Building the Sultan’s Palace

In the long-standing dispute of who came first, the Turkish Karagöz or the Greek Karagiozi, even the story of their origin is in contention. The crazy thing is that beside the pronunciation of the character names their story is the same. It centres on the building of the Sultan’s palace in Bursa, or in some versions of the Greek tale, in Constantinople.

The Sultan wanted a palace, so he had need of craftsmen. Hacivat (Turkish) or Hadjiavatis (Greek) was employed as the overseer. He was responsible for the project running on time. He also employed the craftsmen who worked on the building.

One particular carpenter was a joy to have on the site. He was always clowning around and telling jokes. Karagöz or Karagiozi. He was an incorrigible comedian. He had his co-workers laughing so much that construction of the palace slowed. Only the Sultan was not happy. Hacivat / Hadjiavatis was made to give an account. In consequence his comic carpenter was ordered to stop his incessant joking or suffer a severing of his head. Faced with this ultimatum requiring him to be something he was not, Karagöz / Karagiozi laughed his head off (with the help of the Sultan’s soldiers.)

The Green Mosque in Bursa

Inside Yesil Cami, the Green Mosque, Bursa

The outpouring of grief that followed his death confounded the Sultan. He regretted having Karagöz / Karagiozi put to death. He erected a statue to the memory of carpenter to appease the people and ordered Hacivat/ Hadjiavatis to come talk to him about Karagöz / Karagiozi, and especially relate his jokes.

The shrewd Hacivat / Hadjiavatis, not wishing to suffer the same fate as his carpenter friend, made shadow puppets and presented the comic tales to the Sultan from behind a screen. Hoping to separate himself from the bawdy humour and social satire of his carpenter-friend,  his puppets’ substanceless shadows delivered the indelicate punchlines before the Sultan.. The ploy worked. Hacivat / Hadjiavatis was safe from the Sultan’s wrath. For it was not he who laughed at authority. No – that was air, breath and an immaterial substance,  and an absence of light, an absence of being, a spirit being, a being only with light – a shadow, Karagöz / Karagiozi’s shadow.

Karagöz / Karagiozi’s spirit, his shadow, had succeeded in making the Sultan laugh. Now the Sultan wanted to laugh and laugh again. And he did. So began a theatrical tradition that was openly enjoyed and endorsed in the Ottoman world and is still enjoyed today.

But in whose culture does this story belong? The Greek or the Turkish? The answer lies in Bursa.

Bursa was the capital of the Ottoman Empire before the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Written account of the performance of Karagöz dates back to the early 1500’s. Looking at the grand architecture of Bursa from the 15th and 16th centuries the Green Mosque presents an interesting possible answer to the origin-story dilemma.

The Green Mosque (Yeşil Cami) or the Mosque of Mehmed I was built in Bursa between 1419 and 1421 A.D.. An inscription above niches over the entrance door dedicates the building to its architect, Haci Ivaz. Haci Ivaz, as it is written, looks a lot like Hacivat. Wikipedia gives Haci Ivaz as an alternate form of Hacivat together with Hacivad. We are told that Haci Ivaz was the son of a civic man of authority, Ahi Beazit, who held the position of prefect of Bursa. He would later become Bursa’s governor. Wikipedia tells us that as such a high ranking official in Bursa, Ahi Beazit was conceivably involved in overseeing the project. Teamwork and craftsmanship of the Mason’s Guild would get the job done. It is not a leap to think that the architect and his father’s role’s in the project were conflated and given to the character of Hacivat. This would make the origin story Turkish. But does it mean that Karagöz as a theatrical character preceeded Karagiozi?

The Green Mosque in Bursa

The Entrance to the Green Mosque, Bursa

If the origin story belongs to Karagöz, does it prove that Karagiozi grew out of it? In a previous post I brought up the concern that written records could not exist before the Greek War of Independence for performances of Karagiozi. This is due to the cultural genocide practices inflicted on Greeks during the Ottoman occupation. Written records for performances of Karagiozi begin in the mid 1800’s. The Karagöz puppet theatre was permitted by the Ottoman Turks and then transformed into the Karagiozi puppet theatre enjoyed by the Greeks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This has been well documented. At a quick glance it would seem that the development of the character of Karagiozi was one directional, from Karagöz into Karagiozi. However, more questions arise when you look at the drawing of the puppets themselves.



In visual presentation Karagöz and Karagiozi have very little in common. Karagiozi is easily recognizable in his threadbare and patched green coat and culottes, bare feet, bare head, hunched back and exceedingly long arm. Karagöz, also an illiterate and impulsive clown who chases get rich quick schemes, looks totally different. His arms are in proportion to his body, he does not wear patched clothing nor is his clothing green. He does wear shoes and also a hat. He looks to be of the middle class, not living the life of poverty that Karagiozi emerges from.

Karagöz Muzesi in Bursa - Karagöz


Hacivat and Hadjiavatis also differ. Both are town criers however Hadjiavatis is always presented pulling on his own beard. Hadjiavatis is not as poor as Karagiozi but he is not the comfortable and highly educated Hacivat, blowing through his flute in the Turkish tradition. There is no beard holding or pulling in the presentation of Hacivat.

Hadjiavatis and Karagiozi have very specific deviations from the visual presentation of Karagöz and Hacivat. The symbolism of which is a reference back to the pagan times, before the Ottoman Turks and before even the Byzantines. Their appearance prompts questions about the performance of Greek drama not only in the Ottoman Empire when Greek culture was suppressed but also in the Byzantine Empire when pagan cultures, even Greek ones, were suppressed.

Contemplating the peculiarities of Karagiozi and Hadjiavatis appearances, I find myself asking, “When Hadjiavatis pulls his beard, will Menander reappear?”

The fodder of next times post.
On Facebook and coming soon to my Crafty Karagiozi board on Pinterest, Karagiozi’s Hovel and the Vizier’s Seray. Also scroll through my Karagöz and Hacivat board and Karagiozi board on Pinterest for still images of these lovely shadow puppets.

Inside Yesil Cami, The Green Mosque

Photo credit: CharlesFred / / CC BY-NC-SA

The Entrance Door to the Green Mosque

Photo credit: C, BursaharlesFred / / CC BY-NC-SA


Photo credit: / CC BY-SA


Photo credit: CharlesFred / / CC BY-NC-SA


2 thoughts on “Building the Sultan’s Palace

    • Thanks Stella. I love the little guy. He is a lot of fun. I’ve really enjoyed looking into his origins. I’ve come across an interesting classical stage figure he is similar to. I know how much you like Ancient Greek history. I’m looking forward to offering it.


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