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Birth and Death - Traditions, Ceremonies and Rituals in Turkey

written by: Ronda Bowen • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 3/2/2012

The beginning and the end of life are surrounded by many rituals and traditions, based on religion as well as folklore. In Turkey they are still observed, particularly in Anatolia.

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    Pregnancy and Birth

    The sex of the expected child is, of course, of great importance to Turks. It is believed that if the mother eats sweet food, she will have a boy, but if she prefers spicy or sour dishes, she will give birth to a girl. There are several customs and even superstitions to be observed during pregnancy. The woman should avoid looking at such animals as monkeys and camels; she should not attend a funeral, much less look at a corpse and, a curiosity, she should not chew gum.

    Good luck and a problem-free pregnancy is expected, if the expecting mother contemplates the moon, beautiful people, smells roses and eats apples, green plums and grapes.

    Women often announce their pregnancy with their clothing or the lace ornaments of their scarf. The mother in law is supposed to give the future mother a gold bracelet.

    In cities, birth is given in a hospital, but in rural areas many women still have their babies at home with the assistance of a midwife. There are several rituals to be observed, for instance: unfastening the woman's hair, opening locked doors and windows and...feeding birds! There are many more, but the majority are just dictated by common sense.

    Once the baby is born, special attention is paid to the umbilical cord and the placenta. The latter is considered a friend and a part of the newborn baby and is therefore treated with respect. The placenta isn't just thrown away; it's wrapped in a clean cloth and buried in a clean place. The umbilical cord is cut and either thrown into the courtyard of a mosque to make the baby a devout person or else deposited in a place which might favorably relate to the child's future.

    Mother and child are given presents, gold bracelets for the mother and gold coins with either a blue or a pink bow attached for the baby. Many also plant a tree, an apple tree for a girl and a pine tree for a boy.

    For 40 days after giving birth, neither mother nor child is allowed to leave the house. This 40 day period is a tradition which is taken very seriously. It is believed, that for 40 days, mother and child are vulnerable to mother or baby snatchers in the form of evil spirits and that illness or misfortune might befall them.

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    Death and Burial

    Like birth, death is accompanied by many traditions and rituals, mostly based on religion. The person who has died has to be buried as soon as possible and during daylight. If the death occurs at night, internment has to take place early the next day.

    The body is ceremoniously washed by professional washers. This is based on the Islamic belief that a person who has died and has not been properly cleaned will not be allowed to enter paradise. The corpse is then laid out with the big toes tied together, arms by the side, eyelids closed and facing Mecca. The body is wrapped in a clean white shroud and placed in a coffin. The coffin, which is covered by a green cloth, is carried to the mosque on the shoulders of family, friends and neighbors. The bearers rush from the back of the cortege to the front to be able to touch and carry the coffin as often as possible, which is a sign of respect. A path is cleared and nobody is allowed to stand or cross in front of the coffin. Once at the mosque, the coffin is placed on a table outside and the appropriate prayers are said. The body is buried in a grave wrapped in the shroud only, with the coffin discarded. It is placed on its right side, again facing Mecca.

    Tombstones have a long tradition in Turkey. They are often pieces of art and bear witness to history as well as being inscribed with poetry and the life story of the deceased.