Karagöz and Hacivat are the names of the central characters which appear in every play and performance of the Turkish shadow theatre which entertained and educated generations of Turks since the times of the Ottomans.
The illiterate and street smart Karagöz and the refined and educated Hacivat are based on two real life figures. They were workers employed to build a mosque in Bursa under Sultan Orhan I (1326-1359). Instead of getting on with their labor, they were constantly horsing around, challenging each other in verbal competition as to who was cleverer and entertaining their co-workers to such an extent, that the completion of the mosque was seriously delayed.
One day, Sultan Orhan had enough and ordered the two pranksters to be executed. Their colleagues however missed them so much, that one of them created puppets, named them after the unfortunate jokers and started to perform shadow plays. Legend has it, that Sultan Orhan, belatedly, felt guilty and allowed the plays to continue.
It’s not quite clear when exactly the shadow plays really took off, some date them back as far as Sultan Selim I (1512-1520) but they are an essential part of Turkish culture. A dialogue between Karagöz and Havicat opens each play, followed by the plot and a conclusion by the two.
On my recent visit to Bursa, Turkey’s forth largest city located at the foot of the towering Uludag mountains and at approx. 150km distance from Istanbul, I couldn’t wait to rush and visit the Karagöz museum to see where it all started.
Located in a very pretty little house, painted yellow and blue and decorated with huge figures of the shadow theatre, the museum is an education in the history of the Turkish shadow play.
A collection of extremely elaborate and colorful puppets is exhibited in one of the two rooms. Puppets are only for show, they are not used in the shadow theatre. Those who perform in the plots, are made from nearly translucent camel hide (nowadays cow hide because camel has become too expensive), then painted and pressed. Karagöz and Hacivat are the main characters, but there are many more, including women, foreigners, dancers and djinns. One single master or hayali plays all roles, including the female ones. At present, the most skilled masters have a repertoire of 28 plays.
When I visited, I had the good luck to meet a master who showed me around and explained the intricacies as well as the history to me. The plays are constantly updated to include modern characters and gadgets such as cars and bicycles in order to attract today’s kids. Won’t be long, I guess, until we see Karagöz typing away at a computer making fun of the refined Hacivat who still sticks to books .But, the master said, as long as we keep getting an audience and this wonderful tradition and satire is kept alive, it doesn’t matter.