I was in Kapadokya (Cappadocia) for the second time in my life. It was just as impressive as the first visit.
The towering rock structures carved into by generations of monks, the hundreds of hot air balloons that rose into the air at dawn, the buildings stacked one on top of another as we climbed the winding streets higher and higher to our hotel, the valleys that ruffled the landscape below, the thousands of lights glittering between them after the sun set.
Kapadokya was beautiful. This time, though, the atmosphere was different. In May the air was hot but still with a touch of humidity. Now the world had cooled and a summer of stingy rains left the whole region covered in a layer of dust. The cool of the morning hinted at autumn, but by noon I was sweating in short sleeves.
Beyond the change in temperature, the mood of the region had changed. Before it had felt festive because of summer holidays and tourists. Now the excitement in the air stemmed from expectation. Farmers drove in trailers with sheep in the back. Restaurants closed early so that in the morning, the proprietors could join their families in the mosque. We were in Kapadokya during Kurban Bayramı, a holiday that takes place at the end of the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) and serves as a remembrance of Abraham’s devotion to god and willingness to sacrifice his son before god provides a substitutionary ram. During this holiday families get together and sacrifice a sheep, or even a cow or bull, to Allah. After the sacrifice, the women cook, the men socialize, and the following days are spent visiting family and friends. Families can’t sell any of the meat from their sacrifice; that would defile it. Instead, they give it away to friends and neighbors as a gift.
Our first full day in Kapadokya was the day when people would be sacrificing their animals. We decided to take a walk after breakfast to see if we could find a sacrifice in progress. In larger cities like Ankara, where I was living, there were designated sacrifice areas. But in Kapadokya, many families sacrificed their animals in their courtyards. As we walked, we could hear the dying sighs and grunts of animals from behind closed gates. From other houses we merely caught the whisper of a garden hose, the water washing blood down a drain in the center of the courtyard.
At one house, a curious man was peeking over his neighbor’s gate. We decided that if a Turk could be nosy, we could be nosy too. A few in our group, myself included, walked over to the gate and tried to peek over. It was a little tall for me, so I backed away, unable to catch a glimpse of the ritual happening inside. Then the others stepped back and the gate opened. A Turkish man greeted us and invited us in.
The house was modest, so I rounded the open gate expecting to see a sheep. Instead, I found myself standing by a cow, its feet chained, laying on its side. A few men were holding it, the women stood watching by the kitchen steps. Efficiently, one man went to work. He sliced its neck, they said a blessing, and then he positioned the cow’s partially detached head so that the blood would drain out well. The cow twitched a bit, it huffed and wheezed, its bowels loosened. They let a couple people in our group take pictures, we thanked the family, and we left.
Driving out of the city that morning, headed to our next destination, we passed a couple more cows in the street. These had been skinned and were about to be broken down into manageable pieces. In front of one home, an older man sat in a chair watching his sons finish skinning their cow. Some of the blood was making its way down the cobblestone road. One of his sons noticed and quickly poured a pile of sand to absorb the blood before it had a chance to ruin his father’s shoes.
It was sad, of course, to see an animal die. But I eat meat often, and I think the way that cow died was probably more humane than the way the chickens that make up my chicken nuggets were slaughtered. I felt some sadness after watching the sacrifice that day, but it really was a learning experience more than anything. Curiosity was the overwhelming emotion.
My moments in that family’s courtyard were a time where I felt distinctly foreign, more so than when I stumbled over a Turkish word or struggled to find my way in a new part of a city. To Turks, the ritual sacrifice for this holiday was not horrifying or repulsive or brutal, as it would be to many Americans. Rather, it was celebratory. It was an offering to god that began a time of gratitude, rest, and community.
I’m glad I got to experience this holiday. It deepened my understanding of Islam and Turkish culture. But I’m also glad that I didn’t have to stick around for the clean-up.
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