Giving Birth in Old Istanbul


In old Istanbul, preparation for the birth and puerperal period was one of the most important traditions and it used to start from seventh month of the pregnancy.

An embroidered pouch full of sugar, coffee beans and soap along with a single colour dress used to be sent to a midwife chosen from the close neighbourhood.

Paternal grandmother used to prepare a set of bodysuit, burp clothes, swaddling clothes, shirt, bib, shawl, and green veil before the delivery. She also used to wrap an evil eye along with thuja leaves (the tree of life in Latin), rock butter and twenty gold coins in a red veil. A slice of bread and a piece of sugar used to be wrapped in the green veil and hung on the wall of the delivery room.

The bed of the puerperant mother used to be prepared with silk or velvet duvet in the largest chamber of the house. Along with the Quran, a silver mirror used to be hung on the wall representing a lustrous life. The bed was set down only on the 7th day of the birth. On that very day, an elderly member of the family or father of the baby used to call ‘ezan’ to right ear and baby’s name to left ear of the baby. After the naming ceremony, father presents a fine jewelry to the mother. Midwife also used to be presented gratuities and gifts.

In Istanbul, it was quite popular to give two names to the baby. One name was chosen from the respected elders of the family and the other one from the popular names of the decade.

In the ancient times, Turks in the Asia Minor believed the supernatural powers of the nature. They respected to the mountains, sea, rivers, fire, thunder, storm, moon, sun and stars. Most of the names given to the babies reflected this respect to the Mother Nature.

A traditional sweet, spicy, red beverage, which may be either warm or cold according to the season called ‘lohusa serbeti / puerperant sherbet’ used to be prepared and sent to the relatives, close friends and neighbours representing the good news and they used to send gratuity in a handkerchief in return. If it’s a boy, red ribbon, if it’s a girl, a piece of red fine muslin used to be wrapped around the jug of the sherbet.

Later on, same drink used to be served to the guests in glasses with silver holder followed by coffee. The congratulatory visits with the gifts used to be continued until the morning of the 8th day of the birth. Jewelry, high quality fabrics, candies, food, baby supplies were among the popular gifts.

After the delivery, baby used not to be breastfed until the ‘ezan’ is heard three times. It is attributed to the belief that baby would be patient when she/he grows up. Instead, baby used to be given water containing sugar until her/his first breastfeeding.

In order to increase the milk supply of the mother, she used to follow a diet including grape molasses, sherbet, lentil soup, black-eyed pea, onion, tahini, liver, “boza”, milk and “ayran”. If the mother has a low milk supply, a wet nurse used to be hired.

Baby used to be bathed on the seventh or ninth day of the birth. In addition, bathwater used to be added gold, silver, hellebore, grains so that baby or his/her mouth does not smell bad in her/his later lives.  A small amount of salt was also added to bathwater before rinsing the baby in order to avoid bad smell.

Baby used to be covered in a yellow cloth for the first four days as it is thought to prevent jaundice.

There was a belief that children may not be dedicated to their families if their umbilical cords are thrown out. Some people bury the baby’s umbilical cord in the backyard of a respected school so that their baby will have a good education.

Puerperant mother always wear a red ribbon as it is believed this will prevent the mother from “puerperant fever”.

Mother and baby used to stay home for the first 40 days after the birth.

A bulb of garlic used to be pushed a skewer through and wrapped by a piece of red fine muslin and decorated with the evil eyes. On the 40th day of the birth, altogether with the friends and neighbours, puerperant mother used to go to hammam.  When leaving house for the hammam, puerperant used to be asked to step on the garlic in order to keep the pain away from the house.

After this period, the mother and child used to make courtesy visits to gift-givers’ homes, where they receive a handkerchief filled with a single egg for the baby to become healthy and candy for the baby to become good-natured. Moreover, baby’s eyebrows and hairline used to be rubbed with flour, which was supposed to grant him/her a long life.