Turkey History

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Full country name: Turkey
Area: 779,452 sq km (483,260 sq mi)
Population: 65.7 million
Capital city: Ankara (pop 3.7 million)
People: Turks (85%), Kurds (12%), other Islamic peoples, Armenians, Jews
Language: Turkish, Kurdish
Religion: Muslim
Government: Republic
Prime Minister: Bülent Ecevit

GDP: US$409 billion
GDP per head: US$6200
Annual growth:-5%
Inflation: 64%
Major industries: Agriculture, motor vehicles, petroleum, engineering, tourism
Major trading partners: Germany, USA, Italy, UK, France, Russia


Turkey's first known human inhabitants appeared in the Mediterranean region as early as 7500 BC, and the cycles of empire building, flexing, flailing and crumbling didn't take long to kick in. The first great civilization was that of the Hittites, who worshipped a sun goddess and a storm god. The Hittites dominated Anatolia from the Middle Bronze Age (1900-1600 BC), clashing with Egypt under the great Ramses II and capturing Syria, but by the time Achaean Greeks attacked Troy in 1250 BC, the Hittite machine was creaking. A massive invasion of 'sea peoples' from Greek islands put untenable pressure on the Hittites and a jumble of smaller kingdoms played at border bending until Cyrus, emperor of Persia (550-530 BC) swept into Anatolia from the east. The Persians were booted out by Alexander the Great, who conquered the entire Middle East from Greece to India around 330 BC. After Alexander's death his generals squabbled over the spoils and civil war was the norm until the Galatians (Celts) established a capital at Ankara in 279 BC, bedding down comfortably with the Seleucid, Pontic, Pergamam and Armenian kingdoms.

Roman rule brought relative peace and prosperity for almost three centuries, providing perfect conditions for the spread of Christianity. The Roman Empire weakened from around 250 AD until Constantine reunited it in 324. He oversaw the building of a new capital, the great city which came to be called Constantinople. Justinian (527-65) brought the eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire to its greatest strength, re-conquering Italy, the Balkans, Anatolia and North Africa, but five years after his death, Muhammed was born in Mecca and the scene was set for one of history's most astounding tales. Sixty years after Mohammed heard the voice of God, and 50 years after his ignominious flight from Mecca, the armies of Islam were threatening the walls of Constantinople (669-78), having conquered everything and everybody from there to Mecca, plus Persia and Egypt. The Islamic dynasties which emerged after Mohammed challenged the power and status of Byzantium from this time, but the Great Seljuk Turkish Empire of the 11th century was the first to rule what is now Turkey, Iran and Iraq. The Seljuks were shaken by the Crusades and overrun by Mongol hordes, but they hung onto power until the vigorous, ambitious Ottomans came along.

The Ottoman Empire began as the banding together of late 13th century Turkish warriors fleeing the Mongols. By 1453 the Ottomans under Mehmet the Conqueror were strong enough to take Constantinople. Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-66) oversaw the apogee of the empire: beautifying Constantinople, rebuilding Jerusalem and expanding the Ottomap to the gates of Vienna. But few of the sultans succeeding Süleyman were capable of great rule and the Ottoman Empire's long, celebrated decline had begun by 1585. By the 19th century, decline and misrule made ethnic nationalism very appealing. The subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire revolted, often with the direct encouragement and assistance of European powers. After bitter fighting in 1832, the Kingdom of Greece was formed; the Serbs, Bulgarians, Rumanians, Albanians, Armenians and Arabs would all seek independence soon after. The European powers hovered vulture-like over the disintegrating empire, while within Turkey various disastrous attempts to revivify the country were undone by the unfortunate decision to side with Germany in WWI. In 1918, the victorious Allies set to carving up Turkey. It didn't look good.

Ottoman general Mustafa Kemal organized resistance, sure that a new government must seize the fate of Turkey for the Turkish people. When Greece invaded Smyrna and began pushing east, the Turks were shocked then galvanized into action. The War of Independence lasted 1920-22, ending in a bitterly won Turkish victory and the abolition of the sultanate. Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk or Father Turk) undertook the job of completely remaking Turkish society. By the time he died in 1938, a constitution had been adopted, polygamy abolished and the fez, mark of Ottoman backwardness, was prohibited. Islam was removed as the state religion, Constantinople became Istanbul and women obtained the right to vote. Atatürk remains a true hero in Turkey: his statue is everywhere and there are laws against defaming or insulting him.

Atatürk's successor, Ismet Inönü managed a precarious neutrality in WWII, then oversaw Turkey through the transition to a true democracy. The opposition Democratic Party won the election in 1950. In 1960, and again in 1970, an overreaching Democratic Party was brought back into line by watchful army officers, who deemed the government's autocratic ways a violation of the constitution. In 1980 political infighting and civil unrest brought the country to a halt. Fringe groups caused havoc, supported on the one hand by the Soviet bloc and on the other by fanatical Muslim groups. In the centre, the two major political parties were deadlocked so badly that for months they couldn't elect a parliamentary president. The military stepped in again, to general relief, but at the price of strict control and some human rights abuses.

The head of the military government, General Kenan Evren, resigned his military commission and became Turkey's new president. Free elections in 1983 saw Turgut Özal's centre-right party take power and oversee a business boom which lasted through the 80s. Özal's untimely death in 1993 removed a powerful force from Turkish politics and set the scene for uncertainty: the rest of the decade has seen unstable coalitions formed between unlikely bedfellows and resurgent support for the religious right. In early 1998, Turkey's Constitutional Court banned the Islamic-oriented Welfare Party, and along with it, previous PM Necmettin Erbakan. The Welfare Party was found to be working to undermine Turkey's secular democratic basis, but, ironically, the ban opens up the question of just how democratic Turkey is.

Turkey's EU aspirations are further jeopardized by an unhappy human rights record, a shaky economy and the ongoing standoff with the Kurds. Turkey's sparsely populated eastern and south-eastern regions are home to 6 million Kurds; 4 million Kurds live elsewhere throughout the country, more or less integrated into Turkish society.

Kurdish separatism is one of Turkey's hottest issues. Ankara pursued a policy of assimilation following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire: officially there were no 'Kurds', only 'mountain Turks' and the Kurdish language and other overt signs of Kurdish life were outlawed. PLO-supported Kurdish guerillas based in Syria, Iraq and Iran made hundreds of raids during the 1980s into southeastern Turkey killing thousands of civilians. The Turkish crackdown and the incursion of thousands of fleeing Iraqi Kurds (after a chemical-weapon attack by Iraqi armed forces in 1988, and again following the Gulf War in 1991) put the Kurdish question on the national (and international) agenda. Ankara nervously relaxed restrictions on Kurdish culture, but in early 1999, following the arrest of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, the nation went on red alert. With Ocalan's group, the PKK, attempting to cripple the Turkish economy, tourists have been declared fair game. Although travel in Turkey remains essentially safe, the country does seem to be lurching into a more dangerous phase.
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Ottoman literature and court music were mostly religious, and both sound pompous and lugubrious to Western ears. Visual arts were curtailed by the Muslim dictum that forbids representation of any being 'with an immortal soul', so Islamic artists tended to the non-representative arts. Turkish museums are full of delicate colored tiles, graceful glass vases, carved wooden mosque doors, glittering illuminated Korans, intricate jewellery and sumptuous costumes. Atatürk changed Turkey's cultural picture overnight, encouraging representative painting, sculpture, literature, western music (he loved opera), dance and drama. The introduction of a new Latin-based Turkish alphabet brought literacy within reach of many more citizens and Ottoman courtly prose gave way to use of the vernacular. Several Turkish writers, including Nazim Hikmet, Yashar Kemal and Orhan Pamuk have met with critical and popular acclaim in Turkey and further a field. Recently, Ottoman arts such as paper marbling and shadow-puppet plays have been enjoying a resurgence. Carpet-weaving is still a Turkish passion.

Folk music was (and still is) sprightly. Türkü music, of which you'll hear lots on the radio, is traditional folk music with a modern urban slant. The 1000-year-old tradition of Turkish troubadours has been wiped out by TV and cassettes, but the songs of the great troubadours are still popular and often performed and recorded. The Turkish film industry began early, was fiesty through the 1920s, expanded rapidly after WWII and delved into social and political issues through the 1960s and 70s. Turkish cinema is characterized by honesty, naturalism and dry humor. Directors to look out for include the fiery Yilmaz Güney, Tunç, Basaran, Zülfü and Ömer Kavur.

Although Turkish is an elegantly simple language, the rules of word order and verb formation are very different from Indo-European languages, making it somewhat difficult to learn. Verbs can be so complex that they constitute whole sentences in themselves - try this one on for size: Afyonkarahisarlilastiramadiklarimizdanmisiniz? ('Aren't you one of those people whom we tried - unsuccessfully - to make resemble the citizens of Afyonkarahisar?') It's a lot easier to ask where the toilets are!

Turkey is 99% Muslim, predominantly Sunni with Shiites and Alawites in the east and southeast. Many Turkish customs and practices are derived from Islamic practices. Etiquette demands that you wear modest clothing and remove shoes when visiting mosques. In areas not frequented by tourists (or anywhere you feel that conservative Islamic vibe) women should have head, arms and shoulders covered, and wear modest dresses or skirts, preferably reaching to the knees. Avoid visiting mosques at prayer time or on Friday, the Muslim holy day. Other Turkish customs are generally to do with little politenesses - even Turks complain how one can't even get out the door without 5 minutes of formulaic civilities - but attempts to join in with these vestiges of courtly customs will delight your Turkish hosts.

Many women complain about verbal and physical harassment in Turkey. Although it's not necessary to be paranoid and let stupid hassles ruin your trip, it's as well to take a few precautions. At the very least, keep your torso, legs and upper arms covered, especially as you travel farther east. You might also consider wearing a wedding ring. When walking, look purposeful, ignore catcalls and steer clear of lonely streets after dark. When eating out alone, ask for the aile salonu (family dining room). Going out drinking by yourself is basically stupid.

Bring your belly to Turkey - it will thank you. Shish kebab (skewer-grilled lamb) is a Turkish invention and you'll find kebapçis everywhere. Lamb and fish (which can be expensive) dishes are the restaurant staples. If you're scrimping, the best cheap and tasty meal is Turkish pizza. Eggplant is the number one vegetable: look out for imam bayildi ('the priest fainted'), a delicious stuffed eggplant dish. Desserts are sweet (often honey-soaked) and tend to incorporate fruit, nuts and pastry in tempting combinations. Vegetarians aren't much catered for, but you'll never starve - making an entire meal from magnificent meze (hors d'oeuvres) is easy. The national drink is çay (tea). Beer is served almost everywhere and Turkish wines are cheap and surprisingly good. Raki, an aniseed-flavored grape brandy, is the knockout tipple of choice.
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Turkey's no footbridge between Europe and Asia. It's a 1700km (1050mi) drive from Edirne on the Bulgarian border to Kars on the Armenian border and a 1000km (620mi) hike from the Black Sea in the north to the Mediterranean in the south. Ticking clockwise from the northwest, Turkey shares borders with Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The country is no desert-and-palm-tree album either: mountains, rolling steppe, meandering rivers, rich agricultural valleys and a craggy, beach 8400 km (5200 miles) coastline all muck in to keep Turkey interesting.

There are still considerable forests in eastern Anatolia, the Black Sea area and along the Mediterranean coast, west of Antalya. Great swaths of wild flowers cover the steppes in spring making fine splashes of color. Turkey has similar animal life to that in the Balkans and much of Europe: bears, deer, jackals, lynx, wild boars, wolves and rare leopards. The beautiful Van cat is a native: it has pure white fur and different-colored eyes - one blue, one green. You're more likely to see cattle, horses, donkey, goats and sheep though. Turkish shepherds are proud of their powerful, fierce, Kangal sheep dogs which guard the flocks from wolves. Bird life is exceptionally rich, with a squawking mess of eagles, vultures and storks staking out airspace, as well as rare species such as the bald ibis.

The Aegean and Mediterranean coasts have mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers. In Istanbul, summer temperatures average around 28-30°C (82-86°F); the winters are chilly but usually above freezing, with rain and perhaps a dusting of snow. The Anatolian plateau is cooler in summer and quite cold in winter. The Black Sea coast is mild and rainy in summer, and chilly and rainy in winter. Mountainous eastern Turkey is very cold and snowy in winter and only pleasantly warm in high summer. The southeast is dry and mild in winter and very hot in summer, with temperatures above 45° C (113° F) not unusual.
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Official Web Sites

www.turkey.org     Turkish Embassy in Washington – info on the country

www.tourismturkey.org   Web site maintained by the Turkey tourism office