The World

Turkey, an uncomfortable neighbor

With this article, historian Gerardo Ferrara begins a series of three studies in which he will introduce us to the culture, history and religion of Turkey.

Gerardo Ferrara-April 12, 2024-Reading time: 7 minutes

Istanbul ©Carlos ZGZ (flickr)

The process of enlargement of the European Union has brought its founding members face to face with realities, countries and peoples that until recently were considered enemies, "others", exotic, almost forgotten.

Today, Europe is forced to question the identity of the populations that press on its borders and to fully understand the complex realities that, if neglected, can turn into bloody conflicts like those that ravaged the Old Continent in the last century and that have been inflaming neighboring areas such as the Balkans, the Caucasus and the eastern Mediterranean for centuries.

One of these realities is Turkey, a transcontinental country (straddling Europe and Asia) that has always been a meeting (and clash) point between East and West.

Some data

With an area of 783,356 km², Turkey (officially: Republic of Turkey) is a state occupying the entire Anatolian peninsula (with the eastern part of the country located in Cilicia and on the Arabian shelf) and a small portion of Thrace, in Europe (bordering Greece and Bulgaria). It borders no less than eight different countries (and we could well say different cultural worlds, being Greece and Bulgaria in Europe; Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus; Iran in the east; Iraq and Syria, hence the Arab world, in the south). It faces four seas: the Mediterranean, the Aegean, the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, which divides the Asian part from the European part. It has a population of more than 85 million inhabitants, mostly classified as "Turks", but with a wide variety of ethnic and religious minorities.

Turkey is a presidential republic since 2017, officially a secular state. Islam is the predominant religion (99 % of Turks consider themselves Muslims). In addition to Sunnis, who are in the majority, there is also a significant minority (at least 10 %) of Shiites, mainly in the Alevi community. There are also about 120,000 Christians (mostly Greek Orthodox, but also Apostolic Armenians) and a small Jewish community, mainly concentrated in Istanbul. The Christian and Jewish minorities represent a microscopic legacy of what were large and important communities until the 20th century.

A bit of history

First of all, why does Turkey have this name? Indeed, until 1923 what is now the Turkish republic was part (in fact, the main part) of the Ottoman Empire. The term "Turk" is in fact an ethnonym (from "türk") for the inhabitants of present-day Turkey, but it also refers to the Turkic peoples in general (including Huns, Avars, Bulgars, etc.), those who, coming from the steppes of Mongolia and Central Asia, colonized for millennia parts of Eastern Europe, the Near East and Asia. Today we also speak of "Turkic peoples", i.e. those (Turks, Azeris, Kazakhs, Turkmen, Uzbeks, Tatars, Uyghurs, etc.) who speak Turkic languages, closely related languages belonging to the Altaic family.

The first time the term "Turks" was used, not to designate the Turkic peoples in general, but those who more properly occupied Anatolia, was from 1071, after the battle of Manzicerta, by which Byzantium lost a large part of Anatolia to the Seljuk Turkmen, who had already begun to invade and occupy the provinces of this region since the 6th century AD.

Until then, but also later, today's Turkey was not a "Turkish" country.

If, indeed, the roots of Anatolian history go back to the Hittites (Indo-European language people whose civilization flourished between the 18th and 12th centuries BC. ), there were also other cultures that found in the region an ideal place to proliferate, the Urartians (proto-Armenians), the Phrygians, the Lydians, the Galatians, without forgetting the Greeks and their settlement in Ionia (western region of Anatolia, along the coast of the Aegean Sea) in cities founded by them, such as Ephesus). Let us not forget, then, that in Ionia was also the ancient city of Troy, whose rise and tragic destruction Homer narrates.

It was precisely in relation to Anatolia that Greeks and Romans first used the term Asia (and indeed part of Anatolia formed the Roman province of Asia).

After the foundation of Constantinople by the Roman Emperor Constantine on the site of ancient Byzas (Byzantium), and the splendors of the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, Anatolia, already home to a diverse population of some 14 million people (including Greeks, Romans, Armenians, Assyrians and other Christian populations), was progressively invaded, especially following the battle of Manzicerta (in which the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantines), Armenian Assyrians and other Christian populations) was subject to a progressive invasion, especially following the Battle of Manzicerta (in which the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantines on their eastern border), by Turkic populations migrating from Central Asia to Europe and the Near East, a migration that had already begun in the 6th century AD and which is considered to have begun in the 6th century AD. C. and which is considered to be at the beginning of the Byzantine Empire. C. and is considered one of the largest in history.

After Manzicerta, however, Constantinople (today known as Istanbul) remained the capital of what was left of the Byzantine Empire until 1453, when troops of another Turkish tribe, the Ottomans, led by the leader Muhammad II, besieged it, defeating the army of Emperor Constantine XI Paleologus (who presumably died during the siege, considered a saint and martyr by the Orthodox Church, as well as by some Eastern Rite Catholic churches, also for his attempt to recompose the Great Schism) and established the Ottoman Empire, making Constantinople itself (which retained this name until the foundation of the Turkish republic) its capital.

As for the toponym Istanbul, this was not officially adopted by Atatürk until 1930, to free the city from its Greco-Roman roots, which the Ottoman sultans had evidently been able to preserve much better than he had, employing Greek and Armenian workers to build the most famous monuments for which it is still visited today, including the Blue Mosque and the famous baths, built by the distinguished architect of Greek-Armenian (and Christian) origin Sinan. Istanbul, however, is not a toponym of Turkish origin either, but comes from Stambùl, which in turn is a contraction of the Greek locution εἰς τὴν πόλιν (èis ten polin): "towards the city". And by "polis" is meant the City par excellence, with the same meaning as the Latin term Urbs referred to Rome (Constantinople is considered by Eastern Christians as the new Rome).

The Ottoman Empire reached its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries, spanning three continents and dominating a vast area that included southeastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and was famous for being extremely ethnically and religiously diverse. While it is true that the Sultan was of Turkish ethnicity and Islamic religion, millions of his subjects did not speak Turkish as their first language and were Christians or Jews, subjected (until the 19th century) to a special regime, that of the "millets". In fact, the state was founded on a religious and not an ethnic basis: the sultan was also the "prince of the believers", therefore the caliph of the Muslims of any ethnicity (Arabs, Turks, Kurds, etc.), considered first class citizens, while the Christians of the different confessions (Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Catholics and others) and the Jews were subject to a special regime, that of the "millet", which established that every non-Muslim religious community was recognized as a "nation" within the empire, but with a status of juridical inferiority (according to the Islamic principle of the "dhimma"). Christians and Jews, therefore, did not officially participate in the government of the state, paid exemption from military service through a capitation tax ("jizya") and a land tax ("kharaj"), and the head of each community was its religious leader. Bishops and patriarchs were thus civil servants immediately subject to the sultan.

In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire began to decline due to military defeats, internal revolts and pressure from European powers. In fact, from this period date the reforms known as "Tanzimat" (aimed at "modernizing" the state also through greater integration of non-Muslim and non-Turkish citizens, protecting their rights through the application of the principle of equality before the law).

From this period are also both the Hamidian massacres perpetrated against the Armenian population under Sultan Abdül Hamid II, and, at the beginning of the 20th century, the three great genocides against the three main Christian components of the already dying Empire: the Armenians, the Greeks and the Assyrians.

During Hamid's time, a coup d'état took place in the Ottoman Empire in 1908, whereby a nationalist movement, known as the Young Turks, seized power and forced Abdül Hamid to re-establish a multi-party system of government that modernized the state and the military, making them more efficient.

The ideology of the Young Turks was inspired by European nationalisms, but also by doctrines such as social Darwinism, elitist nationalism and pan-Turanism, which erroneously considered eastern Anatolia and Cilicia to be the Turkish homeland (we have mentioned instead that the Turks are a people of Mongol and Altaic origin).

According to their visions, they aspired to build an ethnically pure nation and to get rid of the elements that were not fully Turkish. By logical conclusion, a non-Muslim was not a Turk: to achieve a Turkish state purified of disturbing elements, it was necessary to get rid of Christian subjects, i.e. Greeks, Assyrians and Armenians, the latter considered all the more dangerous since, from the Caucasian zone of the Russian Empire, Armenian volunteer battalions had been formed at the beginning of the First World War to support the Russian army against the Turks, in which Armenians from this side of the border participated.

During World War I, the Ottoman Empire allied with the Central Powers and suffered a heavy defeat, to the point that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a promising military hero, led a Turkish war of independence against foreign occupation forces and proclaimed the Republic of Turkey in 1923, ending Ottoman rule.

Under Atatürk's leadership, Turkey undertook a series of radical reforms to modernize the country, including secularization, democratization and reform of the legal system (there was also a linguistic reform of the Turkish language, purged of foreign elements and written in Latin characters instead of Arabic thereafter, and the capital was moved from Istanbul to Ankara). In the following years, Turkey found itself at the center of crucial events such as World War II and the Cold War, as well as internal political changes that saw the alternation of civilian and military governments (the latter considered the guardians of the secularity of the state).

In the 21st century, Turkey has continued to play an important role on the international stage, both politically and economically, especially with the advent of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president since 2014, while facing continuous internal and external challenges, such as ethnic tensions, human rights issues, the Kurdish conflict and geopolitical issues in the Middle East region.

The authorGerardo Ferrara

Writer, historian and expert on Middle Eastern history, politics and culture.

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