The two outstanding facts about Turkey have been written so often that they have become clichés. But that doesn't make them any less true or important to what the country is about. The first is that Turkey is a vast sub-continent. From its northwestern borders in Europe with Bulgaria and Greece at Edirne to its southwestern frontier with Iran at Esendere is nearly 2000 km. In between is a wide variety of landscapes, from lofty mountains, great plains, rocky shores and arid wastelands to forests, olive groves, tea plantations and wide beaches. There are large bustling cities and tiny sleepy hamlets, oil refineries and nature reserves, towering skyscrapers and acres of ancient ruins.
The second oft repeated idea about Turkey is its function as a bridge between Europe and Asia, culturally as well as geographically. Only 3% of Turkey is in Europe but this includes the main part of its largest city Istanbul
. Over thousands of years this land has enjoyed and suffered the influences of orient and occident. Hittites, Mesopotamians, Greeks, Persians, Celts, Romans, Goths, Arabs, Venetians, Geneose, Mongols, Turks and other peoples have left their mark here. Their myths, religions, literature, science, art, architecture and deeds have had an enormous influence on our lives and cultures. From Asia and Arabia, along Turkey's trade roots (such as the Silk Road), and then onto Europe came ideas and merchandise which we now take for granted, from advances in medicine and mathematics to spices, tea, coffee and tulips.
Today, Turks still live between these two worlds: between "eastern" notions such as traditional moral conformity and religious obedience, and the "western" individualistic cults of capitalism, technology and hedonism. As in many other places on the planet, these things do not sit comfortably together, causing social and political uncertainty and conflict.
Modern Turkey was founded as a secular republic in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Pasha
(1881-1938, known as Atatürk
- the Father of the Turks) following the defeat and dismantilng of the Ottoman Empire. Political and social reforms begun by Atatürk have tranformed the country into a modern westernized democratic country, though many serious problems still have to be resolved.
The balance of world power and influence has shifted a long way since Turkey had its huge empire, which at one point extended to the gates of Vienna in the west, deep into central Asia in the east and across Arabia and north Africa. The loss of this empire after the Balkan wars and World War I and the turmoil which followed, has left a scar on the the Turkish psyche. As with the British in Ireland, the Spanish in the Basque country and Catalonia and the French in Algeria, as imperial territory shrank, Turkey became increasingly nationalistic and determined to hold onto the land it still held, leading to the supression of ethnic minorities such as Kurds and Armenians.
We do not have to look far back in history to see similar problems in the west: slavery and the American Civil War; the Irish War of Independence and the "troubles" in Northern Ireland; nationalism among Basques, Welsh, Scottish, Slovakians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians...; and the terrible conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. In Europe, nationalism is becoming less of an issue, largely due to paradigm shifts which ended the Cold War, and the influence of the European Union. Turkish reformers, especially those who aspire to membership of the European Union, are attempting to change the agenda in their country, but it is not easy. Change never is. Many realize that inclusion and dialogue are more likely solutions than suppression and force.
Cultural interchange can make a big difference, and while travellers and tourists in Turkey can possibly learn far more than they can teach, their presence is not only vital to the country's economy but can also have subtle influences on attitudes. Whether these influences are positive or not is often up to us.
This writer has been visiting Turkey for over twenty years. Talking with other travellers, we are generally agreed that almost every place we have been to in Turkey we would love to see again. The only problem is: to visit the same place again, or to explore other, as yet unknown places? A constant dilemma for travellers. This can be taken as a tribute to a country with a rich and deep cultural life, at which outsiders can only scratch the surface. As an example, no matter how many times one visits Istanbul
, it always has something new to reveal. In other words, visiting Turkey is a rewarding experience. This is a result not only of its climate, beaches, landscapes, monuments, museums or shopping opportunities, but also of contact with its people.