It was the last weekend of November and Turks were celebrating one of the most important holidays on the Islamic religious calendar, Eid al-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice) or Kurban Bayrami in Turkish. It's the feast that commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son in a show of complete obedience to God. In Islamic countries, Eid al-Adha is a three-day celebration, a period of thanksgiving and sharing among all members of a particular community.
Istanbul's Kurban started with a call-to-prayer that lasted much longer and almost seemed louder than normal, as all the mosques in the vicinity broadcast the Khutbah, the special congregational prayer and sermon at 6 am. From the mosque people headed straight to the Kesim Yerleri slaughtering center, rather than go back home. This change was due to relatively new rules imposed by Istanbul municipalities.
Up until two years ago Istanbul would be literally running with blood, as animals were slaughtered on the streets to the consternation of many in the city. Escaped animals would frequently cause accidents on highways and hospital admissions soared as men unused to butchering cut themselves. Meanwhile, a significant number of Turks, uncomfortable at the sight of all the blood, remained indoors throughout the day. All this was before the issue of animal welfare was considered: since the majority of people were used to butchering only once a year, questions arose about whether humane slaughtering practices were being employed.
In a response to these issues, municipalities introduced measures to better regulate the festival. Designated slaughtering centers have both the proper facilities to cope with the large volumes of blood, and, most significantly, employ qualified butchers. Combined with heavy fines for anyone found butchering on the streets; Istanbul's roads were generally free of blood this year, even if they were still home to the odd sheep or cow having made a bid for freedom.
The internet has come into play as part of the municipalities' regulation strategy. Many people are now choosing to purchase animals online, with a sheep ranging in cost from $150 to $250. They do so in the knowledge that the animal will be slaughtered humanely and the meat distributed to the needy families, as well as the elderly and infirm. The regulations have helped remove many of the difficulties associated with fulfilling a religious obligation for those living in Istanbul and other large cities.
Whatever one thinks about the sacrifices, one thing for certain is that in Turkey everyone knows exactly where their food comes from. In Western countries many people are totally removed from the fact that the meat on their plates could ever have been a living animal. In Turkey there is no such illusion, which also explains why so many Turkish non-meat eaters cite Kurban Bayrami as a personal tipping point, an experience that caused them to forsake meat and become a vegetarian.
Jonathan Lewis is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Istanbul.