Karagöz Shadow Theatre

Karagöz Shadow Theatre is one of the most crucial theatre genres in the Traditional Turkish Theatre, and it is primarily based on imitation and dialogues. Karagöz Shadow Theatre has many features and characters, the most important characters being Karagöz and Hacivat, who gave the name of this theatre variety the name. 

It would be fair to say that Karagöz Shadow Theatre is a great example where you can observe the society’s life of the Ottoman Empire on the scene. To have a deeper understanding of this game, just keep reading this article.

What is Karagöz Shadow Theatre?

This shadow theatre is based on a theme between two characters, Karagöz and Hacivat. The theatre primarily continues with verbal descriptions, and it is two-dimensional. To explain roughly, Karagöz is a type who is not educated but intelligent, any random member of the Ottoman Empire society, and witty. In contrast, Hacivat is relatively educated and loves to show off with his knowledge. 

The main thing going on in the play is the contradictions between Hacivat and Karagöz. Those contradictions are, of course, rising from the knowledge gap between Hacivat and Karagöz. Still, somehow Karagöz always finds a way to outsmart Hacivat with his wittiness as a response to Hacivat trying to control and influence him. But of course, this never happens. 

All the other characters in the theater show up just to have a conversation with Karagöz and Hacivat. Those side characters represent all the other various ethnicities living in the Ottoman Empire, with stereotypical characteristics assigned to them.

Karagöz Shadow Theatre is especially popular to be played in Ramadan month in Turkey. However, other countries with Karagöz Shadow Theatre tradition have different “schedules.” For example, in Greece, Karagöz Shadow Theatre is famous all year long, and still, it can be observed on the television or radio. 

History of Karagöz Shadow Theatre

Unfortunately, there is no specific evidence about the history and origin of Karagöz Shadow Theatre in terms of when it became a part of the Ottoman Culture. But of course, there are different opinions about the history and origin of Karagöz Shadow Theatre, and even concerns about if Karagöz and Hacivat were real persons or if they were just fictional characters.

Karagöz Shadow Theatre and Egypt

According to the first opinion about the history of Karagöz Shadow Theatre, the technique used in this theatre was brought from Egypt to the Ottoman Empire. This happened when Selim I. conquered Egypt and came back to Anatolia. Selim I. loved a theatre play that he watched there and brought the artist to Istanbul. The artists that Selim I. brought to Istanbul educated other actors and actresses, and the tradition of Karagöz Shadow Theatre begun like this. 

However, the technique brought from Egypt was nothing like the Karagöz Shadow Theatre that we know today. The technique in which shadow behind a curtain indeed was taken from Egypt, but this technique in Egypt was used with many irrelevant scenes with no context, and the characters were more profound and not based on stereotypes. At the first time when the technique was first brought, the Ottoman Empire artists created plays like that as well. This procedure left itself to Turkish creativity through time, and the technique created itself a place on the culture. As it got its final form with all those colorful costumes, types and characters, and the theme, it got spread to other areas under the influence of the Ottoman Empire, including Egypt. 

In other words, this shadow theatre technique found a place in the Turkish culture, and the theme changed, then it traveled back to its motherland with the newest form of it. Many travelers from the 19th century confirm this, as they mention the shadow theatre in Egypt as “Karagöz Shadow Theatre,” and they highlight that it is a Turkish tradition.

Other Opinions about Karagöz Shadow Theatre

Another opinion about Karagöz Shadow Theatre is that it was brought to the Ottoman Empire by Jewish individuals from Spain and Portugal. There are also opinions about the Karagöz Shadow Theatre being brought to the Ottoman Empire from India and Javan Islands by Gypsies. This opinion is typically supported by the dates of Gypsies migrating to Anatolia and the Karagöz Shadow Theatre being introduced to the Ottoman Empire since both events occurred at close dates.

According to another opinion, Karagöz Shadow Theatre was first introduced to Mongols by the Chinese, and Turks brought this culture to Anatolia while they are migrating there. Indeed, the puppet theatre played in Middle Asia named “Çadır Hayal” (means “Dream Tent”), or “Kolçorak” is pretty similar to Karagöz Shadow Theatre.

Were Karagöz and Hacivat Real Persons?

Whether Karagöz and Hacivat were real persons or if they are fictional characters is a controversial issue even today. However, there is not really supporting evidence about them being real individuals, and all the stories cannot go beyond being hearsay.

It has been said that Karagöz and Hacivat were not fictional characters, but they were real individuals who worked in the construction of the Grand Mosque of Bursa. Their name was “Kambur Bali Çelebi (Karagöz),” and “Halil Hacı İvaz (Hacivat).” According to this story, they were constantly debating about an irrelevant issue and making everyone distracted as their discussions were quite funny. As these debates started to be an issue since the construction was getting slower, Orhan Ghazi decided to control the situation.

After this point of the story, the situation branches out in two different ways. In one of the ways, Orhan Ghazi decided them to be executed, and he regrets his decision. To commemorate them, he built this shadow theatre system and made others play with puppets.

On the other version, Orhan Ghazi does not execute them but exiled them and regretted them. He assigned people to find where Karagöz and Hacivat went, but no one could find them, and the situation continues as it is in the first version.

There are some pieces of information in history that would prove that this story is untrue. First, the Grand Mosque of Bursa was not constructed in Orhan Ghazi’s period, but it was built in the Bayezid I.’s period. Second, the oldest document about Karagöz goes back to the late 16th century, which is long after this story takes place.

Characters in Karagöz Shadow Theatre

One of the most essential features of the Karagöz Shadow Theatre is the characters in the play. Actually, the other “characters” in the Karagöz Shadow Theatre are not characters with multiple sides of their personality. Instead, they represent one type with other sides overlooked. 

Those characters in the Karagöz Shadow Theatre did not suddenly include the theatre, but they find themselves at the theatre through time. During the Abdulhamid II.’s period, all theatres in the Ottoman Empire were censored to avoid any political issues. Before this, Traditional Turkish Theatre was based on improvisation and comedy, which makes it inevitable to mention some political situations, and this tradition had to be abandoned.

However, Karagöz Shadow Theatre was still somehow based on improvisation. The crucial part here is that all the characters are based on certain stereotypes, and one should only acknowledge those stereotypes to be able to perform improvisation in the Karagöz Shadow Theatre.

The characters in Karagöz Shadow Theatre are stereotypical representations of the ethnic, religious, and racial minorities of the Ottoman Empire. Researchers who studied Karagöz Shadow Theatre divided the characters of Karagöz Shadow Game classified the characters under sections. The following are some of the most important typecasting of the Karagöz Shadow Theatre.

Karagöz

Karagöz is one of the two main characters of the Karagöz Shadow Theatre, characterized by being ignorant, uneducated, and jobless. He always wears a hat to his bold head. Karagöz makes a living out of the temporary jobs that Hacivat finds for him. 

He represents a random individual of the society, who talks without thinking, expresses himself as he wants. He is brave and has to deal with many inconvenient situations due to this. He does not hesitate to say what he thinks, says everything in an inappropriate place, likes to deceive people, and talks obscene.

Hacivat

The other main character of the Karagöz Shadow Theatre is Hacivat. He can be discriminated from Karagöz with his long beard that grows up like a hook. He is from the relatively educated social class of the society and loves to show off his little information about everything. He is stable and knows how to behave appropriately in different situations, and sometimes acts differently according to the context to get out of trouble. His language is as fancy as possible, in a way that normal people would have trouble understanding. Karagöz mostly misunderstands Hacivat due to his language, or he acts like he does not understand. The central theme of the theatre is based on those misunderstandings between Karagöz and Hacivat.

Çelebi

The main features of the Çelebi typecasting are the perfect Istanbul language and being rich. In some plays, he can be a child of a wealthy family, some plays, and he is the one that is rich who is self-indulgent and flirtatious. In some games, he is just a nice rich person. He loves poetry.

Tiryaki 

Tiryaki is the opium addict of the Karagöz Shadow Theatre. He is always jobless and lazy. 

Zenne

Zenne is the general name for all the women typecasting in Karagöz Shadow Theatre. They typically do not speak too much, and they have a lesser presentation on the Karagöz Shadow Theatre. If the Zenne of the play is Karagöz’s wife, then she never shows herself; only her voice can be heard.

Beberuhi

Beberuhi is a typecasting characterized by having a dull mind even though he is old enough to be able to understand certain things. He is somewhat stupid and typically makes trouble. He is loud and cries often.

Tuzsuz Deli Bekir

Tuzsuz Deli Bekir is a rowdy character who bullies everyone. He trusts his physical strength more than anything and threatens everyone around him. He can and will fight everyone he wants to.

Zeybek

Zeybek is the public hero who is ready to fight against any injustice. He is typically present in the game whenever any other character finds themselves in an injustice against bandits.

Cazu

Cazu is the general name of the typecasting who has supernatural talents. A cazu can fly, or shapeshift, or change the appearance of others. They are typically described on a cube or dragon and have a whip on their hand, which has the shape of a snake. 

Other Karagöz Shadow Theatre Type castings

There are many other characters in the Karagöz Shadow Theatre to represent the significant percentage of the Ottoman Empire society. All other characters are based on stereotypes about their social class, ethnicity, race, or other things. For example, there are Armenian, Albanian, Circassian, Jew, and many other types in the theatre. 

Tools and Equipment of Karagöz Shadow Theatre

Even though Karagöz Shadow Theatre looks very simple and easy to perform, there are many tools and equipment used in the theatre to perform. The following are tools, equipment techniques used in and everything related to the Karagöz Shadow Theatre.

Hayali

Hayali is the name of the person who performs the Karagöz Shadow Theatre. Hayali performs the theatre all by himself or herself, and he/she is responsible for the scene. They sing songs, imitate sounds, and perform all the other types of castings with features of them. Some songs used in the Karagöz Shadow Theatre are associated with certain characters, meaning that once the Hayali starts to sing a specific song, the audience automatically knows which character is about to come. One can become a Hayali after being an assistant to another Hayali.

Yardak

Yardak is the name of the assistant or helper of the Hayali. In order to be a Hayali, one must be a Yardak first. The primary duty of the Yardak is to help Hayali in terms of handing out the necessary tools to them.

Curtain 

The whole Karagöz Shadow Theatre is performed behind a curtain, with the help of the lights reflected the curtain. The curtain and the lights make this theatre a shadow theatre. The measurements of Karagöz Shadow Theatre may depend, but it is typically 180×100 centimeters. In the older times, the curtain was made out of cloth that would be placed between two walls. At the newer games, curtain started to be made out of calico.

Peş Board (plinth)

Peş board is located under the curtain and lies back to the bench curtain where the tools and equipment that the Hayali will use throughout the theatre.

Hayal Ağacı (Dream Tree)

Hayal ağacı is the name of the equipment specially used when more than two characters need to be at the scene. The primary purpose of Hayal Ağacı is to coordinate the third and fourth sticks in the scene. It has the shape of a fork.

Tasvir (description/portrayal)

Tasvir is the name of all two-dimensional structures you will see on the curtain, including characters and stage decorations. Tasvirs are made from semi-translucent materials. In the traditional methods, this material was mainly camel skin. Of course, the camel skin had to be gone through numerous procedures to be used as a tasvir.

First, the camel’s skin was covered with dog feces and sodium sulfate with a particular procedure to be later dried. Later, the final product would be scratched off using glass to maximize the transparency while keeping it a bit opaque. Later, the necessary drawings were made, and the camel skin would cut in the shapes of tasvir. After a series of other procedures, they were colored with plant-based colors. Tasvirs typically end up being between 30 to 40 centimeters long.

Play Sticks

Play sticks are the sticks glued to the Tasvirs to make it easier to move in the curtain. Play sticks are typically made out of Beech Tree, and their height differs between 50 to 60 centimeters.

Fırdöndü

Fırdöndü is a tool to make it possible for the Tasvirs to turn around. In the Turkish version of Karagöz Shadow Theatre, play sticks are located horizontally, so Tasvirs cannot turn back. Fırdöndü is made so that when Hayali needs to make a tasvir go back. It is located at the backside of the tasvir, and with the help of a hinge, the tasvir gains the ability to return. Fırdöndü can be described as a chain swivel.

Göstermelik

Göstermelik means “for the show,” when translated directly, and it is the name of the figures put into the curtain before the theatre is started. Those figures just sit there with the company of music. 

A Göstermelik can be a cat, dog, flowers, tree, ship, or anything you can think of. Göstermelik does not have to be relevant to the theme of the theatre, and it can be anything. The purpose of Göstermelik is to give the sense of “the show is about the start” to the audience and setting the vibes.

Light Sources

With the modern technology, the light sources are not an issue, but it was in the earlier periods. Today, lightbulbs can perform ideally to have good lighting for the shadow theatre, but when lightbulbs were not present or not as common as today, people would use candles or oil lamps.

Musical Instruments

It can be said that Karagöz Shadow Theatre has a little bit of musical atmosphere in it, which makes it inevitable to use musical instruments. The following are musical instruments used in the Karagöz Shadow Theatre:

  • Nareke: Is a small whistle. It is used in the entrance section of the theatre and is typically made out of reed.
  • Tef (Tambourine): Tambourine is typically played by the Yardak (the helper of Hayali).
  • Bell: Bell is usually played at the same time when tambourine is played. 

Parts of the Karagöz Shadow Theatre

There are four parts of Karagöz Shadow Theatre, named Mukaddime, Muhavere, Fasıl, and Final. The following are brief descriptions of each part in the Karagöz Shadow Theatre:

  • Mukaddime: This is the entrance part of the Karagöz Shadow Theatre, and it can be considered as a prologue. Göstermelik and Nareke whistles are used in this part. First, Hacivat enters the curtain, and later Karagöz arrives by Hacivat’s call.
  • Muhavere: This is the part where Hacivat and Karagöz warm up for their debate, ask questions to each other or tell stories.
  • Fasıl: This is the part where the actual theatre starts. In other words, Fasıl is the central part of the theatre. Other characters of the theatre may come to the curtain, and it includes lots of traditional music.
  • Final: The final part of Karagöz Shadow Theatre is concise in comparison to other parts. In this part, everything comes to a solution, and the story is over. All Tasvirs leave the curtain. 

Karagöz Shadow Theatre on Turkish Culture

Karagöz Shadow Theatre has a cultural value starting from the earlier periods when it was first starting to form. Today, it still has a great value on Turkish culture and is even considered a significant cultural value in the world. Insomuch that, Karagöz Shadow Theatre takes place on UNESCO’s Intangible World Heritage list, which highlights the cultural significance of this theatre, and it should continue its presence in the following generations.

Music and dance are two indispensable parts of the Karagöz Shadow Theatre. As you may already know, music and dance are crucial for a culture, and Turkish culture could have the opportunity to live at the Karagöz Shadow Theatre in many forms: whether if it’s the costumes, dances, music, or poems.

In the older times, Karagöz Shadow Theatre was an indispensable part of the celebrations, or it was just a part of everyday life, and it was performed in houses, gardens, coffee shops, and so on. The popularity of Karagöz Shadow Theatre dramatically decreased through time, but this intangible heritage had never disappeared. There are still Karagöz Shadow Theatre performers, but today the Karagöz Shadow Theatre is typically performed at stages. Karagöz Shadow Theatre shows its presence in especially in the Ramadan month in Turkey.

As I mentioned earlier, Karagöz Shadow Theatre was once an indispensable part of the special days and celebrations. Ramadan nights were one of the categories under the “special days” to perform Karagöz Shadow Theatre. Even though today a significant percentage of the special days (wedding ceremonies, circumcision, etc.) are held without the Karagöz Shadow Theatre, it is still one of the first things that come to mind when Ramadan nights are mentioned. 

However, the situation is somehow evolving to the only thing that comes to mind being Ramadan nights when mentioned Karagöz Shadow Theatre. But of course, the Ministry of Culture in Turkey is conducting events annually to not let Karagöz Shadow Theatre be forgotten.

Karagöz Shadow Theatre in Other Cultures

As mentioned earlier, Karagöz Shadow Theatre got its final form in the Ottoman Empire, regardless of where is the mainland it was. Since many cultures were living together in the Ottoman Empire and the Ottoman Empire was ruling many countries around the world, other countries and cultures were influenced by it. 

Karagöz Shadow Theatre’s influence was not just to cultures living in the Ottoman Empire, but those who live nearby to the Ottoman Empire as well. Insomuch that, Karagöz Shadow Theatre became as popular as it is in the Ottoman Empire in Arab countries of Middle East, North Africa, and Caucasian countries. 

Moreover, some countries (Syria, Greece, Egypt, and more) localized and adapted the Karagöz Shadow Theatre to their culture. The most similar to Turkish Karagöz Shadow Theatre has occurred in Greece. Karagöz Shadow Theatre was becoming popular in other cultures and countries because it is an adaptable theatre for any given situation, especially for propaganda purposes, and it was mainly used for political criticism. Of course, this situation did not last for long, and the Karagöz Shadow Theatre varieties in other countries were quickly banned. 

Frequently asked questions about Karagöz Shadow Theatre

Karagöz Shadow Theatre is one of the significant theatres of the traditional Turkish theatre, and it is an intangible heritage. If you want to learn more about this subject, or you have some question marks on your mind, the following questions and answers might help you for a better understanding.

What is Karagöz Shadow Theatre?

Karagöz Shadow Theatre is a shadow theatre based on dialogues and portrayed with two-dimensional descriptions.

Where does Karagöz Shadow Theatre was first portrayed?

There is no specific evidence about when and where the Karagöz Shadow theatre was first played, but it became popular and got its final form in the Ottoman Empire.

Do real actors play in the Karagöz Shadow Theatre?

No, Karagöz Shadow Theatre is performed by figures on a stick, coordinated by a person.

Is Karagöz Shadow Theatre a musical?

Even though music has a significant part in Karagöz Shadow Theatre, it is not considered a musical.

What are the main features of Karagöz and Hacivat?

Karagöz is uneducated, ignorant, and lazy, whereas Hacivat is a relatively educated person who loves to show off with his education.

İsmail Çamönü

Hi! I am Ismail. I am a digital nomad from Turkey. I lived in many cities around Turkey during my life and I am passionate about traveling. At Nomad's Guide to Turkey, I share travel tips for nomads, expats, and tourists who would like to visit Turkey.

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