​The History and Culture of Turkey

History says that Turkey sits on the edge of the old Mesopotamian plains and was also the cradle of civilisation. This gives an exciting insight into Turkey and how various societies have shaped cultural norms. The 20th century shifted from traditional Islamic cultures to one heavily influenced by Western culture. These two influences often conflict with each other in other countries, but Turkey successfully blended the two in harmony.

Turkey straddles two continents, Asia and Europe, merging legacies of ancient civilisations with modern aspirations. From majestic landscapes to vibrant cities, Turkey testifies to ever-evolving tapestries of human history. In this article, we examine Turkey's captivating history and diverse culture, exploring ancient origins, the rise and fall of great empires like the Ottomans, and enduring traditions that shaped the country's identity.

Turkish culture

The History of Turkey

Ancient History: Birth of Civilisations

The roots of Turkish history go back to the earliest civilisations that flourished in Anatolia, the central part of Turkey. Neolithic settlements like Catalhoyuk (7500-5700 BCE) showcase early examples of organised societies. In the following millennia, remarkable cultures emerged, including the Hittites, who thrived from the 17th to the 12th century BCE.

In the 8th century BCE, Greek settlers arrived on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, establishing prominent city-states such as Byzantium (later known as Constantinople, now Istanbul) and Smyrna (modern-day Izmir). The Greek influence impacted the region, influencing art, architecture, and language.

The Roman Empire and Byzantine Era

In 133 BCE, the Roman Republic annexed Anatolia, bringing the region under Roman rule. Over the following centuries, Anatolia flourished as the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantine Empire. Byzantium, renamed Constantinople by Emperor Constantine the Great in 330 CE, became the capital of the empire boosting culture, trade, and learning. During the Byzantine Era, Christianity became dominant, giving rise to magnificent churches and religious art. Iconoclasm, a theological debate over using sacred images, defined this period.

The Seljuks and the Ottoman Empire

The Seljuk Turks, a Central Asian nomadic group, swept into Anatolia in the 11th century, leading to the decline of the Byzantine Empire. The Seljuks established their Sultanate of Rum and brought Turkish, Persian, and Islamic culture to the region.

In the 13th century, the Seljuk Sultanate faced challenges from the Mongol invasions, leading to the emergence of the Ottoman Turks under the leadership of Osman I. The Ottomans expanded rapidly, capturing Bursa in 1326, their first capital. Under the reign of Ottoman Mehmed II, they conquered Constantinople in 1453, marking the end of the Byzantine Empire and the beginning of Ottoman rule.

The Ottoman Empire grew into an influential and powerful empire stretching across three continents and lasting over six centuries. The Ottoman Empire peaked during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), who was known for his patronage of the arts, architecture, and literature.

The Ottomans Historical Legacy and Traditions

The Ottoman Empire's cultural legacy blends Turkic, Persian, Arab, and Byzantine elements. The Ottoman sultans supported the development of Ottoman architecture, exemplified by iconic mosques and palaces scattered across the country. The Hagia Sophia, originally a Byzantine cathedral, was turned into a mosque during Ottoman rule. Ottoman literary traditions also flourished, with poets like Rumi, who wrote in Persian and Turkish, gaining international acclaim.

Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire

Despite remarkable achievements, the Ottoman Empire eventually faced challenges from within and abroad. The Ottoman Empire's vast size and diversity strained its ability to govern efficiently. By the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire lost territories in the Balkans and the Caucasus. The rise of nationalism and modern nation-states further weakened the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire's involvement in World War I led to its final demise. That led to the revolt and the forming of the Republic of Turkey. Led by Mustafa Kemal Pasha, a Turkish national movement started. Thus began the Turkish War of Independence. After expelling occupying armies, the new regime established power in Ankara in 1920. By October 1923, Turkey established itself as a sovereign government and renamed the Republic of Turkey.

Turkey's History Changes Forever with Kemalism

Kemalism, also known as Ataturkism, refers to the founding ideology and principles laid down by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first President of the Republic of Turkey. Kemalism served as the guiding force behind the transformation of Turkey from a multi-ethnic and religiously diverse empire into a modern nation-state.

The central points of Kemalism focused on….

Nationalism and populism: Kemalism emphasised Turkish nationalism, aiming to create a unified nation-state based on a common Turkish identity. It sought to overcome the ethnic and religious diversity and unite the people under a single Turkish identity. Kemalism promotes state sovereignty, emphasising popular will and participation in the country's governance.

Secularism: One of the most significant aspects of Kemalism is the strict separation of religion and state. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk implemented secular reforms that abolished the caliphate, closed religious courts, and replaced Islamic law with a secular legal system based on European models.

Statism: Kemalism advocates state intervention in the economy and strategic sectors to promote industrialisation and modernisation. Atatürk's policies aimed to reduce foreign dependency and develop Turkey's economic self-sufficiency.

Reform and Modernise: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk pursued radical reforms across society, including language, education, legal systems, and civil rights. The Latin alphabet replaced the Arabic script for the language, and women gained equal rights in many areas. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk also sought to modernise Turkey by adopting Western institutions, education, and social norms. He believed embracing scientific and technological advancements was crucial for the country's progress.

Turkish history

The Culture of Turkey

More than 99% of the population of Turkey are Muslims; however, Turkey contains more Western influence than many other Muslim countries. This shift began with the forming of the Republic of Turkey and the separation of religion and state in a secular democracy. Even though Turkey has made efforts to become a modern Western state, the population still holds on to Islamic customs. This creates blended cultures not often found in other countries and certainly not in Turkey's neighbours.

Turkish Literature and Cultural Poetry

Turkish literature spans over a millennium, encompassing many genres and styles. Turkish literature reflects the country's cultural and historical evolution from the early works of poetry and epic narratives to modern novels and poetry.

1. Early Turkish Literature: Early examples include the Orkhon inscriptions, written in Old Turkic scripts during the Gokturk Khaganate (6th to 8th centuries). These inscriptions primarily contain historical records and mythological narratives.

2. Ottoman Classical Literature: Ottoman classical literature, also known as Divan literature, flourished from the 13th to the 19th century. It includes works in both poetry and prose. Prominent poets of this period include Yunus Emre, Fuzuli, Baki, and Nazim Hikmet.

3. Sufi Poetry: Sufi poetry emphasises divine love and spiritual enlightenment. Poets like Mevlana Rumi, Yunus Emre, and Haci Bektas Veli are renowned for their Sufi-inspired verses that promote universal love, tolerance, and the search for truth.

4. Tanzimat Literature: During the 19th-century Tanzimat period, Turkish literature underwent significant changes. Intellectuals and writers sought to modernise and reform the language and literary forms. Namık Kemal and Şinasi were influential figures during this time, advocating for the use of Turkish in literature and journalism.

5. Modern Turkish Literature: The 20th century saw modernist and experimental styles. Notable poets such as Orhan Veli Kanik, Ataol Behramoglu, and Nazım Hikmet were prominent voices of this era. Modern Turkish novelists like Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, Yaşar Kemal, and Orhan Pamuk gained international acclaim for their literary achievements.

6. Contemporary Literature: In contemporary Turkish literature, writers explore diverse themes and forms. Turkish authors like Elif Safak, Asli Erdogan, and Murathan Mungan have gained recognition for their innovative and thought-provoking works.

Cultural Differences Across the Regions of Turkey

The unique geographical position has contributed to diverse cultures and traditions. The population comprises various ethnicities, including Turks, Kurds, Arabs, and Circassians, each contributing to the country's cultural mosaic.

Istanbul and the Marmara RegionAs Turkey's largest city and economic centre, Istanbul exhibits blended cultures. It has been a crossroads for civilisations, and its culture amalgamates Turkish, Byzantine, and Ottoman influences. The Marmara Region, where Istanbul boasts vibrant art scenes, modern lifestyles, and cosmopolitan atmospheres.

Aegean RegionThe Aegean coastal region is famous for picturesque landscapes, turquoise waters, and historical sites. There is a strong connection with ancient Greece. People in this region often have laid-back lifestyles, and the cuisine features fresh seafood, olive oil-based dishes, and delectable desserts like Turkish delight.

Mediterranean Region: Known for warm climates and fertile lands, the Mediterranean region has rich agricultural traditions. The regional cuisine features an abundance of citrus fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

Central Anatolia: The heartland of Turkey, Central Anatolia, has more conservative and traditional cultures than coastal regions. The region is famous for carpet weaving, and the cuisine often includes hearty dishes like manti (Turkish dumplings) and etli ekmek (Turkish meat bread).

Black Sea Region: The lush and green Black Sea region is characterised by rainy climates and mountainous terrain. The cuisine here features abundant fish, corn-based dishes, and dairy products like cheese and butter.

Eastern Anatolia: Eastern Anatolia is Turkey's most mountainous and rugged region, influenced by Kurdish and Armenian heritage. The people have strong community spirits and more conservative outlooks. The cuisine includes dishes like kebabs, soups, and baklava.

Southeastern Anatolia: This region's cultural mix features strong Kurdish and Arabic influences. The area's historical heritage shines through in the unique music, dance, and traditional arts.

Turkish architecture

Turkish Culture in Daily Life

Daily life in Turkey blends traditional values and modern influences. The Turkish people take pride in their rich history and heritage, and these aspects appear in daily routines and social interactions.

1. Family and Hospitality: Family is central to Turkish culture, and family ties are strong and extended. Daily life often revolves around family gatherings, especially during meals. Turkish families treat guests with utmost respect and generosity. Sharing meals is essential in Turkish social life.

2. Traditional Turkish Cuisine: Meals are usually prepared using fresh ingredients and various spices. The Turkish breakfast is hearty, with items like olives, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, and different bread types. Lunch and dinner often include kebabs, mezes (appetisers), and pilafs. Baklava, Turkish delight, and other desserts are enjoyed as sweet treats.

3. Tea and Turkish Coffee: Tea and Turkish coffee are iconic symbols of Turkish culture. Turks have solid tea-drinking traditions, and a cup of tea is often offered to guests and friends to symbolise friendship. Turkish coffee, brewed in a Cezve pot, has intense flavours and unique preparation.

4. Socialising in Cafes and Restaurants: Cafes and restaurants play significant roles in Turkish social life. Locals frequent cafes to relax, chat with friends, or play games like Backgammon. Turkish coffeehouses, known as "kahvehane," have been traditional meeting places for men for centuries. However, they are becoming less common in urban areas.

6. Festivals and Celebrations: Turkey has numerous cultural and religious festivals celebrated throughout the year. Festivals often feature traditional music, dance, and local crafts. The most prominent national holidays are Republic Day on October 29 and Victory Day on August 30, commemorating significant events in Turkish history.

7. Art and Craftsmanship: Turkish arts and crafts are highly valued, and traditional crafts such as carpet weaving, ceramics, pottery, and calligraphy continue to be passed down through generations. Classical and modern Turkish music is an essential cultural fabric, and live performances are frequently enjoyed.

8. Dress and Attire: Modern Western-style clothing is prevalent in urban areas, especially among the younger generation. However, traditional clothing may still be worn in more conservative regions, particularly on special occasions or for cultural festivals.

9. Hamams (Turkish Baths): A traditional Turkish hamam is an essential cultural experience. It is a place for cleanliness and social gathering spots where people can relax, chat, and enjoy therapeutic benefits.

Turkish coffee

Cultural Greetings in the Turkish Language

In Turkish culture, greetings are essential in daily interactions, demonstrating respect and courtesy. Alongside the standard Merhaba greeting, which means hello, Turks will also say Selamün Aleyküm (seh-lahm-oon ah-leh-ye-koom.) The meaning is Peace be upon you, and this traditional Islamic greeting is commonly used among Muslims. Turks often say Gunaydin as they pass each other in the street, which means good morning. When you arrive at a destination, they will say Hoş geldiniz (hohsh gehl-dee-deez), which means welcome. Many other daily sayings reflect the warmth and openness’s of Turkish culture.

History of Turkey

Religious Practise in a Secular Country

Turkey is a secular country, so the government is neutral in matters of religion and does not favour or endorse any particular faith. The principle of secularism is enshrined in the Turkish Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion and conscience for all citizens. While Turkey is secular, religion plays an essential role in many people's lives, and religious practices are standard throughout the country.

1. Islam: Most of Turkey's population is Muslim, with Islam being the dominant religion. While the state is secular, Islam is integral to Turkish culture and history. Mosques can be found in every city and town, and the call to prayer (adhan) is recited five times daily. Many Turks observe religious practices such as daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan, and celebrating religious holidays like Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

2. Religious Holidays: Islamic religious holidays are significant events in Turkey, celebrated by religious and non-religious individuals. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, and the month concludes with a joyous celebration called Eid al-Fitr. Eid al-Adha commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son and is marked with communal prayers and the sacrifice of animals.

3. Other Religious Groups: Turkey is also home to various other religious communities, such as Jews, Alevis, Christians, and Yazidis. These communities can practice their faith freely and have places of worship.

4. Religious Education: While the Turkish education system is secular, private religious schools (Imam Hatip Schools) exist for those who wish to receive religious education alongside regular academic subjects. These schools are an option for families who want their children to have religious-based education.

5. Religious Organisations: Religious organisations and foundations preserve and promote religious practices, mosques and cultural heritage. They are allowed to operate under specific regulations and laws.

6. Personal Choice: In Turkey, individuals have the freedom to practice any religion or belief or choose not to practice any religion. While many people do observe religious practices, there are also secular and non-religious segments who never go to mosques.

Summary of History and Culture in Turkey

So, as you can see the history and culture of Turkey is not only unique but also a marvellous journey into a country that stands out on the global stage. If you want to know more about Turkey, including the history, culture, food, places and destinations, then our blog will interest you. You might also like this article about famous landmarks where you can experience the culture and see the history of Turkey for yourself.

Istanbul in Turkey


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