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Turks Rediscover Ottoman Festival

January 7, 2000

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) _ During the Ottoman Empire, Turks would gather to watch the characters of the Karagoz shadow puppet theater act out their often cheeky comedies, particularly after the sunset meal that marks the end of the fasting day during the holy month of Ramadan.

Now the tradition is back _ after decades during which the puppet theater lost many of its spectators to television.

The puppets, which appear as silhouettes behind a screen, have followed a familiar formula that has amused Turks for centuries, with the stock characters of a sharp-tongued illiterate, a fool and a drunk.

The renewal of puppeteering is part of a revival of interest in Turkey’s Ottoman heritage. It comes amid the sharp growth this decade of nationalist and Islamic movements, which advocate a return to Turkey’s Muslim and Ottoman roots.

After modern Turkey was established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, Turks were urged to reject their Ottoman roots, which were seen as obstacles to the development of a modern westward-looking republic.

``They kept on pointing at the American model,″ said Mustafa Yasar, a spectator at the puppet show. ``I have nothing against that, but we are a Muslim, Turkish family and we are happy that these traditions are coming back.″

Gunhan Danisman, a professor of Ottoman architectural history at Istanbul’s Bosphorus University, noted that the revival comes as Turks are feeling more secure with their secular, Western republic.

``The latest generation in Turkey feels more comfortable with the republic and do not think it is in danger, so they don’t need to cut off their past,″ said Danisman.

Thousands of people gather each day during Ramadan to watch the puppet shows in the Feshane, a former textile factory that once produced uniforms for the Ottoman army. The holy fasting month ends today.

The Feshane also offers Ottoman music, acrobatic shows, and traditional handmade Turkish products such as ceramics, calligraphy and hand-woven carpets.

``All of our art comes from the Ottoman times,″ said Seyda Mutlu, a spokesman for the private company that restored and runs the 19th century building. ``And people love it.″

Karagoz _ similar to shadow theater tradition in Java, India, and Greece _ is said to date back to before the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453. One legend says the show originated with two real life characters, Karagoz and Hacivad, who lived during the reign of Sultan Orhan in the 14th century.

The sultan ordered them executed, angry that the two construction workers had distracted their fellow workers with their humorous arguments, slowing down the construction of a mosque in the then Ottoman capital of Bursa.

The men were so sorely missed that inhabitants of the city made puppets of them from animal skin and played out their arguments.

The revival of the art is a relief for Mehmet Ozden, one of three or four Karagoz masters still alive.

``This is popular theater. We need this,″ said Ozden, who now has three young apprentices. ``It won’t die.″

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