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Uses of “Folk” in Turkey: From Saving the Empire to Building the Nation (1850s‑1920s)

Hande Birkalan‑Gedik

Institut für Kulturanthropologie und Europäische Ethnologie, Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität, Frankfurt am Main

2024
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Birkalan–Gedik, Hande, 2024. “Uses of ‘Folk’ in Turkey: From Saving the Empire to Building the Nation (1850s‑1920s)”, in Bérose - Encyclopédie internationale des histoires de l'anthropologie, Paris.

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Publié dans le cadre du thème de recherche « Horizons anthropologiques, histoires de l’ethnologie et du folklore en Turquie », dirigé par Hande Birkalan-Gedik (Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität, Institut für Kulturanthropologie und Europäische Ethnologie, Frankfurt am Main) et Abdurrahim Ozmen (Dicle Üniversitesi, Diyarbakir).

Résumé : Cet article étudie le développement de la notion turque de halk peuple ») à la fin de l’Empire ottoman et à l’aube de la République turque. Si, durant cette période, la trajectoire du folklore turc présente des similitudes avec ce qui se passe en Europe, le contexte dans lequel il s’épanouit en fait un champ de recherche unique. Dans son usage ottoman, halk désigne principalement les Turcs ordinaires, il distingue l’élite de haute culture du monde rustique des paysans. Ceci posé, l’intérêt pour le folklore et ses créations artistiques ne s’est pas développé pour lui-même. À l’origine des principaux courants de pensée intellectuels et politiques, l’élite a appréhendé les matériaux folkloriques dans le cadre du nationalisme émergent du début du XXe siècle en ce qu’il s’opposait au cosmopolitisme ottoman et sous-tendait l’importance du Turc, non seulement comme base du folklore, mais aussi comme ciment fondateur de la nation. Bien que plusieurs idéologies aient été en compétition dans les derniers jours de l’Empire, le nationalisme turc devint prépondérant, notamment à l’époque des Jeunes-Turcs. Affrontant d’autres courants de pensée nationalistes, cette idéologie s’est néanmoins maintenue les décennies suivantes. Sous les Jeunes-Turcs, l’évolution du folklore dans le pays était regardée comme importante. À la lecture des articles de cette époque sur le folklore et ses liens avec le nationalisme, son importance pour le folklore « turc », il est essentiel de garder présent à l’esprit que les membres du gouvernement des Jeunes-Turcs ordonnèrent aux soldats ottomans d’Anatolie orientale de déplacer de force ou d’exécuter les Arméniens, jetant les bases d’un État-nation plus homogène. Pour autant, les recherches relatives au folklore turc, axées sur le peuple turc, étaient tout autant inclusives qu’exclusives. Nos connaissances sur les folklores « autres », alors présents en Turquie, croissant, il faut souhaiter que le développement des études folkloriques soit examiné attentivement dans une optique comparative afin de déployer une perspective holistique.

Folklore has immense potential for political instrumentalization as a legitimizing discourse in relation to nationalism. Several common features can be identified between the two, as the search for “the people” and their authentic voice has been at the centre of political, social, and cultural settings since the nineteenth century (Anderson 1985 ; Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983 ; Hobsbawm 1990 ; Smith 1971). The fundamental idea of states and nationalism in shaping the “imagined” concept of a nation is of paramount importance at this juncture. According to Anderson, the concept of a nation presumed to share a common origin and cultural heritage is “a politically envisioned community – conceived as both inherently finite and self-governing” (1985, 5). In this framework, folklore was seen as a collection of key elements of the national identity of certain people, which formed the nation (Anttonen 2005) and revealed its unique cultural repertoire of stories, dwellings, songs, music, costumes and more (Baycroft 2012, 1). In fact, folklore activities developed through learned societies and patriotic or scholarly organizations dealing with national culture long before academic professionalization took effect, as intellectual, social, and political processes defined the constituents and confines of a discipline (Rogan 2012, 588). Scholars interested in romantic nationalism identified, classified, and presented folklore in different institutional settings (Abrahams 1993 ; Bendix 1997) in different national traditions in Europe and beyond.

The development of folklore in the Ottoman Empire and in Turkey shows several parallels to the European counterparts, and at the same time, presents some unique elements regarding the use of halk, the Turkish word for folk. As we will see in the following pages, although nationalism in Turkey was a belated phenomenon compared to those that developed in Europe, it had a significant impact on the interest in folklore activities in the final years of the Ottoman Empire. Both the folklore activities and academic studies of folklore in Turkey have been ultimately connected to nationalism. In İlhan Başgöz’s words, “the emergence of Turkish nationalism marked a new era in the attitude of intellectuals toward folklore. Nationalism, which had shaken the nineteenth century history of Europe, did not become an important force in Turkey until the First World War” (Başgöz 1972, 164). Nonetheless, nationalism was a contested ideology. It revealed ideological divisions, personal tensions, and fractions (Öztürkmen 1993, 141) that influenced uses of folk as well as the practice and understanding of folklore.

In order to understand the trajectories of folk and its related terms, this essay will examine uses of the term halk, from the 1850s to the 1920s. The main assumption is that folklore and nationalism are historically embedded, as the uses of the terms related to folklore such as folk, lore, folk culture show that they are bound by different “turns” and “tunes” negotiated between different actors, institutions, and networks.

An Ottoman Perspective

In the Ottoman context, the history of folklore encountered two prominent intellectual currents that can be traced to the late nineteenth century, when ideas about halk started to be crystallized among the educated elite. It should be underlined, however, that the interest in folklore did not develop per se, but the elite, who were part of an intellectual-political thought and saw folklore materials in the frame of nationhood. The fore thinkers of folklore came from literature, philosophy, and sociology, who also took part in the national projects at large. For instance, the literary elite introduced the relevance of literature as an agent of social change in the Tanzimat Era [1] (1839–1876) and stressed the necessity of a simple language that would be understood by most lay people. Launched in 1839, the Edict of Gülhane favoured cosmopolitanism, gave more freedom to the Empire’s non-Muslim millets (ethnic/religious groups) and created a moderate climate until the declaration of the rather short-lived First Constitution (written by the Young Ottomans) on 23 December 1876.

The attitude of the elite in these years revealed to be rational, since Ottoman-Turkish, the language of the high court, was far from functioning as an effective tool in social critique. Instead, it was mostly appreciated for its poetic and aesthetic uses. In the last phases of the Tanzimat, the Turkish elite, who were in close contact with French-speaking Europe, started to explore the extant literary traditions. This is when Ottoman intellectuals discovered that literature was an effective tool for communicating with ordinary people to impact public opinion. Turkish sociologist and social historian Niyazi Berkes underscores the importance of the Tanzimat reforms in literature : “The last phase of Tanzimat witnessed the first signs of innovation in language and script, journalism, and literature. The latter two became the vehicles of liberal ideas and nebulous national concepts” (Berkes 1964, 192).

Furthermore, the emergent nationalism in the early twentieth century created an intellectual movement opposed to Ottoman cosmopolitanism that brought several ümmets (Arabic ummah – which in Turkish were called millets (religious communities) under one roof. Unlike several models in Europe that sought to assimilate confessional communities, the Ottomans gave autonomy to each religious community. However, the pluralistic character of the subjects in the Empire was interrupted, as they slowly but surely started leaving the Empire and established their own nation-states. For instance, in the Balkans, the independence of Greece was acknowledged by the Ottoman Empire with the signing of the Treaty of Edirne in 1829, through which the Serbs were also able to gain autonomy. Bulgaria became a principality of the Ottoman Empire with the Treaty of Berlin in 1878. Bulgarian efforts in the fields of religion, education, culture and politics resulted in gaining independence in 1908. Among other Balkan states, Albania gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire with the Treaty of Bucharest signed after the Balkan Wars in 1913. The departures in the Balkan Peninsula were followed by the Arab liberation in 1916 during World War I. All in all, the Turkish component was the last element in the Ottoman Empire ; it left the Empire last or, put differently, aimed to build a nation-state after the fall of the Ottomans. Folklore had an important mission in these decades, as literati maintained a romantic nationalist perspective in the final years of the empire. Many of them rejected anything but Turkish and turned to the language of halk, which signified the ordinary people on the one hand, and the under-represented, peasant, the Turk, on the other.

The elite’s interest in folklore also considered the issues of language purification – purging Arabic and Persian elements which were abundantly used in Ottoman-Turkish. This led to a search for Turkish language culture, with an emphasis on going to the origins of a pure and authentic folk culture. There was also a functional interest in simple language, as several authors of the time underlined that simple language expressed the author’s perspective and social reality better. According to them, the divan edebiyatı (court literature), which reflected the “high” Ottoman culture, used complex metaphors and similes, Persian and Arabic compounds, and expressed the ideas and feelings of a particular group, the educated minority, among other things. The Divan edebiyatı conjured up moods and images of a world that did not exist. The elite underlined that clichés and lexical elements from Arabic and Persian plagued Ottoman literature, which failed to function effectively as a social tool. [2] Significantly, during this era, many intellectuals contended that this form of language gradually estranged itself from the common populace, halk, leading to a significant disconnect between them and the Ottoman palace. This dichotomy found expression through various terms, exemplified by the Ottoman context’s division between havas and avam, mirroring the distinction between high culture and the common folk, akin to the observable differentiation in nineteenth-century Europe. Besides, in the Ottoman context, the ordinary people also become synonymous with the “peasant” and the Turk. In sum, the interest in the productions of ordinary people was a significant shift of the elite thought from a concern with the remote to a concern with the near ; from foreign to native, giving way to various activities in creating and preserving a national identity.

As the social function of literature was highlighted in the Tanzimat period, certain members of the elite began to perceive the importance of using simple language, coloured with romantic undertones. As a result, they showed a nascent interest in modernizing the Ottoman language and identified themselves with the everyday Turkish. However, the new literary tradition signalled another problem. This time, it was the possible invasion of the Turkish language and literature by French culture, as some writers used not only the new forms of literature but also borrowed words from the French language in their prose.

All things considered ; the educated elite sought different strategies. While some writers turned to French as a source of westernization and used French words in Turkified versions in their texts, some intellectuals criticized that approach and urged simple language, encouraging authors to employ popular language so that the problems of the Empire could be discussed in a political discourse. Niyazi Berkes brings up an interesting point by focusing on the rejection of French dominance by the Ottoman elite, which is quite similar to the attitude of the German Romantics positioned against the cultural invasion of France in the eighteenth century. Berkes describes the influence of the French language in the following fashion :

“The movement for the further cultivation of Ottoman through government and education as a secular linguistic vehicle was also a reaction against the impact of French upon the educated elite. The possible invasion of French as a medium of teaching, and as a vehicle of expressing new ideas and ideals provoked the stimulus for an awakened interest in a modern Ottoman and for identifying it with the Turkish language itself” (Berkes 1964, 194).

The accommodations of the Tanzimat Era resulted in a shift of the elite thought, since many scholars turned to oral tradition, feeling that popular antiquities not only reflected the tradition but also served to pass it on. For example, the prolific Ottoman journalist, novelist, and short story writer Ahmed Midhat’s (1844–1912) view of the Ottoman court literature was extremely critical. He asserted that the “hybrid culture cannot live long”, insinuating that Turks should have a national literary language of their own, rather than having a language that the majority of people found impossible to understand (op. cit. Levent 1949, 141).

As in the Tanzimat Era, halk became an important source for literature, the fashionable folklore form was the genre of proverbs which were thought to have expressed the richness of wisdom of ordinary people. Obviously popular sayings and proverbs had significant poetic elements in them but not always mirrored the “true” moral sensibilities of ordinary people. However, the discourse on proverbs was determined by romantic nationalism. One of the pioneers in this endeavour was İbrahim Şinasi (1826–1871) who was a part of the group Yeni Osmanlılar (Young Ottomans). Born in Istanbul to an Albanian-origin family and educated in France, Şinasi discovered the importance of using simple language in literature in order to reach a wider audience. He filled his Şair Evlenmesi (Marriage of a poet, 1860), an important theatrical play, with popular sayings and vernacular language to attract the popular audience. He also published 1,500 “Ottoman” proverbs collected from written sources under the title of Durub-u Emsal-i Osmaniye (Ottoman proverbs). Şinasi’s later edition of this work contained 2,500 proverbs, and in its third edition, he included 4,004 sayings without distinguishing which of them were proverbs (Oy 1959).

The inauguration of Western [3] concepts in Şinasi’s work not only established a new literary style but also made him an advanced revolutionary thinker. While Şinasi’s Ottoman proverbs aimed to highlight the idea of “Ottomanness” (as opposed to Turkishness, which we will see in several thinkers’ formulations in the first decades of the twentieth century), he was a pioneering thinker in highlighting the need for expressing liberal ideas and public opinion as well as citizens’ rights and national consciousness (Berkes 1964, 197).

Fig 1.
Cover from the 1889 edition of Durub-u Emsal-i Osmaniye
Collection of Hande Birkalan-Gedik

Ahmed Midhat (1844–1912), who is also known for his travelogues and ethnographic accounts (Birkalan-Gedik 2021) as a harbinger of social and cultural anthropology, composed several short stories based on the proverbs collected by Şinasi. Ahmed Midhat wrote and published stories explaining entries – eighteen stories he selected and found suitable from Şinasi’s Durub-ı Emsal-i Osmaniye. Ahmed Midhat commented on his source and how this source was used in his book, under the title Durub-ı Emsal-i Osmaniye : Şinasi Hikemiyâtının Ahkâmı – Tasvir (Ottoman proverbs : rules of Şinasi’s wisdom – a description). Ahmed Midhat, who also wrote stories inspired by Abdülhak Hamid (1852–1937), filled his plays with local impressions and customs.

This era witnessed several other literary figures turning to the simple and ordinary language. Mehmed Emin Yurdakul (1869–1944), who is recognized as a poet using hece vezni (quantitative meter) and extensive folk sayings in his poems, expressed extremist nationalist sentiment which led him to be known as the “national poet”. In a similar vein, Ziya Paşa (1825–1880) paid attention to the creations of the folk in his article Şiir ve İnşa and addressed the national character of the common people (Levent 1949, 139). As such, Ziya Paşa’s understanding of language of lay people showed similarities to the German understanding of the relationship between language and the folk, which was epitomized in the thought of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), proclaiming that the spirit of language, the Sprachgeist is best expressed in the national language. Herder formulated that lay language, or the Sprache des Volkes (Language of people) could offer a strong foundation for the German Nation. Furthermore, he articulated that in the primitive stage of the Volk, art, history, and language were dissolved in fine particles all of which manifest crucial characteristics of the nation. In a similar vein, Ziya Paşa, a poet and a novelist, recognized that the “real” values of the people could be found only among the folk. He argued that “the genuine language” was alive amongst ordinary Turkish people (Levent 1949, 139). In the same manner, dramatist Ahmed Vefik Paşa (1823–1891) also confirmed his idea, and both of them worked on Turkish proverbs aiming to delineate the true character of the Turkish halk.

These interests and ideological stances need to be contextualized in the late nineteenth-century concerns with “national identity” which started to be crystallized in the Ottoman Empire, where pan-Ottomanism and pan-Islamism developed as differentiating ideologic base to save an empire in decline. Although pan-Ottomanism emphasized that a nation should include all subjects of the Ottoman Empire, it became impossible to implement at the time. Pan-Islamism was seen also as an alternative and argued that the nation should be comprised of totally Muslim subjects. Yet, both ideologies had to be abandoned. As the essay alluded at the beginning, the political developments in nationalism in Europe had already impacted several ethnic groups in the Ottoman Empire. With the outbreak of the Balkan Wars (1912 and 1913), leading to World War I (1914–1918), several Ottoman subjects started to leave the empire and founded their own nation-states. The base of identity that would hold things together, then, was required to be different.

Besides these arguments, pan-Turkism and pan-Turanism were seen as possible ideological vehicles for developing and maintaining a national identity. Pan-Turkism, aiming at the cultural unification of the Oghuz peoples, i.e. Turks of modern Turkey, Turkmens and Azeris and emerging in the late nineteenth century, gained traction at the beginning of the twentieth century among the intellectuals of Turkic peoples. The long-range ideal of Turkism meant uniting all Turkic peoples including the Yakuts, the Kirghiz, the Uzbeks, and the Kipchaks under one umbrella (Birkalan 1995). On the other hand, pan-Turanism embraced the unification of diverse Turkic peoples of Central Asia and connected these populations to the Hungarians. As Kathrin Kremmler notes, this ideology is based on the assumption that Hungarians and Turkic peoples share a “genetic” and cultural/civilizational heritage inherited from ancient Eurasian steppe empires (2003, 182).

Certainly, the arguments about pan-Ottomanism and pan-Islamism were made against the ideal unification of all Turkish peoples, since neither was it quite plausible to maintain such unity on the argument of an assumed cultural unity. But was it possible to unite halk as one homogenous unit ? Turkish nationalism became the main framing narrative in the collection and the study of folklore, which would not tolerate any other perspectives. Mainly in the 1930s and 1940s, pan-Turkist and pan-Turanist ideas reached at a peak. Besides, with the import of racial narratives from Europe, the cultural idea of nation incorporated “biological” ideas (Birkalan-Gedik 2024a, b), giving way to catastrophic effects for those who did not belong to this racist nationalism.

At the time, the discussion on these different solutions often pointed to the notion of cultural unity. Some scholars argued that the group called Ottomans did not have cultural unity – that is, there was no nation that could be called Ottoman in the modern sense. The term Ottoman had dynastic rather than national connotation. Renowned historian on Turkey, Bernard Lewis, notes that the Western European territorial and political concept of nation was not shared by the Ottoman society (Lewis 1961, 333, emphasis is mine). As explained earlier, the concept of millet referred to the religious groups, until Ziya Gökalp introduced millet as a modern term for nation. Ottomans employed different terms for ethnic and religious groups, in order to distinguish their “other” from Muslims or even from the Turks. The Ottoman Empire, in its ethnic diversity, adopted the millet system, which referred to self-governing organizations of religious communities. Lewis highlights the definition of millet in the following way : “In the Empire there was a Muslim millet, but no Turkish or Arab or Kurdish millets ; there were Greek and Armenian and Jewish millets, but as religious communities, not as ethnic nations” (Lewis 1961, 329). As can be seen in Lewis’ explanation, millet only embraces religious groups, not ethnic communities. In Ottoman society there were also other ethnic groups such as the Kurds ; however, their group identity was not defined by the Ottoman notion of millet, as they practised Islam and thus were taken under the Muslim millet, and did not possess a self-governing body of their own. On the other hand, the term Turk in the Ottoman parlance, was used to describe the peasants in a derogatory sense, and in Lewis’s own voice, “to apply it [Turk] to an Ottoman gentleman of Constantinople would have been an insult” (Lewis 1961, 2).

At the time when these ideologies emerged and were discussed among the Turkish-Ottoman intelligentsia, Turkist ideology appeared to be “transnational” not only because “pan-nationalism emerged from nineteenth-century European nationalism, but also because it led intelligentsia to think beyond the Ottoman borders and collaborate with thinkers with similar thoughts in different countries. At the same time, the critical juncture of a falling empire and and emergent nation-state functioned like a magnet that drew people particularly from the Russian Empire. For instance, in his work Üç Tarz-ı Siyaset (Three styles of politics ) (1904), Yusuf Akçura (1876–1935), originally a Tatar from Kazan who came to Istanbul in 1908, discussed the three ideas of Turkism, Ottomanism, and Turanism. He favoured Turkism, which proposed the unification of all Turkic peoples, since he saw the necessary ties, i.e., culture, language and even religion as the shared entities.

Also in the following decades, Mehmet Ziya (Gökalp) (1876–1924), known under the name of Ziya Gökalp, and who is taken as the father of Turkist ideology, saw the idea of pan-Ottomanism as erroneous, arguing that the Ottoman Empire was an amalgam. Originally of Kurdish origin from Diyarbakır, he argued that the various nations of the Ottoman Empire possessed independent cultures without a common consciousness and solidarity. He also argued against pan-Islamism, that Muslims can form a community, whereas a nation is a group with a common language and culture only. He discussed the problem of ethnic identity and nation-ness in his work The Principles of Turkism, published in Turkish as Türkçülüğün Esasları (Principles of Turkism, 1923), where he addressed different understandings of nation and ethnicity in the Ottoman Empire.

Paralleling the new developments in the political mainstream, the term Turk was gradually divorced from its derogatory connotations as Turkish people became the real source of culture and the fundamental agents for forming a national identity. The dominance of Ottoman high culture was resisted and replaced by a cultural revival and reaffirmation of folk culture, which took Turk as its fundament. The symbols of national identity [4] were drawn from a romanticized view of folk life. This interest was informed not only by the poetics but the politics, as they sought to revive the oppressed, overlooked Turkish culture and their creative expressions.

Folk and Folklore Scholars in the Transition Period : The Young Turk Era (1908–1918) and the Early Turkish Republic

In order to understand uses of folk in subsequent years, political developments should be further evaluated. As we have seen, Tanzimat Era introduced emergent ideas on evolutionism, materialism, and modernism, profoundly affecting the understandings of folk and folklore. On 14 February 1878, the Sultan Abdulhamid II abolished the Constitution and started his despotic rule, under which no opposition to his ideas were tolerated and intellectual criticism was prohibited. Curbing his powers in 1908, the Young Turks, or Jön Türkler in Turkish, opened a new and liberalized political space (Gürpınar 2013, 24 ; İnalcık 1976).

The Young Turks was a group of reform-minded officers within the Ottoman army, who initiated a political reform movement during the early twentieth century, advocating for the transition from the Ottoman Empire’s absolute monarchy to a constitutional government. Very much rooted in the ideas of Tanzimat, the primary aim of the Young Turks was to advocate for political reform and modernization within the Ottoman Empire. Specifically, they sought to replace the empire’s absolute monarchy with a constitutional government, which would entail the establishment of a more inclusive and representative political system. They believed that these reforms were necessary to address the empire’s internal problems, enhance its strength, and enable it to adapt to the changing political landscape of the early twentieth century (Mardin 1962). It should be also noted that the early composition of the Young Turk movement, which emerged in reaction to the abolitionist Sultan Abdulhamid, brought a heterogenous group of cultural elite, including Kurdish, Greek, and Armenian intelligentsia. As Hanioğlu (2001) notes, until 1907, Young Turk propaganda was chiefly Turkish, which was well seen in the publications of the time when the Turkish term was replaced by an “Ottoman” one. However, for practical reasons, they were able to cover up their Turkish ideology, which earned them support from non-Muslim groups as well (Hanioğlu 2001, 295).

The Young Turk Revolution, also known as the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) Revolution, occurred in two phases. In the first phase, that is, beginning with July 3, 1908, Young Turks revolted against the autocratic rule of Sultan Abdulhamid II and demanded the restoration of the Ottoman Constitution of 1876, which had been suspended by the Sultan. The second phase, starting with April 23, 1909 – that is, the revolution which came to be known as 31 March Incident or the Countercoup of 1909–took place when conservative elements attempted to suppress the reforms initiated by the Young Turks. This led to further upheaval, and ultimately, the Sultan was deposed in favour of his brother, Mehmed V. Constitutional rule was reaffirmed.

The Young Turk era has further importance for the folklore activities in the country. When articles discussing folklore and its connection to nationalism were being published, it is crucial to remember that members of the Young Turk government instructed Ottoman soldiers in Eastern Anatolia to forcibly relocate or execute Armenians, known as the Armenian Genocide, which laid the ground for a more homogeneous nation-state. [5] However, Armenians being killed or purged out of Anatolia goes back to an earlier period, epitomized in the massacres under Abdulhamid II. [6]

After the Young Turk Revolution, Ottoman-Turkish intellectuals initiated the quest for novel societal institutions and established various Turkist organizations with a primary focus on cultural objectives. This also determined the understanding of folk and folklore in the following years as a nationalist project, which was also adapted in the earlier years of the Turkish republic. These activities were further enhanced through learned societies, journal publications, museums, and the institutionalization of folklore at universities.

In the study of Turkish folklore, a certain group of scholars can be characterized as pioneers of Turkish folklore studies and research. These scholars, who among others included Rıza Tevfik (Bölükbaşı) (1869–1949), Ziya Gökalp (1876–1924) and Fuad Köprülü (1888–1966), sought to set up systematic research on folk culture. Despite their different scholarly perspectives, they contributed to the initial phase of folklore studies in Turkey as they were motivated by conjoined ideological interests, namely by their nationalist impulses. These scholars were interested mostly in literature in diverse genres such as proverbs, folktales, and folk poetry. Another intellectual, who was very influential in formulating an understanding and vision of folklore was Selim Sırrı (Tarcan) (1874–1957) – a sportsman, officer, sportswriter, physical education teacher, researcher and politician. Tarcan’s focus in the field of folklore was somewhat different from the above-mentioned authors, as he worked on folk-dance, not on the literary genres like his contemporaries did. Because of the appearance of his articles on folklore in a relatively later period than his contemporaries mentioned above, the next article (Part 2) will pay closer attention to his writings on folklore.

Three pioneers of Turkish folklore studies

Rıza Tevfik (Bölükbaşı) and the value of folk literature

In 1914, Rıza Tevfik (Bölükbaşı) published an article titled “Folklor-Folklore” in the newspaper Peyâm (Tevfik 1974a [1914a]). Rıza Tevfik was an Ottoman intellectual and politician who taught and published on literature and philosophy in key institutions. Based on his philological and cultural understanding, he translated “folklore” as hikmet-i avam, that is, folk philosophy, and commented that folklore was best represented in proverbs, since he perceived folk philosophy as a concept synonymous with folklore, expressing the genuine, pure, and wise thinking of the common voices. He was interested in the recent developments in Europe, and he sought to tell Turkish readers that folklore was a unique discipline different from literature and history, but closely related to them. In this article, Tevfik also tried to establish a systemized study of folklore genres. He divided literary materials into two major groups : edebiyat (literature) and şiir (poetry) (Tevfik 1982 [1909], 27–30). Tevfik argued that literature is anonymous, and it is the product of halk, although it may consist of different genres, including poetry such as tekke edebiyatı (mystical poetry), âşık edebiyatı (minstrel literature) or anonymous folk literature, meaning anonymous folk literature. [7] Despite the distinctions he made in his studies, Rıza Tevfik was not able to develop a distinctive method for the study of folklore materials.

Fig. 2.
Rıza Tevfik

Rıza Tevfik’s analogy between poetry and literature was the natural result of Turkish nationalism rather than a problem posed by the generic, emic differences. Poetry, signifying the Ottoman literature, also underscored the superficial elite culture, whereas he emphasized that “literature is the product of the real culture” (Tevfik 1982 [1909], 30). Tevfik stated that “Ottomans did not have any business other than being warriors. It would be a big mistake to look for the sources of the progression of literature in their creations” (Tevfik, 1914b, 32). Very similar to Ziya Gökalp’s distinction between the Turkish and the Ottoman, Rıza Tevfik understood literature as the pure and wise product of the vox populi. For Ottoman literary works, he concluded that “in Ottoman literature, the form and style, and thus the taste, is Iranian, and it is alien to the Turkish culture” (Tevfik 1914b, 74). Abandoning the works of court literature, he attempted to analyse the work of the popular voice by looking at its philosophical traits.

When we look at the history of folklore in Europe, we notice that Achim von Arnim (1781–1831), poet, novelist and an early Romantic philosopher, used folk as a sociological concept. Tevfik, similarly to Arnim’s understanding, highlighted that folk is the poet, peasant, and artisan (Cocchiara 1971, 205–206). Following the lead of Herder and the romantics, Tevfik contrasted folk poetry with the poetry of higher classes. In his article “Gizli Fakat Canlı, Ruhlu Bir Edebiyat” (A hidden but lively, spirited literature), he affirmed that “this literature is not poor and low as has been thought” (Tevfik 1974b [1914b, 73], my emphasis), aiming to exalt the value of folk literature.

Ziya Gökalp, forefather of Turkish nationalism

Gökalp also showed an interest in folklore as a natural result of his main field of sociology. Under Herder’s influence, Gökalp, too, saw the essence of the Turkish people in the values of das Volk. Ziya Gökalp, a leading figure in sociology, a mystic poet, and the forefather of Turkish nationalism, emphasized that the products of the ordinary people reveal the pure, good, natural side of the people. His main interest in folklore materials was to show that the national culture existed in the lives of common people.

Gökalp’s romantic nationalism embraced the idealization of ancient Turkic peoples from Central Asia, from an imaginary, perhaps also a nostalgic place of origin for his presumed basis of Turkishness, in line with an imaginary locale for “Turan”. As he wrote in his poem, Turan, published in 1911 in Genç Kalemler (Young pens) :

Vatan ne Türkiyedir Türklere, ne Türkistan
Vatan, büyük ve müebbet bir ülkedir : Turan

Homeland is neither Turkey for Turks, nor Turkistan
Homeland is a great and eternal country : Turan

Gökalp was not only refuting the notion of Ottomanness but also trying to elaborate on an imaginary land whereby he wanted to transmit the theory of cultural nationalism. He believed the study of symbolism in Turkish folklore materials suited this purpose best and he went on to examine the cultural history of Turkic peoples in detail (İnan 1965, 952). For Gökalp, this meant that anything Turkish was beautiful, good and useful, whereas the Ottoman was detrimental, broken and ugly (Gökalp 1920, 28). Elaborating on the parallels of this kind of nationalist thinking, other similarities can be found. For instance, Gökalp’s views are remarkably similar to Herder’s understanding of Genius, [8] in which all Germanic peoples are united on the basis of German culture within a shared national past (Cocchiara 1971 ; Kaplan 1987, 219). As Cocchiara put it, “Folk songs, fables, and legends ... are in certain respects the result of a nation’s beliefs, feelings, perceptions, and strengths ... Ancient Germanic mythology, to the degree that it still exists in tradition and in folksongs, is accepted with simplicity” (Cocchiara 1971, 176).

Gökalp defined culture as being centred upon the “collective representations” of a common language, religion, moral values, and aesthetics, stressing that for Turks there is only one nation : the Turkish. It should have a culture unique to itself (Gökalp 1968, 17). His definition of örf (culture) and hars (civilization) can be traced back to the German conservative reaction to the Enlightenment, where culture is the natural, inner force that can bind the nation together, and civilization is artificial and alien, and serves to bind disparate peoples (Akural 1979, 189–201).

Gökalp understood that conformity in Turkey meant one nation, one religion, and one language – that is, one örf. For this reason, he asserted that Turks should be unified into one culture. Gökalp’s örf can be likened to the concept of Mythus a mysterious sui generis force that binds Turkish people together. Sabri Akural directs our attention to the racist English-German historian Houston Steward Chamberlain’s main work Die Grundlagen des XIX Jahrhunderts (The foundations of the XIX century), where he introduces a concept called Mythus that binds German Volk together. According to him, German Kultur is shaped by the mysterious Mythus.

As for the Turkish case, in order to bind Turks into a unity, into a solid frame, the elite should abandon artificial values and go to the people, live with them, and listen to their poetry and music. These demands represent a utopia and were previously introduced by Johann Gottfried Herder who praised the Aryan origins of the Germans (Akural 1979, 226–229). Gökalp noted that each nation (kavm) has two civilizations : the official and the folk. Gökalp saw oral tradition simply as “folklore”.

Before Gökalp defined the idea of nation, he dwelled on his understanding of the concept of Turkism : “Turkism means to exalt the Turkish nation. An understanding of the nature of Turkism, therefore, requires, first of all, a definition of the group that we call a nation” (Gökalp 1968, 12). According to Gökalp, who himself was a Kurd from Diyarbakır, the definition of nation does not lie within racial or ethnic, realms. “A nation is not a racial or ethnic or geographical or political or volitional group but composed of individuals who share a common language, religion, morality and aesthetics, and who have received the same education”, wrote Gökalp (Gökalp 1968, 15). He saw Turks as one nation, possessing a culture of its own (Gökalp 1968, 16–17), which makes his claims on the link between ethnicity and nation-ness a little problematic. Nonetheless, for the concept of ethnic groups, Gökalp offers that all “real” societies are nations. Secondly it can be argued that his understanding of a nation was rooted in an evolutionist understanding, as he underlined that ethnic groups cannot suddenly become nations, for they must pass through the childhood stage (my emphasis) of social life as clans and then through “a long apprenticeship” stage as a community. Third, in his definition of nation and ethnicity, he even posited that for the ideals of national unity, ethnic groups who live in the same country should abandon their ethnic identity and work for the larger interest (Gökalp 1968, 28) of a nation, which shows an implied assimilationist view, one that might have captured his differentiation between ethnicity and nation-ness.

Fig.3.
Ziya Gökalp
Salt Research, Ali Saim Ülgen Archive. Open Access.

Besides writing ideological pieces on nation-ness at a time when the Ottoman Empire was dealing with the departures of its ethnic minorities, Gökalp returned to Turks, to the folk. For him, Turk meant nation and the rural people at the same time (Gökalp 1913, 107–108) – a combination of millet and halk. For him, folktales, anecdotes, and epics were filled with national spirit. He considered folk materials as those original and pure creations, which reveal the character of great Genius (Kaplan 1987, 219). Furthermore, he saw the folklore materials as sources of national pride and underscored that stories, anecdotes, songs, and proverbs which reveal an artistic character must be collected and offered to other nations, in order to show the richness of Turkish folklore (Gökalp 1968, 68–69).

According to Gökalp, the Turkish örf, which can be translated into English as customs and traditions, or better simply as culture, signified a transcendental essence which was inherited from ancient times and offered the key for the union of the Turks (Akural 1979, 188–189). He conceptualized mythical elements in the old life of the Turkic peoples, as he believed that örf could be passed down to the Turks today only through transmission of folklore materials. As Gökalp saw folklore as a strong tie that drew people together in his ideal of creating a Turkic union, he surveyed the belief systems, customs, literature, and lifestyles of the Turkish people (Gökalp 1968, 28). For him, folklore and ethnography were the means of discerning cultural traits of the different Turkic peoples, and he employed folklore as a means to achieve this “unity” (Dizdaroğlu 1973, 3–4). In order to reveal Turkishness in folklore materials, so he stated, originality was fundamental in the study of art and aesthetics (Berkes 1959, 262). For the same reason, in ethnographic fieldwork, he highlighted the necessity of accurately recording information on the storyteller and material. He argued that the best narrator should be chosen in order to collect the “best” version of tales. The origin of the tale and the narrator’s background should be noted carefully. Believing in authenticity and originality, he sought to obtain the best and least corrupted form of the folklore materials (Gökalp 1968, 69 ; Bayrı 1942, 178).

“Folktales cannot be recorded from any teller. Tellers have a unique way of narrating. Only the narrators, those who come from a narration tradition can tell the best folk tales. Storytellers have the same qualities as the epic tellers. However, epic tellers are usually men, whereas storytellers are women. Both of them have artistic ability. Every word that was produced by them has certain intentions. In the recording not a single word should be changed” (Bayrı 1942, 72).

Gökalp, in a letter of August 8, 1922 to Mehmed Fuad Köprülü (1890–1966), also underlined the importance of narrators in the tradition of tales, noting that he was not able to find a narrator good enough to write down the tale (Tansel 1965, xxvii).

Fuad Köprülü, folklore research as the highest service to the Turkish nation

With a nationalist ideology, Fuad Köprülü followed the same direction and approach as many young intellectuals of his generation and became one of the leading figures in cultural politics of the new republic. He shed light on the formative period in the study of literature, folklore, and physical anthropology. Trained in history, Köprülü nevertheless expressed the need for a serious study of literary works. He attempted to treat them using a systematic approach and in-depth analysis. Following Gökalp, Köprülü underscored that the folklore forms found in Anatolia today are the survivals of a Turkic heritage from Central Asia (Köprülü 1966). By tracing Turkish poetry to a Central Asian origin, Köprülü tried to prove that the national spirit of Turks in art and aesthetics derived from Central Asian folklore and folk literature (Köprülü 1987).

Köprülü examined the work of several European literary critics and historians, including French writers such as Hippolyte Taine (1828–1893), Gabriel Monod (1844–1912), and Gustave Lanson (1857–1934), and commented that the literary criticism carried out by these scholars cannot be directly applied to Turkish literature. He attested that Turkish literary works were framed in a unique social, historical, and cultural developments, scholars of Turkish literature should apply a distinct method of genre and classification. Although Köprülü emphasized that a different method should be applied to the Turkish literature, he was not able to develop a particular method for the study of folklore materials in Turkey. Pertev Naili Boratav (1907–1998), the founder of modern folklore studies in Turkey, in Folklor, Halk Edebiyatı ve Âşık Edebiyatı (Folklore, folk literature and minstrel literature), discussed Köprülü’s deficiency in method by asserting that the creations of the âşıks (folk poets), who represent personal creation, rather than the anonymous, should be studied separately, because minstrels’ poems fall into literary history, a subject where the main concern is originality and aesthetics. On the other hand, in folklore creations each of the variants signifies certain issues (Boratav 1982a, 28) such as the collective thought of a certain person or a group.

Also in terms of methodology, a problem with the literary historian’s perspective is the inability to distinguish anonymous works from âşık literature and tekke literature. The literary perspective requires finding the best version by an artist (Köprülü 1966, 39–40). From the literary point of view, the best version is the most aesthetically pleasing one for the critic, whereas folklore scholars analyse different versions in their particular environment. Köprülü discussed that literature can be used in order to understand a poet’s or a writer’s life, since society and societal values are expressed verbally. As a literary historian, Köprülü focused on the text and did not consider collected oral folklore variants. He argued that scholars needed to compare texts in order to find out about the creativity and personality of the author, and the facts pertaining to society. One cannot ignore the personality of the poet, in addition to the social, political, and historical background in which he created his literary work. However, Köprülü could not clarify why the best version should be used in folklore studies (Köprülü 1966, 42–47).

Köprülü also attempted to find a possible origin of the creation of poetry. He introduced a dichotomy between the sacred and the profane in the creation of Turkish literature, directing our attention to the social character of religion (Köprülü 1966, 52–56). Concentrating on the ideas of Durkheim, that religion is an eminently social entity consisting of collective representations (Durkheim 1915 [1912]), Köprülü suggested that in the creation of literature there is a certain continuum from the sacred to the profane. Relying upon examples from ancient Greek and Egyptian societies, he observed that in the primitive stage, religion fulfils human psychological and social needs. In primitive societies, the religious man and the poet were the same person : one who recited poems dedicated to a deceased person. Köprülü claimed that the origin of Anatolian poetry lay in Central Asia (Köprülü 1966, 57–67). To prove his theory, he analysed the etymology of words such as şaman, bakşı [9] and ozan. [10]He argued that they historically meant the “religious poet” performing religious rituals accompanied with musical instruments (Köprülü 1966, 65–73).

Also from a sociological perspective, Köprülü underscored that the oldest religious system of the Turks was magic (Köprülü 1966, 57). In that system, the religious man-poet would perform rituals, sing, and play an instrument. Köprülü recognized this as a transition from the sacred to the profane. In ritual, whether it is for mourning, hunting, or worship, there is a certain social religious context, in which the performer has a dual character. According to Köprülü, throughout time this division became more obvious, and distinct characters occurred : poets and religious figures developed separately. Köprülü published an article in İkdâm in 1914 titled “Yeni Bir İlim : Halkiyât” (A new science : folklore), and briefly informed the reader about the current state of folklore studies abroad (Sernikli 1975, 143). He explained the nature of folklore, its proximity to the romanticism movement, and the role of folklore in nationalism and colonialism ; and wrote that there were numerous journals and special publications addressing the issues of folklore theory and method. He also articulated an inferiority complex, emphasizing that Turkish scholars did not properly examine the literary works (Köprülü 1914). He emphasized that Turks who possess such “rich folklore” should immediately start doing their own research, rather than inviting foreign scholars. He underlined that, in order to be a nationalist, one needs to know his or her own culture, geography, and history. He pointed out that to participate in folklore research is the highest service a scholar could render to the Turkish nation.

Köprülü’s view illustrates the early twentieth-century Turkish scholar’s main concern, which was to preserve the culture of the folk, the main agent in preserving and spreading the national character and identity. The fact remains that, from a folkloristic point of view, all of the studies derived from an indulgent Romanticism emphasized concern in folk culture and tradition. His attitude influenced the emergence of folklore scholarship in Turkey and determined the study of folklore in its formative years. Later, folklorists were able to carry the study of folklore to a more scholarly level in several institutions and organizations but always framed with nationalism.

The development of folklore and the changing uses of folk can be illustrated by an assertion voiced by İlhan Başgöz, underlining the indissoluble relation between folk genres and folk attributes :

“… each folklore genre had a special value for the nation : proverbs reflected the high morals and philosophy of the Turkish ancestors, epics exemplified Turkish heroism, riddles demonstrated the cleverness and finesse of the Turkish mind, folk poetry revealed the natural sentiments of the people ; in sum, folklore as a whole expressed the national spirit which had been undermined for centuries.” (Başgöz 1972, 171)

A Debate over Nomenclature : halkiyât, hikmet-i avam, folklor

In the academic parlance, sociologist Ziya Gökalp tried to formulate a concept of folk and translated “folklore” into its Arabic counterpart as halkiyât, which can be translated to English as “knowledge of people”, which can be compared to the Western term folklore. As evoked earlier and interestingly enough, neither halkiyât nor folklor is Turkish, although both terms underline the bodies of knowledge belonging to a certain group of people – halk or the folk.

Probably Gökalp was among the first thinkers on classifying folklore genres in Turkey. He divided folklore into eight components : folk institutions, folk philosophy, folk morals, folk law, folk aesthetics, folk language, folk economics, and ethnography. His subdivisions can be also identified as sub-fields of culture studies not just folklore studies. He tried to set up a link between the Arabic term hars to refer to culture, as he saw it as embracing folklore. Although he favoured the term halkiyât, eventually, the term was abandoned because of its Arabic roots in general and folklor became widely used. This short debate over nomenclature, which took place through a series of articles around the 1910s, shows that defining and naming the discipline was bound with genre ; it oscillated between hikmet-i avam (folk wisdom) as part of an interest in proverbs (Tevfik 1914, 20), Gökalp’s usage of halkiyât or harsiyât was informed by a sociological understanding of folklore as a cultural and artistic repertoire, and Köprülü’s aversion to the anglophone usage of the term folk-lore implied folk literature (Köprülü 1914, 14). One thing is clear from the approaches of these personages is that their focus has been the verbal forms, not other intangible or material forms. Perhaps an exception was Selim Sırrı (Tarcan) (1874-1957), who mainly worked on folk dances, namely zeybek, whose approach to folklore will be considered in the next section.

Now, going back to the European counterparts, the meanings and usages of Turkish halk, the folk, or das Volk should be compared. Particularly in eighteenth-century Germany, the Volk was defined as the essential agent of folklore. German scholars were essentially making the folk the basis of what is called folklore and explicitly signifying the folk as a class- and nation-based social entity. The term folk was used in a hyphenated version as Folk-Lore, coined in 1846 by William Thoms in a publication in Athenæum, where he offered a genre-based definition of folk-lore as he defined the term as “the manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, and etc…” For Thoms, it was a “good Saxon compound” – as opposed to the implied Germanic (and Aryan) character of all terms that contained Volk, such as the Volksglaube (folk-belief) and Volkslied (folk-song) – and characterized a field known as “popular antiquities, or popular literature” (Thoms 1846, 11). As Roger Abrahams underlines, the shift from “popular antiquities” to “folk-lore” also helped Thoms to align British national literature with other national literature (Abrahams 1993, 9). Despite contrasting origins of vocabularies, Thoms’ definition of folklore was clearly influenced by Jacob Grimm’s (1785–1863) Deutsche Mythologie (German mythology) (1835). According to Alan Dundes, who also wrote about the term folk and its significance in folklore studies, terms such as Volkslied (folk song), Volksseele (folk soul) and Volksglaube (folk belief) were employed long before the term folklore was coined (Dundes 1965, 5).

A parallel to the tension between the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon terminology observed in the European context can be found in Turkey. What is at stake here is not, of course, the tension between German and English versions, but the tension between Anglo-Saxon terminology against the “Turkish” one. Folklore signified two things at the same time, the field of study and the object of this field of study. Here we see a negotiation between certain Turkish scholars in the discussion of a field called folklore. In these years, several terms were used : hikmet-i avam, which brought Arabic compounds, conveyed the meaning of folklore in generic forms, also giving a vision of the folk as a group of people who belonged to the lower societal strata. The use of hikmet-i avam for folklore, for instance, in Rıza Tevfik’s writings can be explained by way of his choice on the genre – the proverbs, where he thought that the philosophy of halk could be best observed.

On the other hand, folklor was a direct import from English and often was seen as folk-lor in print. Köprülü’s use of halkiyât was clear in the title of his article, as he was both referring to and introducing “a new science”, a field of study, as he conveyed in the term halkiyât, which brought the Arabic compound halk and the suffix -iyât. Alternatively, Gökalp’s use of the term halkiyât for folklore pointed to a field, which he included under the umbrella of sociology as he also used the term harsiyat – culture, classifying folklore as a part of cultural sciences, or culture studies. The latter term, harsıyât brought the term ethnie next to the suffix -iyât and implied the notion of “ethnology”.

For Gökalp, both folk and folklore were living, and even performed entities, as he was very much interested in collecting the “best” version of folktales. While Rıza Tevfik’s interest can be linked to his expertise in philosohpy, he tried to find the wisdom of halk in folklore materials, whereas Köprülü was interested in the assumed continuum halk – from Central Asia to Anatolia. In all cases, the basis – halk – was positioned between nation and people. As we have seen in detail, in the Ottoman Empire, the term millet represented a religious community, not the Turkish people – not the Turkish halk. With respect to the nation-state ideology the term halk (people) was brought as the core of the millet, the nation, in the modern usage. In short, halk meant the everyday people and their language, taking its roots in the nationalist discourse and referring to the Turkish population of the Turkish land. Interestingly, neither folk nor halk was Turkish, yet halk was a more familiar term used in Turkish due to the long-standing Arabic influence on Turkish.

In their respective works, the above-mentioned scholars tried to explain what folklore was – an emerging field within the context of politics. They drew comparisons between folklore and other disciplines such as literature, and underlined the newfound field’s importance in state politics. All these terms were used as a part of the discourse on halk and signified an orientation towards a field of academic knowledge but one that was indecisive about linguistic sources and usages.

While the use of terminology and their referents remains as a field still open for further exploration, one should underline that there have been other terms used : halk bilgisi (knowledge of folk), which referred both to the field and the knowledge about the folk ; halk bilimi (folklore), referring to the study of the field ; halk kültürü (folk culture). With the westernization processes of the Turkish Republic, the term folklor gained traction (see Ekici 2000) and was preferred over the Arabic halkiyât. These terms referred to both the field of study and the object of the field of study. But again, the issue of which terminology to use takes us back to the discussion on westernization versus Turkification, which was the core of the identity debates since the nineteenth century that accelerated in the following decades intensively, when the term folkör was used to refer to folk-dances, not to a discipline, which created confusions in the eyes of lay people at times.

Institutional Beginnings

Starting with the 1910s, a movement called halka doğru (towards people) emerged among a group of Turkish nationalists, revealing one further usage of the term halk. The Halka Doğru Association was founded on September 6, 1911, where the cultural elite aimed at being useful to the people and eliminating the disconnection between intellectuals and everyday people. Here halk was imagined as country people, as the perspective of the “toward people” movement brought a shift in focus from romantic nationalism, which determined the scholarly interest in folklore in the Ottoman Empire, to a conception with class awareness : halk was used expansively – spanning from the “lower strata” to the labourers, peasants, tradesmen and workers. The movement was inspired by “Narodnism” that developed in the second half of the nineteenth century Russia and emphasized an intellectual aspect of populism (Toprak 1992). The Association published the journals Halka Doğru through which they propagated their vision of halk.

To emphasize the transnational character of this movement, it is important to underline that of the six founding members, Yusuf Akçura, Ahmet Ağaoğlu, and Hüseyinzade Ali, had Russian origins. Among the contributors, there were Fuat Köprülü and Ziya Gökalp and other Turkist nationalist intelligentsia. Halka Doğru was a semi-official publication of the Committee of Union and Progress (İttihat ve Terakki Partisi) and tried to raise public awareness about the policies of the Committee and to spread these policies to the people.

The editorial line of Halka Doğru can be summarized as expressing the problems and troubles of the artisans, peasants and workers, i.e., the people ; offering solutions to these problems ; raising public awareness on all issues ; defending their rights and interests and always taking a stance in favour of these groups. In line with this understanding, the journal used an easy-to-understand language and style.

In a similar vein, the Türk Yurdu Cemiyeti (Turkish Motherland Association), founded in 1911 on the premises of the Türk Derneği (Turkish Association) that was established in 1908, aimed to facilitate the unity of all Turks. Its journal Türk Yurdu – one of the long-lived nationalist journals in the country – has been a central publication venue for spreading the idea of the unity of Turks, including those who reside in Central Asia and Russia. It has a publication history in seven periods, and the first period (1911–1918) covers 161 issues on different aspects of Turkish culture. According to the self-definition of the journal, it was purely “cultural” and wanted to gather ethnographic evidence on all ethnic groups such as Armenians, Turks, Greeks and Jews in Turkey (Arai 1992). In comparing these two journals, it becomes obvious that the motivations were similar but their styles were different : while Türk Yurdu was more theoretical and aimed at reaching out to intellectuals, Halka Doğru followed a line of publications that aimed directly at people and discussed practical problems of peasantry. Here, the focus was no longer who the folk “were” but shifted to what the folk “had”. The major publications incorporating folklore besides were Türk Yurdu was Milli Tetebbular Mecmuası (Journal of national Research). It was established by the Ministry of Education and published five volumes in 1915 on Turkish language, culture, and folklore, but was discontinued afterwards.

Türk Ocakları (Turkish Hearths), an association founded in 1912 in Istanbul, was centred around the idea of Turkism. Because most of its members were also active at the Türk Yurdu Cemiyeti, the journal of the association, it was also taken over by the Turkish Hearths. The Türk Ocakları became the centres of nationalism, promoted Turkish culture widely and maintained a decisive role during the period of 1912–1931.While in their first years, the Turkish Hearths promoted a culture-oriented nationalist vision, later they steered towards Turanism (Üstel 2004), and ended up with a closure in 1931 and the opening of Halk Evleri (People’s Houses) in 1932. The research on language, folklore and culture became the means of a national project, which found their roots in these organizations.

In addition to the learned societies and their publication channels on folklore research, a folklore and ethnography chair was established in 1914 at the Dârülfünûn, where Gyula Mészáros (1883–1957), a Hungarian ethnographer, orientalist and Turkologist, taught between 1915 and 1918. Mészáros later become a key figure in the establishment of the Ethnography Museum (Etnografi Müzesi) in Ankara. In the establishment of a folklore and ethnography chair in Istanbul as well as the Ethnography Museum in Ankara, the Hungarian Turanist transnational entanglements should be considered as key motivation. Important in this endeavour was also Hamid Zübeyr Koşay (1897-1980), an archaeologist by training who worked in several cultural activities in the new republic, among others, at the founding of the Bureau of Culture (Hars dairesi) and functioning as the director of Ethnography Museum, as mentioned above. Hamid Zübeyr, originally a Bashkir and Tatar, received the support of the political and intellectuals networks of the time and was sent to Turkey. Gyula Mészáros had studied with Ármin Vámbery (1832-1913), a Hungarian Turanist who wanted to find out the Asian origins of Hungarians, who also went to Istanbul and became the head of the Hungarian Language and Literature Department. Most Hungarian professors became interested in Turkish folklore, literature, and ethnography because of their Turanist ideals, which spoke to the ideals of the Turanists in Turkey. Mészáros kept warm relations with the Turkish nationalists of that time, forming sympathetic ideologies towards Turanism. As a pseudo-historical ideology, it assumed a common origin of all Turkic peoples, namely, Finno-Ugrians, Mongols and Manchu-Tungus ; it affected Turkish nationalists at the beginning of the nineteenth century and was prominent among certain Turkologists, to whom Mészáros also belonged (Namal 2014). With his active involvement in the folklore scene in Turkey, Mészáros also contributed to some of the learned society activities and published a guideline for fieldwork collections (Çobanoğlu 2021).

Outside the Boundaries of the Ottoman-Turkish Nation : Folklore of the Kurdish, Greek and Armenian peoples

As this article nears a conclusion, it might be informative to briefly introduce the question about folklore activities regarding “other” folk, besides those focused on by the Ottoman-Turkish intelligentsia at a time when unrest and war determined the era and when the Turkish national identity was about to crystalize. This is not a topic taken up by folklorists very often, and if at all, it is in recent decades that one can find emergent work within a diverse group of folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and other scholars doing ethnographic work on the Armenian, Greek, and Kurdish people’s folklore. To say the least, these groups were marginalized in the cultural scene in the early years of the twentieth century.

Kurdologist Christine Allison, in her study on Kurdish folklore in the Ottoman Era, underlined that “Herder’s heritage, mediated from Europe into the late Ottoman Empire and its successor states, and through Russia into the nationalities policy of the Soviet Union, remains palpable in Kurdish talk about folklore today” (Allison 2018, 116). Her words echo the fact that when the Ottoman Turkish intellectuals collected and published different folklore genres, such as proverbs and folktales, Kurdish intellectuals, sometimes in cooperation with European orientalists, also published on different genres in Kurdish folklore – these endeavours were all motivated by, to borrow Allison’s term “Herder’s heritage” of romantic nationalism, causing intellectuals to search for material to represent the nation. For instance, Recueil des notices et récits de la littérature et des tribus du Kourdistan (Collection of notices and stories from the literature and tribes of Kurdistan, 1860) presented insights into Kurmanji oral and literary tradition. It was the result of cooperation between Polish orientalist August Kościesza-Żaba and Mela Mehmûdê Bayazidî, a Kurdish scholar who introduced the prose in Kurdish (Bocheńska and Ghaderi 2023). Importantly, however, as Michiel Leezenberg emphasized, Bayazidî did not distinguish the genre of folktale from ordinary tale (2020). Furthermore, the Armenian intellectual, Khachatur Abovian (1809–48) was another key figure who collected Kurdish folklore. 

The early Kurdish nationalists were members of the Ottoman upper classes, as influenced as their Turkish counterparts by prevailing European and Slavic ideas. Some of them had studied in Germany. As early as November 1918, a series of articles was published on Kurdish proverbs in Jîn (Life), a Kurdish-Ottoman journal that began publication after the end of World War I (Klein 2000, 7). It is also interesting that proverbs are among the first genres that the Kurdish intellectuals, like their Turkish counterparts, focused on. Folktales also had importance. Allison also mentions that Kurdish nationalists, such as Kemal Fevzi, complained in the Kurdish review Jîn in 1919 that Gökalp had modified Kurdish tales to make them fit Turkish models (Allison 2018, 116). In a similar vein, Kurdish nationalists became more vocal and Herder’s concept of folk knowledge also became more prevalent, as the pages of the magazine Jîn (1919) reveal that Kurdish folklore was equated to valuable ancient knowledge of the Kurds, thus claiming authenticity and traditionality at the same time.

As for Armenian folklore activities, Anne M. Avakian notes that because Armenian periodicals in the second part of the nineteenth century covered a variety of subjects, they also included some articles on folklore, as well as presenting discussions on nationalism. . However, the Ottoman authorities implemented stringent censorship, leading to increasingly repressive measures that culminated in the massacre of Armenians between 1894 and 1896. Subsequently, the Adana massacre of 1909 was followed by the genocide against the Armenians in 1915. This marked the conclusion of the ongoing Armenian culture and folklore in the regions of Turkey that were once inhabited by Armenians (Avakian 1992, xvi).

Considering the hardships of the non-Turkish groups in the Ottoman Empire in this period, it would not be wrong to say that activities on collecting and writing about Armenian folklore developed also as a transnational activity, much like its Turkish and Kurdish counterparts, and reached Europe. This is because several Armenian scholars had left Anatolia for Transcaucasia, Tbilisi and Yerevan. In this respect, one should remember the sad story of Soghomon Soghomonian, who was known as Komitas Vardapet (1869–1935), a priest and musicologist. Born in the town of Kütahya in western Anatolia, Komitas became an orphan when he was a small child and received training as a cantor in Ēǰmiacin, in the Russian Empire at that time (Britannica 2023). In 1910, Komitas departed Ēǰmiacin for Istanbul, emerging as a prominent figure in the cultural and intellectual scene of the imperial capital. His performances of polyphonically arranged folk songs and sacred music sparked discussions in the Armenian press. While many praised his efforts to establish a national musical tradition, some clergy members objected to his presentation of sacred music in concert settings and his heavy involvement in secular public life. In 1896, he came to Berlin, immersing himself in the study of music theory and composition while becoming a founding member of the Internationale Musikgesellschaft. Komitas, maintaining his religious vows, lectured widely and showcased his musical talents, publishing scholarly articles in Armenian, German, and French (Olley 2019).

During in his main period of work (1899–1910), Komitas spent summers in the Armenian countryside, developing a unique relationship with villagers. He thus took the scholarly task of transcribing and preserving rural music. Komitas’ portrayal of Armenian music as a reflection of the people’s soul, which was connected to the natural landscape, is a part of the relation of folklore to romanticism nationalism. He insisted that Armenian sacred music was “essentially identical to, and ultimately derived from, the music of the ‘folk’ žołovurd” (Olley 2019, 556). Similarly, Melissa Bilal notes that the initial endeavours of Armenian intellectuals to record folk songs or rural traditions played a crucial role in establishing links between the Armenian populace and their “native” territory (Bilal 2013, 50–94). In 1915 Komitas was arrested and deported to a prison camp in April 1915 by the Ottoman government. However, the Turkish nationalist poet Mehmet Emin Yurdakul, the writer and feminist Halide Edip (Adıvar) (1884-1964) and U.S. ambassador Henry Morgenthau intervened with the government. With special orders from Talat Pasha, Komitas was dispatched back to the capital alongside eight other Armenians who had been deported. These horrible events left unbearable scars on Komitas, causing him to spend his life in mental hospitals in Istanbul and Paris, where he died in 1935.

As for Greek folklore, one should remember that the cosmopolitan Ottoman cities brought different ethnic groups into the cultural scene. Ethnomusicologist Evangelia Chaldæaki notes that musical collections were published by Greek Orthodox Greek Christians of the Ottoman Empire (Rums), during its late era, namely from the middle of the nineteenth century and afterwards. Turkish folksong notations as well as those of Greek folk music were notated and published in several journals in Istanbul (Chaldæaki 2023). [11]

Developments in the folklore of different ethnic groups in the Ottoman Empire and early Turkish Republic deserves a separate study that can incorporate the collaborations with Orientalists and amateur folklorists. The lack of references to Jews in this article should not be taken as an omission, since (Sephardic) Jews, who were expelled from Spain in 1492, were welcomed by the Ottoman Empire and “in contrast to […] Greeks and Armenians, they were known for their political loyalty to the Ottoman Empire and did not develop a separatist ideology” (Weiker 1999, 8). What remains important for the most part is that agency of the non-Muslims such as the Greeks and the Armenians as well as Kurds were laid outside the boundaries of the Ottoman-Turkish nation when the notions of “folk” were being established in Turkey. This took place at the complicated historical context of the period, with forced population movements as a result of the wars and the Armenian genocide, which inevitably changed the ethnic make-up of Turkey, making it de facto more “Turkish”, more “pure”. 

Conclusion

As can be seen from this evaluation of folklore activities from the Ottoman-Turkish context to the modern Turkish Republic, halk embodied several characteristics and was used for many purposes. To begin with, as a first form of discourse, it meant ordinary, or everyday people, who were not a part of the palace culture, although they were called Ottoman at times. Secondly, with the rise of Turkish nationalism, the use of halk had one key referent – the Turk and Turkish. In this usage, halk also referred to the ordinary people and the nation which embraced unity. The Turk was the undermined actor in the Ottoman Empire. In this sense, turning to the Turk was seen as an elixir vitae to save an empire in decline, whose other ethno-religious populations had already started leaving the empire. The term Turk was very politically charged, especially since a certain fraction of Turkish nationalism revealed that it also incorporated Turanist views, which connected the Turkish population of Anatolia to the imagined Central Asian geography. Third, halk also referred to the villagers – köylü, the uneducated people, or the avam. This notion of halk was rooted in admiration and love, as the romantic nationalism implied. Furthermore, it would be perhaps wiser to identify this understanding next to the idea of “noble savage”, who was nonetheless, taken as people who needed to be “civilized”.

As we came to acknowledge by now that nationalist ideologies are simultaneously inclusive and exclusive, and when these ideologies meet romantic ideals of folklore, we notice that they are somehow marked by the notions of “purity”, “authenticity” and “true character” of an imagined nation. The brief examples from Armenian, Kurdish, and Greek folklore activities can illustrate this point. Clearly, the notion of halk, the folk in Turkish did not include the non-Muslim groups as well as Kurds in the Ottoman Empire. Relatedly, these groups also developed their own attempts to distinguish their stories, lullabies, and proverbs to distinguish themselves from the other groups.

The late Ottoman period was a period of wars, re-settlements, regime changes, and folklore serving the Turkish nation-building process. In the following decades, the state discourse took different stances regarding what to include in definition of millet in Turkey – oscillating between denial and assimilation policies. This is particularly important when one considers the Kurdish, Alevi, Armenian, Assyrian, Greek and Orthodox Christians in the folklore research in Turkey. The next decades became even more radicalized, as eugenics policies in Turkey went through an authoritarian modernization process and racial knowledge determined the politics and disciplinary knowledge, particularly in physical anthropology (Birkalan-Gedik, forthcoming, 2024a, b), bringing the “biological” and “cultural” concepts of nation together.

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[1The literary meaning of the word is rooted in Arabic, meaning re-organization, and re-arrangement. The Tanzimat Era marks a crucial epoch in the history of Turkey. The Ottoman Empire had long been suffering from an inadequacy, a weakness in its military organization. Observing that the current system of the government was ineffective, the level of science and technology was low, and the economy was failing, the Ottomans sought cures from the West. The Tanzimat reforms, perceived to be the elixir vitae to cure the Ottoman Empire, appeared in several aspects of society, mainly in education, centralization of the government and the abolition of the feudal system (including taxes, land ownership etc.).

[2Using simple Turkish was a major concern of several poets of the Ottoman Empire at different historical moments. For instance, several poets of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century turned to, what they identified as real sources of literature and used simple Turkish. My aim here is not to discuss the intellectual attempts to purify Ottoman literature. However, I find the Türk-î Basit (simple Turkish) movement of the late fifteenth century a very important reaction against the dominance of Arabic and Persian vocabulary in Turkish literature akin to the reactions to the foreign elements in Turkish literature in the last years of the Ottoman Empire.

[3In the Ottoman sense, even though the term Western (batılı) was employed to describe the “more advanced” cultures, it mainly referred to the French culture. Especially in the late nineteenth century, there was a tremendous influence of the French on the issues of language, culture, and education of the empire.

[4In the Ottoman Empire, several literature genres emerged. The court literature, for example, is the product of the elite, the Ottoman court. To discern it from folk poetry, often it was referred as the elite literature. Folk poetry, on the other hand, embraces several other sub-genres including âşık literature tekke literature, and anonymous folk literature.

[5The Young Turks emerged prior to the 1908, as an opposition movement against the authoritative power of Sultan Abdulhamid II, and subsequently governed the Ottoman Empire between 1908 and 1918. In fact, the moniker “Young Turks” was used by Europeans, and elided the true diversity of opposition to Abdulhamid, which included Jews, Albanians, Arabs, and in its early period, Greeks and Armenians.

[6For a detailed discission and analysis, see Taner Akçam. 2004. From Empire to Republic : Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide. London : Zed Books. ; Erik Jan Zürcher. The Young Turk Legacy and Nation Building : From the Ottoman Empire to Ataturk’s Turkey. London : I.B. Tauris.

[7Köprülü uses the terms âşık for saz şairleri (minstrels). The style of an âşık refers to the style of a trained poet, who sings and recites poetry at the same time. Köprülü posits that the character of an ozan, epic teller, underwent some social changes and the epic teller of the Central Asia became the troubadour in Anatolia. Interesting in his analysis is that, although there are very similar figures in Kurdish and Armenian folk traditions in Anatolia analogous to âşık – a singer-poet, composing folk sings and sings hikâye, prose-narratives – known as dengbej in Kurdish and ashug in Armenian (աշուղ), Köprülü seems to locate the agency of âşık solely to the Turkish folk, without any mention of intercultural exchange. This point is extremely important, especially when one thinks about the fact that the poet singers often wandered and performed their art to a diverse audience in Anatolia.

[8Genius is an impersonal intelligence, formulated by Friedreich K. von Savigny (1779–1861), a German jurist. He analyzed Roman law and found traditional principles that govern the modern norms and suggested that a work of art, like a traditional norm of law, is an anonymous product of the common voices, the Genius. The idea of Genius, which von Savigny drew from Roman law, guided Herder’s understanding of the Volk, who suggested that Genius is the backbone of social integrity.

[9Köprülü notes that we come across the word bakşı and its variants starting from the Old Uighur texts. He examines the etymology of the word in diverse cultures and asserts a common root which describes the person a clergyman in Buddhism. From the fourteenth century onwards, the term bakşı was used among the Mongol Turks, which survived till today as compiler and writer. Köprülü has a detailed discussion on the origin of the word. (Fuad Köprülü, ibid).

[10According to Köprülü ozan is one of the oldest words of the Oghuz Turks. For example, in Kitab-ı DedemKorkut Ala Lisan-ı Tâife-i Oğuzhân (The book of Dede Korkut), an epic with twelve episodes which come originally from oral literature of the Oghuz peoples (in Anatolia Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan) and was transcribed in the fourteenth–fifteenth centuries, describes ozan as a wandering epic singer who recites poetry accompanied by the traditional instrument, kopuz.