This week we’re visiting a country that’s been at the crossroads of two different worlds for centuries – Turkey!
- Capital: Ankara
- Largest City: Istanbul
- Population (2016): 79,622,000 (18th)
- Total Area: 783,562 km² (37th)
- Official Language: Turkish
- Currency: Turkish lira (₺) (TRY) – BUY NOW
The story of Turkey begins earlier than almost anywhere else in the world, with the Anatolian peninsula among the oldest settled places on earth. Over the centuries, numerous civilizations and tribes rose and fell, including the powerful Hittite empire. Around 1200 BC the Greeks began to found cities along the coast.
Thanks to its location, Turkey was always a land rife with conflict between neighbouring civilizations. In the 6th century BC, it was conquered by the First Persian Empire, before falling to Alexander the Great years later. Following the conqueror’s death, Turkey was divided into separate entities before eventually becoming a part of the Roman Republic. Greek and Roman influence largely dominated the previous culture and tradition during this time.
As the power of the Western half of the Roman Empire began to wane, the Emperor Constantine relocated the capital to Byzantium, which he renamed New Rome (the city would later become known as Constantinople and then Istanbul). When the Western Empire finally collapsed, the East (known as the Byzantine Empire) was what remained of the great power. While no longer as vast as it once was, the Byzantines were a force to be reckoned with.
Byzantium grew into a hub of culture and art, though it faced many threats during its history (330 – 1453). The city of Constantinople itself was once sacked during a crusade that didn’t quite reach the holy land while the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks presented a threat from the new faith of Islam to the Christian Empire. In the year 1453, the Ottomans captured Constantinople and ended the Byzantine Empire once and for all.
The Ottomans grew in power and stature rapidly, particularly under Suleiman the Magnificent (who ruled in the early 1500’s). The Ottomans became a force within the Middle East and in Europe. As they spread into the Balkans, the empire came into conflict with many Eastern European states, including the burgeoning Russian Empire. As we enter the 1800’s however, the power of the Ottomans was declining – though it remained a player throughout the century.
The beginning of the 20th century saw the country plunged into World War I alongside the Central Powers (namely Germany and Austria-Hungary). During the war, Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were expelled, resulting in over a million dead in what has since become known as the Armenian Genocide (an event which remains contentious in international politics). After their defeat in the war, the Ottoman Empire was partitioned, and would end a few years later.
With the state divided and weak, a man named Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rose to forge a new path for his country. He got rid of the religious sultanate, reformed many social policies, and declared the country to be a secular republic (the Republic of Turkey). He served as the first president from 1923 – 1938 and is viewed as a national hero and founder of a nation.
The country remained neutral during WWII (though they did join with the Allies near the end). Following the war, the country began a transition towards democracy (Turkey had been a single party state). While generally successful, there have been multiple military coups that toppled the government in order to preserve the secular nature of the Republic. Still, despite ongoing conflict between the Kurdish people and the Turkish government, the country is largely viewed as a successful and moderate country in the context of the Middle East.
Turkish culture is extremely diverse thanks to centuries of different rulers and civilizations that have made their home in the region. The most direct influence is the Turkish Ottoman Empire, however elements of other Mediterranean countries are clearly visible within Turkey. While the Islamic faith is a major part of society, the state itself is non-religious.
The arts have long found a place to thrive and grow in Turkey. This is especially evident in the country’s architecture – which is a mix of Islamic, Byzantine, and more Western styles.
The cuisine of Turkey is popular and well regarded across the world. It shares many elements with Greek and other Mediterranean foods, however it is also influenced by Middle Eastern and Asian styles. Kebabs of all sorts, unique coffee and tea, and stuffed grape vines are just a couple of examples in what is a wide reaching (and frankly delicious) type of cuisine.
The most popular sport in the country is, as usual, soccer. The national team plays in the European federation and finished third at the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2008. The domestic league is well known for its two main Istanbul rivals (Fenerbahçe on the Asian side of the city and Galatasaray on the European side) and has produced some world-class stars including Arda Turan – who currently plays for Barcelona.
Turkey is one of few countries’ that is found on multiple continents – in this case Europe and Asia. While only 3% of the country is found in Europe, the largest city (Istanbul) straddles the border of both continents. The European side is known as East Thrace, with the Bosporus (a strait) separating it from Anatolia (the Asian side). This location has resulted in the country often considered a crossroads of the world – particularly during the early days of European contact with Asia.
The landscape of Turkey is incredibly varied, with coastline, mountains, plateaus, plains, rivers, and a healthy dose of major cities. It’s hard to describe just how unique and beautiful the country is, but just know that there’s a lot to be found within its borders.
Did you know?
- Turkey is home to a city named ‘Batman’
- Istanbul is the only city that straddles two continents
- The fabled ‘Troy’ is located in the Western part of the country
- 2 Wonders of the Ancient World were found in Turkey (the Temple of Artemis and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus)
- The Turkish Delight has been around for 500 years
- St. Nicholas is from Turkey
- Turkey has the 3rd highest amount of Facebook users
- Coffee was brought to Europe by the Ottomans
- You can get a desert with chicken in it
- The national sport is oil wrestling
It’s hard to do the history of Turkey justice in just a few paragraphs. It’s not just a gateway between Europe and Asia, but a central player in the fortunes of both continents.
Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE).
Stay informed. Stay Current.