Turkey has double New Year's Eve celebration

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Turkey had two particularly strong reasons to celebrate the arrival of 2007 on Sunday evening thanks to a chance meeting of the Islamic and Gregorian calendars, which only occurs once every 64 years.

In a remarkable day of contrasts that epitomized the country’s ability to marry its Islamic heritage with the pro-western, secular outlook espoused by its modern founding father Kemal Ataturk, Turks began the day ritually sacrificing thousands of sheep and cows and ended the evening with beer-fuelled New Year’s Eve parties and vibrant street dancing.

Unlike most other Muslim nations who choose to mark the Islamic New Year, usually celebrated on the first day of Muharram, Turkey has long been an avid supporter of partying in the New Year alongside it’s European neighbours in a style that might shock more austere Islamic countries.

But thanks to the Muslim festival of Eid ul Adha falling on the 31st of December this year, New Year celebrations across Turkey began with much more spiritual reflection than usual.

As the sun broke over a bitingly cold Sunday morning mist in the capital Istanbul, the city's faithful filed towards one of the many mosques that dot the city skyline for early morning prayers.

In the small white marble courtyard of the Eyup Sultan mosque, Istanbul’s holiest shrine and the resting place of one of Prophet Mohammed’s companions, Muslims of all ages, wrapped in scarves and wooly hats, listened intently to the Imam’s sermon before making their way to the slaughter houses in the hills overlooking the city

Known as Kurban Bayrami to Turks, the Muslim festival of Eid ul Adha commemorates Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismael and is the second most important festival in the Islamic calendar. As God gave Ibrahim a goat to sacrifice in place of his son, Muslims around the world symbolically cut the throat of an animal to celebrate what they regard is Ibrahim’s unselfish devotion to God’s will – a fundamental teaching of the Islamic faith.

“This sacrifice is highly symbolic for us,” says Eren Ahmed, a 36-year-old businessman who had sacrificed a young bull before heading back into the city bars to drink to the New Year with friends. “Normally we would spend the evening with our families but as at is New Year that will have to wait. It is not very often we get to celebrate two important festivals in one day.”

The contrast between the symbolism of Eid ul Adha and the hedonism of New Year could hardly be more profound.

In Sariyer town, a suburb of Istanbul 25km from the city centre, families lead the cows they have bought to a specially erected blue tarpaulin tent. Many will have saved for months to buy a cow. Inside, halal butchers slit the animal’s throat to chants of Allahu Akbar before passing the dead animal onto tanners who donate the highly valuable skin to charity. Families then take the meat home and are expected to give away a third of what they bring back to the poor.

But this year, as the last of the muezzins, calls to prayer have died down, a completely different Turkey emerged into the evening, one that enthusiastically looks West and embraces the hedonism of a secular New Year. Compared to the somber morning prayers that began the day, the evening atmosphere could hardly be more different. In Taksin Square, Istanbul's equivalent of Trafalgar, hundreds of thousands of Turkish men and women danced the night away to a deafening mix of Turkish, Middle Eastern and Western pop music.

“I went to the mosque this morning and now I am out partying,” said one reveler sporting a red and white Santa hat and a can of beer. “There is no problem with this in Turkey. Being a good Muslim is more important than not drinking”.

Such an image is one that pro-Europe Turks are keen to see publicised.

“Europe may think of themselves as a Christian club but Turkey is not just an Islamic nation,” says Mr Ahmed. “Maybe this New Year people will see a different side of Turkey. I hope it does not take another 64 years.”

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