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.