Turkish folklore boasts many colorful characters but none who are as well-known or well-loved as the comic and clever Nasreddin Hodja. His given name, Nasr-ed-Din means "Victory of the Faith" and he later acquired the honorific title Hodja, or Hoca which means "Master" or "Teacher" in Turkish.
Nasreddin Hodja As Historical Figure
Nasreddin Hodja is commonly believed to have been born in the 13th century in Hortu village near Sivrihisar, Esksehir Province, in the Turkish heartland of Central Anatolia. He is variously reported to have served as a Kadi (Islamic judge), an imam, a teacher and a dervish during his lifetime.
Nasreddin Hodja later settled in Aksehir in Konya Province where he died in 1284. Nasreddin Hodja’s tomb in Aksehir is guarded by a locked gate without walls, symbolizing the absurdity he loved to poke fun at in life. The International Nasreddin Hodja festival is celebrated annually in Aksehir July 5-10.
The earliest Nasreddin Hodja story appears in a Saltukname, a collection of Turkish folk stories and legends written in 1480.
Nasreddin Hodja As Folk Hero
Nasreddin Hodja appears in thousands of stories as a comic character, sometimes wise, sometimes foolish, who both provokes and outwits those around him. Most of the stories are cast in a small-village setting in which Nasreddin Hodja triumphs over difficulties with pithy folk wisdom.
Stories of Nasreddin Hodja are pervasive in Turkish culture. Phrases from the most popular tales are quoted or alluded to frequently in daily life in sayings such as "he who pays the gold blows the whistle" and "the quilt is gone, the fight is over.”
Nasreddin Hodja stories have spread throughout the Muslim world and are told in many languages from China to Hungary and from Southern Siberia to North Africa. The Arabs know him as the clever Joha. To the people of Egypt, he is the prankster Goha. To the Uighurs of China, he is the wise Affanti.
UNESCO declared 1996-1997 to be the International Nasreddin Year to celebrate the outstanding cultural impact of this beloved folk hero.
In Turkey, Nasreddin Hodja is most often depicted wearing a large white turban and riding a donkey backwards in memory of one of his most famous tales.
Hodja And The Backward Seat
One day, a delegation invited Nasreddin Hodja to come to their village and become their new imam. Hodja was eager to accept the job and hurried out to the stable to mount his donkey. Unfortunately, Hodja’s thoughts had already rushed ahead to his new position, leaving his feet to fend for themselves. He suddenly looked down and realized that he had mounted his donkey backward!
The villagers looked at one another skeptically. Could this be the famous hodja they had come to hire? How could he lead the Friday prayers if he could not even mount his own donkey?
Hodja read the doubt in their eyes and so drew up his dignity and spoke swiftly to dispel their concerns.
"You may be wondering," Hodja said, "why I have chosen to sit backward on my donkey. Be assured that I have good reason. If I were to seat myself forward on my donkey and ride ahead of you, my back would be turned toward you and that would be discourteous.
On the other hand, if I were to sit forward on the donkey and ride behind you, that would be shameful, for I am a hodja and your spiritual leader. But seated this way I can ride ahead of you AND face toward you.”
The men from the village had never considered the matter in such a way and marveled at Hodja’s penetrating insight. They agreed together then and there that they had found a worthy imam for their village.
The book Once There Was, Twice There Wasn't: Fifty Turkish Folktales of Nasreddin Hodja (2014) by Michael Shelton is a wonderful collection of the best Nasreddin Hodja stories.