Fate has put Turkey at the junction of two continents. As a land bridge, a meeting point and a battleground, it has seen peoples moving in both directions between Europe and Asia throughout recorded history. That human traffic has left monuments and debris, dynasties and lasting cultural legacies, all of which have contributed to the character of modern Turkey. Turkish history is such a hugely rich patchwork of overlapping eras and empires that it boasts figures, events and phenomena familiar even to the layperson.
Archaeological finds indicate that the earliest Anatolian hunter-gatherers lived in caves during the Palaeolithic era. By around the 7th millennium BC some folk had abandoned their nomadic existence and formed settlements. Çatalhöyük, which arose around 6500 BC, may well be the first ever city. It was certainly a centre of innovation – here locals developed crop irrigation and were the first to domesticate pigs and sheep, as well as create distinctive pottery and what is thought to have been the first-ever landscape picture. Relics from this settlement can be seen at Ankara’s Museum of Anatolian Civilisations.
The Chalcolithic age saw the rise of Hacılar, near current-day Burdur in Central Anatolia, as well as communities in the southeast, which absorbed Mesopotamian influences, including the use of metal tools. Across Anatolia more and larger communities sprung up and interacted – not always happily: settlements tended to be fortified.
By 3000 BC advances in metallurgy allowed power to be concentrated in certain hands, leading to the creation of various Anatolian kingdoms. One such kingdom was at Alacahöyük. Alacahöyük was in the heart of Anatolia, yet even this place showed Caucasian influence, evidence of trade far beyond the Anatolian plateau.
Trade, too, was increasing on the southern and western coasts, with Troy trading with the Aegean islands and mainland Greece. Around 2000 BC the Hatti people created a capital at Kanesh (Kültepe, near Kayseri), ruling over an extensive web of trading communities. Here for the first time Anatolian history emerges from the realm of archaeological conjecture and becomes ‘real’: clay tablets left at Kanesh provide written records of dates, events and names.
No singular, significant Anatolian civilisation had yet emerged, but the tone was set for the millennia to come: cultural interaction, trade and war were to become the recurring themes of Anatolian history.
Ages of Bronze: The Hittites
The Hatti were only a temporary presence. As they declined, a new people, the Hittites, assumed their territory. From Alacahöyük, the Hittites shifted their capital to Hattuşa (near present-day Boğazkale) some time around 1800 BC.
The Hittites’ legacy consisted of their great capital, as well as their state archives (cuneiform clay tablets) and distinctive artistic styles. By 1450 BC the kingdom, having endured internal ructions, was reborn as an empire. In creating the first great Anatolian empire, the Hittites were necessarily warlike, but also displayed other imperial trappings – they ruled over myriad vassal states and princelings while also being noted for their sense of ethics and an occasional penchant for diplomacy. This didn’t prevent them from overrunning Ramses II of Egypt in 1298 BC, but did allow them to patch things up with the crestfallen Ramses by dividing up Syria with him and marrying him to a Hittite princess.
The Hittite empire was harassed in its later stages by subject principalities, including Troy on the Aegean coast. The final straw was the invasion of the iron-smelting Greeks, generally known as the ‘sea peoples’. The Hittites found themselves landlocked – hence disadvantaged during an era of burgeoning sea trade – and lacking in the use of the latest technology: iron.
Meanwhile a new dynasty at Troy was establishing itself as a regional power. The Trojans in turn were harried by the Greeks, which inevitably lead to the Trojan War (1250 BC). This allowed the Hittites some breathing space. However, later arrivals, from both east and west, sped the demise of the Hittites. Some pockets of Hittite culture persisted in the Taurus Mountains, but the great empire was dead. Later city states created a Neo-Hittite culture, which attracted Greek merchants of the Iron Age and became the conduit through which Mesopotamian religion and art forms were transmitted to the Greeks.
Classical empires: Greece & Persia
Post-Hittite Anatolia consisted of a patchwork of peoples, both indigenous Anatolians and recent interlopers. In the east the Urartians, descendants of earlier Anatolian Hurrians, forged a kingdom near Lake Van (Van Gölü). By the 8th century BC the Phrygians arrived in western Anatolia from Thrace. Under King Gordius, he of the Gordian knot, the Phrygians created a capital at Gordion (Yassıhöyük), their power peaking later under King Midas. In 725 BC Gordion was put to the sword by horse-borne Cimmerians, a fate that even King Midas’ golden touch couldn’t avert, and the Phrygians were no more.
On the southwest coast the Lycians established a confederation of independent city states extending from modern-day Fethiye to Antalya. Inland the similarly named Lydians dominated Western Anatolia from their capital at Sardis and are credited with creating the first-ever coinage.
Meanwhile, Greek colonies were steadily spreading along the Mediterranean coast, and Greek cultural influence was spreading through Anatolia. Most of the peoples of the Anatolian patchwork were clearly influenced by the Greeks: Phrygia’s King Midas had a Greek wife; the Lycians borrowed the legend of the Chimera and cult of Leto (centred on Letoön); and Lydian art acted as a conduit between Greek and Persian art forms. It seems that at times admiration was mutual: the Lycians were the only Anatolian people whom the Greeks didn’t deride as ‘barbarians’, and the Greeks were so impressed by the wealth of the Lydian king Croesus that they coined the expression ‘as rich as Croesus’.
These increasing manifestations of Hellenic influence didn’t go unnoticed. Cyrus, the emperor of Persia, would not countenance such temerity in his backyard. He invaded in 547 BC, initially putting paid to the Lydians, then barrelled on to extend control to the Aegean. Over a period of years under emperors Darius I and Xerxes the Persians checked the expansion of coastal Greek trading colonies. They also subdued the interior, bringing to an end the era of home-grown Anatolian kingdoms.
Ruling Anatolia through compliant local satrapies, the Persians didn’t have it all their own way. They had to contend with periodic resistance from feisty Anatolians, such as the revolt of the Ionian city of Miletus in 494 BC. Allegedly fomented from Athens, the revolt was abruptly put down and the locals massacred. The Persians used the connivance of Athens as a pretext to invade mainland Greece, only to be routed at Marathon (whence the endurance event arose).
Alexander & after
Persian control of Anatolia continued until 334 BC when a new force stormed across Anatolia. Alexander and his Macedonian adventurers crossed the Dardanelles at Çanakkale, initially intent on relieving Anatolia of the Persian yoke. Sweeping down the coast they rolled the Persians at Granicus, near Troy, then pushed down to Sardis, which willingly surrendered. After later successfully besieging Halicarnassus (modern-day Bodrum) Alexander ricocheted ever-eastwards disposing of another Persian force on the Cilician plain.
In the former Phrygian capital of Gordion, Alexander encountered the Gordian knot. Tradition stated that whoever untied the knot would come to rule Asia. Frustrated in his attempts to untie it, Alexander dispatched it with a blow of his sword. Asia lay before him; he and his men thundered all the way across Persia to the Indus until all the known world was his dominion.
Alexander was seemingly more disposed to conquest than to nation-building, and when he died in Babylon in 323 BC he left no successor. The enormous empire he had created was to be short-lived – perhaps he should have been more patient with that knot – and was divided between his generals in a flurry of civil wars.
However, if Alexander’s intention had been to cleanse Anatolia of Persian influence and bring it within the Hellenic sphere, he had been monumentally successful. In the wake of Alexander’s armies, a steady process of Hellenisation occurred, a culmination of the process begun centuries earlier that had so provoked Cyrus, the Persian king. A formidable network of municipal communities – the lifeblood of which, as ever in the Hellenic tradition, was trade – spread across Anatolia. The most notable of these was Pergamum (now Bergama). The Pergamene kings were great warriors and governors and enthusiastic patrons of the arts. Greatest of the Pergamene kings was Eumenes (r 197–159BC) who ruled an empire extending from the Dardanelles to the Taurus Mountains and was responsible for much of what can still be seen of Pergamum’s acropolis. As notable as the building of Hellenic temples and aqueducts was the gradual spread of the Greek language, which came to extinguish the native Anatolian languages over a period of centuries.
All the while the cauldron of Anatolian cultures continued to bubble, throwing up various typically short-lived flavour-of-the-month kingdoms. In 279 BC the Celts romped in from southeastern Europe, establishing a kingdom of Galatia centred on Ancyra (Ankara). To the northeast a certain Mithridates had earlier established the kingdom of Pontus, centred on Amasya, and the Armenians, long established in the Lake Van region, and thought by some to be descendants of the earlier Urartians, re-established themselves having been granted autonomy under Alexander.
Meanwhile, across the Aegean Sea, the increasingly powerful Romans were casting covetous eyes on the rich resources and trade networks of Anatolia
Roman rule & the rise of Christianity
Ironically, Pergamum, the greatest of the post-Alexandrian cities, became the mechanism by which the Romans came to control Anatolia. The Roman legions had defeated the armies of a Seleucid king at Magnesia (Manisa) in 190 BC, but Pergamum became the beachhead from which the Roman embrace of Anatolia began in earnest when King Attalus III died in 133 BC, bequeathing the city to Rome. In 129 BC Ephesus was nominated capital of the Roman province of Asia and within 60 years the Romans had overcome spirited resistance from Mithridates of Pontus and extended their reach to Armenia, on the Persian border.
The reign of Emperor Augustus was a period of relative peace and prosperity for Anatolia. It was in this milieu that the fledgling religion of Christianity was able to spread, albeit clandestinely and subject to intermittently rigorous persecution. Tradition has it that St John retired to Ephesus to write the fourth Gospel, bringing Mary with him. John was buried on top of a hill in what is now Selçuk; the great Basilica of St John marks the site. And Mary is said to be buried at Meryemana nearby. The indefatigable St Paul capitalised on the Roman road system, his sprightly step taking him across Anatolia from AD 45 to AD 58 spreading the word.
As Christianity quietly spread, the Roman Empire grew cumbersome. In the late 3rd century Diocletian tried to steady the empire by splitting it into eastern and western administrative units, simultaneously attempting to wipe out Christianity. Both endeavours failed. Diocletian’s reforms resulted in a civil war out of which Constantine emerged victorious. An earlier convert to Christianity, Constantine was said to have been guided by angels in choosing to build a ‘New Rome’ on the ancient Greek town of Byzantium. The city came to be known as Constantinople (now İstanbul). On his death bed, seven years later in 337, Constantine was baptised and by the end of the century Christianity had become the official religion of the empire.
Rome asunder, Byzantium arises
Even with a new capital at Constantinople, the Roman Empire proved no less unwieldy. Once the steadying hand of Theodosius (r 379–95) was gone the impact of the reforms that Diocletian had instituted earlier became apparent: the empire split. The western – Roman – half of the empire eventually succumbed to decadence, sloth and sundry ‘barbarians’; the eastern half – Byzantium – prospered, gradually adopting the Greek language and allowing Christianity to become its defining feature.
By the time of Justinian (527–65), Byzantium had taken up the mantle of imperialism that had once been Rome’s. History books note Justinian as responsible for the Aya Sofya and codifying Roman law, but he also pushed the boundaries of the empire to envelope southern Spain, North Africa and Italy. It was at this stage that Byzantium came to be an entity distinct from Rome, although sentimental attachment to the idea of Rome remained: the Greek-speaking Byzantines still referred to themselves as Romans, and in subsequent centuries the Turks would refer to them as ‘Rum’. However, Justinian’s exuberance and ambition overstretched the empire. Plague and the untimely encroachment of Avars and Slavic tribes north of the Danube curtailed any further expansion.
Later a drawn-out struggle with their age-old rivals the Persians further weakened the Byzantines, leaving the eastern provinces of Anatolia easy prey for the Arab armies exploding out of Arabia. The Arabs took Ankara in 654 and by 669 had besieged Constantinople. Here were a new people, bringing a new language, civilisation and, most crucially, new religion: Islam.
On the western front, Goths and Lombards impinged as well, ensuring that by the 8th century Byzantium was pushed back into the Balkans and Anatolia. The empire remained hunkered down until the emergence of the Macedonian emperors. Basil assumed the throne in 867 and the empire’s fortunes started heading on the up once more, as Basil chalked up victories against Muslim Egypt, the Slavic Bulgars and Russia. Basil II (976–1025) earned the moniker the ‘Bulgar Slayer’ after putting out the eyes of 14, 000 Bulgarian prisoners of war. When Basil died the empire lacked anyone of his leadership skills – or ferocity, perhaps – and the era of Byzantine expansion was comprehensively over.
The First Turkic Empire: The Seljuks
During the centuries of Byzantine waxing and waning, a nomadic people, the Turks, had been moving ever westward out of Central Asia. En route the Turks encountered the Arabs and in so doing converted to Islam. Vigorous and martial by nature, the Turks assumed control of parts of the moribund Abbasid empire, and built an empire of their own centred on Persia. Tuğrul, of the Turkish Seljuk clan, took the title of sultan in Baghdad, and from there the Seljuks began raiding Byzantine territory. In 1071 Tuğrul’s son Alp Arslan faced down the might of the Byzantine army at Manzikert (modern Malazgırt, north of Lake Van). Although vastly outnumbered, the nimble Turkish cavalry won the day, laying all of Anatolia open to wandering Turcoman bands and beginning the drawn-out, final demise of the Byzantine Empire.
Not everything went the Seljuks’ way, however. The 12th and 13th centuries saw incursions by Crusaders, who established short-lived statelets at Antioch (Antakya; p433) and Edessa (modern Şanlıurfa). In a sideshow to the ongoing Seljuk saga, an unruly army of Crusaders, in 1204, sacked Constantinople, the capital of the Christian Byzantines, ostensibly the allies of the Crusaders. Meanwhile the Seljuks were riven by internal power struggles of their own and their vast empire fragmented.
The Seljuk legacy lived on in Anatolia in the Sultanate of Rum, centred on the capital at Konya. Although ethnically Turkish, the Seljuks were purveyors of Persian culture, art and literature. It was the Seljuks who introduced knotted woollen rugs to Anatolia, and they endowed the countryside with remarkable architecture – still visible at Erzurum, Divriği, Amasya and Sivas. These Seljuk creations were the first truly Islamic art forms in Anatolia, and they were to become the prototypes on which Ottoman art forms would later be modelled. Celaleddin Rumi, the Sufi mystic who founded the Mevlevi, or Whirling Dervish, order, was an exemplar of the cultural and artistic heights reached in Konya.
In the meantime, the Mongol descendants of Genghis Khan rumbled through Anatolia. They took Erzurum in 1242, then defeated a Seljuk army at Köse Dağ in 1243. At the Mongol onslaught, Anatolia fractured into a mosaic of Turkish beyliks (principalities) and Mongol fiefdoms; the shell-shocked Byzantines did not regain Constantinople until 1261. But by 1300 a single Turkish bey, Osman, established the Ottoman dynasty that would end the Byzantine line once and for all.
The Ottoman Turks were in fact new to Islam, flitting with impunity around the borderlands between Byzantine and formerly Seljuk territory, but once galvanised they moved with the zeal of the new convert. In an era marked by destruction and dissolution they provided an ideal that attracted legions of followers and they quickly established an administrative and military model that allowed them to expand with alacrity. From the outset they embraced all the cultures of Anatolia – as many Anatolian civilisations before them had done – and their culture became an amalgam of Greek and Turkish, Muslim and Christian elements, particularly in the janissary corps, which were drawn from the Christian populations of their territories.
Vigorous, ambitious and seemingly invincible, they forged westward, establishing a first capital at Bursa, then crossing into Europe and taking Adrianople (Edirne) in 1362. By 1371 they had reached the Adriatic, and in 1389 they met and vanquished the Serbs at Kosovo Polje, effectively taking control of the Balkans.
In the Balkans the Ottomans encountered a resolute Christian community, yet they absorbed them neatly into the state in the creation of the millet system, by which minority communities were officially recognised and allowed to govern their own affairs. That said, neither Christian insolence nor military bravado were countenanced within Ottoman territory, and Sultan Beyazıt resoundingly trounced the armies of the last Crusade at Nicopolis in Bulgaria in 1396. Beyazıt perhaps took military victories for granted from then on. Several years later it was he who was insolent, when he taunted – to his detriment – the Tatar warlord Tamerlane at Ankara. Beyazıt was captured, his army defeated and the burgeoning Ottoman Empire abruptly halted as Tamerlane lurched through Anatolia and out again.
The Ottomans ascendant: Constantinople & beyond
It took a decade for the dust to settle after Tamerlane departed, dragging a no-doubt chastened Beyazıt with him. Beyazıt’s sons wrestled for control until finally a new sultan worthy of his predecessors emerged. With Mehmet I at the helm the Ottomans regrouped and got back to the job at hand: expansion. With a momentum born of reprieve they scooped up the remaining parts of Anatolia, rolled through Greece, made a first attempt at Constantinople and beat the Serbs, this time with Albanian sidekicks, for a second time in 1448.
The Ottomans had fully regained their momentum by the time Mehmet II became sultan in 1451. Constantinople, the last redoubt of the beleaguered Byzantines, stuck out like a sore thumb in the expanse of Ottoman territory. Mehmet, as an untested sultan, had no choice but to claim it. He built a fortress just along the Bosphorus, imposed a naval blockade on the city and amassed his enormous army. The Byzantines appealed forlornly and in vain to Europe for help. After seven weeks of siege the city fell on 29 May 1453. Christendom shuddered at the seemingly unstoppable Ottomans and fawning diplomats likened Mehmet to Alexander the Great and declared him to have assumed the mantle of the great Roman and Byzantine emperors.
Thereafter the Ottoman war machine rolled on, alternating campaigns each summer between eastern and western borders of the empire. By this point Ottoman society was fully geared for war. The janissary system, by which subject Christian youths were converted and trained for the military, meant that the Ottomans had the only standing army in Europe. They were agile, highly organised and motivated. Successive sultans expanded the realm, Selim the Grim capturing the Hejaz in 1517, and with it Mecca and Medina, thus claiming for the Ottomans status as the guardians of Islam’s holiest places. It wasn’t all militarism and mindless expansion, however: Sultan Beyazit II demonstrated the essentially multicultural nature of the empire when he invited the Jews expelled from Iberia by the Spanish Inquisition to İstanbul in 1492.
The Ottoman golden age came during the reign of Sultan Süleyman (1520–66). A remarkable figure, Süleyman was noted as much for codifying Ottoman law (he is known in Turkish as Süleyman Kanunı – law bringer) as for his military prowess. Under Süleyman, the Ottomans enjoyed victories over the Hungarians and absorbed the Mediterranean coast of Algeria and Tunisia; Süleyman’s legal code was a visionary amalgam of secular and Islamic law, and his patronage of the arts saw the Ottomans reach their cultural zenith.
Süleyman was also notable as the first Ottoman sultan to marry. Whereas previously sultans had enjoyed the multifarious comforts of concubines, Süleyman fell in love and married Roxelana. More remarkably still, he remained faithful to her. Sadly, monogamy did not make for domestic bliss: palace intrigues brought about the death of his first two sons. A wearied Süleyman died campaigning on the Danube in 1566, and his body was spirited back to İstanbul.
The Ottoman juggernaut falters
Putting a finger on exactly when or why the Ottoman rot set in is tricky, not to say contentious, but some historians pinpoint the death of Süleyman as a critical juncture. Süleyman’s failure to take Malta (1565) was a harbinger of what was to come, and the earlier unsuccessful naval tilts in the Indian Ocean aimed at circumventing Portuguese influence in East Africa were evidence of growing European military might.
Indulging in hindsight it is easy to say that the remarkable ancestral line of Ottoman sovereigns – from Osman to Süleyman, inspirational leaders and mighty generals all – could not go on indefinitely. The Ottoman family tree was bound to throw up some duds eventually. And so it did.
Plainly the sultans immediately following Süleyman were not up to the task. Süleyman’s son by Roxelana, Selim, known disparagingly as ‘the Sot’, lasted only briefly as sultan, overseeing the naval catastrophe at Lepanto, which spelled the definitive end of Ottoman supremacy in the Mediterranean. The intrigues and powerbroking that occurred during the ‘sultanate of women’ contributed to the general befuddlement of later sultans, but male vested interests, putting personal advancement ahead of the best interests of the empire, also played a role in this. Assassinations, mutinies and fratricide were the order of the day, and little good came of it.
Further, Süleyman was the last sultan to lead his army into the field. Those who came after him were generally coddled and sequestered in the fineries of the palace, having minimal experience of everyday life and little inclination to administer or expand the empire.
These factors, coupled with the inertia that was inevitable after 250 years of virtually unfettered expansion, meant that the Ottoman military might, once famously referred to by Martin Luther as irresistible, was on the wain. There were occasional military victories, largely choreographed by capable viziers, but these were relatively few and far between.
The sick man of Europe
The siege of Vienna in 1683 was effectively the Ottomans’ last tilt at expanding further into Europe. It failed, as had an earlier attempt in 1529. Thereafter it was a downward spiral, the more bumpy for occasional minor rushes of victory. At the treaty of Karlovitz in 1699 the Ottomans sued for peace for the first time, and were forced to give up the Peloponnese, Transylvania and Hungary. The empire was still vast and powerful, but it had lost its momentum and was rapidly falling behind the West on many levels: social, military and scientific. Napoleon’s swashbuckling campaign through Egypt in 1799 was an indication that an emboldened Europe was now willing to take the battle right up to the Ottomans, and was the first example of industrialised Europe meddling in the affairs of the Middle East.
It wasn’t just Napoleon who was breathing down the neck of the empire. The Hapsburgs in Central Europe and the Russians were increasingly assertive, while Western Europe had grown rich after several centuries of colonising and exploiting the ‘New World’ – something the Ottomans had missed out on. In some regards, the Ottomans themselves had to endure a quasi-colonisation by European powers, which dumped their cheaply produced industrial goods in the empire while also building and running much infrastructure: innovations such as electricity, postal services and railways. Indeed, the Ottomans remained moribund, inward looking and generally unaware of the advances that were happening in Europe. An earlier clear indication of this was the fact that the Ottoman clergy did not allow the use of the printing press until the 18th century – a century and a half after it had been introduced into Europe.
But it was another idea imported from the West that was to greatly speed the dissolution of the empire: nationalism. For centuries manifold ethnic groups had coexisted harmoniously in the Ottoman Empire, but the creation of nation-states in Western Europe sparked a desire in the empire’s subject peoples to throw off the Ottoman ‘yoke’ and determine their own destinies. So it was that pieces of the Ottoman jigsaw wriggled free: Greece attained its freedom in 1830. In 1878 Romania, Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia went their own ways, while at the same time Russia was encroaching on Kars and boldly proclaiming itself protector of all of the empire’s Orthodox subjects.
As the empire shrunk there were various attempts at reform, but it was all too little, too late. In 1829 Mahmut II had abolished the janissaries, and in so doing had slaughtered them, but he did succeed in modernising the armed forces. In 1876 Abdülhamid had allowed the creation of an Ottoman constitution and the first ever Ottoman parliament. But he used the events of 1878 as an excuse for doing away with the constitution. His reign henceforth grew increasingly authoritarian.
But it wasn’t just subject peoples who were determined to modernise: educated Turks, too, looked for ways to improve their lot. In Macedonia the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP) was created. Reform minded and Western looking, the CUP, who came to be known as the ‘Young Turks’, forced Abdülhamid in 1908 to abdicate and reinstate the constitution. Any rejoicing proved short-lived. The First Balkans War saw Bulgaria and Macedonia removed from the Ottoman map, with Bulgarian, Greek and Serbian troops advancing rapidly on İstanbul.
The Ottoman regime, once feared and respected, was now condescendingly known as the ‘sick man of Europe’. European diplomats and politicians bombastically pondered the ‘eastern question’, ie how to dismember the empire and cherry-pick its choicest parts.
WWI & its aftermath
The military crisis saw a triumvirate of ambitious, nationalistic and brutish CUP paşas – Enver, Talat and Cemal – stage a coup and take de facto control of the ever-shrinking empire. They managed to push back the unlikely alliance of Balkan armies and save İstanbul and Edirne, but there the good they did ended. Their next move was to choose the wrong side in the looming world war. Enver Paşa had been educated in Germany, and because of that the Ottomans had to fend off the Western powers on multiple fronts during WWI: Greece in Thrace, Russia in northeast Anatolia, Britain in Arabia (where Lawrence rose to the fore and led the Arabs to victory) and a multinational force at Gallipoli. It was during this time of confusion and turmoil that the Armenian scenario unfolded.
It was only at Gallipoli that the Ottomans held their own. This was due partially to the ineptitude of the British high command but also to the brilliance of Turkish commander Mustafa Kemal. Inspiring and iron-willed, he inspired his men to hold their lines, while also inflicting shocking casualties on the invading British and Anzac forces. Unbeknown to anyone at the time, two enduring legends of nationhood were born on the blood-spattered sands of Gallipoli: Australians see that brutal nine-month campaign as the birth of their sense of nationhood, while the Turks regard the defence of their homeland as the birth of their national consciousness.
The end of WWI saw the Turks largely in disarray. The French occupied southeast Anatolia; the Italians controlled the western Mediterranean; the Greeks occupied İzmir; and Armenians, with Russian support, controlled parts of northeast Anatolia. The Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 ensured the dismembering of the empire, with only a sliver of dun steppe to be left to the Turks. European haughtiness did not figure on a Turkish backlash. But backlash there was. A slowly building Turkish nationalist movement was created, motivated by the humiliation of the Treaty of Sèvres. At the head of this movement was Mustafa Kemal, the victorious leader at Gallipoli. He secured the support of the Bektaşi dervishes, began organising Turkish resistance and established a national assembly in Ankara, in the heart of Anatolia, far from opposing armies and meddling diplomats.
In the meantime, a Greek expeditionary force pushed out from İzmir. The Greeks, who, since attaining independence in 1830, had dreamed of recreating the Byzantine Empire, controlling both sides of the Aegean, saw this opportunity to realise their megali idea (great idea). Capitalising on Turkish disorder, the Greeks took Bursa and Edirne and pushed towards Ankara. This was just the provocation that Mustafa Kemal needed to galvanise Turkish support. After an initial skirmish at İnönü, the Greeks pressed on for Ankara seeking to crush the Turks. But stubborn Turkish resistance stalled them at the battle of Sakarya. The two armies faced off again at Dumlupınar. Here the Turks savaged the Greeks, sending them in panicked retreat towards İzmir, where they were expelled from Anatolia amid stricken refugees, pillage and looting.
Mustafa Kemal emerged as the hero of the Turkish people. Macedonian-born himself, he had realised the dream of the ‘Young Turks’ of years past: to create a modern, Turkish nation state. The treaty of Lausanne in 1923 undid the humiliations of Sèvres and saw foreign powers leave Turkey. The borders of the modern Turkish state were set and the Ottoman Empire was no more, although its legacy lives on in manifold nation states, from Albania to Yemen.
Atatürk: Reform & The Republic
Left to manage their own affairs, the Turks consolidated Ankara as their capital and abolished the sultanate. Mustafa Kemal assumed the newly created presidency of the secular republic at the head of the CHP (Republican People’s Party). Later he would take on the name Atatürk (literally ‘Father Turk’). Thereupon the Turks set to work. Given Turkey’s many problems, they had a job ahead of them. But Mustafa Kemal’s energy was apparently limitless; his vision was to see Turkey take its place among the modern, developed countries of Europe.
At the time, the country was impoverished and devastated after years of war, so a firm hand was needed. The Atatürk era was one of enlightened despotism. Atatürk set up the institutions of democracy while never allowing any opposition sufficient oxygen to impede him. He brooked little dissent and indulged an occasional authoritarian streak, yet his ultimate motivation was the betterment of his people. One aspect of his vision, however, was to have ongoing and sorry consequences for the country: his insistence that the state be solely Turkish. To encourage national unity made sense considering the nationalist separatist movements that had bedevilled the Ottoman Empire, but in doing so he denied a cultural existence to the Kurds, many of whom had fought valiantly during the struggle for independence. Sure enough, within a few short years a Kurdish revolt erupted in southeast Anatolia, the first of several such ructions to recur throughout the 20th century.
The desire to create unified nation-states on both sides of the Aegean also brought about population exchanges after the armistice between Greece and Turkey, whereby whole communities were uprooted as Greek-speaking peoples of Anatolia were shipped to Greece, while Muslim residents of Greece were transferred to Turkey. These exchanges brought great disruption and the creation of ‘ghost villages’ that were vacated but never reoccupied, such as Kayaköy. Again, this was a pragmatic move aimed at forestalling outbreaks of ethnic violence, but it became one of the more melancholy episodes of the early years of the republic and, importantly, hobbled the development of the new state. Turkey found itself without much of its Ottoman-educated classes, many of whom had not been Turkish-speakers, and in their stead Turkey accepted impoverished Muslim peasants from the Balkans.
Mustafa Kemal’s zeal for modernisation was unwavering, giving the Turkish state a makeover on micro and macro levels. Everything from headgear to spoken language was scrutinised and where necessary reformed. Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s Turkey adopted the Gregorian calendar (bringing it in line with the West, rather than the Middle East), reformed its alphabet (adopting the Roman alphabet and abandoning Arabic script) and standardised the Turkish language, outlawed the fez (seen as a reminder of the Ottoman era, hence backward), instituted universal suffrage, and decreed that Turks should take surnames, something that they had previously got by without. By the time of his death in November 1938, Atatürk had, to a greater or lesser degree, lived up to that name, having been the pre-eminent figure in the creation of the nation state and having dragged it into the modern era by a combination of inspiration, ruthlessness and sheer weight of personality.
Democratisation & the coups
Though reform had proceeded apace in Turkey, the country remained economically and military weak and Atatürk’s successor, İsmet İnönü, stepped carefully to avoid involvement in WWII. The war over, Turkey found itself allied to the USA. A bulwark against the Soviets (the Armenian border then marked the edge of the Soviet bloc), Turkey was of great strategic importance and found itself on the receiving end of US aid. The new friendship was cemented when Turkish troops fought in Korea, and Turkey was made a member of NATO soon afterwards.
Meanwhile, the democratic process, previously stifled, gained momentum. In 1950 the Democratic Party swept to power. Ruling for a decade, the Democrats had raised the hackles of the Kemalists from the outset by reinstituting the call to prayer in Arabic (something Atatürk had outlawed), but when, as their tenure proceeded, they failed to live up to their name and became increasingly autocratic, the army stepped in during 1960 and removed them. Army rule lasted only briefly, and resulted in the liberalisation of the constitution, but it set the tone for years to come. The military considered themselves the guardians of Atatürk’s vision – pro-Western and secular – and felt obliged and empowered to step in when necessary to ensure the republic maintained the right trajectory.
The 1960s and ‘70s saw the creation of political parties of all stripes, from left-leaning to fascist–nationalist to pro-Islamic, but a profusion of new parties did not necessarily make for a more vibrant democracy. The late 1960s were characterised by left-wing activism and political violence that prompted the creation of unlikely coalitions and a move to the right by centrist parties. The army stepped in again in 1971 to restore order, before swiftly handing power back in late 1973. Several months later the military was again in the thick of things when President Bulent Ecevit ordered them into Cyprus to protect the Turkish minority, in response to a Cypriot Greek extremist organisation who had seized power and was espousing union with Greece. The invasion effectively divided the island into two political entities – one of which is only recognised by Turkey – a situation that persists to this day.
Political and economic chaos reigned for the rest of the ‘70s so the military took it upon themselves to seize power again and re-establish order in 1980. This they did through the creation of the highly feared National Security Council, but allowed elections in 1983. Here, for the first time in decades, was a happy result for Turkey. Turgut Özal, leader of the Motherland Party (ANAP), won a majority and, unhindered by unruly coalition partners, was able to set Turkey back on course. An astute economist, and pro-Islamic, Özal made vital economic and legal reforms that brought Turkey in line with the international community and sowed the seeds of its current vitality.
The late 1980s, however, were notable for two aspects – corruption and Kurdish separatism – that were to have an impact long beyond Özal’s tenure.
The 1990s: modernisation & separatism
The first Gulf War kick-started the 1990s with a bang. Turkey played a prominent role in the allied invasion of Iraq, with Özal supporting sanctions and allowing air strikes from bases in southern Anatolia. In so doing, Turkey, after decades in the wilderness, affirmed its place in the international community, while also becoming a more important US ally. At the end of the Gulf War millions of Iraqi Kurds, fearing reprisals from Saddam, fled north into southeastern Anatolia. The exodus caught the attention of the international media, bringing the Kurdish issue into the international spotlight, and resulted in the establishment of the Kurdish safe haven in northern Iraq. This in turn emboldened the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who stepped up their campaign, thus provoking more drastic and iron-fisted responses from the Turkish military, such that the southeast was effectively enduring a civil war. The Kurdish conflagration continued escalating, with most of the southeast under martial law, until the capture of Abdullah Öcalan in 1999.
Meanwhile, Turgut Özal died suddenly in 1993 thus creating a power vacuum. Various weak coalition governments followed throughout the 1990s, with a cast of political figures flitting across the political stage. Tansu Çiller served briefly as Turkey’s first female prime minister, but her much-vaunted feminine touch and economic expertise did nothing to find a solution to the Kurdish issue or to cure the ailing economy. In fact, her husband’s name was aired in various fraud investigations at a time when sinister links between organised crime, big business and politicians were becoming increasingly apparent.
In December 1995, to everyone’s surprise, the religious Refah (Welfare) Party managed to form a government led by veteran politician Necmettin Erbakan. Heady with power, Refah politicians made Islamist statements that raised the ire of the military. In 1997 the National Security Council declared that Refah had flouted the constitutional ban on religion in politics. Faced with what some dubbed a ‘postmodern coup’, the government resigned and Refah was disbanded.
Turn of the Millennium
The capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in early 1999 may have seemed like a good omen after the torrid ’90s. His capture offered an opportunity – still largely unrealised – to settle the Kurdish question. Later that year the disastrous earthquakes centred on İzmit put paid to any premillennial optimism. The government’s handling of the crisis was inadequate; however, the global outpouring of aid and sympathy – not least from traditional foes, the Greeks – did much to reassure Turks they were valued members of the world community.
A new political force arose in the new millennium: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice & Development Party (AKP) heralded an era of societal reforms, capitalising on improved economic conditions. With Islamist roots, the AKP initially sought to pursue Turkey’s entry to the EU and to end military intervention in the political scene.
Much of the support for the AKP arose in the burgeoning cities of Anatolia, rather than the traditional power centres of İstanbul and Ankara. The cities of the interior were experiencing an economic boom, proof that the modernising and economic development projects begun during the Atatürk era were finally bearing fruit. In fact, the Turkish economy continues to grow strongly, with consistently high annual GDP growth, prompting many Turks to be relieved that their country wasn’t absorbed by the EU, thus saving them from the economic perils that have beset Greece.
The AKP pursued a new direction in foreign policy, attempting to restore relations with Turkey’s near neighbours, a policy that appeared modestly successful until the outbreak of hostilities in Syria in 2012. On the domestic front, the AKP has worked to curtail military intervention in Turkey’s political sphere, while also initiating ‘openings’ to address long-term dilemmas such as minority rights, the Kurdish issue, acrimonious relations with Armenia and the recognition of Alevi rights. However, thus far these ‘openings’ have not produced long-term solutions. The AKP has also attracted criticism at home and abroad, particularly for restricting freedom of expression among journalists. Others contend that its Islamic political philosophy is consciously curtailing long-held social freedoms such as drinking alcohol at streetside cafes. Grandiose schemes put forward by Prime Minister Erdoğan – including a proposal to cut a new canal connecting the Black and Marmara seas, and plans to build the world’s biggest mosque at Çamlıca in İstanbul – raise a fair few eyebrows, too.
However you look at things, Turkish society and economy are currently extremely dynamic, making for a creative environment where ideas, trends, opportunities (and some problems) continue to bubble up, and the majority of Turks (and Kurds) are along for the ride.