It might not be everyone’s idea of a festival, but the end of the holy month of Ramadan is arguably one of the biggest celebrations in the Muslim calendar. This year, Ramadan runs from May 27 to June 23, and the religious holiday known in Turkey as Şeker or Ramazan Bayramı and Eid al-Fitr in Arabic, is from June 24 to June 27, with a half day on June 24 for the eve of the feast. This is a public holiday when schools, government offices, and most workplaces close.
The month of Ramadan
During this time, observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. During the daytime, nothing must pass through their throat, including water or cigarette smoke. While most observant Muslims fast for at least part of this month, exceptions are made for those who are traveling or ill, as well as for children and the elderly.
Every morning, those who are fasting wake just before dawn for their first meal of the day, known as sahur. Before the advent of alarm clocks, and even today in some neighborhoods, a sahur drummer would go around beating his drum just before dawn, waking the faithful for their meal to start a day of fasting. As this meal is meant to tide people over for the whole day, it tends to consist of rather heavy dishes, such as rice and meat. As the sun sets, families and communities meet to break their fast with a meal known as iftar.
Ramadan is very communal and expresses many of the fundamental values in Islam, including empathy for the poor, charity, patience, and dedication. This month is a time of great importance for Muslims around the world, not only for the celebratory aspect, but also for the spiritual element. Fasting is supposed to encourage one to distance oneself from worldly desires. This sacrifice, made in the name of God, is also meant to lead to a deeper connection with the divine.
For practicing Muslims, the act of fasting is meant to highlight feelings of gratitude for their earthly blessings. It also serves as a reminder, particularly for individuals from wealthy societies, that they can live with far less than what they have. Experiencing hunger and thirst gives people the opportunity to feel empathetic for those who experience these hardships on a daily basis.
During Ramadan, it is advised to be respectful to those fasting by being discreet about eating in public, particularly in the more religious and conservative neighborhoods, although tourist districts are generally less affected. Travel between towns may be difficult during this time, as families coming together for communal celebrations book up transport in advance.
During Ramadan, those fasting rise early to eat sahur, their first meal of the day, before sunbreak. Strict Muslims will then abstain from food or drink until the iftar meal for which friends, families, and communities, often come together to share just after sunset. (See our iftar article for more details.) Whether or not you are fasting, iftar dinners are a very important part of this month, with non-Muslims also participating. The giving of alms to those in need is another integral part of the month. Public entertainment and fundraising events are held, giving evenings a festive feel.
The month of Ramadan is also important for organizing charitable work. According to some interpretations of Islam, fasting also has an important social purpose. Not only do the feelings of hunger make those fasting more empathetic to those with less, but an integral part of the month is also the giving of alms: zekat and fitre. These alms should not be given to close relatives, but rather to the greater society, which is why in cities, wealthy individuals, foundations, or even companies organize big iftar tents where free meals are distributed.
In many ways, this time of year reverses night and day, with the days a bit quieter and the nights very lively, full of socializing families and activities. For many Muslims, particularly children, this is a very joyous time of year. Municipalities throughout the country organize fundraising events for the needy as well as public entertainment, such as concerts or shadow puppetry, a tradition that dates back to the Ottoman era when evening entertainment often included theater and circus-like productions.
Unlike many other countries with a predominantly Muslim population, eating and drinking in public during Ramadan is not forbidden in Turkey, and non-Muslims are certainly not expected to refrain from doing so. The vast majority of restaurants stay open, and in many parts of Istanbul, it is hard to notice any real difference. In some of Istanbul’s more conservative neighborhoods, not to mention more conservative parts of the country, however, many people will be more discreet when eating and drinking in public, out of respect for those who are fasting.
Some secular Turks fast as well, if not for the whole month, then on certain days. This is because many people have strong associations with Ramadan and have a cultural rather than religious approach to it. Even if they are not fasting, many Turks still see this as a time for self-reflection and charity for those who are less fortunate.
Whether or not you are fasting, iftar dinners are a very important part of the holy month. Many non-Muslims also enjoy taking part in traditional iftar dinners, and for this, Istanbul offers many options, from simple neighborhood restaurants to lavish spreads at five-star hotels. Because an integral part of Ramadan is also feeding others, dinner invitations abound, and many foreigners will be invited to Turkish homes for iftar. For these invitations, it is appropriate to bring a small gift to your host. Obviously, on such an occasion, a bottle of wine is not appropriate. Instead, opt for a more traditional gift such as a box of sweets or chocolates.
The fast is usually broken with something sweet, such as dates, and then the meal moves with a series of courses of raditional foods. Other special foods include Ramazan pidesi, a large round loaf of flat pide bread topped with nigella seeds, which can be found at bakeries throughout the city. A wide variety of sweets are served at the end of the meal, but one particularly popular dessert associated with Ramadan is güllaç, a milk-based dessert made with pomegranate seeds and flaky, starchy dough. Following the iftar, many families partake in some kind of entertainment, either watching TV—soap operas are even more popular during this month—or going to events organized in their local communities.
Şeker Bayramı: Sweets Holiday
The month of fasting ends, and in many ways culminates, with Ramazan Bayramı celebrations. These three days are a public holiday when schools, government offices, and most workplaces are closed. The first day of the holiday is considered the most significant, with men and young boys waking up early to go to special morning prayers at the mosque. One of the most important aspects of the holiday is visiting family members, neighbors, and friends dressed up in your finest clothes, often bought specially for the occasion. During these visits, guests are offered sweets, chocolates, coffee, and, in Turkey, liqueurs.
It is particularly important to honor the elderly when visiting and paying respects, as well as those who have passed away. Therefore, visits are also made to cemeteries where large stalls of flowers, water, and prayer books are set up for the occasion. Another custom is for young children to go around their neighborhood wishing everyone a happy holiday. They are then given small amounts of money, traditionally presented in handkerchiefs, as well as sweets such as Turkish delight and baklava, hence the name Şeker Bayramı, or Sweets Holiday.
For those whose families live in far-off towns and villages, this holiday is a chance to visit their hometowns, which means that transport between cities is often booked solid. While this time in Istanbul can be a bit chaotic with all the traffic from everyone visiting their family members, it is also a joyous and celebratory occasion, the biggest holiday of the year.