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National Geographic publishes around the world, so who better to point you to the most unusual, unique, and sometimes irreverent cultural traditions in their countries than the editors of our international editions? Each month a real insider reveals five favorites in this monthly series.
GG_Editor Who runs the show:
Elvan Omay

Name of the game:
National Geographic Türkïye

When it all started: April 2001

Where it all happens: Istanbul, Turkey

Who makes it happen:
Six text editors, three layout editors, and one editorial coordinator—plus the editor

What goes out:
About 80,900 issues a month (46,700 to newsstands, 34,200 to subscribers)

Business as usual:
“We consume 420 cups of coffee, 300 cups of tea, and 45 cans of Coke per issue. That keeps us going!”

Best stress reliever:
“Friday! As in ‘Thank God It’s Friday!’ We all get to do what we want. We eat and drink, and some of us spend time with our families.”

Best office perk:
“The new coffee machine in the corridor.”

What’s great about Turkey:
“It’s a fascinating blend of contrasts, both traditional and cosmopolitan, Eastern and Western, religious and secular.”

What’s great about the Turkish:
“Our hospitality extends beyond national boundaries. We enjoy inviting visitors to our homes for dinner, for example. It’s a common tradition. The variety and simplicity of the recipes and the quality of the ingredients guarantee a delicious meal.”

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The editor’s top five Turkish cultural traditions reflect her country’s social contrasts as well as its flavorful cuisine. She lists them here, from spiritual rites to ancient sportsmanship.

1. Hidirellez Festival
“Spring blossoms into summer celebration, beginning with the Hidirellez Festival on May 6. We spend the day cleaning our houses to prepare for a visit from Hizir, the prophet of prosperity. After cleaning, we relax together in nearby parks or spend time paying homage to the holy at local cemeteries. On that day, we prepare yogurt without adding yeast. If it comes out well, Hizir is believed to have visited the house. Another belief is that we’ll be rejuvenated if we walk in a green field or eat fresh lettuce, onions, green plums, or any other green food on this day. The most majestic part of the festival is the “play of wish” ceremony, said to determine a young girl’s fortune. Girls come together and each places a trinket, such as a ring or earrings, into a water-filled pot. The pot is scented with mint and basil leaves, then locked and placed under a rosewood tree overnight. At sunrise the girls gather around the pot and each withdraws her charm while villagers serenade them with ancient folk songs. The theme of each song—hope, joy, or goodness—becomes the fate of each girl.”

2. Ram Mating Ceremony
“Throughout Anatolia, ram mating ceremonies take place October 1 to 20 to increase the fertility of the herds as well as to bring everyone together. People gather in the village square and, to the beat of drums and shrill piping melodies, shepherds herd their decorated and hennaed flocks into the town. An imam reads prayers of good hope, and the animals are mated. The tradition is bound by a number of superstitions. If a boy sits on the ram before it mates, the lamb will be male. If a girl sits on the ram, the newborn will be female. The sex of the first person a shepherd meets on the way to the mating ceremony can also dictate the sex of the lamb. Finally, many people believe that if a ram mates with a black ewe, winter will be warm. If the ewe is white, the winter will be very harsh.”

3. Jereed
“For centuries young men have played jereed, a horse-riding game that was once banned in Turkey because it was too dangerous. Today it is staged at weddings, holidays, and for veterans’ ceremonies the second Sunday in September. It is recognized as a national war game in which all players are respected for their bravery. The game begins when two players from opposing teams mount their horses and face each other across a field. Each holds a jereed, a long stick, in the right hand and charge toward each other until they are within striking distance. The rules are as simple as the game is aggressive. Hit an opponent with a jereed and you get a point. Hit a horse, and you lose one. The sticks used to be made out of date or oak trees, but craftsmen now use more pliable wood from poplar trees to minimize the risk of injury during play.”

4. Henna Night
“This is the last evening a bride spends with female family and friends. It is a time of both entertainment and melancholy. The women from both families gather with the bride to celebrate with music, song, and dance. Preparation for applying the henna, a natural dye, is signified when the women begin chanting verses from the Koran. By rule, the henna is prepared by the daughter of a successful marriage. After the bride is shrouded in a red veil, her hands and feet are decorated with henna. Her hands are then wrapped in a red scarf, and a golden coin is dipped in the remaining henna. Each single woman present also stains one finger with ink, a symbol that her henna night will soon arrive. The guests then sing separation songs well into the night. On the morning of the wedding, a child presents the hennaed coin to the groom as a symbol of future prosperity and good fortune.”

5. Mevlana Festival
“The Mevlana Festival memorializes the death of Mevlana Jalal al-din Rumi, 13th-century founder of the Mevlevi Sufi Brotherhood, which created the whirling dervishes. Mevlana’s doctrine advocates unlimited tolerance and reasoning. He believed that all religions are more or less good, and all roads lead to the truth. Whirling dervishes gather for the festival in Konya in early December to celebrate a breathtaking—and dizzying—mystical rite: spinning their way toward a closer union with God. The festival lasts through December 17, culminating in Sheb-i Arus, or Nuptial Night, which signifies Mevlana’s death and his union with God. During this period people enjoy eating Mevlevi Pilavà, or Whirling Dervish Pilaf. The dish, containing rice, lamb, chickpeas, chestnuts, and spices, was once cooked in Mevlana’s kitchen and is usually served as a one-course meal.”

— Ben Paynter

Photographs by Dave Bartruff, CORBIS (left), Richard T. Nowitz, CORBIS (center), and Michael S. Yamashita CORBIS (right).

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