Turkey hosts over a thousand festivals every year, and summer is prime festival season. While cosmopolitan Istanbul is the cultural centre of it all, you can also venture to destinations in Cappadocia or the sunny Aegean coast. We’ve narrowed down what seems like countless options to give you highlights of what to expect this summer. Improvisational jazz, oiled-up men wrestling like modern gladiators, and ecstatic dervishes are just a few offerings in a veritable cornucopia of events. Mark your diary, pack the sunblock, and prepare yourself for some amazing lifetime experiences.
1. Istanbul International Jazz Festival
02-19 July, Istanbul
The Istanbul International Jazz Festival was first held in 1986 and is organised by the Istanbul Foundation of Culture and Arts. The festival was established to promote jazz music in Turkey as well as provide world-class entertainment and renowned international performers add glamour to this wildly popular event. Beyond jazz, the festival features a diverse range of genres including rock, pop, funk, reggae, and world music. Performances move out of the traditional concert hall and flow into the streets and historical landmarks of the city. Bobby McFerrin, Lou Reed, Diana Krall, Elvis Costello, and Grace Jones are just a few of the big name artists who have been featured in years past. This year’s programme includes Hugh Laurie with his Copper Bottom Band, Katie Melua, Chick Corea & Stanley Clarke Duet, and many others.
2. Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Festival
29 June-05 July, Edirne
Few things are more exhilarating than a sporting event. For a real action-packed experience, the Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Festival in Edirne (a city near the borders of Bulgaria and Greece) is not to be missed. Kirkpinar is said to be the oldest continuous annual sporting event, dating back to around 700 years ago when a group of Ottoman raiders participated in a legendary wrestling match. Today, oil wrestling is the national sport of Turkey. Pehlivan (wrestlers) are honoured members of society, revered for their generosity, honesty, and respect for traditions. Before each match opponents oil each other as a demonstration of balance and mutual respect. They wear a type of hand-stitched lederhosen called a kisbet, which is traditionally made of water buffalo hide. The pehlivan aims to control his opponent by putting his arm through the latter's kisbet. Thousands of spectators cheer boisterously as the winner kisses the defeated. The ambiance beyond the match is distinctly medieval, with gypsy bands, traditional food stalls, and people milling about in fourteenth century costumes.
3. Izmir International Festival
15 June-15 July, Izmir
This prestigious festival takes place in Izmir, the 5000-year-old city on the Aegean coast. Referred to as the “cradle of civilisation”, Izmir was once the home of the great epic poet Homer and the philosopher Heraclitus. Every year, renowned artists perform in Izmir’s Kultur Park and nearby ancient venues such as the Great Theatre of Ephesus. Each year’s programme encompasses a wide range of the music, dance, and theatre- from classical to contemporary. Past performers include Ray Charles and the Martha Graham Dance Company as well as local Turkish acts.
4. Mengen Chef’s Festival
15 June-15 July, Mengen
Located on the historic travel route between Istanbul and Ankara, Mengen is a rural forest town famous for food - but even more so are its chefs, who feature on billboards all over town, while statues of famous chefs are found at every turn. The culinary school in Mengen has traditionally trained chefs for the Turkish president and other high government officials in Ankara, and chefs trained in Mengen also work in the best hotels in Turkey. At the Mengen Chef’s Festival, local chefs serve up a bounty of traditional and fusion dishes. Get a sample of everything from regional rice pilafs to grilled meats, and try some mezze while imbibing raki, the traditional Turkish aperitif. End the feast with delicious baklava. This is an excellent way to experience the magic of Turkish cuisine.
5. Bodrum Ballet Festival
19 July-6 August, Bodrum
Bodrum Castle was built by the Knights of Rhodes during the Crusades in the 15th century. It now houses the fascinating Underwater Archaeology Museum as well as the first and only ballet festival in Turkey. The Bodrum Ballet Festival is in its twelfth year and continues to win acclaim for a high standard of artistic performances. The historic castle provides a uniquely beautiful atmosphere, and previous concertgoers have praised the festival for its congenial ambience. This year, the Moscow Academic Classical Ballet performs in addition to the top state ballet and operas of Turkey. “The Lady of the Camellias” and works from Turkish composers are on the programme this year.
6. Istanbul Shopping Fest
07- 29 June, Istanbul
The Istanbul Shopping Fest is a relatively new festival. The debut in March 2011 lasted for forty days and nights. The mission of the Istanbul Shopping Fest is “to make Istanbul the shopping, culture and entertainment centre of the world”. This is a great time to make tax-free purchases and enjoy the local Istanbul nightlife, with participating retailers opening their doors until 2am on Saturdays while offering special discounts. Find some great bargains and adorn yourself in the latest Turkish fashions at this annual shopping extravaganza. Historical sites also stay open an extra two hours. There will also be a kickoff festival march as well as outdoor concerts.
7. Haci Bektas Veli Commemoration Ceremonies
16-18 August, Hacibektas
If you fancy an experience off the beaten path check out the Haci Bektas Veli Commemoration Ceremonies. In mid-August the town of Hacibektas (in the Nevsehir province) celebrates the life and teachings of its namesake, the medieval Sufi philosopher and mystic Haci Bektas Veli. A contemporary of Rumi and important member of the Alevi sect of Islam, Haci Bektas Veli founded the Bektashi Order of Dervishes. He is known for his humanist philosophy of learning and tolerance, and has inspired poets through the centuries. Each year, thousands of followers from Turkey and beyond visit the town for the ceremonies. Conferences, exhibitions, bard contests, "semah" ritual dances, and concerts are organised during this festival. Though the ceremonies are spiritual, one does not have to be religious to appreciate their devotional beauty.
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