The Mesir Festival: A Paste of History
Text & photos Emre Kuheylan
The Mesir Festival is one of the oldest festivals in Turkey. In March 2011, the festival will see its 471st year of celebration in Manisa. Each year, the people of Manisa and surrounding cities gather around the Sultan Mosque and try to catch mesir pastes thrown from the domes and minarets of the mosque by men in traditional dress. As well, an extravagant, much-anticipated parade takes place around the mosque, attended by some of the country’s important political figures, including the president, the prime minister, various ministers and members of parliament, representatives of NGOs and Manisa’s prominent citizens.
Typically, during the throwing of the mesir paste, a giant scuffle breaks out as people in the crowd jostle for position and attempt to use reversed umbrellas to catch more paste. Thousands turn up for the catch, and the city of Manisa quickly begins to enjoy its most crowded day of the year.
The Mesir Festival and its famous paste have rather significant beginnings etched deep in the country’s history. The story goes that Hafsa Sultan, the wife of the Ottoman Emperor Yavuz Sultan Selim and mother of the Kanuni Sultan Suleyman, had become ill and doctors at the palace in Istanbul couldn’t find a cure. Kanuni Sultan Suleiman wrote a letter to his son Sehzade Mustafa, who was the governor of Manisa at that time, detailing his grandmother’s situation. Mustafa then gave an order to Merkez Efendi, head of the Sultan Mosque Madrasah, to prepare a healing concoction to treat Hafsa Sultan. Merkez prepared a special paste from many different spices and sent it to the palace. The application of the paste saw the speedy recovery of Hafsa Sultan, earning Merkez Efendi wide recognition within and beyond the borders of the Ottoman Empire.
Emperor Kanuni Sultan Suleyman subsequently decided that everyone should receive the benefits of this mesir paste and swiftly ordered Merkez Efendi to prepare the paste for his citizens. Every year since, the paste has been distributed from the Sultan Mosque to the people every year, starting a tradition celebrated to this day.
The paste is a mixture of 41 different spices. The most dominant is cinnamon, and it also contains anise, resin, mustard, carnation, coconut, black pepper, coriander, vanilla and ginger. Some of the original spices can no longer be found and have been replaced with substitutes with similar properties.
Many Turks believe that the mesir paste has numerous health benefits. The most common ones are enhancing strength, eradicating tiredness and whetting the appetite. Also, it is also widely held that the paste protects against disease, heals the sick and keeps poisonous insects at bay.