While most Turks know it as Şeker or Ramazan Bayramı, to Muslims around the world it is known as Eid ul-Fitir, the holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Eid means festivity in Arabic, and indeed, this month is a time of celebration for Muslims, when they come together with their friends and family for communal festivities and the giving of thanks.
Ramazan Bayramı comes at the end of the Islamic month of Ramadan, during which time faithful Muslims around the world fast from sunrise to sunset. Because the dates of the holiday are based on the Islamic lunar calendar, they change every year, rotating slowly through the seasons. During the 29 or 30 days of this month, 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 traditional neighborhoods, a sahur drummer would go around beating his drum just before dawn, waking the faithful for their final meal before a day of fasting. As this meal is meant to tide people over for the whole day, it tends to consist of rather heavy fare, 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 much a communal celebration, when people come together in an expression of unity to show their faith and give thanks to God. This celebration 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 encourages 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 Muslims, the act of fasting highlights feelings of gratitude toward their earthly blessings. It also serves as a reminder, particularly for individuals from wealthy societies, that we can live with far less than what we have. By experiencing hunger and thirst, Muslims become more empathetic to those who experience these hardships on a daily basis.
The month of Ramadan is also important for organizing charitable works. According to some interpretations of Islam, fasting also has an important social purpose. Not only do the feelings of hunger make Muslims 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 big iftar tents are organized by wealthy individuals, foundations, or even companies, where free meals are distributed.
In many ways, this month of the 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 Empire when evening entertainment often included theatre and circus-like productions.
Unlike many other countries with a predominantly Muslim population, eating and drinking in public during the holy month 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’s 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.
Another surprising aspect is that some of the most apparently secular Turks you meet actually do fast, if not for the whole month then at least on certain days. This is because many people have strong spiritual associations with Ramadan, and enjoy the ritual and the cleansing aspect of the fast. Even if they are not fasting, many Turks still see this as a time for self-reflection, prayer, and charity towards 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 a traditional iftar dinner, 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 an iftar meal. For these invitations, it is appropriate to bring a small gift to your host. Obviously, on such an occasion, a bottle of wine will not do. 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 dried dates, and then moves on to a series of courses. 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 a flaky, starchy dough. Following the iftar meal, 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.
The month of fasting ends, and in many ways culminates, with the Ramazan Bayramı celebrations. These three days are a public holiday, when schools, government offices, and most workplaces close. 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 this 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 have been set up for the occasion. Another custom is for young children to go around their neighborhood wishing everyone “Happy Bayram”. They are then given small amounts of money, traditionally presented in handkerchiefs, as well as Turkish sweets such as lokum (Turkish delight) and baklava, hence the name Şeker (sugar) Bayramı.
For those whose families live in far-off towns and villages, this holiday is a chance to visit their hometown, 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. This year, Ramadan will start on July 20 and continue through to August 18. If you are in Istanbul during this holy month, it could be a great opportunity to partake in some cultural activities, such as an iftar dinner, and other traditional Turkish bayram celebrations.