Turkey bridges Europe and Asia, spreading across the Anatolian peninsula. It shares borders with eight countries: Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. It is also flanked by three large seas, the Mediterranean to the south, the Black Sea to the north, and the Aegean Sea to the west, and is divided by the Dardanelles and Bosporus Straits and the Sea of Marmara.
The capital city, Ankara, is located in the interior of the peninsula along a hill-covered region near the center of Turkey. Ankara has a continental climate, with cold, snowy winters due to its elevation and inland location, and hot, dry summers. Rainfall occurs mostly during the spring and fall. Istanbul, on the other hand, is situated on the Bosporus Strait connecting the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea. Istanbul has a borderline Mediterranean climate and a humid subtropical climate. One of the most salient characteristics of the climate in parts of Istanbul is its persistently high humidity, which reaches 80 percent most mornings. Because of these conditions, fog is very common, although more so in the northern parts of the city and away from the city center.
Turkey is divided into seven regions with distinct climates. They are the Marmara region in northwest Turkey; the large, interior Central Anatolia region; the western Aegean Region bordering the sea; the southern Mediterranean Region; the northern Black Sea Region; and the Southeastern Anatolia Region and Eastern Anatolia Region. The coastal regions are characterized by cool, rainy winters and hot, dry summers. The interior of the country, called Central Anatolia, has a continental climate with four distinct seasons. Central Anatolia is one of the largest regions, and is typified by semi-arid plateaus.
The climates of Southeastern Anatolia and Eastern Anatolia are highly influenced by the mountains prevalent in the region. Summers are hot and dry while winters are freezing cold, which puts a huge toll on the majority of the population whose means of survival is farming. These geographical factors, along with regional insurgency and the Turkish military’s response to it, has been one of the most significant hindrances to the region’s slow economic development in comparison to other parts of Turkey.
Turkey has several prominent geological features. It has two high mountain ranges, the Pontus and the Taurus, located in eastern Anatolia. Many of the peaks are extinct volcanoes, the highest being Mount Ararat at 5,137 meters, or 16,853 feet. Turkey’s largest lake, Lake Van, is situated in eastern Turkey were the Pontus and Taurus mountain ranges converge.
The Euphrates and Tigris Rivers that extend from Turkey to Syria and Iraq are the primary source water resource of not only Turkey but also its neighbors. In 1989, the Turkish government launched the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), aimed at improving water and land resources in the region, by building 22 dams, 9 hydraulic power plants and a massive irrigation system.
Turkey faces a variety of environmental problems. Like many of its neighbors, it suffers from water pollution, air pollution, and deforestation; high rates of rural-urban migration is a major cause of these problems. Rapid infrastructural growth and industrialization necessary to accommodate increased urban populations have occurred at the expense of the environment. The 2013 Gezi Park protests that eventually turned into the largest opposition rally to the rule of AKP (Justice and Development Party) were initially staged in response to the elimination of green spaces within Istanbul to provide real estate for development projects such as malls.
Additionally, Turkey is prone to devastating earthquakes, especially in the north along the Sea of Marmara. The country is situated at the convergence of several fault lines making quakes an inevitability of Turkish life. On August 17, 1999, a magnitude 7.4 quake centered near Izmit, about 160 km (100 miles) southwest of Istanbul, killed over 17,000 people and injured another 44,000. An earthquake of similar scale struck rural eastern Turkey on October 23, 2011, killing or injuring nearly 5,000 people and leaving an estimated 60,000 people homeless. Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, is located by a major fault and there have been many estimates that it will be hit by a major destructive earthquake in the next few years. Smaller earthquakes occur regularly in the area and more significant ones are not uncommon: in October 2020, a 7.0 earthquake that hit the Aegean Sea located near the northern city of Izmir, killing at least 80 people.
The Anatolian Peninsula was successively occupied by the Hittites, Phrygians, Lycians, and Lydians during the second millennium BCE. Around 1200 BCE, the coastal regions were occupied by the Aeolian and Ionian Greeks who founded several major cities including Ephesus, Smyrna and Byzantium.
In the 6th century BCE, the Persian Empire conquered the area, which in turn was overthrown by Alexander the Great in 334 BCE. The area eventually fell into the hands of the Roman Empire and, in 324 CE, Emperor Constantine I moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium and subsequently named the city Constantinople. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476, Constantinople became the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which ruled the area under varying dynasties for nearly 1,000 years. With the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the capital’s name changed again to Istanbul.
The Ottoman Turks ruled most of the Anatolian Peninsula for the next several centuries. Throughout this time, they engaged in frequent wars with the nearby Russian and Austria-Hungarian empires for territory in Eastern Europe and the area around the Black Sea. In the Levant and Mesopotamia (present day Syria and Iraq), they also often fought in wars with the Persian Safavid dynasty. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ottoman Empire began to decline largely due to its inability to adapt to the technological and military developments borne in the West after the Industrial Revolution. In order to keep up with the modernizing and wealthier western countries, the Ottomans imported large amounts of goods from abroad, but quickly fell into a cycle of loans that would make itself dependent on the British and French. Crippling debt, military losses in Eastern Europe, and an insurrection led by Muhammad Ali of Egypt, combined with the efforts of the British, French, and Russians to undermine the Ottomans, all contributed to its descent from power during the late 19th century
The Foundation of the Turkish Republic
The Ottoman Empire was conquered in 1918 during World War I. A series of British and French incursions into Ottoman territory and an Arab rebellion against Ottoman rulers severely weakened what remained of the empire. When the Central Powers (Germany, Austrio-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria) were defeated in the war, the Anatolian Peninsula was brought under the administration of the British and French under the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920. Many former Ottoman military commanders were outraged by the collapse of the empire and responded by forming a government in Ankara and expelling the British and French through military force.
One commander, Mustafa Kemal, emerged as a clear leader during this transition period. On November 1, 1922, Kemal and his Republican People’s Party (CHP) officially abolished the Ottoman sultanate. A year later, Kemal, later known as Atatürk (meaning “Father of the Turks”), also abolished the former Islamic Caliphate and became the first president of the republic of Turkey. He repudiated the Ottoman past and instead ushered in a period of Westernization, modernization and secularism. The 6 arrows depicted on the logo of Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party represent the foundational principles of Kemalism: republicanism, nationalism, statism, populism, secularism (laicism), and reformism.
As a prerequisite to Westernization, secularization was among the most transformative reforms undertaken by Atatürk. Atatürk wanted the newly-established republic of Turkey to emulate Western civilization because he believed that this was the only path to modernization and democratization. Thus, all aspects of religious life were put under government control and Islam was removed from people’s daily lives. Atatürk banned women from wearing Islamic head-coverings and men from wearing the fes, the symbol of the Ottoman Empire, in the public sector. He also abolished Islamic law courts and closed down zawiyas, local religious centers led by sheikhs. Meanwhile, he distanced Turkey from the rest of the Muslim world by replacing the Arabic script used in Ottoman Turkish with a new Latin-based alphabet and changed the call to prayer from Arabic to Turkish.
Another value deeply entrenched within Turkish society as a result of Kemalist reforms is nationalism. When Islamism, the glue of the Ottoman Empire, was abandoned after the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923, a new ideology would need to replace it to provide the people of the newly-founded nation-state with a sense of unity. Unlike the Ottoman Empire in which Turks were only one out of the many peoples, the Republic of Turkey was exclusively Turkish at the cost of cultural plurality. All minorities that previously enjoyed marginal autonomy under the Ottoman millet system were subject to hostility by the Turkish army. The Sheikh Said Uprising of 1925 and the Dersim Rebellion of 1927-38 were the first of the many violent clashes that would occur between the Kurdish people and the Turkish military in Southeastern Turkey.
Transition to Multi-Party Democracy
After Atatürk passed away in 1938, former Chief of Staff Ismet Inönü took his place as president in the one-party democratic system that still persisted. In 1946 Turkey transitioned to a multi-party democracy and 4 years later the Democrat Party came to power over Inönü’s CHP. The Democrat Party (DP), established by a group of four former CHP members, advocated for economic reforms favoring liberalism and challenged Atatürk’s etatism principle of complete government control over the economy. Moreover, as the end of World War II heightened the polarization between the Soviet Union and the United States, the DP pivoted toward the U.S. US camp by accepting the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine. Mainly as a result of this foreign aid, the DP was able to influence large-scale economic modernization in the country, especially in regards to infrastructure and agricultural production. The DP also took a moderate approach towards the CHP’s secularization policies and switched the call to prayer from Turkish back to Arabic. These policies enabled the DP to maintain public support until the end of the 1950s.
Yet, soon, it became increasingly apparent that economic policies implemented by the DP were ineffective, exacerbating income disparities and causing inflation. Moreover, many Turks – especially the new generation of Leftists that had grown disillusioned with the DP’s repression of student movements and press freedom – came to see Turkey as totally dependent on the U.S., a perception intensified by Turkey’s crippling debt to the United States. By the end of its 10 year rule, DP members were ousted by one of the most brutal military coups in Turkish history. Following the coup, Commander Cemal Gürsel took over power and confined leading DP members to the Imral? Island Prison, where former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes would later be executed.
Coups in 20th Century Turkish History
The 1960 coup was only the first out of a series of 3, or sometimes considered 3.5, coups that would take place in Turkey in the 20th century. Following the 1960 coup, a new constitution considered by many to be more democratic was drafted by academics, promising more freedom to media and educational institutions. The military takeover lasted a year until elections were held in 1961 and the CHP’s Inönü was re-elected. Inönü survived two coup attempts initiated by Talat Aydemir until losing elections to Süleyman Demirel of the Justice Party in 1965. Demirel struggled to maintain law and order in the country as the growing Leftist movement powered by students created a violent backlash by the nationalists. Violence broke out in university campuses and public squares and finally in 1971 the military took over with the pretext of putting an end to the chaos on the streets, forcing Demirel to resign.
The military council initially tried to address the tension on the streets by implementing a land tax that they hoped would temper the Leftists. Yet as the chaos continued the military gave in to violence: martial law was implemented in 11 cities, the Turkey Workers Party (TIP) and the religious Order Party (NP) were closed down and nearly 5000 people were arrested. In 1973 the military allowed for elections once again and yielded power to an unstable and ineffective coalition. Receiving the highest number of votes but still not enough to rule alone, the CHP’s new leader Bülent Ecevit refused to collaborate with Demirel of the Justice Party, and instead formed a coalition with Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the religious National Salvation Party (MSP) and preceder of the AKP (Justice and Development Party, founded by current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan).
The period from 1973 to 1980 is considered to be among the darkest years of the republic: 10 coalition governments were formed and dissolved; the country spiraled into an economic crisis; a number of influential politicians, public figures and journalists were assassinated; and violence between Leftists, nationalists and the army took many lives, primarily the Leftists. At the same time, state institutions, notably the security forces, became increasingly more politicized as the Kemalists struggling to maintain their long-enjoyed dominance over state institutions actively denied Leftists and Islamists from gaining institutional power. This period of turmoil came to an end in 1980 with a third military intervention led by Kenan Evren and his officers.
The 1980 Coup has marked its place in modern Turkish history as one of the country’s most pivotal events. It touched the lives of an entire generation and has shaped public memory and consciousness in a way that no previous coup did. The new Kenan Evren administration pushed to depoliticize the country entirely, and this disfranchised all pre-existing political entities that had the potential of challenging the military dictatorship. All political leaders who served in the government in the 1970s were banned from politics for 10 years, and both the leaders of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), Alparslan Türke?, and the religious MSP, Necmettin Erbakan, were imprisoned. Thousands of students, protestors, and political figures were also imprisoned; some of them were executed. In 1982 a new constitution was passed, severely limiting personal and political freedoms while permanently giving the army permission to interfere in politics.
While Evren claimed later in 2012 that both Leftists and nationalists were targeted equally after 1980, the overwhelming majority of prisoners and victims of execution were Leftists. The deepening of Turkish-American relations and the rejuvenation of the Soviet threat after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 factored in to the perception of Leftists as the greatest domestic threat. Meanwhile, this led the government to gradually loosen its grip on Islamists for the first time, facilitating the rise of Fetullah Gülen’s Islamist movement, later incriminated by the AKP government for the 2016 coup attempt. Gülen, an Islamic cleric who supports an Ottoman revival in the guise of moderate Islam, started funding educational programs in Turkey and abroad in the 1960s but founded the first formal institutions after 1980, which significantly increasing the scope of his following. Since then, Gulenists have penetrated the state institutions Islamists were once denied from, creating a strong presence in the security forces — namely the army — as well as the intelligentsia and judiciary.
When elections were finally allowed in 1983, the Motherland Party (Anavatan Partisi), led by former economic advisor to Demirel’s government, Turgut Özal, won the majority vote. Özal was initially viewed by the army in a positive light due to his educational experience studying economics in the U.S. Meanwhile, he was seen by the public as a relatable figure because of his humble origins and religiosity, which were in stark contrast to previous leaders like Inönü, Demirel and Ecevit who resembled Western elite. With his businessman mindset and openly pro-U.S. stance, Özal’s primary focus was bettering the country’s crippling economy by liberalizing Turkish markets. His economic reforms served to the benefit of a rural-based, growing merchant class, but caused an increase in income inequality and failed to prevent inflation or resolve the unemployment problem. A year following his death in 1993, an economic crisis erupted in Turkey, leaving the public with a bitter memory of Özal.
The Turkish economy wasn’t the only problem awaiting to be addressed in the 1980s. The Kurdish problem that existed in Turkey since its foundation in 1923 reached a crisis point with the formation of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in 1984. A Leftist Kurdish guerrilla force fighting for independence in the mountains of Southeastern Turkey, the PKK started launching deadly attacks on civilians and government officials in the mid-1980s and continues until today. Unlike previous Kemalist-minded policy-makers who addressed Kurdish rebellions or noncompliance with mere brute force, Özal strayed from this strategy — his Kurdish roots possibly contributing to this policy — and drew a negative response from the army and the majority of the public.
Özal’s approach to the Kurdish issue was more holistic: he aimed to improve education, the economy and infrastructure in the underdeveloped Kurdish region largely neglected by previous governments; introduced greater measures of cultural and linguistic freedom for the Kurds; and even attempted to negotiate with the PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan for a cease-fire. The largest development project in Southeastern Turkey GAP (Southeastern Anatolia Plan) was founded in 1989, under Özal’s rule. Amidst these efforts, the Turkish military launched numerous attacks on Kurdish towns, killing both PKK fighters and local residents. In the same era, the Turkish military conducted its first cross-border operation into the Middle East by invading Northern Iraq where a number of PKK fighters had taken refuge.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Özal was one of the greatest supporters of the U.S.-led invasion into Iraq as he regarded Hussein as the biggest external threat to Turkey. Sparking immense domestic criticism, Özal allowed nearly 2 million Kurdish refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein’s brutality into Turkey. After the U.S. invasion, he cooperated with the United States to establish a no-fly zone in Iraq’s Kurdish-majority northern province where he would eventually send the Kurdish refugees. Tthis no-fly zone would soon constitute the semi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the first piece of land officially designated for Kurdish political authority. Özal’s support for this project, along with his economic policies mark Özal as a controversial figure in Turkish history.
After Özal’s sudden death in 1993, Turkey re-entered an era of weak coalition governments that would continue until the election of the AKP in 2002. In 1993, Demirel was re-elected as president and Tansu Çiller, an economist and the first woman to lead the government in Turkish history, was elected as prime minister. A U.S.-educated economics professor at one of the best schools in Turkey, Çiller was a hope for the country’s crippling economy. Yet despite advocating for the privatization of government-owned firms and the maintenance of a balanced budget, these goals weren’t realized because of increased military spending in response to the growing PKK issue in the Turkish-Iraqi border. Military excursions into northern Iraq continued throughout the 1990s — taking a huge toll on the Turkish economy — until the PKK’s leader Öcalan was captured in 1999.
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INTERNATIONAL & REGIONAL ISSUES
There is significant enmity between Turkey and Greece which stems to circumstances during and after the Ottoman Empire. Turkey has been engaged in a maritime dispute with Greece over territorial claims to the Aegean Sea since the 1970s. Periodic political disputes erupt over the issue occasionally.
Additionally, Cyprus remains a point of contention between the countries. Turkey remains the only nation that recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Greece is still working in the United Nations to establish a unified Cyprus, and several UN Security Council resolutions have condemned the current partition of the island.
Southern neighbors, Syria and Iraq, have protested Turkish hydrological projects to control the upper Euphrates water as this would limit their control of these rivers and the amount of water reaching each country.
Finally, Turkey has expressed concern over the status of Kurds in Iraq and Syria because of the border security and refugee problems caused by increased tensions due to demands by nationalistic Kurdish groups. Since July 2015, an accord with the Kurdistan Workers Party has been broken and fighting has escalated. The International Crisis Group writes,
The breakdown of negotiations between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), reignition of hostilities in July 2015 and subsequent spiral of violence underscore the urgent need for a new peace process. Since December, however, confrontations between Turkish security forces and the PKK – listed internationally as a terrorist organisation – have entered an unprecedented stage. The state imposed urban curfews to “restore public order” in towns where PKK-backed youth militias were resorting to barricades and trenches to claim control. Those curfews, lasting for days or weeks at a time, have resulted in months-long battles in towns and city districts throughout the south east. More than 350,000 civilians are estimated to have been displaced and at least 250 killed as security forces deploy tanks and other heavy weaponry to urban centres and the PKK engages in asymmetric urban warfare to prevent the government from retaking full control.
Overall, Turkey has anywhere from 954,000 to 1.2 million internally displaced refugees as a result of fighting between the PKK and the Turkish military.
In 2009, Swiss mediators facilitated an accord reestablishing diplomatic ties between Armenia and Turkey, but neither side has ratified the agreement and the rapprochement effort has faltered. The discord between the countries originates from the mass murder and deportation of Armenians from what is now eastern Turkey over 100 years ago. Recognized as genocide by many states, the episode and subsequent chronicles are downplayed by the Turkish government.
Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq have been threatened by the encroaching Islamic State forces more recently. Turkey holds over 37,000 Iraqi refugees and over 1.7 million Syrian refugees. Turkey has been the landing spot for hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing conflict to the south or seeking better economic opportunities. From Turkey, migrants have fanned out across Europe seeking asylum, creating a crisis of enormous proportions for many states. In March 2016, the European Union and Turkey settled on a controversial return agreement which elicited significant criticism from human rights groups. According to the agreement, any migrant arriving in Greece after 20 March will be given a swift individual interview to determine whether s/he will be allowed to remain or sent back to Turkey. In exchange, Turkey will receive billions in aid for its current migrant population, be allowed to repatriate one of its asylum seekers for each migrant it receives from Greece, and engage in new negotiations regarding its entry into the EU.
International & Regional Issues Resources
The Republic of Turkey is currently listed as an upper-middle-income country by the World Bank. In 2020 its GDP (US$ billion) was 761.8 and its GDP per capita ($) was 9,225. In 2011 the IMF listed Turkey as an emerging market economy while the CIA lists it as a developed country.
In the 1980s and 1990s Turkey heavily depended on foreign investment for economic growth. The government and banking systems did not have the financial means to support proper economic growth and so had to depend on foreign investment. Huge quantities of high-interest bonds to Turkish banks were sold by the government to support its deficit. In turn the Turkish banks became reliant on these high interest bonds as their main form of investment. That deficit turned into a financial crisis at the start of the 21st century. In 2001, a combination of the deficit and an unstable political landscape led to foreign investors pulling out of the country which then plunged the financial market. As a result, the Turkish lira dramatically lost value, unemployment soared, and economic growth dramatically slowed.
In 2002 the AKP became the majority government for the first time ever and kickstarted the Turkish economic boom of the 2000s. Between 2002 and 2007 the economy grew at an annual rate of 7.2% and even during the global financial crisis it performed well. This boom right after the 2001 crisis was partly because of reforms by the AKP after the crisis and partly because of the 2000-2001 IMF stabilisation programmes. Some of these reforms included privatising state-owned enterprises that were in the red, banking system reform, a floating exchange rate system, fewer restrictions on foreign capital inflows, and more. The most recent crisis began in 2018 and continues to today. The crisis began in 2018 when the Turkish lira heavily dropped in value, high inflation became widespread, rising borrowing costs, and more. The crisis occurred as a result of a big current account deficit in the economy, lots of “private foreign-current denominated debt” and the political situation in the country. With the coronavirus pandemic the Turkish lira has dropped even more in 2020 and the crisis has continued.
According to the CIA Fact Book, Turkey has a population of 80,417,526 with a .5% annual growth rate. Seventy-five percent of the population lives in urban areas. The most populous cities are Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. The majority of the population is of Turkish ethnicity at 70-75% of the population, while the Kurds make up 19% of the population. Turkey’s Kurdish minority predominantly lives in Southeastern Turkey, yet due to economic migration and government-enforced migration the Kurds are scattered to various parts of Turkey today. Some other smaller ethnic groups include Armenians, Greeks, Arabs and Circassians, which in total make up 7-12% of the population.
According to Article 3 of the Turkish constitution, the official language in Turkey is Turkish. Article 42 adds that “Aside from Turkish, no other language should be studied by or taught to Turkish citizens as a mother tongue in any language, teaching, or learning institution.’’ Moreover, the use of languages other than Turkish is highly restricted in public and private spaces despite a law established in 1991 to ease these restrictions. However, languages such as Kurdish (Kurmanji), Zaza, Laz, Arabic and others are still spoken by large parts of the population.
Population of Turkey
Turkey’s public health care system is administered by the Ministry of Health and funded through the country’s social security fund. In 2003, however, the Justice and Development Party introduced a health reform program to increase the ratio of private to state health institutions and make health care available to a larger share of the population. Most of these private insurance companies require paying a premium in addition to public contributions through social security. As a consequence, health care quality has improved as more people are gaining access to less expensive healthcare options; however, there is still much room for improvement. As of 2011, Turkey had roughly 1.71 doctors for every 1,000 people, compared to around 2.45 and 2.81 per 1,000 people in the United States and Europe, respectively.
Atatürk established the current Turkish education system in 1924 when he closed all religious schools and replaced them with secular schools. He also made elementary school attendance compulsory and public schools free between the ages of 6 and 18. In 2001, enrollment of children between the ages of 7 and 18 was close to 100%. According the CIA World Factbook, the literacy rate was 95% for the population (98.4% for men and 91.8% for women).
Literacy Rate (Men)
Literacy Rate (Women)
Higher education is reserved to those who excel at the Undergraduate Placement Examination (LYS), a national entrance examination. There are 820 higher education institutions, including universities, conservatories, and professional schools. Some of the most prestigious schools are Bilkent University, the Middle East Technical University, and Istanbul University.
The situation involving the Kurds in Turkey remains unresolved. At about 18% of the population, the Kurds typically do not adhere to the government’s policy of assimilation into Turkish identity. They are primarily concentrated in the eastern and southern regions of Anatolia, and have been struggling to gain more autonomy in this area. In the summer of 2012, the conflict with the PKK took a violent turn, in parallel with the Syrian civil war as President Bashar al-Assad ceded control of several Kurdish cities in Syria to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the PKK. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused the Assad government of arming the PYD. Turkey is continuing to attempt to resolve this crisis along with the large numbers of recent refugees caused by the Syrian civil war. As part of this, Turkey has requested aid packages from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
People & Language Resources
Although Turkey is a secular state with no official religion, over 98% of the population is Muslim, most adhering to Sunni Islam. Outside of Islam, Turkey is home to a small number of Christians, usually Greek, Armenian or Assyrian, and Jews, which together account for less than 2% of the population.The largest religious minority in Turkey is the Alevis, an offshoot of Shia Islam following a unique interpretation of Islam. The Alevis constitute approximately 20-25 million of the total population, a large number of which are Kurdish or Zaza.
Turkey has also been a historical landmark of various Sufi orders such as the Bektashi, Mevlevi and Nakshibendi. The Mevlevi order of Sufism, led by Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, is one of the most well known of these small sects due to its affiliation with the whirling dervishes. These Sufis perform a fast, spinning dance in the attempt to reach spiritual ecstasy, and the practice has become a prominent tourist attraction. Yet in modern Turkey the Sufi movement has been pushed underground due to the ban on zawiyas, local religious orders in 1925 by Atatürk. Thus, only a minority of the Muslim population identifies as Sufi.
Turkey is generally perceived as a Muslim-majority country with a larger secular population compared to other parts of the Muslim world, though this perception has recently been subject to change. Turkish society has undergone a lengthy period of Westernization and secularization initiated by Atatürk and continued by various political parties up until the election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2002. For decades, public indicators of one’s piety were frowned upon by secular elites and even subject to prohibition by law. In one astonishing case in 1999, Merve Kavakçi, the first elected hijabi (wearing the veil) politician in Turkey, was denied from serving as the governor of Istanbul for refusing to take off her hijab.
A few years into Erdogan’s rule, nearly nothing remained of this attitude as the Islam-oriented AKP dominated most major cities with the exception of the Mediterranean shores and a few cities in Southeastern Turkey. The AKP has attempted in recent years to introduce more Islamic legislation like restrictions on alcohol, repealing restrictions on wearing the hijab and dramatically increasing the number of mosques and religious schools in Turkey. Yet despite the Islamization of public life, a significant percentage of the population remains irreligious or non-practicing. According to the findings of KONDA, only 55% of the population identified as a religious in 2008 and by 2018 the percentage dropped to 51%. Thus, though Turkey is 98% Muslim, approximately half of these Muslims don’t consider themselves to be religious.
Turkey’s cultural heritage is a blend of Turkic, Ottoman, and Western traditions. Sitting at the juncture of Europe and Asia, Turkey is an amalgamation of many identities. Ottoman art flourished during the 16th and 17th centuries during the reign of Suleyman I, which led to an increased production of illuminated manuscripts, textiles, and a variety of ceramics.
Many new schools of art emerged after the dissolution of the Ottoman Sultanate in 1922. Atatürk sought to distance his country from earlier Islamic traditions by instead promoting Turkey’s ancient history and village life. European traditions and aesthetics also heavily influenced Turkish art at this time. Many European artists came to Turkey to teach painting and sculpture, and government grants allowed Turkish artists to study abroad by subsidizing some of the cost.
Turkey also houses several prominent museums. The Great Palace Mosaic Museum is located close to Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul, at the Arasta Bazaar. The museum houses mosaics from the Byzantine period, unearthed at the site of the Great Palace of Constantinople. Istanbul is also home to the Topkapi Palace. This lavish palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for approximately 400 years (1465-1856) of their 624-year reign. Following the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1921, Topkapi Palace was transformed by a government decree into a museum of the imperial era. The palace includes many examples of Ottoman architecture and large collections of porcelain, robes, weapons, shields, armor, Ottoman miniatures, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts, and murals, as well as a display of Ottoman treasures and jewelry.
Turkish music is at the crossroads between Middle Eastern, European and Central Asian musical traditions. Turkish music can be categorized into branches such as folk music, art music, popular music and religious music.
Often cherished during long nights spent sipping raki — an alcoholic beverage commonplace in the Mediterranean, also called ‘uzzo’ in Greece and ‘arak’ in Lebanon — Turkish art music is a genre that never gets old in Turkey. It has maintained its popularity from the days of the Ottoman Empire until today. Art music initiated as the official music of the Ottoman Palace, drawing not only from Turkish but also from the rich musical traditions of Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Greek and Sephardic (Jews — and their descendants — from the Iberian Peninsula) communities.
After the foundation of the Turkish Republic, authorities abolished the Oriental Music Section of the state conservatory and tried to replace art music with Western classical music. Yet art music continued to flourish in the vibrant gazino culture that characterized urban nightlife, and most of the soon-to-be stars in the Turkish music scene would emerge from these gazinos. Zeki Müren, who started off singing in gazinos, is arguably the most famous Turkish art music singer. He is especially intriguing for his unique singing style, heart-wrenching lyrics and open homosexuality.
While Turkish art music dominated the urban music scene, Turkish folk music rose as the most popular musical genre in rural areas and maintains its popularity until today. Folk music is anonymous, localized, and less complex than art music. It carries musical traces from civilizations that inhabited Anatolia such as the Hittites, Phrygians, Hellenes, Byzantines and Seljuks. A number of famous folk musicians are Neset Ertas, Ruhi Su and Ahmet Kaya.
Arabesk has been one of the most common forms of popular music in Turkey since the 1970s. Contrary to what the term ‘arabesk’ suggests, arabesk music is a fusion of Turkish folk and art music and only has traces of Arab music. Arabesk emerged in the 1960s as a result of the large-scale migration from rural to urban areas as village-based folk musicians adapted their folk traditions to a modern urban sound. Turkish elite perceived this newly emerging genre as degenerate and labeled it as arabesk, the Turkified version of the French word ‘’arabesque,’’ yet the phrase was eventually used by musicians themselves. Initially, arabesk was banned from the national TV channel, yet after the 1980 coup it was tolerated by the government for its apolitical content. Since the 1980s the popularity of arabesk has steadily increased and the integration of Western instruments and production techniques has contributed to widening its audience even more. Famous arabesk artists include Müslüm Gürses, Ibrahim Tatlises, Orhan Gencebay and Yildiz Tilbe.
As a predominantly Muslim country, Turkey has a rich history of religious music too. The call to prayer is the most frequently present example of religious music in everyday life as it is heard from every mosque five times a day. The muezzin (person who sings the ezan) sings the call to prayer in the simplest maqam (Arabic music scale) and without any instrumental accompaniment as its purpose is merely to inform Muslims that the time for prayer has arrived. Besides the ezan, other musical pieces sung without instrumentation and improvised by the muezzin are also common within the musical tradition of mosque music.
Another form of religious music performed in the heartland of Anatolia for centuries is tasavvuf, or Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam that uses music and dance as a means for reaching closeness to God. The Mevlevi order, originated by the poet and mystic Jalalladin Rumi, is one of the leading Sufi orders in Turkey, famous for their sema rituals often known to the public as the dance of the whirling dervishes. The musical pieces performed during Sufi ceremonies are called the Mevlevi ayin and they include vocal improvisation along with instrumental accompaniment by the ney and kudüm.
Forms of Western music such as pop and rock have also been part of Turkey’s popular music. In the 1940s Spanish, French and Italian music were commonplace in urban settings and by the 1950s American music dominated the households of Westernized Turks. By the 1960s, many Turkish artists performed covers of Western songs, switching the lyrics to Turkish, rather than composing original songs. Ajda Pekkan, now over 75 years old and still performing, is one of the best known pop artists from this era. Today, the Western influence in Turkish music largely remains as the majority of artists use Western instruments and musical scales in their music. Yet often times pop and rock musicians will find ways to incorporate traditional singing styles into modern music and in recent years this East-West fusion is becoming a bigger trend.
Turkey’s coastline is scattered with ancient Greek and Roman cities such as the ancient Greek city of Ephesus in today’s Izmir and the Roman city of Nicaea in Iznik. Both sites remain abandoned, but are common destinations for tourists and archaeologists.The ruins of the ancient city of Troy, made famous by Homer’s The Illiad, are also located in Turkey and receive many visitors. More recently Göbeklitepe, a 11,000-year-old archaeological site that might be the world’s first temple was opened to visitors in 2018. Discovered by German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt in 1995, the carved megalith complex in Göbekitepe, Urfa, challenges the notion that agriculture was the basis for civilization and settled life.
Turkey’s largest and most popular city Istanbul, the capital of the former Ottoman Empire, is also home to many historic sites. Istanbul’s skyline is adorned with views of beautiful mosques and schools designed during the 16th century by Sinan, one of the greatest Ottoman architects. Some of his best known mosques include the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul and the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior, is a historic mosque in Istanbul built during the rule of Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I. Right across from the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is the famous Hagia Sophia. Originally a 6th Century Byzantine church but later converted into a mosque by Sultan Mehmed 2 in 1453, the historic site is now a museum.
The ruins of Hattusha, the capital of the Hittite Empire, near modern Bo?azkale in central Turkey, still stand today and are illustrative of the power and prominence this city once held.
Although soccer is the most popular sport in Turkey, many other sports are enjoyed such as basketball, volleyball, handball, scuba diving, and, more recently, motor sports. The Turkish national soccer team, nicknamed The Crescent-Stars, has qualified for three FIFA World Cup finals in 1950, 1954, and 2002. They reached the semi-final round of the World Cup in 2002, but were defeated by Brazil. However, in the following match for third place against South Korea, Hakan Sükür scored a goal straight from the opening kick-off in 10.8 seconds, making the fastest goal in World Cup history. After ultimately winning that match 3-2, Turkey claimed the 3rd place title in that World Cup competition.
Turkey’s national sport is oil wrestling, a tradition from Ottoman times. This wrestling differs from traditional wrestling in several ways. The participants typically wrestle outside in an open field and are covered from head to toe in olive oil. Since pinning an opponent is much more difficult due to the oil, wrestlers are encouraged to maintain an effective hold on the other person’s kisbet, a type of pants made out of buffalo hide. Matches used to last days until a clear victor was established, but recent matches have been set at 30 to 40 minutes to prevent overly long competitions. Turkey first participated in the Olympics in 1908 and has since won a total of 88 medals, divided into 39 gold, 25 silver, and 24 bronze medals. 58 of these medals were in wrestling. All of these sports are supported by the state through funds for sports clubs.
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The New York Times
News about Turkey, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.
TURKISH NEWS OUTLETS
This English-language publication promotes itself as the leading news source for Turkey and the region.
Read Turkish? Check this news and entertainment site out for all the latest goings-on in Turkey. Turkish version.
Another English news source on Turkey and the region, this site is similar in nature to Hurriyet, albeit in a slightly less polished format.
With a stated commitment to democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and liberty, Daily Sabah covers local, national, regional, and international events, and more, in an attractive and modern design.
Library of Congress Country Study
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A podcast of the reading of a Turkish legend about “the beautiful girl whose wish was not fulfilled”