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The traditional uses of henna in Turkish culture

Updated on November 21, 2012

Turkey - Located in Asia and Europe is a melting pot of cultures and traditions.

Henna for Health

As a child, I always wondered what those big orange circles on my grandmothers hands and feet were. When I asked she would smile and say "It's medicine" and then try to put this mud-like stuff on mine. Needless to say I used to freak out and run. As I got older, I realised that that the scary mud looking stuff was in fact Henna. So I got to researching and found that the little old biddies actually put henna on their hands and feet if the skin was dry or cracked or if there was a type of fungus (eww). They claimed that this would make the skin/ hair that henna was applied to supple and moisturised once more. Actually, it turns out it's kinda true. As this article from suite 101 states by December Fields states:

When dyeing hair and nails with henna paste, the tanins and other Lawsona molecules bind with the keratin in the hair and nail. Henna is known to strengthen hair and nails, prevent fungus in the nail beds, and heal split ends and cracked cuticles.

If only you weren't orange for weeks after...

Henna or Kina

This is what Henna looks like... until you mix it with water into a paste.
This is what Henna looks like... until you mix it with water into a paste. | Source

Henna For Hair

Sources say that dying your hair with Henna was all the rage back in the 1900s. Catherine Cartwright-Jones c 2004 from Kent State University says that by the end of the 1900s women from Istanbul and Smyrna were consuming 15,000 pounds of henna a year, and the European and American women wanted in. They were so intrigued by the exotic stories carried upon the trade routes that soon to dye your hair became synonymous with "to henna".

Whilst Henna has lost much of its fame today, it is still used wisely and is far more safe than the toxic chemicals we get from the synthetic stuff. It comes in two natural colours: red and black. There are other variations available to use but these are mixed in with other dyes to change the colours.

Dying you hair with henna is simple. Just add water into the henna powder as per the instructions and apply onto hair (ends and roots) evenly. Wrap your hair in cling wrap and a towel or scarf and sleep on it. Just make sure you use an old pillowcase because as henna dries, it crumbles. In the morning jump in the shower and wash it all out. Its going to smell like henna for days and days, so don't bother trying to get it out. The upside is that it will be healthy and shiny again.

Henna tray

This is a modern version of the Henna tray used  as part of the rite of passage ceremony during which, mums and daughters alike get to cry their hearts out ..... it's very therapeutic actually.
This is a modern version of the Henna tray used as part of the rite of passage ceremony during which, mums and daughters alike get to cry their hearts out ..... it's very therapeutic actually. | Source

A modern Turksih Henna Night

Henna and Marriage

In Turkish culture, Henna is used to mark the the right of passage for a female from girl to woman. This ceremony Kina Gecesi or Hens Night, is a very important part of the wedding ceremony. All the female family and friends of the Bride and Groom will hold a celebration with dancing and food. The ceremony has changed over time, and every region has their own little nuances to add to the tradition but it mainly consists of:

  • The bride and all the other females dance and eat as much as possible to try to stave of the stress of the impending wedding and ignore the fact that the girl (who is more than likely really attached to her mother) will not be living at home any more.
  • The girl will leave the party when her groom and his party arrives to prepare for the henna ceremony. She changes into a traditional heavily embroidered dress called a Bindali and covers her face with a red veil, also embroidered. The style of the dress varies from region to region but is usually red, green or blue with gold or silver embroidery. Please note that back in the day, the girl would already be wearing her Bindali and wouldn't have to duck out for a quick costume change.
  • When the bride is ready, one of the bride's helpers, usually the maid of honour will gather all of the single ladies in the room and hand them each a candle. With candles lit, these girls will precede the bride and groom as they walk around 2 chairs placed in the centre of the room 7 times. The maid of honour is the last person in front of the bride and groom and she carries a henna tray - laden with the green mud and candles. Whilst walking around the room, everyone present will sing an old folk song or two about longing and a young bird that flew the nest. It is at this point that the crying begins. It means that the bride is leaving her parents and her home. There are so many nuances contained in this part of the ceremony - it is assumed that traditionally the bride cried because she was going to be at the mercy of her evil mother-in-law (eep!) which was probably the case. Also, all the single ladies strutting their stuff around the circle were providing all of the potential mama-in-laws an opportunity to check out what's available on the market - classy huh?
  • So finally the bride and groom have seated, the bride with mascara running down her cheeks, and the henna-ing begins. The tray bearer comes forward to meet whoever will be saying the prayers (this is usually an older woman, a grandparent etc. ) and applying the henna to the hands of the couple. Here the bride and groom get to have some fun. They do not open their palms to receive the henna treatment and the respective mother-in-laws have to cough up some gold (yes real gold) or cash to entice them to get it over with (personally I scored $150 worth of gold - yes I held out). The henna is applied as a circle in the middle of the palm and/or on the pads of the fingers (I washed mine off straight away - and got told off by my old lady who put it on). After application, red or green gloves are put over the hands (also shiny and embroidered) and the couple are invited to stand.
  • The groom lifts the veil off the brides face (oh noes! make-up tracks) and gives her a chaste kiss on the forehead. This is followed by the couple kissing the hands of their elders and accepting the congratulations of everyone there.
  • The bride and groom then share a dance called the cifte telli which translates to double stringed (get it? get it?) And for the next couple songs, everyone else joins in. Except for the prospective mother in laws, they sit - they want to see the market on its feet (I swear this happens).
  • While everyone is dancing and being merry, a few of the bridesmaids will walk around the room and hand out small parcels of henna to the guests so that they can be orange to.


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