For many years the Woodworker Turkmen who live in Tahtakuşlar, a village on the slopes of Mount Ida in northwestern Turkey, have kept their traditional culture and shamanic beliefs alive. Today, these are under threat, as the population dwindles due to economic difficulties and migration. But a proposal to open the village up to tourism has divided the inhabitants.
Known as the “mountain of the gods” in local mythology, Mount Ida has been home to a multitude of cultures throughout history. The Woodworkers are former nomads who lived in forested areas alongside the Mediterranean: according to local history teacher Hakan Kanalan, they came to Mount Ida in the middle ages to build ships for Mehmed the Conqueror, the Ottoman Sultan who captured Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). In the 1860s, after 600 years of living as nomads, they settled in a string of villages including Tahtakuşlar.
“We draw a lot of attention because of our traditional rituals and clothes,” İbrahim Uyanık, a founder of the Woodworker Turkmen Association, told Inside Turkey. “Hıdrellez is our most important festival, when we celebrate the arrival of spring. We visit our cemeteries over three days, between May 5 and 8. Women and children wear special outfits, and we play games and decorate our homes. We sacrifice animals, which we cook and eat together. We roast coffee and nuts, and children give them to our neighbours – we used to stuff handmade pouches with coffee and nuts, but it’s just plastic bags today.”
The name Tahtakuşlar is a combination of the Turkish words for “wood”, which reflects the villagers’ trade, and “bird”, an animal that plays a special role in shamanic beliefs.
“We believe that a person who died continues to live on in another dimension and can communicate with the living,” Uyanık said. “We light candles in temples and pray. We tie cloth ribbons to trees and make wishes.”
Shamanic priests, or dedes, lead believers in prayer rituals and signing.
Uyanık’s wife Dudu explained that clothes played an important symbolic role in Woodworker culture. New mothers wear red ribbons so that babies can recognise them, while the deceased are washed in scented water before being buried in their finest outfits. Traditional bridal dresses, or kepez, comprise three layers of skirts and a headdress made of goose feathers.
“The bride will be a bird, flying away from one home to another,” Dudu said.
According to Mithat Atabay, an expert on the history of shamanism, these traditional beliefs were once widespread in Anatolia, until the arrival of Islam in the eighth century. As shamanism declined, believers “began to be branded as rebel, or even deviant groups”.
Woodworker Turkmen fled to mountainous areas to escape repression, where the isolation left them excluded from the rest of society, but allowed them to preserve their culture.
“The practices they live by today are exactly the same as in their past,” Atabay said. “They live by believing in nature and taking it as their guide.”
Although the village’s traditions have survived under centuries of Islamic influence, today they are threatened by unemployment. The village economy has struggled ever since a government decision in 1994 to turn Mount Ida into a national park, and the lack of employment opportunities has forced younger generations to consider leaving the land they grew up on.
“We can’t make a living anymore. Woodworking and forestry are the only professions we know,” said Kudar. “The state only allows their contractors to operate on Mount Ida, so that’s not an option for us anymore. Whatever we can farm, we eat. We try to sell it if there’s any excess, but it won’t save us.” Kudar added that many villagers lack access to decent healthcare.
Tahtakuşlar has one valuable asset, however: an ethnographic museum and art gallery, which claims to be the first such venue in a Turkish village. Founded by retired academic Alibey Kudar in 1991, the museum is now run by his son, Mustafa Selim.
“We continue to practice about 80 per cent of the shamanic faith,” Mustafa Selim Kudar told Inside Turkey. “I learned about shamanism from my ancestors who migrated here. We try to preserve the faith for future generations.”
Kudar’s museum, which attempts to document and preserve Tahtakuşlar’s traditional culture, already attracts small numbers of tourists to the village each year. Villagers sell handcrafted goods and traditional herbal medicines, either via the museum or on the street in front of their homes.
Some villagers, including Kudar, are keen to encourage more tourism, which would mean expanding visitor facilities and building accommodation.
“The population is really shrinking. If we opened up the village for tourism, there would be more investment opportunities, and we wouldn’t have to leave,” he said.
Not everybody agrees, however.
“Our rituals and holidays shouldn’t become tourist currency. Some things should be preserved as they are,” said Tomas Bektaş, a local farmer. “Besides, the village’s infrastructure wouldn’t allow tourism. Our streets are too narrow. There are no places for the tourists to stay. We don’t want a bunch of concrete buildings. That wouldn’t leave room for us.”
Bektaş, on the other hand, thinks that tourism is more likely to destroy the Woodworkers’ traditions, rather than keep them alive.
“Our customs and traditions should remain as they are,” he continued. “Tourists [already] come to our events and rituals in the summer. There is no space for tourists in the village. Staying closed to the outside was the only way to preserve our culture, but it’s dubious how long that will last against tourism.”
The split that tends to run along generational lines.
“Young people are more open to the outside [world],” Uyanık said. “Tourism would create jobs, and allow them to stay in touch with their traditions.”
Indeed Elif Mustafa, a 23-year-old Tahtakuşlar native who moved to a nearby city to work in local government, supports increased tourism.
“Since there are no job opportunities for young people in particular, everyone moves to nearby towns where they can find work,” she said. “If new job opportunities arise from tourism, we will not have to migrate.”
For the moment, the coronavirus pandemic has put any plans to develop Tahtakuşlar on hold. Since March 2020, the villagers haven’t made any money from the limited attractions they already offer to tourists. But when normal life resumes, so will the debate over how best to preserve the unique culture of the Woodworker Turkmen.