Istanbul celebrates carnival after nearly 70 years

March 9, 2011
istanbul carnival 1

(Istanbul celebrates carnival, 7 March 2011/all photos by Jonathan Lewis)

Istanbul’s tiny Greek community has revived an all-but-extinct tradition by celebrating Bakla Horani, an evening of carousing at the end of carnival ahead of Lent. About 300 masked, painted and costumed revelers paraded on Monday through the streets of Istanbul’s Kurtulus district, known as Tatavla when it was home to Greeks decades ago.

The procession ended at a local hall where musicians performed rembetiko and cranked a laterna, a Greek mechanical piano. Partiers were served raki, the aniseed-flavoured spirit, and meze that featured beans. (Bakla Horani roughly translates as “eating beans,” referring to the austere Lenten diet that looms.)

For 500 years, Bakla Horani was celebrated in Istanbul, now a mainly Muslim city, and pre-Lenten street parties would run for weeks ahead of the 40-day period of self-denial Christians observe ahead of Easter. Lent began today, Ash Wednesday.

Though never on the scale of the Bacchanalian parties of Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Bakla Horani was a colourful feature of Christian life in Istanbul until its last commemoration in 1941. After that, Greeks, along with the city’s other non-Muslim residents, faced social and financial discrimination that made it all but impossible for them to stage such a splashy event.

istanbul carnival 2A small group gathered to mark the holiday last year. This year, the municipality asked members of the community to organise a full-scale event, promising to provide security for the procession, said Dimitri Zotos, head of the Ayios Dimitrios foundation, which hosted Bakla Horani.

“Bringing this tradition back to life after 70 years helps keep our community alive,” said Zotos. “This is proof that we are here, that we still exist.”

Such a prominent public event by Greeks is a rare sight in Istanbul, a mostly Muslim city of some 17 million people that is home to fewer than 3,000 ethnic Greeks, most of whom are over the age of 55. About 60,000 Armenians and 20,000 Jews also live in Istanbul.

In 1923, 1.5 million Greeks fled Turkey in a population exchange that marked the birth of the modern Turkish Republic, though 100,000 still survived a half-century ago. Their decline since has been precipitous. Istanbul, the seat of the Byzantine Empire for a millennium until 1453, is still home to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, spiritual centre for the world’s 250 million Orthodox faithful. In recent years Turkey’s government has taken a few steps to expand rights for Christians and other minorities, as it seeks to advance a bid to join the European Union.

istanbul carnival 3Bakla Horani was always an inter-communal event, and this year revelers included Muslims, Armenians and foreigners. Former residents returned from Greece for the party, and a handful of young Greek Orthodox residents also celebrated. “It’s very nice to see this many people together, when there’s so few of us left,” said George Kara, an 18-year-old student. “Perhaps we now have a new tradition. In 70 years I will tell my grandchildren that I was here.”

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