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In Turkey, boys are circumsized well past birth, often in lavish ceremonies, but the tradition is in decline as more parents are turning to hospitals. (Matt Mossman)
In Turkey, boys are circumsized well past birth, often in lavish ceremonies, but the tradition is in decline as more parents are turning to hospitals. (Matt Mossman)

Cultural traditions

Sultan of Circumcision still reigns in Turkey Add to ...

For thousands of Turkish schoolboys each year, the path to manhood leads to a round banquet hall in suburban Istanbul and a seat on a kiddie train. The soccer-ball-shaped cars roll around a track on the perimeter of the room, a clown sings and flaps his arms and families snap photographs. When the train stops, the boys come face to face with Kemal Ozkan - the "Sultan of Circumcision."

Turkey's is one of few cultures remaining in which boys are circumcised long past birth, a ritual that is half trial by knife and half bar mitzvah bash. Mr. Ozkan, 76, has been the life of the party for four decades. He earned his Sultan nickname from the Turkish press as Turkey's only circumcision celebrity. He has snipped some 80,000 foreskins in his career, sometimes with a flamboyance that makes him the Liberace of his craft.

Turks circumcise their sons, as almost all Muslims do, to follow the practice of their religion's founder, Mohammed. A small group of Turkish pediatric surgeons advocates abandoning tradition in favour of circumcising at birth and in a hospital, and Turks who can afford it are increasingly following that advice. But the ritual as presided over by Mr. Ozkan remains a popular choice, and is rooted in Turkish history.

In 1582, when Istanbul was the seat of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Murat III hosted a 52-day celebration to mark the cutting of his sons, featuring free circumcisions for poor families, re-creations of Ottoman military triumphs and an edible garden of marzipan flowers.

Tradition is so entrenched that even those today who circumcise at birth often wait until their sons are older to host the ensuing party. Boys wear a princely costume for the event: a beaded and sequined white satin suit, sash and plumed pillbox hat. Group circumcisions are common, either as pre-election stunts or at Mr. Ozkan's banquet hall in suburban Istanbul, the Circumcision Palace.

Visitors are greeted at the entrance with a life-size cutout of the brawny Mr. Ozkan sporting a salt-and-pepper goatee, white lab coat and a gold-and-silver amulet. Photos covering the walls chronicle his encounters with politicians, athletes and film stars of Turkey's recent history.

Over lunch on the terrace, Mr. Ozkan attributed his fame to a circumcision in 1964 in which he pioneered the use of local anesthetic. Government records cannot confirm the claim, but the pediatricians challenging Mr. Ozkan's ways acknowledge that he was one of the first to adopt modern methods of pain mitigation. The previous strategy was a chewy mouthful of Turkish delight stuffed in a boy's mouth.

State statistics lack specifics, but complications such as infections and severed urethras are common outside hospitals, particularly in poor rural areas without a qualified circumciser, said Egemen Eroglu, one of several pediatric surgeons pulling Turks away from the traditional way. At the Circumcision Palace, Mr. Ozkan said, complications are rare and instruments are sterilized.

Mr. Ozkan's other contribution to the evolution of circumcision in Turkey is the addition of mirth. "This is Disneyland for circumcisions," he said, indicating the palace, which he opened in 1976, with a sweep of his chunky hand.

Mr. Ozkan's fame grew in the 1970s through a series of stunts, such as a circumcision on an airplane. Later, he cut a foreskin on a train. When river rafting came to Turkey, he did one on a raft. And then on the back of a camel. In 1986, he led a team of 30 people in circumcising 1,400 boys in one day, part of a political rally. "These acts proved there is no reason to be scared of circumcision," Mr. Ozkan said.

Mr. Ozkan suffers stiff fingers now, so sons Murat and Levent do the cutting. During a recent ceremony, the Sultan reclined on a red velvet divan onstage as the train circled and the clown sang soccer fight songs. The elder Mr. Ozkan played emcee via a wireless microphone, but was also silently sizing up the seven boys, aged three to nine. "I pick the boy who looks the bravest to go first," he explained later. "If that boy doesn't cry, then the others won't."

Their parents pay the equivalent of about $750, about the same as a hospital circumcision for a newborn, but more than most Turkish families can afford. Dr. Eroglu, meanwhile, circumcised about 200 newborns in 2002 and 1,000 in 2008 - a rough measure of today's trend. The Circumcision Palace has seen annual patronage fall from 6,000 at the start of the current decade to 2,000.

For those 2,000, the final moment turns from fun to formal. When the boys' groins have numbed, the clown leads the first, a nine-year-old named Umut, to a chair onstage next to Murat Ozkan, with his parents joining him for support.

An imam chants prayers as Murat readies the knife. Umut stares and grimaces, but sheds no tears. It takes less than a minute, the audience applauds and the family poses for a photo with Mr. Ozkan before the next boy's turn - approximately boy No. 120,000 boy to pass into manhood at the Circumcision Palace.

The Sultan offers no compromise with modern ways, and usually refers parents who want him to circumcise their newborns to Dr. Eroglu. "Between five and 11 years old is the ideal age," Mr. Ozkan said. "It is important that boys are old enough to remember it, but also old enough to understand that we're not cutting their penises off."

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