After the Tanzimat, carriages known as kupa and lando, which originated in Europe, became more popular. Particularly in leisure spots in Çamlıca and Fenerbahçe, where European-style excursions were more popular, these carriages were used by both men and women, and were especially favored by the elite. This was reflected in Turkish literature after the Tanzimat; it is mentioned in a novel by Recaizade Mahmud Ekrem titled Araba Sevdası (A Passion for Carriages).

Mehtap alemleri (moonlight parties) were a form of evening entertainment unique to the Bosphorus; they most likely began in the 17th century and reached their peak of popularity in the 19th century, during the era of Sultan Abdulaziz. Residents of yalı (waterfront mansions), including women, regularly attended these parties, which took place in rowboats on summer nights with a full moon. The prime spots for these events were Bahai Bay in Kanlıca and Bebek and Büyükdere Bays. Musical instruments were played and there was singing and, occasionally, drinking, while people observed the intriguing play of moonlight on the surface of the sea. During the summer, the excursion and leisure spots that were most popular with ambassadors, other foreigners, and non-Muslims in Istanbul were the embankments and the pastures of Büyükdere on the Rumelian shore of the Bosphorus. Particularly after the 19th century, Yeniköy, Tarabya, and Sarıyer were popular areas for people to stroll and ride in carriages during the summer.

18- A wedding parade in the Anatolian side of Istanbul. Rumelian castle and the mosque in the castle are in the background (Vanmour, Amsterdam, Rijks Museum)

The islands were another prime summer spot for non-Muslims. Toward the end of the 19th century, the popularity of the islands increased, especially among the Muslim elite.

Halvah Parties

Istanbul family members and neighbors gathered for halvah parties on long winter nights. These became more popular after the Tulip Era, an important period in terms of the history of entertainment; they were held once or twice a week, but mainly on holidays. During these parties, a large tray of halvah was offered to guests who gathered after the night prayer; musical instruments were played and songs were sung while the halvah was made and eaten, rather like the musical entertainment held in certain regions known today as sıra gecesi. If they had the financial resources, the hosts of these parties might hire small groups of musicians, mimes, or storytellers to entertain their guests. Party games such as tura (drop the handkerchief) and yüzük (hide the ring) were played. The main objective of these gatherings was amusement. Semolina, gaziler, and flax halvah were the most popular varieties offered at women’s halvah parties. The halvah parties organized by trade guilds were larger and more enjoyable than those held in private homes.


The main Istanbul entertainment venues to offer alcohol were the taverns, many of which dated back to the Byzantine period. Taverns continued to exist thanks to the tolerance of the Ottoman administration for the lifestyles of non-Muslims after the conquest, but they occasionally had to suspend business during times when the ban on alcohol was enforced. The taverns also closed during the sacred months of Shaban and Ramadan. Taverns were off limits to Muslims and were kept under strict control by the administration. However, it was impossible to prevent those who were accustomed to drinking alcohol, including poets, from visiting them. Many taverns were located in districts where minorities lived, such as Galata, Yenikapı, Kumkapı, Samatya, Langa, Unkapanı, Fener, Balat, Beyoğlu, and Kadıköy, and were run by Armenians and Greeks. Taverns differed in their quality of service, their customers’ income level, and whether they operated legally (gedikli or selatin) or illegally (koltuk). Peddlers known as ayaklı meyhaneci also sold alcoholic beverages illegally. Cheap backstreet taverns were known as küplü.

Tavern owners, known to friends and frequent customers as usta (boss), personally welcomed customers at the door. Taverns had their own unique food, customs, culture, and language; patrons who broke the rules or became drunk and disorderly were immediately expelled.

19- Greek women in a park (d’Ohsson)

Before it became customary for other shops to do so, taverns had signs, usually made of made of rope, metal daggers, or chains and hung over the doorway. Taverns were most often named after the owner or one of the employees. According to Çaylak Tevfik, who had extensive knowledge of taverns, the most reputable taverns of the 19th century included Kafesli, Hançerli, and Yahudi in Balıkpazarı; Salebçi in Zindankapısı; Çavuşbaşı in Asmaaltı; the Çorapcı, Kürkçü, and Valide Inns in Mahmutpaşa; the Saraç, Bakla, Yağlıkçı, and Vezir Inns in Tavukpazarı; the Küçük and Büyük Müsellim in Gedikpaşa; Düzoğlu, Yeni Meyhane, Karabıçak, and Küçük Samsun in Kumkapı; Kafesli in Yenikapı; Tandırlı, Mermerli, and İkikapılı in Langa; Küçük and Büyük Kuleli, Altın Oluk, Gümüş Halkalı, Kel Sarkis, Zafiri, Hacı Manol, Sürgerli, and Servili Inns in Samatya; Takkeci in Karagümrük; Karagöz, Yeni Meyhane, Sarafim, and Hacı Mardiros in Topkapı; Karanlık, Koço Kalfa, Köroğlu, Bahçeli, Karanfil, Ekserici Nesim, and Balta Yasef in Balat; Dülgeroğlu, Hacı Mişon, Çingene Muslim, Gümüş Enzade, and Hacı Avram outside Balat; Gümüş, Halkalı, Kamburoğlu, and Tanaşaki in Fener; Haleplioğlu, Laşko, Kasavet, Anastas, and Yahudi Ayoda in Cibali;, and Yenidünya and Baklacıoğlu in Unkapanı.

The waiters (known as saki or miço) who served alcoholic beverages and meze (appetizers) were chosen from among the Armenian and Greek youth. Among the most common entertainers in taverns were musicians and dancers. During the period leading up to the Tanzimat, the main entertainers in the taverns and inns were the tavşan and köçek dancers, who were accompanied by musicians. Kemençeci Vasil, Kemani Tatyos, Kemani Zafiraki, Hanende Karakaş, Kemani Tahsin, and Udi İbrahim were among the famous musicians of this period.

During the month of Ramadan, tavern patrons stopped drinking alcohol either temporarily or permanently out of respect for the holy month. Those who quit drinking temporarily fell into three categories: the ipçi, who quit 15 days before Ramadan, when the mahya (lights bearing messages) were hung from the larger mosques, the kandilci, who quit when the lamps around the minarets of the mosques were lit, signifying the beginning of Ramadan, and the topçu, who quit when they heard the cannonball fired that signified the time to cease eating and drinking on the first day of Ramadan. The topçu resumed drinking after they performed the ‘Eid prayer and celebrated the holiday with their families, the kandilci on the evening of the first day of ‘Eid, and the ipçi not until the evening of the fourth day.

After the Tanzimat, Istanbul’s increased exposure to the West (for example through the presence of allied English and French armies in Istanbul during the Crimean War) began to affect its entertainment. New venues emerged that served alcoholic beverages and often provided musical entertainment—including casinos, café-chantants, and beerhouses, primarily in Beyoğlu and Galata, the focal points of western life in Istanbul. Many of the owners were adventurers and entrepreneurs from Europe. These venues aroused strong opposition from the majority of the Istanbul public, as they were considered a threat to the social structure.

20- Kağıthane resort area (d’Ohsson)

Wealthier Istanbul residents who liked to socialize in venues where alcoholic beverages were served went to Beyoğlu, especially to the Nicoli, Yani, and Balabani beerhouses and the Concordia, Café Crystal, and Valaury casinos. Lower-income people visited casinos known as baloz and beerhouses in Galata, especially the Alafranga and Şerbethane casinos. During the Mütareke (Armistice) in 1922, an entertainment craze occurred, particularly in Beyoğlu. While the city was controlled by occupation forces and cosmopolitism and disorder prevailed, new entertainment venues emerged—including restaurants and bars opened by White Russians who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution and settled in Istanbul, especially in Beyoğlu.


The acquaintance of the Istanbul public with western-style theater coincided with the post-Tanzimat period. Although it is known that theater groups came from Europe to perform plays in foreign languages at the divans of ambassadors, it is impossible to define the effects these activities had as they occurred in such a restricted part of Istanbul’s social and cultural life. The Naum Theater in Beyoğlu, which began operating in the early 1840s, constituted a milestone in terms of western theater. During the early period, the plays were performed in foreign languages, and extracts were published in newspapers in four languages including Turkish. After 1858, some of the plays in the Naum Theater were performed in Turkish. In this period, the palace’s stance on innovations from the West also applied to the theater. In 1859, Sultan Abdulmecid, who was fond of the theater, commissioned the construction of a theater building close to Dolmabahçe Palace. Şinasi, perceived as the founder of modern Turkish literature, wrote the first play produced in this theater, Şair Evlenmesi (1860). Adaptations and plays were also written by other authors of the Tanzimat period such as Namık Kemal, Ahmed Midhat Efendi, Ahmed Vefik Paşa, Ebuzziya Tevfik, and Recaizade Mahmud Ekrem. The interest in the theater displayed by the palace and Istanbul in general attracted many European performers to Istanbul.

21- Orta Oyunu (low theater) (Mimar Sinan University Istanbul Painting SculptureMuseum Collection)

The Naum Theater burned down in 1879. Another important theater was the Ottoman Theater, opened in Gedikpaşa by Güllü Agop, an actor who had trained in the Naum. The theater that began operating in 1870 at the Hippodrome, previously run by the European Soulier, put on comedies, musicals, dramas, and tragedies in Turkish and other languages. Without a doubt, the most outstanding of all the plays performed was Vatan yahud Silistre (Motherland or Silistre), written by Namık Kemal; the public demonstrations following the first performance of this play in 1873 led to the writer being sent into exile. The Ottoman Theater played an important role in popularizing western-style theater, for which Güllü Agop was considered the founder. Many well-known actors were trained at the Ottoman Theater—including Yeranuhi and Vegine Karakaşya, Bayzar Fasulyeciyan, Mari Nıvart, Aznif Hratçya, and Hiranuş Hanım among the women, and Tomas Fasulyeciyan, Karakin Riştuni, Manuk Sisak, and Mardiros Mınakyan among the men.

After 1875, tuluat or improvisational theater emerged, with its roots in the traditional ortaoyunu open-air theater described earlier, but incorporating western theatrical influences and moving from the public square to the stage. During this process, certain characteristics of the ortaoyunu started to disappear. Greater emphasis was placed on actions rather than speech, humor involving rude speech or noise, costume changes, and disrupting the texts of the play. Western plays and cabaret-style performances by female Armenian and Greek singers and dancers also distinguished the tuluat theater from ortaoyunu in the Direklerarası region of Istanbul. The cabaret performances became more popular than stage plays. Minyon Virjini, Küçük Amelya, Peruz Hanım, Şamran Hanım, and Küçük Eleni were leading cabaret performers. The tuluat era, which began with the Hayalhane-Osmani Theater, founded by Kavuklu Hamdi, an important name in ortaoyunu, did not last long; its popularity began to fall off after the death of Kavuklu Hamdi following the Second Meşrutiyet. In addition to Kavuklu Hamdi, Abdürrezzak (Abdi), Kel Hasan, and Küçük İsmail were leading artists of the tuluat era who also originally came from the ortaoyunu. Osmanlı Dram, Eğlencehane-i Osmani, Handehane-i Osmani, Lu’biyat-i Osmani, and Meserrerhane-i Osmani were a few of the theater groups, known as kumpanya, that performed in open-air and indoor venues, particularly during Ramadan; these performances tended to be in Direklerarası, Aksaray, Beşiktaş, Bakırköy, Osmanbey, Pangaltı, Fener, Beyazıt, Üsküdar, and Kadıköy. Following the declaration of the Second Meşrutiyet, with the new independence, theater in Istanbul grew rapidly. During the early period, the main themes of the performances were political. Plays influenced by Namık Kemal’s Vatan yahut Silistre, which addressed the topics of patriotism, independence, and constitutionalism and criticized the reign of Abdulhamid II, were quickly written and performed. The Darülbedayı Theater, built by the municipality in 1914, held its first performance in 1916; this constituted the foundation of the Şehir (City) Theaters of today. Theater companies included the Mınakyan, Burhaneddin, Binemeciyan, and Ertuğrul Muhsin; influential performers of the period included Hazım (Körmükçü), Naşit Bey, İsmail Dümbüllü, İ Galip, Muvahhid, Behzat (Butak), and Kınar Hanım.

Theater declined, unsurprisingly, during the war and the occupation. In addition to the difficulties that it had experienced from the beginning, it now had to compete with cinema, the newly emerging art and entertainment form of this period.


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This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.