Istanbul celebrates carnival after nearly 70 years

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(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.

Giant Jesus statue rises above Polish countryside

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A statue of Jesus Christ that its builders say will be the largest in the world is fast rising from a Polish cabbage field and local officials hope it will become a beacon for tourists. The builders expect to attach the arms, head and crown to the robed torso in coming days, weather and cranes permitting, completing a project conceived by local Catholic priest Sylwester Zawadzki and paid for by private donations.

Standing on an artificial mound, the plaster and fiber glass statue will stand some 52 meters (57 yards) when completed, taller than the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer with outstretched arms that gazes over Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Polish officials say.

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“I’m happy because this project will bring publicity to our town, not only in Poland but also from the global media. Other countries are showing a lot of interest,” said Dariusz Bekisz, mayor of Swiebodzin, a town of about 21,000 people in western Poland some 100 km (60 miles) from the German border.

Denying communion is not just for Catholic politicians


Carnival revelers in Düsseldorf, 15 Feb 2010/Ina Fassbender

When a Catholic priest’s refusal to distribute communion to someone at Mass hits the headlines, it’s usually a U.S. Catholic politician supporting abortion rights who’s at the non-receiving end. Things are a bit different in the Netherlands, where the headlines these days are about a small town’s “carnival prince” turned away at the altar. That refusal led to gay protests at at some Sunday Masses, including the nearby cathedral, and decisions to refuse communion to everyone present.  The protesters have vowed to continue for the next seven Sundays.

The reason for the dispute is that “carnival prince” Gijs Vermeulen, the man chosen to lead the Mardi Gras  parade and other carnival festivities in Reusel near the Belgian border, lives with a gay partner. Tradition calls for the prince to lead townspeople to Mass on the Saturday before Mardi Gras, but the local pastor told him he could not receive communion there because of his gay relationship. That Mass went ahead, but news of it got out to gay activists around the country and several converged on Reusel the following Sunday. Faced with this protest, the pastor refused to distribute communion to anyone, not even life-long parishioners. He said this was decided with the support of the his bishop, Antoon Hurkmans.

When the gay activists announced they would then protest at Hurkmans’s St. John’s Cathedral in nearby Den Bosch, the bishop agreed to meet the editor of the Dutch gay magazine Gay Krant and the gay rights group COC Nederland, which claims to be the oldest LGBT organisation in the world. A Church communique said it was “an open and respectful discussion that touched a raw nerve” and announced there would be no communion at the Mass the gay activists wanted to attend.

A 7-year-old Rio Carnival queen parades in tears and controversy


Julia Lira is led by her father Marco (L) to their contingent in the Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro, 14 Feb 2010/Bruno Domingos

A tearful 7-year-old Carnival queen led exuberant drummers through Rio de Janeiro’s  Sambadrome stadium on Sunday, in a distressed state that may add to controversy over whether a tiny child should perform such a high-pressure, sexually-charged role.

Wearing a short purple dress, a sequined halter and a silver tiara, Julia Lira emerged blinking into the bright lights and deafening fireworks of the Sambadrome and soon burst into tears as photographers and reporters scrummed around her before her samba group started its parade.

Bolivian blessings

I went to Carnival in the Bolivian city of Oruro expecting to be blown away by tens of thousands of dancers and musicians, towering devil masks and llama sacrifices in the mines. I was. But even more striking was the pervasive small-scale ritual of “ch’alla,” the offering of libations to the earth goddess Pachamama taking place in the streets and fields during Carnival.

After viewing the massive Carnival processions in Oruro, I traveled to Bolivia’s main city, La Paz, last week. There, I saw small groups of Bolivians from all walks of life gathered on street corners. Each group defined a ritual space on the sidewalk with colorful paper streamers and flower petals. The people set off firecrackers in the center of the improvised altar, and then stood around or sat on chairs drinking beer from cases they brought with them. Before each quaff, they poured a little beer onto the ground, or onto the wheels of a car that was decorated with ribbons, balloons and flowers. By making the offerings to Pachamama, they hoped to be blessed with luck, safety and abundance. 

Driving through the Andes, I saw Bolivians on streets, in the fields, and in the patios of their houses, getting together for ch’alla rituals, making offerings to the Pachamama and blessing their cars. Apparently Bolivians do ch’alla often when they drink — spilling or flicking alcohol onto the ground — but the practice becomes a full-blown ceremony on special days, such as at the end of Carnival, just before Lent begins.

Pope meets Devil in Düsseldorf

Pope Benedict met the Devil in Düsseldorf on Monday. To be more precise, a large papier-mâché figure of the German-born pontiff shook hands with another figure depicting the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson. The mock encounter was part of the annual carnival parade on Monday, known as Rose Monday in Germany, where the parade floats traditionally poke fun at public figures.

Benedict’s decision to readmit four excommunicated bishops of the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) last month sparked off loud protests among Catholics and Jews, especially in the German-speaking countries because Williamson appeared in a Swedish television interview only days before and denied the Nazis used gas chambers or killed six million Jews. The wing on the Williamson figure says “Anti-Semitism” and the brush at the end of his tail says Piusbrüder (Pius Brothers, the German term for the SSPX priests).

Just so there’s no confusion, the Williamson figure sports an armband clearly identifying who Benedict is shaking hands with. Thanks to Ina Fassbender for these shots.

Llama sacrifices in a Bolivian mine at carnival

Oruro, Bolivia – I’m walking through a mining tunnel in Bolivia, dark but not too narrow, with a deafening brass band marching behind me. A stumbling drunk miner stops to urinate on the wall near me. The choking smoke of a bonfire inside the mine mixes with the sharp tea-like smell of the coca leaves the miners are chewing. Just ahead of me other miners are carrying four trussed-up llamas, drenched with beer and festooned with ribbons and confetti. The miners forced firewater down the llamas’ throats in a ceremony at the mouth of the mine and now they are bringing them into the mine to sacrifice them and ask for safety and abundance in the dangerous shafts.

The llama sacrifice is a ritual at the heart of Bolivia’s carnival, which also includes more familiar trappings such as parades, masks and carnival queens. The Quechua Indians who run the tired old Itos mine above the city of Oruro make offerings to two different protectors during carnival. As Catholics, they have a shrine to the Virgin Mary in the mine. As Quechuas who observe pre-Columbian religious beliefs they make sacrifices to “uncle,” the spirit who owns the zinc and tin and silver they blast out of shafts 300 meters deep. It’s dangerous work because they run aging equipment on a shoestring budget – each miner gives 10 percent of his earnings back to the cooperative. Commercial miners abandoned Oruro long ago, having sucked the biggest riches out of the mountain. The Quechua cooperative miners make a hard living off of the leftovers but if things go well at the sacrifice it could mean better days ahead.

For the sacrifice, dozens of miners and several journalists walk into the mine and stop in a cavern about 25 meters in. The atmosphere is serious, as befits a religious ceremony, but also joyous and a little unhinged as the miners drink heavily and their children run around squirting everyone with gigantic pump-action water guns (which is something children in Oruro do during carnival week). Some of the miners are in Andean ponchos, others in coveralls and helmets and headlamps. Most of their wives are in traditional Bolivian Indian wide skirts and bowler hats and shawls.

German Turks join the party in pre-Lenten carnival

(Photo: Carnival revelers parade in Düsseldorf, 4 Feb 2008/Ina Fassbender)

Germany’s pre-Lenten carnival festivities got underway on Thursday with an official Turkish carnival association is joining in the fun this year for the first time.

Long sidelined from the usually raucous celebrations, an annual highpoint in Catholic areas such as the Rhineland, Bavaria and Black Forest, residents of Turkish origin in the city of Dortmund have created their own “Guild of Fools”. That means they can have their own float in Monday’s big procession, a troupe of dancers and a symbolic “prince and princess couple”.

“We set up our own association because many Turks in Germany have enjoyed carnival over the years. As an official guild, we want to enable Turks living in Germany to join in,” says the 1st Turkish Guild of Fools Dortmund 09 on their website.