An Old Ankara Tradition: The Zekeriya Sofrası
A. Esat Bozyiğit
The Zekeriya Sofrası is a tradition that involves food, which began in Ankara immediately after the declaration of the Republic, and became widespread in the 1930s and 1940s. Nearly forgotten today, it was held to make or fulfill an adak, a vow of a sacrifice, or to make a new wish. The food at these parties consisted mainly of nuts and dried fruit, snacks and salad-type foods.
It is said that the Zekeriya Sofrası or Peygamber Sofrası (“Prophet’s Table”), of which there were examples in old Istanbul and Bursa as well, was begun by an old woman who came from Hijaz at the beginning of the century.
The Zekeriya Sofrası tradition was mostly practiced only among women, although there were also similar gatherings of young student aged boys or rarely, both men and women.
The sofra is held by a woman whose wish has been fulfilled. It is generally held in the month of Şaban-ı Şerif, between the early and late evening prayers. She invites her neighbors and female relatives. Attendance is not obligatory. As the invitation is made a few days before, the person making the wish fasts that day.
Before the sofra begins, two courses of namaz (ritual prayer) are performed. Following the namaz, the Meryem Sura, the 19th Sura of the Koran is recited. Because this Sura begins with the Arabic letters “kaf, ha, ya, ‘ayn, sad,” this Sura is also known popularly a the “Kaha Sura.” In Istanbul, this Sura is also called the “Sura of Zekeriya.” The Sura consists of 98 verses, the first 11 of which mention the Prophet Zekeriya (Zachariah). These verses of the Koran are read. To sum up the verses: The Prophet Zekeriya says that he and his wife have now grown old and will not have any more children, and entreats Allah for a male child. Allah grants him a male child named Yahya. At this, Zekeriya is overjoyed and asks God how he can repay this kindness, and wants an omen. Allah commends Zekeriya to speak to the people for three days and three nights in a row.
The most important feature of the Zekeriya Sofrası is that until the namaz is performed, the Koran is read and the votive candles have been lit at the table, the participants do not speak with one another. Being quiet and refraining from speaking are the chief rules of the gathering. For this reason, children are not generally brought.
The candle in the middle of the table, lit by the woman whose wish has been fulfilled, is left to burn out on its own. In addition to this candle, all the rest who come to the gathering and are making wishes also set candles. They make the promise that “if my desire is fulfilled, I will hold such a sofra in the month of Şaban,” or “I vow to set a Zekeriya Sofrası such as this one.” As many candles as those stating their intent are lit. Although the candle of the woman who holds the gathering is allowed to burn to the end, those who are making their intent known let their candles burn one quarter of the way, then put them out and take them to their own homes. They will then light this candle at their own Zekeriya Sofrası, where it will be allowed to burn completely to the end.
The time of the opening and lighting of candles does not go past the nighttime prayer.
Those invited to a Zekeriya Sofrası are under no strict obligation to go; those who have a wish to make and want to go, participate. Nor is there any particular number of people allowed to participate. If there are those with no wish to make present, they also participate for the sake of the others and partake of the foods.
Those who do not know how to chant the Koran ask someone who knows to do so; these read the verses during the namaz.
Another important characteristic of the Zekeriya Sofrası is that there must be forty-one different foods there. If the Sofra is held by two people, there must be 81 plates (41+41) present. Those who participate in the Zekeriya Sofrası partake of all 41 of these these dishes.
In the Zekeriya Sofrası that were held in Istanbul and Bursa, there were certain differences.
We did the research for this article in March, 1989 (which happened to fall in the month of Şaban). We asked our informant, who was going to hold a Zekeriya Sofrası the next day, what types of foods could be present. She brought out the list below. When the many kuruyemişçis (sellers of nuts and dry fruits) of Ankara were informed that a Zekeriya Sofrası was to be held, they helped out with 25-30 different types of nuts and fruits. The list was as follows:
3. Yellow Leblebi (roast chickpeas)
4. Squash seeds
6. Dries plums
7. Dried mulberries
9. Pestil (a fruit leather made from white mulberries)
10. Dried figs
19. Shelled walnuts
21. Dried sour cherries
22. Sugar cubes
24. Pan börek
25. Sigara böreği (rolled fried börek)
26. Dolma with olive oil
27. Dry köfte
28. Potato salad
29. Fried potatoes
38. Carrot salad
41. Nigella seed
According to some people the Zekeriya Sofrası has nothing to do with religion. Because namaz is performed, the Holy Koran is chanted and prayers are said, it has been imbued with a religious aspect, but also follows a non-religious course with such elements as the lighting of candles on the table. The Koran commands no observation called the Zekeriya Sofrası; we have no such observance in our religion. It is said that “to make wishes with candles does not become the spiritual life of a believer.”
However, “…people try to get their wishes, desires, goals, intentions and needs fulfilled by resorting to offerings or vows. Why do people desire to make offerings and attain their goals by them?” Traditional Turkish cuisine includes many foods and meal traditions that are religious in nature. Even in modern-day Ankara, many different foods with religious aspects are made, such as lokma, helva, aşure, and religious meals such as the Der-der Sofrası are held. I believe it will be of great benefit to research and investigate this sort of culinary traditions in Turkey as a whole, and pass these on to future generations.
1- Aka Gündüz, Zekeriya Sofrası (Roman), İstanbul 1993, 1944.
2- Dr. Lütfi Doğan, Adak Kitabı, Ankara, 1966.
3- Kur’an-ı Kerim ve Türkçe Anlamı (Meal), 3. Cilt. Ankara, 1961.
4- (Prof.) Dr. Hikmet Tanyu, Ankara ve Çevresinde Adak ve Adak Yerleri, Ankara, 1967.
5- Muşfika Abdülkadir (İnan), “İstanbul Adetleri (Peygamber yahut Zekeriya Sofrası)”, Halk Bilgisi Haberleri, 2 (19), 5. 1931.
6- Faika, “Bursa Adetleri”, Halk Bilgisi Haberleri, 1 (1), 1929.
Belkıs Bozyiğit, İlkokul, 1915-2001.
Pakize Neğiş, İlkokul, 1932 (Türk Halk Kültürü Araştırmaları, 1990/1, s. 19- 23