The kocek phenomenon (plural kocekler in Turkish) is one of the significant features of Ottoman Empire culture . The kocek was typically a very handsome young male rakkas, "dancer," usually cross-dressed in feminine attire, employed as an entertainer and sex worker.
The koceks were usually children of non-Muslim dhimmi peoples living under Ottoman rule. Their ranks were filled from the ethnic groups - mostly Christians - subdued by the Turkish empire since the profession was held to be below the dignity of a Muslim and thus forbidden to Muslim boys.
The Turkish word is derived from the Persian word kuchak, "little," "small," or "young."
The culture of the kocek, which flourished from the 17th to the 19th century, had its origin in the customs in Ottoman palaces, and in particular in the harems. Its genres enriched both the music and the dance of the Ottomans.
The support of the Sultans was a key factor in its development, as in the early stages the arts form was confined to palace circles. From there the practice dispersed throughout Anatolia and the Balkans by means of independent troupes.
A kocek would begin training around the age of seven or eight, and would be considered accomplished after about six years of study and practice. A dancer's career would last as long as he was beardless and retained his youthful appearance. Dancers would get married when they were around 25 or 30, and then could become organizers of a new kocek troupe. Koceks were organized into companies known as kol. Twelve such companies were counted in the mid-1600s, each company averaging about 250 dancers.
Their erotic dances, collectively known as kocek oyunu, blended Arab, Greek, Assyrian and Kurdish elements. They were performed to a particular genre of music known as kocekce, which was performed in the form of suites in a given melody. It too was a mix of Sufi, Balkan and classical Anatolian influences, some of which survives in popular Turkish music today. The accompaniment included various percussion instruments, such as the davul-kocek, the davul being a large drum, one side covered with goat skin and the other in sheep skin, producing different tones. A kocek's skill would be judged not only on his dancing abilities but also on his proficiency with percussion instruments, especially a type of castagnette known as the carpare. In later times these were replaced by metal cymbals called Zils. The dancers were accompanied by an orchestra, featuring four to five each kaba kemence and lauto as principal instruments, used exclusively for kocek suites. There were also two singers. A kocek dance in the Ottoman Seraglio (palace harem) involved one or two dozen koceks and many musicians. The occasions of their performances were wedding or circumcision celebrations, feasts and festivals, as well as the pleasure of the sultans and the aristocracy.
The youths, often wearing heavy makeup, would curl their hair and wear it in long tresses under a small black or red velvet hat decorated with coins, jewels and gold. Their usual garb consisted of a tiny red embroidered velvet jacket with a gold-embroidered silk shirt, shalvars (baggy trousers), a long skirt and a gilt belt, knotted at the back. They were said to be "sensuous, attractive, effeminate," and their dancing "sexually provocative," impersonating female dancers. Dancers minced and gyrated their hips in slow vertical and horizontal figure-8's, rhythmically snapping their fingers and making suggestive gestures. Often acrobatics, tumbling and mock wrestling were also part of the act. The koceks were available sexually, often to the highest bidder, in the passive role.
The names and backgrounds of koceks in Istanbul in the 18th century are well documented. Among the more celebrated koceks from the end of the 18th century are the Gypsy Benli Ali of Dimetoka (today's Greece); Buyuk Afet (born Yorgaki) of Croatian origin, Kucuk (little) Afet (born Kaspar) of Armenian origin, and Pandeli from the Greek Island of Chiros. There were at least fifty koceks of star stature at the time. The famous ones, like the Gypsy kocek Ismail, would have to be booked weeks or months in advance, at a very high cost.
Western visitors were variously taken with the - for them - unusual sight of pederasty unleashed. One impression is preserved in Don Leon, a poem anonymously written in the voice of Lord Byron:
Here much I saw and much I mused to see
The loosened garb of Eastern luxury.
I sought the brothel, where, in maiden guise,
The black-eyed boy his trade unblushing plies;
Where in lewd dance he acts the scenic show
His supple haunches wriggling to and fro:
With looks voluptuous the thought excites,
Whilst gazing sit the hoary sybarites:
Whilst gentle lute and drowsy tambourine
Add to the languor of the monstrous scene.
Yes, call it monstrous! but not monstrous, where
Close latticed harems hide the timid fair:
With mien gallant where paederasty smirks,
And whoredom, felon like, in covert lurks.
All this I saw but saw it not alone
A friend was with me, and I dared not own
How much the sight had touched some inward sense,
Too much for een the closest confidence.(441-8).
In his travels to the Levant, Byron had indeed been present at such a dance as described above. His traveling companion, John Cam Hobhouse, relates in his diary that on Saturday, May 19th, 1810:
This day, went with Byron and a party to the wine houses of Galata. Took pipes, and saw two old and ugly boys, who wrung the sweat off their brows, dance as before, waving their long hair. Also they spread a mat and, putting on a kind of shawl, performed an Alexandrian womans dance much the same, except that they knelt, and, covering each others heads, seemed as if kissing. One of Mr Adairs Janissaries, who talks English and has been in England, was with us. I asked him if these boys would not be hanged in England. Oh yes, directly. De Turk take and byger dem dye see?
For this beastly sight we paid fifty-five piastres, five to the boys each, and five to all fiddlers and singers and performers &c., nor is this dear, I understand. Turk boys are not allowed to dance.'' Excerpt from Hobhouse's diary
The youths were held in high esteem. Famous poets, such as Fazyl bin Tahir Enderuni, wrote poems, and classical composers, such as the court musician Hammamizade Ismail Dede Efendi (1778-1846), composed kocekces for celebrated koceks. Many Istanbul meyhanes hired koceks. Before starting their performance, the kocek danced among the spectators, to make them more excited. In the audience, competition for their attention often caused commotions and altercations. Men would go wild, breaking their glasses, shouting themselves voiceless, or fighting and sometimes killing each other vying for the boys' sexual favors. This resulted in suppression of the practice under sultan Sultan Abd-ul-Mejid I. Kocek dances were officially banned in 1856, and many of the boys left the country to practice their profession in Egypt and elsewhere. With the suppression of harem culture under Sultan `Abdu'l-`Aziz (1861-1876) and Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1908), kocek dance and music lost the support of its royal patrons, and gradually disappeared.
The other type of rakkas, or male dancer was the tavan oglan, "rabbit boy," a young dancer dressed in provocative male clothing: tight pants and a jaunty hat. The non-Muslim tavan oglan are thought to have come mainly from the Greek islands in the Aegean and the Sea of Marmara. They performed mainly during Ramadan, working as sakis "wine boys" in the meyhanes otherwise, when not dancing at special occasions.
Koceks were much more sought after than the cengi, their feminine counterparts. Some youths were known to have been killed by the cengi, who were extremely jealous of men's attention towards the boys.
At present, the same-sex love and sexuality aspect of kocek culture is considered to have been "a privilege of the powerful economic classes or the world of the arts." Though no new compositions or performances have taken place in the last hundred years, male dancers dressed as women still perform in some areas of Turkey, though their art is no longer primarily of a sensual nature and is seen primarily as folkloric.
The style however continues to inspire modern musicians. Ulvi Cemal Erkin (1906-1972) is a Turkish classical composer whose most popular masterpiece is Kocekce a dance rhapsody composed in 1943, and perhaps the best known single piece of Turkish music abroad. It was first introduced to the public in 1943 with Ernst Praetorius conducting the Presidential Symphony Orchestra.
The music genre has been preserved in the Balkans in the form of the Cocek, and is especially popular in Kosovo, Albania and the Republic of Macedonia. It is also an important music genre amongst the Roma-Gypsies and is performed at weddings, circumcisions and festivals all over the Balkans.
Another modern interpretation is the movie Kocek (Kucuk cadi 1975) by director Nejat Saydam. It is probably the first Turkish movie to deal with the topic of homosexuality and change of gender role.
At the same time, young male dancers dressed in sparkling costumes are again finding favor, despite the objections of conservative commentators. Known as rakkas, they have become a common feature of dance halls and night clubs, performing seductive belly dances, and are reputed to be "as sexual and popular as any of the best Turkish female belly dancers."
AYVERDI, Samiha; Istanbul Geceleri The nights of Istanbul, ed. Baha, Istanbul, 1977.
ENDERUNLU Fazil bey; ''Cenginame',1759
Erdogan, Sema Nilgun: Sexual life in Ottoman Empire,ed. Donence, Istanbul, 1996. Pp 88-92
JANSSEN, Thijs: Transvestites and Transsexuals in Turkey,in Sexuality and Eroticism Among Males in Moslem Societies,edited by Arno Schmidt and Jehoeda Sofer, ed. Harrington Park Press, NY, 1992
KOCU, Resad Ekrem, Eski Istanbul'da Meyhaneler ve Meyhane Kocekleri, Istanbul Ansiklopedisi Notlari No
OZTUNA, Yilmaz: Turk Musikisi Ansiklopedisi,'' Milli Egitim Basimevi, Istanbul, 1976. p.23
Culture of the Ottoman Empire
Ottoman Turkish language
Pederasty in the Middle East: The Ottoman Empire
List of transgender-related topics
Videos of modern-day Kocek Dancers