Thanksgiving on the Bosphorus: Hamams and Sacrificial Altars

By Angela Smith Kirkman

TrainI have an hour to myself with my notebook, and I’m stretched out on the ottoman like a cat. A warm fall breeze flows through the lofty windows of the flat we’ve rented in Istanbul (not Constantinople). As I put the final touches on today’s translation work, I alternate between sips of Turkish coffee and bites of syrupy baklava, which my husband, Jason, and our three kids brought home yesterday from a bakery in the neighborhood. This afternoon, as part of their homeschool lessons, Jason has taken them on an expedition in search of the city’s finest Turkish delight; we’ve grown addicted to the petite jelly confections.

Turkey is the seventh country on our family’s big field trip around the world, and highlights thus far have included hiking the Inca Trail, riding camelback through the Sahara, getting chased out of a mosque in Tunisia and robbed at gunpoint in Bahía, living on a vineyard in Portugal and sneaking into a dilapidated communist headquarters in Bulgaria.

Our time here in Istanbul has started off with a bit of a bang. We fled Bulgaria—country number six—just in time to escape the swine flu. Or so we thought. By the time our Orient Express pulled into Istanbul’s Sirkeci Station, the swine flu had all five of us in its grips. We spent our first week in Istanbul mainly exploring the Sick Road—the trail we’d blazed between our beds and the bathroom.

Things started looking up last week, though, and as soon as we were each able to go a few hours without running to the bathroom, we broke our quarantine and began venturing out into the city. Every afternoon since, when energy levels are at their highest, we’ve spent a few hours seeing the sights.

Man with BreadSome days we take a ferry to the Asian shore to explore its fish market and tranquil neighborhoods. Other days we ride bikes around the Prince Islands; the kids stop to make friends with skinny cats running from one Roma encampment to another. Sometimes we just stroll around our neighborhood in Beyo?lu. Or cross the Galata Bridge, where fishermen cast their lines, then pour cups of red tea and wait. Bakers in wool jackets stroll the bridge balancing wooden planks on their heads, stacked high with freshly-baked simit. The Turkish version of bagels, simit are covered with sesame seeds and sold on nearly every street corner, much to the delight of my New Yorker husband.

Through translation colleagues, I found a man named Alper who comes to our apartment a couple times each week to give us Turkish language lessons. Alper is a plump, reticent man in his thirties who’s very kind and patient with the children. He refuses to accept payment, saying he’s pleased just to have a cultural exchange and practice his English. He’s even helped Jason, who’s an amateur chef and studying the cuisine of each of the countries we visit, to prepare a few traditional Turkish dishes in the tiny kitchen of our flat. Though Alper is the first to admit that he’s not much of a cook, he’s happy to help Jason decipher recipes from the new Turkish cookbook he bought, and also to taste and offer criticism before he posts each new recipe to our blog. Thus far the feasts have been delectable—grilled lamb with pilaf, carrot puree, and cac?k, a tangy yogurt sauce with heaps of fresh dill and garlic.

In addition to language instruction, we also enjoy many off-the-cuff lessons from Alper. Through his eyes, we learn a great deal about the history and culture of his homeland. Alper’s family lives in Istanbul, but they’re actually Spanish, he tells us one evening, seeing as how they only migrated here recently: five hundred years ago!

His family is Jewish, he explains, and back in 1492 when Spanish Jews, together with resident Muslims, were forced either to convert to Catholicism, leave the country, or be killed, his ancestors decided to escape. They fled by way of North Africa and eventually made a new home for themselves in Turkey since they’d heard of the tolerance of the Ottoman Empire.

Alper reflects with pride on his city, and when asked about the legacy of the Ottomans, he repeatedly uses the word “tolerance.” The Turks, he explains, conquered many lands, but in general they allowed their subjects to maintain their traditions, language, and religion. They even welcomed outcasts from other lands, like Alper’s family fleeing from Spain.

The friends we just left behind in Bulgaria, who spent five centuries under the Ottoman yoke, had a thing or two to say about the Turks. “Tolerance” was not one of the words I remember hearing. Apparently, though, Turks have no idea that in the eyes of their Bulgarian neighbors, they come off as dreadful brutes. I guess we all have to have our adversaries. Even so, the tolerance of which Alper speaks is very much apparent in Istanbul today. Although 99% of the population of Turkey is Muslim, and enormous mosques tower over the city, Christian churches also dot the horizon, along with Jewish synagogues like the one where Alper and his family worship.

I’m surprised to hear Alper say that his family still speaks Spanish, despite the fact that they’ve lived in Istanbul for so long. At the news, I switch excitedly to Spanish in hopes of easing our communication. (Our Turkish language skills thus far amount only to what Alper has taught us, plus our podcasts, and Alper’s English is iffy at best.) Alper responds, enthusiastically, in a Spanish so antiquated that I feel as though I’m speaking to a Cervantes novel. We switch back to English.

ChidrenEvery evening, thousands of Turks pour into our neighborhood in the Beyo?lu district to promenade down the wide pedestrian boulevard of ?stiklal Caddesi. An historic trolley line runs from Karaköy to Taksim Square down the center of the elegant street, which is flanked by late Ottoman-era buildings housing boutiques, galleries, theaters, cafés, pubs, music stores, and patisseries. On weekends, the famous avenue can see nearly three million visitors, and our children love being part of the customary stroll. And also having a chance to burn through their allowance.

Musicians strum baglamas and sing traditional folk songs on side streets. Vendors peddle flowers, pashminas, baby dolls, and roasted chestnuts. At one-and-a-half kilometers, ?stiklal Caddesi is a long promenade, so we usually make an evening out of it. When the children start to fade, we duck into an eatery to sample traditional dishes. Some of our favorites have been köfte—spiced meatballs; mant?—the Turkish version of ravioli; gözleme—savory pancakes stuffed with spinach, cheese, or potato; and lahmacun—flat bread that’s topped with spicy lamb and tastes a bit like pizza. A sure kid-pleaser.

ChefOur beloved American Thanksgiving holiday coincides with the beginning of Kurban Bayrami this year. Kurban Bayrami is one of the most important events on the Muslim calendar, and the city is in a festive mood. In Sultanahmet, the main historical and tourist district of Istanbul, families stream from the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, and pack city squares.

Muslim tourists from throughout the Islamic world—Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria—are busy enjoying a holiday in Istanbul and the relative freedom it offers compared to their home countries. Hijab-clad mothers with almond-shaped eyes cheerfully ask us to sit with their children for a group photo, shots that will go into their Istanbul vacation album when they return home. We pose compliantly with awkward smiles; somehow we no longer feel like zoo animals in such situations, which have been common on this journey, just happy to help make their holiday more interesting. When the photo shoot is over, our children run toward a push cart selling fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice.

StreetWith the possible exception of Europe and Brazil, I’ve been amazed at how much more social traveling is when you have children in tow. Traveling alone with Jason when we were younger was always exciting, but also sometimes lonely. When locals see two adults together, they assume you’re a cohesive unit with everything you need between the two of you to get by on the road. They don’t want to bother you. But when you’re wayfaring with children—children who are sometimes unpredictable or exhausted or giggling or needing to pee—locals reach out to you. Children, much like eye boogers, are a great social equalizer, and they give locals a reason, permission even, to approach you, which is great when you’re trying to learn about a new culture.

Kurban Bayrami commemorates that age-old story—told in the Koran, the Torah, and the Bible—of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son on the top of Mount Moriah. Exactly which son he was offering up, I’ve learned, seems to be a matter of some debate. The way Ma told the story when I was growing up, Isaac was the chosen son who narrowly escaped being sacrificed, and who then went on to father the Judeo-Christian people: the chosen ones. Islamic tradition, however, maintains that the poor kid on the altar was in fact Ishmael, the son whom Abraham fathered with his maidservant, Hagar, while waiting patiently (okay, maybe not so patiently) for his wife Sarah to bear him a legitimate son.

In the Judeo-Christian version of the story, Ishmael was little more than a bastard child who was later banished into the desert. Islamic tradition, on the other hand, maintains that Ishmael, who was the eldest and firstborn, was Abraham’s rightful heir. So, according to the Koran, it was Ishmael who was strapped to the altar that day and saved by the hand of God. And it was Ishmael who then went on to become the father of the chosen people: the Arab people.

Though I’m not sure how Ma would feel about this version of the story, I love the spirit of Kurban Bayrami. The entire holiday is a celebration of the mercy and compassion of Allah. After all, he did allow a ram to be sacrificed in place of Abraham’s son.

Muslims still commemorate the holiday by sacrificing their finest lamb or goat. Across Turkey, thousands of animals are slaughtered during Kurban Bayrami, and according to Alper, the countryside runs red with blood. Thankfully, we have been sheltered from the actual carnage here in Istanbul since most city-folk no longer keep livestock.

“Those who live in the city,” Alper says, “will pay family in the countryside to make sacrifice on his behalf and donate meat to charity.”

To be honest, I’m not terribly disappointed to miss out on some of the particulars of the holiday. After all, our Spanish bullfight taught us that we don’t have to participate fully in every tradition.

In addition to Kurban Bayrami, the children insist that we also celebrate Thanksgiving, aka Turkey Day. To be honest, Jason and I hoped that they might let us get away with dining at a traditional Turkish meyhane (dining room) to mark the holiday.

Meyhanes are scattered throughout the city. When you enter, you kick off your shoes and sit around a low table on floor cushions. Throughout the evening, the chef sends out dish after dish of his daily specialties from which to choose. There is no menu, or at least no need for one. Waiters continuously circle the dining room with trays, displaying a variety of small savory plates known as meze. Take what you like, leave the rest. Meals in meyhanes can stretch for hours and are generally gluttonous affairs, lubricated with loads of rak?, the anise-flavored aperitif that’s the national alcoholic beverage of Turkey.

I was initially startled by Istanbul’s fondness for rak?, given that alcohol is forbidden by the Koran. However, it’s beginning to make sense. The Ottoman Empire was a vast and multiethnic place, mostly tolerant of the various cultures and religions coexisting within its borders. The kingdom was also renowned for being a bit loose in its application of Islamic norms. Istanbul, due to this history and its cosmopolitan nature, has inherited a tradition of lenience and diversity, which might explain the city’s long-standing tradition of boozing it up.

To Jason and me, spending Thanksgiving lounging listlessly in a meyhane sounded like the perfect way to celebrate the holiday, but the kids would have none of it. The morning before Thanksgiving, we were out-voted three to two.

Due to present circumstances, we had to modify our family customs a bit. We spent Thanksgiving morning perusing a produce market on the shores of the Bosphorus seeking ingredients for a traditional American feast and, though we were successful in acquiring nearly everything necessary for the side dishes, after hours in turkey pursuit, we came up empty-handed. There were just no whole turkeys to be found anywhere. Some cold cuts, yes, but no entire birds.

The irony of our predicament was not lost on us, of course, and the kids made up a little chant to pass the time as we searched (which they sang to the tune of “Yes, we have no bananas…”):

Yes, we have no whole turkeys.

We have no whole turkeys in Turkey!

Alas, even if we had found a whole bird, we wouldn’t have been able to fit it into our counter-top toaster oven. After much deliberation and negotiation with the children, Jason finally decided to make fried chicken. The stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy would be easy. To round out the menu, he was planning to try out another of the recipes in his new Turkish cookbook: moussaka, which is an Ottoman casserole with eggplant and ground lamb.

Alper joined us for the feast and brought along a platter of roasted goat, which had been slaughtered for Kurban Bayrami. He also brought a traditional Turkish dessert called a?ure, also known as Noah’s pudding. Legend has it that when Noah’s ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, which is located in the northeastern part of modern-day Turkey, Noah and his family celebrated with this special dish. Apparently, Noah’s supplies were limited by that time, so he made a mush of everything they had left—primarily grains and dried fruits. It was no pumpkin pie, to be sure, but if it was good enough for Noah’s Thanksgiving, it was good enough for ours.

As required by Thanksgiving tradition, we feasted voraciously until our bellies were so full there was no skin left to cover our eyeballs when we blinked, at which point we sat around the table comatose, unsure of what to do next. Our normal Thanksgiving tradition would have dictated that we now retreat to the couch and melt in front of a football game for a few hours of slovenly relaxation and digestion. Since that was not an option this year, however, Alper suggested that instead we treat ourselves to a relaxing massage at our local Turkish bath. I’d been itching to experience a Turkish hamam, so to me this sounded like the best idea since the garlic press. We abandoned our dirty dishes on the table and waddled to the nearest the metro.

Hamams are generally large, vaulted, communal, marble bathhouses constructed, much like their Roman precursors, in the center of each city, thereby enabling its citizens to stay clean even in areas with little water. Though most Turkish homes now have indoor plumbing, the hamam is still an important tradition.

When we entered the bathhouse, we were divided according to gender: the men disappeared behind one door, and Bella and I were ushered through a slightly smaller and less ornate door into to the women’s section. Over the course of the next hour, we endured the most memorable massages of our lives.

One thing the experience taught me is that the word massage is a term that Turks use rather generously. Perhaps a more fitting description would be a fierce scrubbing. The Turkish version of massage seems to involve being laid out in the buck on a marble slab, along with a throng of other womenfolk, and waiting your turn to be scoured by a seventy-year-old, nearly-toothless woman wielding a goat-hair mitt and a sudsy pail. Following the burnishing, the woman throws buckets of lukewarm water in your face until you emerge, an hour later, squeaky clean and a bit woozy. You just have to keep in mind that it’s all about getting clean, not about being pampered.

Nothing that can’t be cured by going home to a puff of apple tobacco from the nargileh.

That evening, when the children were nestled all snug in their beds and visions of turkey legs danced in their heads, Jason, Alper, and I sat on the ottoman in the living room, indulging in one more bowl of Noah’s pudding and some Turkish coffee.

Jason and I agreed that, although our Thanksgiving traditions had to be altered a bit this year, there could have been no finer place to spend the holiday, which is after all meant to commemorate new friendships and acceptance between cultures. In true Istanbul fashion, our festivities had revolved around tolerance—in celebrating a Christian holiday with a Jew in a Muslim country; in feasting not on turkey but goat, goat that had been slaughtered to honor that poor kid (whatever his name was) who narrowly escaped death up on Mount Moriah so many years ago; in swapping football for a bathhouse, pumpkin pie for Noah’s pudding. It would be a Thanksgiving we would not soon forget.

As Alper set up a game of backgammon, I asked his thoughts on how his family is treated as Jews in Istanbul.

“I love Istanbul. This is my home,” Alper reflected. “But, I am Jew in Muslim country. No matter how many centuries pass, my family never will be completely in ease here.” He went on to suggest that, though Turkey is very stable today, things could always change. That Islamic fundamentalism could flare up here at any moment, as it has in other areas of the Middle East.

“But, even if that does happen,” Alper continued, “even if my people are forced out of the city tomorrow, still it will have been very lovely the few hundred years we have spent here.”

We’ve only had two weeks in Istanbul. And yet, we know exactly how he feels.


Angela Smith Kirkman recently returned home from a two-year journey around the world with her husband and three young children. She blogs at, and her stories have been published (or are forthcoming) in Literary LattéInternational Living MagazineAsia Literary Review, and elsewhere. Kirkman was recently awarded prizes in the 2015 Literary Latté Essay Contest and the 2015 Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition. Her photographs have been selected as favorites by National Geographic Travel’s Director of Photography and published in the Santa Fe New Mexican. Kirkman currently lives in Santa Fe where she’s busy growing leeks and conjuring up the next voyage.