We expected Turkey to be quite different from where we have been so far, and it is. Many of the differences are good, some not quite so good. But it is an interesting place with friendly interesting people and some of the best food in the world! We will likely linger here for a while.
The history of Turkey is as old as the history of humankind, and this history has been characterized by the rise and fall of many civilizations. Although even an abbreviated history of Turkey is well beyond the scope of this website, we will make some attempt to outline the main civilizations that have populated this land through the centuries.
The land that comprises Turkey today spans two continents – Asia and Europe. The vast majority is in Asia. This land is part of the area previously called Asia Minor and later Anatolia. The European land is often called Thrace.
Anatolia was inhabited by nomadic hunter-gatherers since around 20,000 BC in the Peleolithic era. Man’s earliest permanent settlement is believed to have been in Anatolia around 10,000 BC.
Catalhoyuk, in Anatolia, developed around 6500 BC, and it was possibly the world’s first town. During the Bronze Age, Troy, Ephesus, and Smyrna became important cities from 4000 to 3000 BC.
Then a series of empires ruled these lands from around 2000 BC until the 20th century AD. The main empires were the Hatti, Hittite, Persian, Lydian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman.
The Hatti was the first empire in Anatolia. They established their rule around 2000 BC, but they were only a brief rule. They were quickly replaced by the Hittites.
The Hittites were of uncertain Indo-European origin. They developed an immense kingdom, and they were the first powerful empire in Anatolia. They ruled for a relatively peaceful 800 years – until the early 12th century BC when they were attacked by the Assyrians.
Various indigenous and foreign forces established kingdoms over the next 600 years. The Urartians were in the east, the Phrygians then Cimmerians in the west, the Lycians in the southwest, and the Greeks along the Mediterranean coast.
In 546 BC, Cyrus of Persia overran Anatolia. This was the onset of a long Greco-Roman rivalry.
In 334 BC, Alexander the Great defeated the Persians and conquered Anatolia for Greece. Greek influence started spreading throughout the kingdom.
Roman rule first emerged in 133 BC when the dying king, Attalus III, left his state to Rome. The Romans established a capital at Ephesus, and their empire spread quickly. Saint Paul began proselytizing Christianity as he trekked across Anatolia, and Christianity was widely adopted.
In 330 AD, Constantine, the ruler of the Roman Empire, declared a new capital of his eastern Roman Empire. He named it “New Rome” – the city that later became Constantinople and later Istanbul. His empire was declared Christian. But the empire split from within before the end of the century, and that split became a separation between Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy.
The Byzantines assumed power of the eastern Roman Empire. They were Greek speaking Christians with a Greek, rather than Latin, influence. The Byzantine Empire reached its peak under Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD. The empire greatly expanded their territory. They built magnificent palaces, churches, and public buildings that still stand. But they were economically overextended and without competent leadership. Then they were further weakened by plague and invasions.
The decline of the Byzantine Empire began in the 11th century with an invasion by the Seljuk Turks – a group of central Asian nomads – and a defeat at the Battle of Manzikert. Further decline resulted from the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century when the empire fractured in to Greek and Latin states. The empire struggled to recover for another 200 years as civil wars repeatedly erupted, and the weakened empire fell to the Ottomans in the 15th century. Constantinople fell on May 29, 1453.
Mehmet II regained control of Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul. The Ottomans were efficient administrators, and they became a powerful military force for a while. The Ottomans were Muslims, but they embraced all cultures and religions of Anatolia – Greek, Turkish, Islamic, Christian.
The ‘golden age’ of the Ottoman Empire was under Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent who ruled from 1520 to 1566. During his reign, the empire experienced substantial expansion and development. But after Suleyman’s death, the empire failed to keep up with developments in the west – social, military, scientific – and it began to decline. Then nationalism crept in from Europe, and five independent regions – Greece, Romania, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia – broke free from the empire. The empire began to implement changes by creating a constitution and parliament and modernizing their military, but it was too little too late. The decline was unstoppable.
The decline of the Ottoman Empire was hastened by some very bad decisions made in the early 20th century – the Armenian genocide and choosing the wrong side in World War I among others. The failing empire’s only noteworthy success in World War I was at Gallipoli in a battle led by Mustafa Kemal.
The empire was forced to accept the humiliating Treaty of Sevres in 1920 which reduced the empire’s land holdings by more than half and allowed numerous foreign powers to occupy parts of the empire. Many of that treaty’s humiliations, including the foreign occupations, were reversed by the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 which established the boundaries of the modern Turkish state. The Treaty of Lausanne also ended the Ottoman Empire and compelled the “population exchange” between Greece and Turkey. The population exchange compelled 1.5 million Greek Orthodox Turks to leave Turkey and relocate to Greece, and it compelled 450,000 Muslim Greeks to leave Greece and relocate to Turkey. Entire communities were destroyed based solely on religion.
Mustafa Kemal – the military leader at Gallipoli – became the first president and established the capital at Ankara. He established institutions of democracy, instituted universal suffrage, and adopted the Roman alphabet and standardized the Turkish language. He also encouraged national unity based solely on Turkish heritage, and that excluded the Kurds whom had had been an integral part of Turkish history to date. The problems between Turks and Kurds still persist. Mustafa Kemal came to be known as Ataturk, which literally means “Father Turk”. He died in 1938, and he is still held in high esteem among all but the Kurds.
Turkey was cautious to avoid involvement in World War II, but after the war they became an ally of the US and a NATO member. Their military position has been pro-Western and secular. Many political parties emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, and political and economic chaos erupted. Their military has seized power in recent years – 1960, 1971, and 1980 – when it perceived that the country was straying from Ataturk’s vision.
Turkey was an ally of the US at the onset of the Gulf War in the 1990s. Many Iraqi Kurds fled north in to southeast Turkey, and their plight focused international attention on the Kurdish issue in Turkey. The Turkish Kurds were somewhat emboldened by this attention, and they formed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The clashes between the PKK and Turkey’s ruling party have been described as a civil war by some.
Turkey struggled in to the 21st century with a massive earthquake in 1999 and an economic collapse in 2001. In 2002 the pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) was elected, and they have provided some stability for the past decade. Turkey is now seeking membership in the European Union. There are still ongoing struggles between the ‘secularists’ and ‘Islamists’, but the issue likely to prevent their EU membership is their treatment of the Kurdish population. But Turkey has reached a comfortable stability for all but the Kurds.
Turkey spans two continents – southwest Asia and southeast Europe. It is comprised of 303,224 square miles with only 3% in Europe and 97% in Asia. The Asian and European areas are divided by the Dardanelles, Sea of Marmara, and Bosphorus.
Turkey lies on three converging continental plates, and 80% of the country is an extremely active tectonic zone. Earthquakes are frequent.
The geography of Turkey is highly diverse. It has thousands of miles of coastline, mountains, rolling steppe, lakes, and rivers.
Turkey is a multiparty republic. They have both a president and prime minister. The capital of the government is in Ankara – not Istanbul as many believe.
Turkey’s economy is agricultural based. Only one-third of the population is economically active, and the gross national income is less than $10,000 US dollars.
The country’s economy has been volatile for a few decades. Their inflation rate exceeded 77% in the 1990s, and it exceeded 100% by 2001. That was followed by an economic collapse, and the value of the Turkish lira plummeted. They made substantial reforms and received IMF loans, and their inflation rate was back to single digits by 2004. The economy appeared to recover adequately by 2005 that the new Turkish lira was introduced as the new national currency. The new Turkish lira was stable for more than a year, and then it lost 18% of its value. However, Turkey survived the financial crises of 2008 better than many European economies, so many believe them to be returning to a more stable position.
The currency in Turkey is the new Turkish lira (TL). Its current value is approximately $0.60 USD.
The population of Turkey is around 72 million with more than 70% living in cities. The three largest cities in Turkey are Istanbul with a population of 11 million, Ankara with a population of 4 million, and Izmir with a population of less than 3 million.
The ethnic blend of the Turkish population is 65% Turk, 19% Kurd, 7% Crimean Tartar, 2% Arab, and 7% other. The Kurds are the largest minority at nearly 14 million. Half of those live in the sparsely populated east and southeast areas of the country. Virtually all of the Turkish Kurds are Sunni Muslims, and they have a distinct culture and language.
The official language of the country is Turkish. There is no official religion; however, 97.5% are Muslim. That 97.5% is comprised of 82.5% Sunni and 15% Shiite.
Although Turkey has a literacy rate of 88%, more than 60% have eight years or less education. Twenty eight percent have a secondary education, and 11% have a university education.
Turkey is a large country, and it also has a large coastline. We plan to travel along much of the coastline by sea, but we will also travel inland to see more. We will describe Turkey by land as a ‘destination’, and our sailing under Turkey by sea.