|Who Are the Turks?
By Justin McCarthy, Ph.D.
Professor of History, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, USA
The simplest questions can be the most difficult to answer. The Turks are obviously a people separate from other peoples, but a people can be defined in many ways --language, religion, cultural traits, citizenship, loyalty to a ruling house, or many other feelings of kinship. The Turks of today are citizens of the Turkish Republic. The name Turk is also used to describe the people in Turkey who share the distinctive Turkish culture, especially the Turkish language, which all Turkish citizens do not share, no more than all Americans speak English. Or a Turk can also mean a member of the great linguistic and cultural family of the Turks, a family that stretches from China to Europe, bound together by language and history. The best way to define the Turks may be to consider which people make up the Turks of Turkey and how they defined themselves politically, first as subjects of the Ottoman Empire, then as citizens of the Turkish Republic.
The original speakers of the Turkish language lived in Central Asia. They roamed as nomads over a vast region that today lies in Siberia, Western China, and Kazakhstan and other ex-Republics of the U.S.S.R. They were known at an early time to both the Chinese and the Middle Eastern Persians and Arabs, but they first appeared in the Middle East in large numbers, as nomadic soldiers, in the tenth century. Finding the Middle East more pleasant than the cold steppes of Central Asia, they remained.
The Turks had converted to Islam while in Central Asia. Although some of the Turks in history had been Christians and Jews, Islam became the religion of the vast majority and remains so today.
The Turkish nomads expanded westward under the leadership of the Seljuk family of sultans. The Seljuks quickly took Iran and Iraq, capturing Baghdad, the capital of the old Abbasid Empire, in 1055. Their forces were unlike what is ordinarily thought of as an army. The first Seljuk troops were nomads who brought all their lives with them --families, dwellings (tents), animals, and belongings. They were at home wherever the pastures were good for their sheep. Relatively soon after their arrival so many Turks had come that the region to the southwest of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, was Turkish. Large groups of Turks were also spread over other regions of Iran and Iraq.
The nomads did not stop once Iran and Iraq were conquered. They were soon raiding into the Byzantine Empire, which lay to the west of Iran, in Anatolia. In 1071, the Byzantine defeat to the Seljuks in a great battle at Manzikert opened Anatolia to Turkish settlement. Over the next two hundred years the nomads kept moving into Anatolia in great numbers. Although the Turks themselves did not use the term, Anatolia had become Turkey. Many other peoples remained there. Greeks, Kurds, Armenians, and others shared the land, and many of them adopted the Turkish language, converted to Islam (forced conversion was almost unknown), and became Turks themselves. Because the Turks had no concept of "race" that would exclude anyone, they accepted those who wished to be Turks as Turks. The Turkish people were thus made up of the descendants of the Turks of Central Asia and those who had become Turks.
Nineteenth and early twentieth century refugees added to the numbers of Turks in Anatolia. In the time of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish population had spread throughout the Balkans. The descendants of these Turks lived for five hundred years in the areas that are today Bulgaria, Greece, and other countries of Southeastern Europe. Large numbers of these Turks were either killed or exiled when the countries rebelled against the Ottoman Empire and became independent. Russian invasions of the Ottoman Balkans and the creation of new Balkan states resulted in the expulsion of more than a million Turks. The exiles eventually settled in Anatolia and Eastern Thrace.
The Russians were also responsible for the immigration of more than two million Turks and other Muslims from the Crimea and the Caucasus Region. Both regions were overwhelmingly Muslim in population.
The Crimean Tatars were Turkish-speakers who had lived in the Crimea for centuries. The Caucasians, primarily the peoples known as Circassians, Abkhazians, and Laz, were not Turks but were Muslim peoples who had lived on their lands since the beginning of history. All the groups were forced to flee their homelands by Russian armies or laws. They too came to what today is the Turkish Republic.
From 1800 to the 1920s more than three million refugees came to what today is Turkey. Many of the immigrants were already Turks in culture and language. Others, such as the Circassians and Abkhazians, kept many of their ethnic traditions but became Turkish in language and loyalty. The ethnic Turks of modern Turkey thus came from Central Asia many centuries ago. A number are also descendants of peoples whose ancestors were Hittites, Phrygians, or other early peoples of Anatolia. Others descend from the peoples exiled from their homes by Russians and others taken in by the Turks of Turkey.
Peoples are often defined by the unique states to which they belong. This is especially true of the Turks, who were tied to one of the greatest empires of history, then to one of the first successful "developing" countries of the modern world.
Partly because the poetry, art, and other aspects of the Turkish character are little known to the West, Europeans and Americans have usually thought of Turks as soldiers and administrators. While there is much more than this to the Turks, it is true that Turks rank among history's great empire-builders and rulers. Under the Ottomans they conquered vast territories in the Balkans and the Middle East and ruled for six hundred years. The Ottoman Empire was founded at the end of the thirteenth century by a Turkish military leader, Osman, and his son Orhan. They and their successors conquered in Europe, Asia, and Africa. One sultan, Selim I, took all of what today is Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon in one campaign. His son, Süleyman the Magnificent, expanded the empire by taking Iraq and Hungary. When Süleyman died in 1566 the Ottoman Empire stretched from the borders of Poland in the North to Yemen in the South and from near Venice in the West to Iran in the East. For centuries, the Ottoman Empire was the primary homeland of the Turks.
The Ottoman Turkish administrative genius lay in retaining and governing what they had conquered. The survival of any government for six centuries is in itself a testimony to greatness. The Turks proved to be adaptable to new circumstances. They managed to turn their system from a nomadic state whose members were more naturally wanderers than statesmen to a settled empire with laws, land registers, taxation systems, and economic might. Their system was not without troubles, but revolts and sometimes poor politicians could not bring it down. The state was based on tolerance of differences among its subjects. Christians and Jews were allowed to keep their religious practices and their means of gaining a livelihood. This was good for the Ottomans, because satisfied subjects did not rebel. It was also good for the subjects.
Tolerance and administrative ability were not enough for the Empire to last forever. In the 1600s and 1700s the Ottoman central government weakened just as European power immensely increased. The Europeans were translating the benefits of the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, and the discovery of the Americas into military and economic advantage. Europeans began to dismantle the Empire, taking Ottoman lands for themselves, causing the great exile of Turks and other Muslims mentioned above. Ethnic and religious groups, such as the Bulgarians and Greeks, became affected by European ideas of nationalism. In the nineteenth century they revolted and created their own nation sates, once again expelling many of the Turks who lived within their new borders.
As the Ottoman Empire compressed, the Turks also began to develop a national consciousness. Driven into Anatolia, the Turkish exiles and the Turks of Anatolia began a slow process of thinking of themselves not only as a religious group, Muslim, or the mainstay of an empire, Ottoman, but as the Turkish People. Turkish philosophers and politicians called upon the Turks to think of themselves as a nation.
The ultimate push toward Turkish nationhood came after World War I. Following Ottoman defeat in the war, the Arab and Muslim provinces had been stripped from the Empire. Anatolia, Istanbul, and a small portion of Europe were all that was left to the Turks. Then, in 1919, Anatolia was also invaded. Aided by Britain, France, and Italy, the Greek army landed and took control of Western Anatolia and Eastern Thrace. The European allies took Istanbul themselves. Many Turks already had been driven from both Europe and Asiainto Anatolia, and Anatolia seemed about to be lost also. Drawing on their old military skills, the Turks organized to save what remained. They rallied under the leadership of General Mustafa Kemal, defeated the Greeks, and created a new state, the Turkish Republic, in Anatolia and Eastern Thrace.
The identity of the modern Turks was forged in the Turkish Republic under the tutelage of Mustafa Kemal, who became the first president of the Republic. Once again the Turks proved adaptable to change. Mustafa Kemal devised political, economic, and social reforms that would bring Turkey into the modern world. Radical change was legislated covering most facets of life. Soon after the founding of the Republic, Turkey became a secular state. Islam remained the religion of most of the people, but the state was not religious. Other changes followed quickly: The veil and the fez were banned and Western styles of clothing appeared. Women were given the vote and elected to Parliament. The Turkish language began to be written in Western characters, not the Arabic letters used previously. Laws were based on Western legal codes. Schools followed Western models. In short, Turkey became rapidly Westernized under Mustafa Kemal. As a symbol of change, Mustafa Kemal's government required all Turks to change the habit of centuries and adopt family names, as in the West. Mustafa Kemal himself took Ataturk ("Father Turk") as his surname. An entire culture began to be altered. Nevertheless, study of history and traditions of the Central Asian Turkish ancestors of the Turks of Turkey was stressed, as well.
Why follow the ways of Europe and America? Atatürk and the Turkish reformers felt that Western ways could not be adopted piecemeal. They believed that copying the industries and economies of the West was not possible unless one also accepted Western schools, business practices, and social customs. It was the whole of the Western culture that allowed Europe to develop economically, Atatürk felt, and he wanted his country to develop, so the country had to Westernize. Accepting the ways of the West meant accepting democracy. Atatürk kept authority in his own hands, but he deliberately schooled the people in the forms and ideas of a democratic society. In the 1950s the Turks created a real democracy which, despite some obstacles, continues to this day.
Westernization is another facet of the Turkish makeup. While some Turks would prefer to go back to old ways, the country as a whole has been committed since the time of Atatürk in the model of the West. Turkey has been a full member of NATO since 1952 and an ally of Europe and America in the Gulf War with Iraq.
Who are the Turks? They are the descendants of the nomads from Central Asia and the refugees from the Balkans and the Caucasus, brought together in the Turkish republic. Most of the Turks are Muslims, following the prayers of Islam in the mosque, but living in a secular state. They are also the inheritors of the governmental traditions of the Ottoman Empire and the democracy of Atatürk and the West.
The citizens of today's Turkey do not come from one ethnic group, no more than do the citizens of the United States. As in the United States, the ancestors of today's Turkish citizens come from many different places and many different cultures. The majority are ethnically Turkish. That is, they speak Turkish at home and feel themselves to be a part of the great ethnic tradition that goes back to central Asia. Some others are "Turks by adoption." They speak Turkish as their first language, but their ancestors came to Turkey, primarily in the nineteenth century, speaking other languages. Others are Turkish citizens but do not speak Turkish at home. This too is similar to the United States.
Of those who are Turks by adoption, the majority are the descendants of refugees from the Caucasus and the Balkans. The refugees were driven from their homes by Russian and Balkan armies and settled in what today is Turkey. Peoples such as the Circassians and the Laz have kept some of the folk traditions from their old homeland. However, they seldom speak the old languages. They have become part of the Turkish "melting pot."
The largest concentration group of non-Turkish speakers, the Kurds, is centered in Southeastern Anatolia. Other Kurdish-speakers live in Iraq, Iran, and other parts of what was the Soviet Union. Many Kurds now also live in cities all over Turkey, integrated into the general society. Groups of Arabic speakers live in a province that border Syria. Of late, large groups of Persians have come to Turkey, refugees from the regime in Iran. There are also numerous smaller groups who have come from all over Europe and Asia.
The Jews in Turkey are both distinct and integrated. Today, their primary language is Turkish, but they have a separate language, Judeo-Español, which is also used. Most of the Turkish Jews are descended from those who were expelled from Spain in 1492. Although they are economically and politically completely integrated into Turkish life, the Turkish Jews retain a strong sense of ethnic and religious identity.
By no means do all the ethnic Turks originally come from Anatolia and Eastern Thrace, the area of modern Turkey. The ancestors of many, more than two million, were exiles from the Balkans and what today is the Armenian Republic. Other Turks were forced out by the Soviets in the 1950s. Still others came in large numbers in the 1980s when the Bulgarian State first discriminated against them, then allowed them to migrate to Turkey.
All of these groups make up the citizenry of the Turkish Republic.