30 Facts a Turkish American Wants You To Know About Turkey

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Ask anyone who has traveled to Turkey, and they will more than likely rave about how much they loved Istanbul, Bodrum, and Kusadasi. Yet, Turkey has more to its culture and history than Turkish baths, delights, and coffee.

Although the Republic of Turkey is just shy of a century old, the Ottoman Empire which it inherited (and at times, rejected) much of its culture from lasted for over six centuries. And lest we forget the country’s geographic position that place it at the gate between the East and the West, both Turkey’s past and its location have resulted in a modern country with many peculiar traditions, from body language that is at times nearly opposite to the West’s to a language with words can span over forty letters.

And while several components of Turkish culture find their roots in the higher classes of its Ottoman past, many of its interesting nuances are found in what the larger population will often connect with. For example, while surely everyone is familiar with the confection known as baklava, have you ever heard of the circular bread called simit?

While some may be more pieces of trivia than others (e.g. What does Chevy Chase have to do with the Turks?), here are some interesting tidbits that do not even begin to scratch the surface of Turkish society.

1. Atatürk, the Founder of Modern Turkey was Born in Present-Day Greece

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Mustafa Kemal was born in 1881 in the Ottoman city of Selanik (now Thessaloniki). He was a military officer during World War I, and following the Empire’s defeat led the Turkish National Movement in the Turkish War of Independence and its victory.

Subsequently, Kemal paved the way for political, economic, and cultural reforms, in an effort to create a modern and secular nation-state. His famous surname, Atatürk (meaning “Father of the Turks”), was granted to him by the Turkish parliament in 1934 and is forbidden to any other person. 

2. Noah’s Ark Might Have Landed in Mount Ararat in Turkey

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Modern searches for the biblical ark (sometimes referred to as arkeology) date back to the mid-20th century, and have mainly centered around Mount Ararat, located in Turkey. Despite many expeditions, no scientific evidence of the ark has been found, and the practice is regarded as pseudoscience and pseudoarchaeology.

3. Whether the Ark Landed in Turkey or not, the Legend Gave us Noah’s Pudding

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Also known as ‘Ashure‘, the Turkish dessert is a mix of grains, fruits, and nuts served especially during Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, as the 10th of Muharram corresponds to the Day of Ashure. (“Ashura” means “tenth” in Arabic.) Asure originates from what is said to be the last meal from Noah’s ark.

4. Santa Claus was Real, and He was Born in Turkey 

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Born between 260 and 280AD as Nicholas (who eventually became Saint Nicholas) in the town of Patara, he became the bishop of the town of Myra (now called Demre on the South West coast of Turkey). When his parents died, they left him a great deal of wealth. Seeking to help the poor in secret, the bishop would drop coins through people’s houses and chimneys, and thus the legend was born.

5. Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is One of the World’s Oldest and Biggest Malls

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First opening during the reign of Sultan Mehmet II during the Ottoman Empire, Kapalıçarşı (Covered Market) boasts over 4,000 shops within 61 different streets, attracting between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily.

While the shops are known for selling spices, jewelry, pottery, and carpets, the bazaar is especially known for being labyrinthine where visitors can truly test their bargaining skills.

6. Ottoman Turks Gave the Dutch their Famous Tulips

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Although The Netherlands are known for their tulips, the wild flower was growing in Central Asia and cultivated by the Turks as early as 1,000 AD. The flower was important during the reign of Sultan Ahmed III (1703-1730), and eventually made their way to Europe. Tulips became so popular that they led to an economic bubble known as “Tulip Mania”.

7. You Will Be Fooled by Turkish Ice Cream

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This is no Mister Softee. Traditional Turkish ice cream (known as dondurma or maraş dondurması) is known to be thick, sticky, and stretchy, due to two of its main ingredients being a thickening agent called salep and a resin called mastic. Because of this, vendors often perform several acrobatic tricks with the ice cream before finally serving it to customers.

8. Robert College of Istanbul is the Oldest American School Outside of the United States

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Established in 1863, the elite independent high school is accredited by the New York State Association of Independent Schools and has a long list of notable alumni, including entrepreneurs, politicians, journalists, artists, two Turkish Prime Ministers, four Bulgarian Prime Ministers, three members of the Turkish cabinet and one Nobel Prize recipient, Orhan Pamuk.

9. In 1503, Leonardo da Vinci Submitted Plans for a Bridge Across the Bosphorus

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Da Vinci made a sketch of an unprecedented 240-meters long single span bridge to be built over the Golden Horn – a natural inlet of the Bosphorus Strait dividing present-day Istanbul. The methods that would be required to build such a structure would not come into use for another three centuries, and so the bridge never came to fruition.

10. Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam (The Man Who Saved the World) May be the ‘Greatest Bad Movie’ of All Time

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The 1982 Turkish adventure film is known as Turkish Star Wars due to its unapologetic and unauthorized use of footage from Star Wars and other movies. While many have considered it to be one of the worst films ever made, the movie has gained a significant cult following over the years and currently maintains a 70% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Right below is a spoof trail of this film:

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Turkish Star Wars Trailer

11. Kissing the Hand of the Elderly is a Traditional Gesture in Turkey

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Hand-kissing is a common way to greet elders of both genders, especially during important holidays. After kissing it, the hand is drawn to the kisser’s forehead. During the holidays, those who have their hands kissed will often give money or candy to children.

12. Turkish Body Language Differs from the West

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Nodding your head downward means “yes”, while throwing your head slightly back while raising your chin and eyebrows and clicking your tongue means “no”.

13. The Turkish Alphabet is Derived From the Latin Alphabet

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Some quick pronunciation tips follow: The letter c makes a sound similar to the English letter j, while the letter ç sounds like what ch would in English. Similarly, the letter ş sound like what sh does in English. There are no Q, W, or X, but there is a soft g written as ğ. Finally, there are dotted and dotless variants of i, o, and u (ı, ö, and ü).

14. Turks Can use Long Words, such as Çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmışsınız

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Turkish is an agglutinative language. Meaning, words frequently use affixes, to create new words, such as creating a verb from a noun, or a noun from a verbal root. For example, ev is the word for home, while evlerinizin means “of your houses”, and evlerinizdendi means (he/she/it) was from your houses. This often can lead to particularly long words, such as Çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmışsınız, (meaning, “You are said to be one of those that we couldn’t manage to convert to a Czechoslovak”.

15. Efes is the Flagship Beer of Turkey

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Efes Pilsen (a pilsner) is its flagship beer. Efes Beverage Group is the largest producer of beer in Turkey with over 80% market share and ranked 12th in the world beer market. Meanwhile, Efes is also the largest local shareholder of the Coca-Cola franchise in Turkey and produces a range of soft drinks. Current CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, Muhtar Kent, was the top executive of Efes Beverage Group from 1999 through 2005.

16. Turks have ‘Cola Turka’, Well Known Due to the Ads done by Chevy Chase

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Speaking of Cola, Cola Turka is a real thing, and Chevy Chase did two hilarious commercials for them. In the ads that take place in New York, Chase plays a confused American who notices friends and family using certain words from Turkish culture while drinking Cola Turka. Upon Chase’s character finally drinking the Turkish beverage, he instantly displays Turkish traits, such as the use of certain idioms, singing a Turkish folk song, and sporting a very Turkish mustache.

17. The Famous Video Game ‘Street Fighter’ has a Turkish Character

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In the fourth iteration of the series, Hakan is a huge Turkish oil wrestler (yağlı güreşçi) and is president of one of the world’s leading edible oil manufacturers. The character was the result of an effort to add something never before seen in the series and after the creators researched interesting fighting styles. Since Hakan’s playstyle is based heavily on “oiling up” to achieve additional range, many of his attacks are designed to provide him the space needed to do so.

18. Yağlı Güreş (Oil Wrestling) is the National Sport of Turkey

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Wrestlers (known as pehlivan) douse themselves with olive oil and wear a type of hand-stitched shorts called a kisbet. Matches are won by achieving an effective hold of the kisbet. The annual Kırkpınar tournament, held in Edirne in Turkish Thrace since 1362, is said to be the oldest continuously running, sanctioned sporting competition in the world.

19. Simit: The Turkish Equivalent of Bagels

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Turkish eat Simit, the Turkish equivalent of bagels. The round baked good can be eaten plain, or with tea, fruit preserves, or cheese or ayran (a yogurt drink). Simit vendors have a cart or tray on their head and are known for loudly advertising them. Simit is an important symbol for the working class of Turkey.

20. Turkish Coffee is Not a Bean Type, But a Method of Preparation 

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Roasted beans for Turkish coffee are ground to the finest possible powder and are simmered (not boiled) in a special pot known as a cezve. Additionally, the grounds that remain after one drinks the coffee are often used for fortunetelling. The brew’s method of preparation is so famous that Turkish coffee is considered an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Turkey confirmed by UNESCO.

21. Turkey is the World’s Largest Hazelnut Exporter

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Turkey ships a lot of hazelnut overseas, about 75% of the world’s total exports, in fact. The annual production of Hazelnut in Turkey reaches nearly 600,000 tons per year.

22. Turkish Musician Bariş Manço is Well Known in Turkey

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Musician, singer, songwriter, composer, and television producer, Manço was a pioneer of rock music in Turkey and one of the founders of the Anatolian rock genre. While many of his hit songs included “Alla Beni Pulla Beni“, “Gülpembe“, and “Dönence“, songs like “Halil İbrahim Sofrası” were known for exemplifying lyrics with a strong moral compass. Similarly, through his TV program 7’den 77’ye (“From 7 to 77”), Manço visited countries around the globe in an effort to create a greater understanding of other cultures.

23. The Late Kemal Sunal is a Highly Respected Actor Among Turkish Audiences

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The late actor’s films (including the Hababam Sınıfı series) often involved him playing the role of “Şaban”. The clean-hearted Şaban’s experiences in the films often addressed many of the problems faced by the urban poor in Turkey during the 1970s and 1980s, similar to The Tramp played by the late Charlie Chaplin. His movie roles, representing down on his luck men struggling to survive, have become ingrained in the minds of Turkish nationals. 

24. The Turkish Cupcake Topkek Somehow Became an Internet Meme

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In the online multiplayer game World of Warcraft (WoW), “Kek” is a translation of the acronym “LOL” (laugh out loud) when reading text written by members of the Horde faction as an Alliance player. “Kek”, meanwhile, is the Turkish word for “cake”. Hence, if a subject is particularly funny, it is Topkek, which explains the brand’s (or more likely, the meme’s) popularity on the Internet board 4chan.

25. There is a Tradition of Throwing a Bucket of Water Behind a Car Driving Away

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While it may initially seem silly, the metaphor behind this gesture is meant to represent that the passenger’s trip should flow as easily as the water does.

26. Nasreddin Hoca, the Sufi cleric, is Known for His Funny Anecdotes

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Iconically, Nasreddin Hoca is known for sitting backwards on his donkey. While the tales often placed Nasreddin at the butt of the joke, the stories often had a pedagogic nature to them. A typical Nasreddin story would be like the following:

Some children saw Nasreddin coming from the vineyard with two baskets full of grapes loaded on his donkey. They gathered around him and asked him to give them a taste. Nasreddin picked up a bunch of grapes and gave each child a grape.

“You have so much, but you gave us so little,” the children whined. “There is no difference whether you have a basketful or a small piece. They all taste the same,” Nasreddin answered, and continued on his way. A simple story with a deep meaning. 

27. The World’s First Underground Mosque is in Istanbul

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The Sancaklar Mosque is located in Istanbul’s Buyukcekmece district and won first place in the World Architecture Fest competition for religious places in 2013. Inspired by the Cave of Hira, where the Prophet Muhammad first received God’s message, the mosque was built seven meters underground.

28. The Turkish ‘Zildjian‘ is one of the Oldest Companies in the World

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Zildjian–one of the world’s oldest companies–was founded in the Ottoman Empire. An alchemist named Avedis began making cymbals in 1618 while looking for a way to turn base metal into gold. He was given the name of Zildjian by Sultan Osman II (from the Turkish words zil – cymbal, dji – maker or seller, and ian – a common suffix used in Armenian surnames).

During this era, cymbals were often used by the Turkish janissaries during battle. The company later transitioned to manufacturing its cymbals as musical instruments in the 19th century.

29. The Last Heir to the Ottoman Empire Lived on Lexington Avenue, New York

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Ertugrul Osman, a direct descendant of Osman I who established one of the longest lasting empires in history, died in 2009. He had spent most of his life in a walk-up rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan. In fact, as he considered himself an Ottoman citizen, Osman carried a certificate devised by his lawyer in lieu of a passport. As this became problematic after 9/11, he received a Turkish passport for the first time in 2004.

30. Turk Hamdi Ulukaya is the Founder of the Chobani Yogurt Empire

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Hamdi Ulukaya came from a Kurdish dairy-farming family in a small village in Turkey. Originally producing feta cheese, Ulukaya felt that American-style yogurt was too sugary, watery, and artificial, and preferred the thick, strained yogurt from his native land. Ulukaya said: “People have always had great taste. We just need great options.”

In 2005, he took a large business risk in purchasing a large defunct yogurt factory in upstate New York, creating the Chobani brand that eventually became a billion dollar yogurt empire. The name Chobani derives from the Turkish word çoban, meaning shepherd. 


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