Kurban Bayramı: A Guide to “Sacrifice Feast” in Istanbul

If you are a fellow yabangee and have been noticing pictures of cattle hanging around in the streets lately, don’t worry. You haven’t stumbled into some weird, alternate version of Istanbul, it’s actually very seasonally appropriate! The season that is upon us is Kurban Bayramı.

Kurban Bayramı or Eid al-Adha in Arabic means the “feast of sacrifice”. It’s one of the two major Muslim holidays and it falls on the 10th day of the Islamic lunar month Dhu el-Hijjah. This year’s festivities take place from Thursday 31 August through Monday 4 September, but the government sanctioned holidays extend as early as Monday the 28th of August, offering many of us a ten-day break. (This will of course have some effect on banking and various public services.)

Sacrifice Feast
(Image sourced via Wikimedia Commons – own work by Ugur Basak — (CC BY-SA 3.0))

The holiday’s origins extend far, far back and are based on Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s command. Shortly before the sacrifice, God sent an angel who replaced the son with a sheep as mercy. The holiday is therefore largely a celebration of this act and is celebrated in the form of prayer, gift-exchange, and sacrifice. During this holiday, Muslims go to Mecca for the yearly pilgrimage, they buy cattle (usually sheep) and then sacrifice it to God giving most of it to the poor and homeless. An interesting fact is that the dates vary from year to year drifting approximately 11 days earlier each year.

In choosing cattle, usually a goat or sheep of at least one year is sacrificed. Sometimes cows or camels are also sacrificed, representative of up to seven people. A fascinating aside is that not too long ago, this was often done in the streets here in Istanbul. Butchers would literally take the cattle out outside (or to a backyard) and slaughter them there. However that is prohibited now which is why there are special pop-up slaughterhouses (mezbaha) installed throughout the city where professional butchers can kill, clean and package up the meat for people to freeze it and/or distribute it to the poor. In many of these facilities, members of the family can also opt to make the sacrifice themselves under the guidance of a professional. Most municipalities have one if you’re interested to see it for yourself, but it’s most certainly not for the faint of heart, trust me!

As for the celebrations in Istanbul, Kurban Bayramı is one of the most beautiful cultural sights you’ll ever see. The city lights up with bright lights, kids are dressed in colorful colors running amok visiting their relatives with their families to get their Bayram harçlığı. This is a tradition where young children go to their elderly relative to kiss their hand and wish them a happy bayram, in exchange the elder relative gives a small amount of money to the kid to spend on toys and sweets. I guess money is as good incentive as any to teach kids to respect the elderly.

sacrifice feast

Meanwhile, the nightlife in Istanbul literally balloons up during the bayram, although perhaps not in the sense one might normally be accustomed to. Go down to Taksim, Beşiktaş, or Kadıköy to see all the sugar-rushed holiday revelers happy to celebrate with you over delicious sweets. Moreover, you’ll want to be cautious as public transportation will be supremely busy at times. You might also want to draw out some cash in case the ATM’s run out, which has been known to happen. Also worth noting is that there’s plenty of incoming and outgoing traffic to the city, so if you’re planning a getaway for a few days, you’ll want to try to avoid the most congested periods or travel at extreme hours.

As with any holiday in Istanbul, there’s a lot of delicious food, and a joyous time to be had everywhere. So take friends and go embrace the chaotic city that we’ve come to know and love, or go hide in a rural area for a few days where you can actually watch the sheep being sacrificed outdoors. Either way, happy bayram!

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Othman Nahhas
I'm an aspiring author and stand up comic who can be found at Istanbul's Take Me Up The Bosphorus stand up comedy nights. I grew up in Syria and have so far lived in 5 countries and three continents. My main objective in life is to make as many people laugh as possible whilst sharing knowledge. I read philosophy and science fiction more than anything else. Check out my blog where I share random thoughts, poems, philosophical ideas, and short stories. You can also catch my podcast where I discuss social issues .

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