A mesmerizing mix of the exotic and the familiar, Turkey is much more than its clichéd image of a “bridge between East and West”. Invaded and settled from every direction since the start of recorded history, it combines influences from the Middle East and the Mediterranean, the Balkans and Central Asia. Mosques coexist with churches, Roman theatres and temples crumble near ancient Hittite cities, and dervish ceremonies and gypsy festivals are as much a part of the social landscape as classical music concerts or football matches.
The friendliness of the Turkish people makes visiting a pleasure; indeed you risk causing offence by declining invitations, and find yourself making friends through the simplest of transactions. At the big resorts and tourist spots, of course, this can merely be an excuse to sell you something, but elsewhere, despite a history in which outsiders have so often brought trouble, the warmth and generosity are genuine.
Politically, modern Turkey was a grand experiment, largely the creation of one man – Kemal Atatürk. With superhuman energy, he salvaged the Turkish state from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire and defined it as a modern, secular nation. Following 2011’s record-breaking third successive election victory by the AKP (Justice and Development Party), largely supported by conservative Muslims, some secular Turks fear an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy. This seems most unlikely, however, in a country that has been a multi-party democracy for over sixty years, and successfully blended secularism, parliamentary democracy and global capitalism with Islam.
Despite official efforts to enforce a uniform Turkish identity, the population is remarkably heterogeneous. When the Ottoman Empire imploded, refugees streamed into Anatolia, including Muslim Slavs, Greeks, Albanians, Crimean Tatars, Daghestanlis, Abkhazians and Circassians. There they joined an already mixed population that included a very sizeable minority of Kurds. Thanks to recent arrivals from former Soviet or Eastern Bloc territories, that diversity endures. Another surprise may be Turkey’s sheer youthfulness: more than half the population is under thirty, with legions of young people working in coastal resorts, and shoals of schoolkids surging through the city streets.
A huge part of Turkey’s appeal lies in its archeological sites, a legacy of the bewildering succession of states – Hittite, Urartian, Phrygian, Greek, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Armeno-Georgian – that held sway here before the twelfth century. From grand Classical cities to hilltop fortresses and remote churches, some still produce exciting new finds today. In addition, Turkey holds a vast number of graceful Islamic monuments, as well as intriguing city bazaars, still hanging on amid the chain stores and shopping malls. Sadly, ugly modern architecture spoils most coastal resorts, where it’s often hard to find a beach that matches the tourist-board hype. Inland Turkey, with its Asiatic expanses of mountain, steppe, lake, and even cloud-forest, may leave a more vivid memory, especially when accented by some crumbling kervansaray, mosque or castle.Read More
Most camels in Turkey are simply tourist attractions, used for pleasure rides or as photo props in places like Pamukkale and Side. It wasn’t always so, however. Camel caravans once crisscrossed Anatolia, transporting gemstones, spices and woven finery. Before the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, they extended northwest as far as Bosnia, beyond which the beasts fell ill due to the damp central European climate.
In Muslim folklore the perceived haughty demeanour of the animals is attributed to their knowledge of the hundredth, mystical epithet of Allah – humans only know the conventional ninety-nine.
The sport of camel wrestling is a quintessentially Turkish spectacle. The bizarre sight of male camels in rut, butting and leaning on each other (their mouths are bound to prevent biting) draws vast crowds across the western Aegean region; there’s even a camel wrestling league.
Who are the Turks?
Who are the Turks?
Today’s Turks are descended from nomadic pastoralist Turkic tribal groups that originated in Siberia, China and Central Asia, went on to conquer the Anatolian landmass, and have subsequently intermarried on a large scale with the region’s already extremely heterogeneous population. Although historical records can trace them as a readily identifiable people as far back as the sixth century BC, only during the sixth century AD were they first recorded (by the Chinese) as “Tu-keh” or, to the west, Turks.
From around 1000 AD onwards, the Turks gradually migrated southwards and westwards. By the time they reached Anatolia, which would eventually become the heartland of the mighty Ottoman Turkish empire, most had converted to Islam. Turks still maintain ethnic, linguistic and cultural links with Turkic peoples in Central Asia, the Caucasus, northwest Iran, northern Iraq, southern Russia, and Xinjiang in western China.
Turkish, the official language of the modern Republic of Turkey, is neither Indo-European nor Semitic in origin, but Altaic, a language group that includes Japanese, Korean and Mongolian as well as the Turkic languages. Turkish Turks can still communicate with their ethnic and linguistic cousins in places like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, even if centuries of isolation from them, and the language reforms instituted by Atatürk in the early years of the Turkish Republic, make the task difficult. Nonetheless, Turks today still feel an affinity with their Turkic kin, and the Turkish government is the first to kick up a fuss at, for example, Chinese mistreatment of its Uigur Turkish minority.
Between April and September, storks are a common sight across Turkey, which forms a stopover between the birds’ winter quarters in Africa and their summer habitat in the Balkans and central Europe. The clattering of their beaks is an equally common sound. Storks mate for life, and around thirty thousand breeding pairs are believed to visit Turkey, often returning to the same nest year after year to raise new chicks.
Considered lucky in both Christian and Islamic belief, and dubbed “pilgrim birds” in Turkish, they are rarely harmed. Some municipalities even build special platforms to augment the storks’ favourite nesting perches, which range from chimneys and minarets to utility poles.