The first festival held in the new capital of the Ottoman State, Istanbul,1 was during the reign of Bayezid II (1481-1512).2 In these years of relative insignificance in the history of the state, we have detected only two festivals. These were the circumcision and wedding festivals held in Istanbul in 1490. Bayezid II’s son Abdullah (d. 1483) and Şehzade (prince) Ahmed’s (d. 1513) son, as well as one of the sons of the viziers were circumcised. During the second part of this festival, the sultan’s three daughters were married to three beys. However, thematic plays were first seen in 1524, during a festival held in the reign of Sultan Süleyman.3 During the festival, war games, skits, comedies, köçek dances and nahıls4 that were set with valuable stones, an indication of power and wealth, dazzled everyone. The decorations put up for war plays and mudhikes (comedies) gave the quality of an open-air stage. While the war plays represented the military success of the Ottomans, the mudhikes can be considered to be musical theater plays because of the inclusion of musical instruments and singing.5

Following a small festival, which lasted a week, to mark the birth of Şehzade Mustafa in 1525, the greatest festival during the reign of Sultan Süleyman was held in 1530.6 Jewish and Armenian actors performed a number of farcical sketches during this festival. There were also master court jesters and dancers. It is possible to state that among these were Maghribi dancers, who had presumably been brought along by Jews when they had fled Spain in the time of Renaissance and taken refuge in the Ottoman Empire; the dance was called as Mağribî Raksı. Nine years later, in the summer of 1539, a double celebration was held for the circumcision of Sultan Süleyman’s sons Bayezid and Cihangir and the marriage of his only surviving daughter with Hürrem Sultan, Mihrimah Sultan, to the governor of Diyarbakır, Rüstem Pasha. The performances that had been held in the previous festival were also included in this festival. In addition, a seven-headed giant dragon puppet, displayed by the Jewish artisans in the performance area, attracted great interest.7

1- The boy dancer playing çalpara in the festivities of 1582 (İntizami)

During the short reign of Sultan Selim II (1566-1574), we have come across with only three minor festivals in the sources. A French nobleman, Philippe du Fresne-Canaye, observed the 1573 festival; he stated that contrary to what was supposed in Europe, there were very skilled masters of the theater in Turkey, as seen in the small festival held to celebrate the wedding of the daughter of Piyale Pasha, the second vizier and the Grand Admiral with the doğancıbaşı (head falconer) of the sultan; the Frenchman added that some of these actors were superior to those found in Europe.8 Another festival was held by the sultan in the following year. This festival, held in 1574, was to celebrate the marriage of Selim II’s daughter, Fatma Sultan (d. 1580); Fatma Sultan was the daughter of Selim’s favorite wife, Nurbanu Sultan, and she was to be married to Siyavuş Pasha from Kanije (d. 1602). Siyavuş Pasha later would become the grand vizier.

2- The fireworks in the festivities of 1582 (İntizami)

During the reign of Murad III (1574-1595), the twelfth sultan of the Ottomans, glorious, dazzling festivals were organized; the most notable was the one in 1582. After Esma Sultan’s wedding festival in 1575, we see that a festival was held for a different purpose in 1579; this festival was an eight-day festival that Murad III organized to welcome the Iranian ambassador, Mahmud, to Istanbul. The purpose of this festival was to intimidate Iran, and there were war-themed plays that attracted attention.

The 1582 circumcision festival held for Mehmed, the son of Murad III (Sultan Mehmed III), was the greatest festival to date in the Ottoman territory; there were many guests, a large number of performances, great splendor and wealth in this celebration which lasted for 57 days and nights.9 Jesters came on stage in Iranian clothes in this festival; this was, in a way, a demonstration of the Ottoman power for the Iranian ambassador. Dance played an important place in this festival, as well. The dances were performed by Jews who had migrated to the Ottoman State. In particular, the Spanish mattesina dance, performed with swords and daggers, was well appreciated.10 Shows that were half-dance, half-plays, with bare-chested performers wearing horns, similar to satyrs, also attracted interest.11 In this festival there was a musical performance held in the mansion of the widow of Sokullu, Esmihan Gevher Sultan (d. 1585); an Italian artist was dressed as Eros and preformed a pantomime accompanied by music.12 A German traveler, who watched the festival from beginning to end, mentions that there were scenes which re-enacted a scene between an old master and his young butler. The author uses the term zanni to refer to the butler.13 This is a reference to the zannis that appear as butlers and were one of the first characters in the commedia dell’arte.14 Thus, the influence of commedia dell’arte can be clearly seen.

The audience also enjoyed shadow plays performed by various artists. A largish, six-wheeled hut, the front of which was covered with a white curtain, and candles behind the curtain, was brought into the area. Plays were staged on this and were described by another foreign visitor: “In the show, which was performed with better figures than the previous one, a cat ate a mouse and a stork ate a snake. These figures were moved with sticks.”15

3- Nahls (palm tree shaped ornaments), one of the most important elements of Ottoman festivities (1720, Vehbi)

In 1586, on the fourth anniversary of this great festival, Murad III held another festival in the Hippodrome; this celebration was for the wedding between his second vizier, İbrahim Pasha, and Ayşe Sultan, the daughter of Murad III and Safiye Sultan. The last festival during the reign of Murad III was held in 1589. A traveler named Lubenau writes that a comedian made the audience burst out into laughter.16

The first festival during the reign of Ahmed I (1603-1622) was in 1603, while the second was in 1606, the third in 1612 and the fourth in 1613. The shows were staged in Kağıthane and Beşiktaş. The British traveler Thomas Coryate mentions that themed dramatic performances were performed on rafts at night.17

During the reign of Murad IV (1623-1640), who died at the age of 28, four festivals were held. In 1624, 1626 and 1630 festivals were held to celebrate marriages, and the 1639 festival was held to mark the return of Murad IV from the Baghdad expedition. Finding the dances of the male dancers and köçeks suggestive during this festival, Du Loir writes that “Newly-wed couples did not like these obscene performances. [In one of the performances], two lovers were impatient to consummate their lustful passions.”18

Another two festivals were held during the reign of Sultan İbrahim. One of these was in 1646 and the other was in 1648. To enable the large nahils to pass through the streets, eaves that overhung the streets and some balconies were removed or demolished, and the streets were widened for this festival.

Ruling between 1648 and 1687, Mehmed IV (d. 1693) was a peace-loving sultan who was fond of art; he managed to rule the Ottoman State successfully for forty years with the help of his astute viziers. Mehmed IV took the tradition of having various performers in readiness at the palace a step further; he sponsored composers, muralists and even calligraphers. It is known that this sultan, who was keen on entertainment, hunting and games, was patron to a great number of artists. The first festival during his reign was held in 1649; this was to mark his circumcision when he was eight, and lasted for a week. In the circumcision festival that was also held for another three şehzades,19 on the night of October 20, 1649, the pages of all chambers in the imperial palace prepared various plays and received many gifts for their performances. A festival was held in honor of the birth of Mehmed IV’s son Mustafa (Sultan Mustafa II) in 1663; this festival was celebrated across the Ottoman territory.20

4- Nahls (palm tree shaped ornaments) in the festivities of 1720 (Vehbi)

5- A scene of castle siege demonstrated in the festivities of 1720 (Vehbi)

Ruling between 1703 and 1730, Ahmed III was another peace-loving sultan who was fond of the fine arts, like his father Mehmed IV. The famous Tulip Era was during the reign of this sultan. Ahmet III had festivals organized for three consecutive years, starting with the fifth year of his enthronement. In the first major festival, held in 1708,21 theatrical plays were staged during the day and fireworks were displayed at night. A year later, Ahmed III had another great festival organized in 1709, this time to mark the marriage of his daughter Fatima Sultan (d. 1733) to one of his favorite pashas, Silahtar Ali Pasha (d. 1716). In this festival, games were played on small rafts in the Golden Horn. In the festival held 1710,22 dramatic dances and plays were performed as well as various acrobatic shows and sports competitions.

Ahmed III’s most splendid celebration was the one in 1720, which was immortalized in miniatures by Levni.23 Bahçevanoğlu Kolu (the troupe of the son of the gardener) performed the first themed play in this festival. On September 28, the eleventh day of the festival, from the Surnâme-i Vehbî we learn that Halil Kolu (Halil’s troupe) performed a themed comedy. The most interesting among the performances was on the fourteenth day of the festival (October 1); a vehicle dived beneath the Golden Horn like a submarine and rose to the surface when actors got out of it.24 It is interesting to note that dances and games were performed on rafts during this festival. A miniature by Levni, who drew the miniatures for Vehbi’s work, depicts the performance of a play on a raft; this is also an indication that ortaoyunu (a fundamental genre in traditional Turkish theatre based on improvisation and performed in the open) began to take shape during this period.25 Ahmed III’s last festival was organized in 1724.

The first festival in the reign of Mustafa III (1757-1774), which was held to mark the marriage of the sultan’s sister, Ayşe Sultan (d. 1775) to the governor of the Trikala (Tırhala) province Vizier Silahtar Mehmed Pasha (d. 1788), consisted of entertainment that started on January 27, 1757 and lasted for a week.26 Following this, there were festivals to mark Hibetullah Sultan’s wedding in 1758, the birth of Şehzade Selim in 1761, Mihrimah Sultan’s birth in 1762 and Şehzade Mehmed’s birth in 1766. In these festivals as well, performances on the rafts were popular.

During the reign of Abdülhamid I (1774-1789), a festival was organized in 1776 to celebrate the birth of his first child, Hadice Sultan.27 Edicts were sent out to every corner of the realm, ordering the organization of celebrations; in Istanbul, the celebrations lasted for ten days and nights.28 Shows were performed during the day and there were fireworks at night; in addition, the usual ceremonial events were held during this festival, which was held in honor of Rabia Sultan,29 who was born on Wednesday, April 19, 1780. An interesting performance in these celebrations was a comedy staged by the women of the imperial harem. The girls in the harem staged a play and made fun of the prohibitions imposed by Abdülhamid I on the finery of women. In this performance, some of the girls represented the women on the streets and one of them represented the sultan; the actress who represented the sultan jumped on a woman who was dressed in a long-collared long coat, which was against the law, and cut it off.30 The sultan, who was watching this performance behind the grilles with the sultanas, laughed at the play.31 The last known festival during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid was held for the birth of Emine Sultan in 1788.

During the reign of Mahmud II (1808-1839), there were ten festivals, both large and small.32 These were held to mark the birth of the sultan’s children, the beginning of their education, the marriages of the sultan’s children and the circumcisions of the şehzades. Two of these in particular are noteworthy. The large-scale festival organized to celebrate the beginning of Abdülmecid’s education in 1832 is unique in imperial history. The double wedding festival held in 1836 was to mark the marriage of the sultan’s daughter Mihrimah Sultan (d. 1838) to the guardian of the Dardanelles and governor of the Biga province, Mehmed Said Pasha (d. 1868), as well as to mark the circumcision of the sultan’s two sons.33

The performers and dramatic plays are the subjects which concern us the most. There were many interesting events in the festival of 1836, however, the most interesting of these were the shadow play, meddah (storyteller) and ortaoyunu. In particular, the shadow and puppet plays were performances that were popular with foreigners. A traveler to Istanbul and the eastern regions of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century describes the shadow play as follows: “The most popular performing arts for the Muslims is the Karagöz, a puppet show performed on Ramadan nights, during the month of fasting, in coffee houses or gardens. The comical elements in this play arise from mimicry, misunderstandings and the mockery of strangers.”34 Watching this festival from the beginning to the end, Julia Pardoe writes: “There were many performance rings in the festival area. In one of these, a fantoccini [puppet] troupe was staging their miniature plays.”35 Her words are not clear; however, as she mentions night-time entertainment in this section, it suggests to us that what she saw was Karagöz, since this “miniature play” was staged after dark. Indeed, Lebib writes that Karagöz was performed in eleven different locations at night.36

6- A scene from a themed game demonstrated in the festivities of 1720 (Vehbi, Topkapı Palace Museum Library, no. 3593)

Meddah played an important role in the 1836 festival. Referred to as improvisatore by the foreigners, meddahs are frequently mentioned. We see meddah displaying their arts both in the performance areas and in various districts of Istanbul as part of the festival. The most important dramatic play of this festival was the ortaoyunu. Describing the festival, Lebib mentions that Zuhuri Kolu that comprised of the Zeyrek Team and Ali Ağa Kolu staged some ortaoyunu on Saturday, May 7, 1836, the last day of the marriage festival. Among these were Mahalle Baskını (the neighborhood raid), Terzi Oyunu (the tailor play),37 Yazıcı Oyunu (the scribe play), Çeşme Oyunu (the fountain play), Tımarhane Oyunu (the soul asylum play),38 Berber Oyunu (the barber play) and Kale Oyunu (the castle play).39 The foreign visitors watching the ortaoyunu, which was staged for the public in the area before the palace, first explain the theme, then describe the performance as “primitive”, mentioning that there were musicians and dancers performing the intermissions of the play, which was staged in “three parts”.40

Mahmud II’s 1836 festival is the last big festival in the Ottomans. After this, all the festivals, until the 1899 festival of Abdülhamid II, were on a small scale. The decrease in the splendor and wealth of the festivals is parallel to the political and economic collapse of the Ottoman State.


1 The performances in the festivals can be grouped into four: circus shows, sports competitions, dramatic shows and fire displays, including fireworks at night. This article will focus on dramatic shows, namely Karagöz, light comedies, meddah and thematic comedies. Also, some of the mentioned festivals in this article have their own surnâme (descriptive text). For documents, see: Hatice Aynur, “Surnâme”, DİA, vol. 37, pp. 565-567. For surnâme texts, see: Mehmet Arslan, Türk Edebiyatında Manzum Surnâmeler: Osmanlı Saray Düğünleri ve Şenlikleri, Ankara: Atatürk Kültür, Dil ve Tarih Yüksek Kurumu Atatürk Kültür Merkezi, 1999.

7- The scenes of entertainment in the festivities of 1720 (Vehbi)

2 After Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople, he had circumcision and wedding festivals organized in Edirne.

3 This was organized for Grand Vizier Makbul (later Maktul) İbrahim Pasha’s (d. 1536) marriage to the daughter of Selim I., who was Sultan Süleyman’s sister, Hadice Sultan. This great wedding festival went on for fifteen days and nights from May 22 (Rajab 18, Sunday) to June 5 (Shaban 2, Sunday) and was held in the Hippodrome in Istanbul.

4 Nahıls (or nakils) are wax decorations; in this celebration the nahıls were decorated with gold and silver and precious stones, thus displaying the power and wealth of the sultan. These nahıls, resembling cypress trees in shape, were so large that when they were carried through the narrow streets of Istanbul, the eaves of some of the buildings or the entire building had to be demolished and the owner given compensation. Some sources mention that one nahıl in these weddings consisted of sixty thousand pieces, while another consisted of forty thousand pieces. These were considered to be very splendid artistic works with motifs of mythological birds like the phoenix; see Celâlzâde Mustafa Çelebi, Tabakâtü’l-memâlik ve derecâtü’l-mesâlik, Nationalbibliothek, Codex H.O. 41 (1070); TSMK, B. 298; Millet Library, no. 779.

5 On the sixth day of the festival on May 28, the son of Sultan Süleyman, Selim (Selim II) was born; Joseph von Hammer, Geschichte des Osmanischen Reiches, Pesth: C.A. Hartleben’s Verlage, 1830, vol. 3, p. 58.

6 Various parades and performances were held during the three-week festival held for the circumcision of the sons of Süleyman Mustafa, Mehmed and Selim on June 19, 1530.

7 Peçuylu İbrâhim, Târih, Istanbul: Matbaa-i Âmire, 1283, vol. 2, pp. 73-74; Hammer, Geschichte, vol. 3, pp. 212-213. The seven-headed dragon was seen again at the festival of Ahmed III in 1720. However, this time, the dragon dove into the Golden Horn.

8 Philippe du Fresne-Canaye, Voyage en Levant, Paris: E. Leroux, 1897, p. 264.

9 Selânikî Mustafa, Târih, Freiburg: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 1970, p. 168. It is stated that the festival lasted for 55 days and nights.

10 N. D. Shergold, A History of the Spanish Stage: From Medieval Times until the End of Seventeenth Century, Oxford: Clarendon P., 1967, p. 262.

11 Nicholas von Haunolt, “Particular Verzeichnuss mit was Ceremonien Gepraeng und Pracht der Fest der Beschneidung…”, durch Hansen Lewenklaw, Neuwe Chronica Türckischer Nation…, Frankfurt: A. Wechels seligen erben, nemlich C. de Marne und J. Aubri, 1590, p. 477.

12 Hammer, Geschichte, vol. 4, p. 128.

13 Haunolt, “Particular Verzeichnuss mit was Ceremonien Gepraeng”, p. 502.

14 Commedia dell’arte was introduced to the Spanish theatre by the Italian artist Alberto Naceri de Ganassa and his troupe in 1574. This leads one to think that this genre was introduced to the Turkish festivals via Turkish ambassadors who watched the genre in its original location or with the help of various foreign troupes, not only by the Jewish troupes. The migration of the Jews from Spain to the empire was at the end of the fifteenth century, a century earlier.

15 Haunolt, “Particular Verzeichnuss mit was Ceremonien Gepraeng”, p. 489.

16 Reinhold Lubenau, Beschreibung der Reisen des Reinhold Lubenau, edited by W. Sahm, Könisberg: F. Beyer (Thomas & Oppermann), 1915, vol. 2/1, p. 24.

17 Michael Strachan, The Life and Adventures of Thomas Coryate, London: Oxford University Press, 1962, p. 191.

18 See: Du Loir, pp. 170-180.

19 See: Naîma, Tarih, Istanbul: Matbaa-i Âmire, 1280, vol. 4, p. 357.

20 One of the largest festivals of the empire was held by Mehmed IV, and was the festival in Edirne in 1675, a city that he was very fond of; we have not discussed it here.

21 This was the double wedding festival starting on April 9, 1708 (18 Muharrem 1120). It was held for the marriages of the daughters of Mustafa II (the older brother of the sultan) Ayşe Sultan to Grand Vizier Numan Pasha (d. 1710) and Emine Sultan to Çorlulu Ali Pasha (d. 1711).

22 This festival was organized for the marriage of Mustafa II’s 14-year-old daughter Safiye Sultan (d. 1778) to Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha’s son, Ali Pasha (d. 1723).

23 This was organized for the marriage between Mustafa II’s daughter Emetullah Sultan (d. 1727) and Musul Governor Sirke Osman Pasha (d. 1724). The festival held in Okmeydanı and the Golden Sea and started on September 18, 1720, lasting for a fortnight.

24 See: Vehbî, Sûrname, Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, H.O. 94 (1092); British Museum, Or. 7218, ff. 109 a-109b.

25 See: Vehbî, Sûrname, Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, H.O. 94 (1092); British Museum Or. 7218, ff. 109a-109

26 See: Şevket Rado, “III. Mustafa’nın Kızkardeşi Ayşe Sultan Nasıl Evlendi?”, Hayat Tarih Mecmuası, vol. 1, no. 3 (1972), p. 4.

27 Hadice Sultan was born on H. 20 Dhul Qada, 1189, Friday night, at 02:30 a.m.; TSMA, E. No. 1562.

28 Velâdetnâme-i Hadice Sultan, TSMA, E. no. 1562, 2327; also see: M. Çağatay Uluçay, Padişahların Kadınları ve Kızları, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1980, p. 111. Hadice Sultan died a year later, when she was one year old.

29 Rabia Sultan did not live long and died in the same year.

30 Abdülhamid I prohibited women from dressing contrary to Islamic traditions, from wandering on the streets for too long, from going out on religious festival and Ramadan nights, and from shopping at the shops on Beyoğlu Street. See: Ahmed Rasim, Muharrir Bu Ya!, Ankara: Milli Eğitim Bakanlığı, 1969, p. 98.

31 M.J.M. Jouannin and M. J. von Gaver, Turquie, Paris: Firmin Didot frères, 1840, 361.

32 These are the festivals held for the births of Fatma Sultan in 1809, Saliha Sultan in 1811, Şehzade Bayezid and Mihrimah Sultan in 1811 and Zeynep Sultan in 1815, Abdülmecid and Atiye Sultan in 1823, Abdülaziz and Hayriye Sultab in 1830, the start of Abdülmecid’s education and the marriage of Saliha Sultan in 1832 with the double wedding festival, the greatest festival of the century, in 1836.

33 The circumcision of 13-year-old Abdülmecid and 6-year-old Abdülaziz.

34 H. Petermann, Reisen im Orient, Leipzig: Veit & Comp., 1865, vol. 2, p. 26.

35 Julia Pardoe, The City of the Sultan, London: H. Colburn, 1838, vol. 2, p.119.

36 Lebîb, Surnâme, İÜ Edebiyat Fakültesi Library, no. T. 6197, f. 109a.

37 Lebîb, Surnâme, f. 97b.

38 Lebîb, Surnâme, f. 98a. In Surnâme-i Hızır only the Çeşme Plays are mentioned.

39 Lebîb, Surnâme, f. 98b.

40 Pardoe, The City of the Sultan, vol. 2, pp. 124-136.

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