Turkey: At the Crossroads of Geography and History

“Few countries occupy a geopolitical space of such sensitivity as Turkey, or have played such a range of critical and overlapping international roles.” Turkey lies at the boundary between Europe and Asia; Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, is in both continents. The Turkish straits, the Dardanelles and Bosphorus, are the only passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. As Turkey is being pressed by the European Union to stem the flow of Syrian refugees into Europe, The Economist, in a February 2016 special report, relates Turkey’s current role to its past.

       Turkish Straits

Turkey’s historical significance goes back to Constantine the Great, who became emperor of the Roman Empire early in the fourth century. Soon after, he established the new city of Constantinople as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire also known as the Byzantine Empire. Constantine adopted Christianity, and later rulers made Christianity the official religion. Adoption of Orthodox Christianity followed in the mid-eleventh century. The city and the empire survived through attacks by followers of Muhammad in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. Catholic crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204 and held it for six decades before it was retaken by the Byzantines.

The Turks as a people have a history going back 4000 years. They were forcibly converted to Islam over a period of three centuries up to the mid-eleventh century, about the time they entered what is now eastern Turkey. One independent Muslim ruler, Osman I, gave his name to what was to become the Ottoman Empire. The conquest of Constantinople and the killing of Constantine XI in 1453 ended the Eastern Roman Empire. At its height, the Empire stretched from the Crimea in the North to Yemen in the South, and from Iran in the East to Vienna and Spain in the West. The Ottomans made Constantinople a center of Islamic culture, but welcomed adherents to Christianity and Judaism. The Ottomans declared a caliphate in the early sixteenth century, centered in Istanbul, the name that eventually replaced Constantinople.

Although the Ottoman Empire lasted over 600 years, its decline began in the seventeenth century with loss of territory to nationalist movements and inability to compete against the rise of new technologies and political reforms in European states. A series of rebellions and wars hastened the empire’s decline, culminating in its defeat in World War I, when the empire was allied with the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires.

An Ottoman military commander, Mustafa Kemal, organized resistance to occupation by Britain, Russia, and France after the war. A war of liberation lasting from 1919 to 1922 ended in a peace treaty in 1923 that established the new Turkish state with internationally recognized borders. Mustafa Kemal was elected the first president of Turkey and imposed sweeping changes to modernize and secularize Turkey. He abolished the Caliphate, replaced traditional dress with Western dress, banned beards and women’s head scarves, replaced Arabic script with Latin script, and instituted adoption of surnames, taking Ataturk for himself. The secular nature of Turkey was supported by the country’s military.

Turkey’s control over the straits allows free passage of civilian vessels in peacetime while prohibiting warships. Allied to the West and a member of NATO, Turkey occupies a prominent international role. The five-year civil war in Syria has caused over two million refugees to flee to Turkey, where they receive free schools, health care, and food. The international community, in a not entirely selfless gesture, has offered billions of dollars in assistance for Turkey to continue to accept refugees and stem their flow into Europe.


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