Traditional Turkish Puppet Shadow Theater Karagoz Hacivat
photo by Tolunalp

One of the greatest memories of my childhood belongs to the times when I watched traditional Turkish puppet shadow play “Karagöz & Hacivat ”. Popularized during the Ottoman period, Karagöz and Hacivat are the lead characters whose contrasting interaction is the central theme of the play. Karagöz represents the ignorant but street smart people while Hacivat is using a literary language as a member of the educated class. Their fights are somehow funny that make audience laugh and enjoy the play.

The legend of Karagöz is believed to have begun in Bursa during the construction of the Ulu mosque in the 14th century. Two of the construction workers started to get attention with their impromptu comedy performances. Unfortunately this situation slowed down the progress of construction and therefore the Sultan condemned Karagöz and Hacivat to death. Of course this is just a legend but, by the time, the adventures of Karagöz and Hacivat gained a new dimension and shadow play became traditional in Turkey. During the Ottoman period, it was the most enjoyed and popular entertainment. Especially between 17th and 19th centuries, it was performed in private houses and public places. Today there’s a monumental tomb of Karagöz and Hacivat in Bursa.

Even though it’s a traditional play, puppeteer’s talent and performance are really important facts. Not only moving the puppets on the curtain but also voicing them by doing dialects and imitations are all depending on the puppeteer’s talent and skills. The puppeteer is known as “hayali” which means imaginary in Turkish. There’s a white sheet of screen with a strong light behind it, and the puppets are animated with the help of the sticks in the hands of a puppeteer. The painted puppets are flat figures made of leather and they are made to walk, dance, jump, fight, nod or laugh by the puppeteer. Karagöz & Hacivat is a great sample for Turkish culture, poetry, music, folk customs, sense of humour and verbal tradition.

Looking into the history of this kind of theater, we can say that puppet tradition comes from Central Asia but Egypt is the origin for shadow theatre. Each Turkish shadow theatre are played in three parts; “Mukaddime” (which is a prologue or introduction), “Muhavere” (dialogue) and “Fasil” (main plot), which concludes with a brief finale. Throughout a shadow theatre repertoire there are sets of speeches and certain standard scenes. Besides the two main characters Karagöz (literally means Black-eye in Turkish) and Hacivat, there are some side characters in the play. For example there’s a woman called “Kanlı Nigar” (Bloody Nigar). Women characters in the play can be at any age but always prone to gossip. In almost every play, this character causes a scandal in the neighbourhood. Another character’s name is Çelebi who represents a young and rich womanizer gentleman. Tiryaki (addict in Turkish) is the opium addict one who spends all his time smoking opium and sleeping in the neighbourhood coffee house. finger, which bleeds amazingly. And there’s the dwarf character named Bebe Ruhi who asks the same questions over and over again until people become tired of listening to him.

Today there are limited number of puppeteers who continue to perform the traditional shadow theater but the humour of Karagöz and Hacivat shall live forever.

Meet the author


Independent Filmmaker and freelance writer/video journalist with 16 years of experience in media.

She has produced and hosted several programmes for Turkish televisions and currently hosting a food&travel show on TRT (Turkish National Radio& TV) Avaz television. She has also produced two off-off Broadway shows (I, Anatolia & 1001 New York Nights) in NYC and one (Wall) as a part of 15th International Theatre Festival in Istanbul.

On IMDB she has credits for a Lifetime TV movie Student Seduction (Asst. to Exec. Producer) and an independent documentary film The Magical Call of Oryantal (Producer&Director).