Karagöz shadow puppetry, one of Turkey’s most distinctive art forms, was born in Bursa. And the city is still the best place in the world to catch a regular performance. It might be the only such place. Every day, the Karagöz Museum puts on shows starring the puppets which have kept Turkey in stitches for hundreds of years.
Karagöz puppetry dates back to the 14th century, when Bursa was still the capital of the young Ottoman Empire. The art form’s popularly accepted origin story tells of Karagöz and Hacivat: two men working on the construction of the Orhan Gazi Mosque in the city center. Rather than work, these two spent most of their time bickering and teasing each other in such an entertaining fashion, that they became a major distraction to the other men. And so the sultan, impatient for the completion of his mosque, had them executed. The shenanigans of Karagöz and Hacivat were so missed by the people, that a new form of puppetry was invented to commemorate them and their already-legendary quarreling.
We visited the Karagöz Museum in Bursa which, although presented completely in Turkish, provided a nice overview. The puppets are made from camel skin, dried and dyed in bright colors. An oil lamp is lit behind the semi-transparent skin of the puppets, whose colorful shadows are thrown against a screen.
Most of the plays recount one of Karagöz’s “get rich quick” schemes, which Hacivat, the wiser and more down-to-earth of the duo, predictably rails against and attempts to foil. Each performance includes multiple puppets, and requires up to four puppeteers behind the screen. Karagöz plays feature a wide cast of characters taken from Ottoman life, including Tuzsuz the drunk, Kanbur the opium addict, Denyo the idiot, and Altı Kariş the angry dwarf. Political correctness was not a concern in the early Ottoman Empire.
The Karagöz Museum puts on two puppet shows every day, and we sat down with a group of schoolkids to watch one. Of course, it’d have helped to understand exactly what Karagöz and Hacivat were arguing about, but even in Turkish the meaning came across well enough, and the hysterical laughter of the kids was contagious. I loved it… here was a group of children raised in the Smartphone Generation, completely engrossed and delighted by 700-year-old shadow puppets. Great entertainment, I suppose, never gets old.