Istanbul, Turkey

The Republic of Turkey is a country that may be considered transcontinental—it borders Bulgaria and Greece but also Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria. It is also surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. With more than 300,000 square miles in area, it is very large; its population is about 75 million. It is a parliamentary republic with a president, a prime minister and a parliament. Its official language is Turkish, spoken by about 85% of the population, with minority groups speaking Kurdish, Arabic and other languages. Turkey has no official state religion, but around 98% of the population is Islamic (if you count the many secular Turks of Muslim background) with Christian, Jewish and Bahá’í minorities. The name Turkey comes from the Old Turkic word Türük or Törük, which means “strong.” It may also be related to a Chinese word for helmet that was used for both the Turks and the Scythians.

The Anatolian peninsula, which comprises most of modern Turkey, is one of the very oldest continuously settled areas in the world, with archeological findings dating back to the Neolithic period. The area is the site of the oldest known manmade religious structure, a temple at Göbekli Tepe near the Syrian border that dates back to 10,000 B.C.—and Troy, founded in the Neolithic and continuing into the Iron Age. The first major empire in the area was founded here by the Hittites, circa 18th–13th century B.C., and the Assyrians settled in southeastern Turkey between 1950 and 612 B.C. Around 1200 B.C. Aeolian and Ionian Greeks settled on the coast, including Ephesus, Smyrna and Byzantium. The first state to be called Armenia was founded in eastern Turkey in the 6th century B.C. Anatolia was conquered by Alexander the Great in 334 B.C., leading to increased Hellenization—and, after Alexander’s death, falling under Roman rule. By the time of Christ, all traces of Anatolian language and culture were lost. In 324 A.D. Constantine I chose Byzantium as the new capital of the Roman Empire, calling it New Rome; later it would be called Constantinople, and then Istanbul. Constantinople became capital of the Byzantine Empire, which would rule most of Turkey until the late Middle Ages.

The House of Seljuk was a Turkish Sunni Muslim dynasty that gradually adopted Persian culture. In the 10th century they began to migrate to Persia, which became the headquarters of what came to be a great Seljuk Empire. At the end of the 11th century they moved into eastern Anatolia, defeating the Byzantines and spreading over the region, gradually transforming the population from Greek-speaking Christians to Turkish-speaking Muslims. In 1243 the Mongols defeated the Seljuk armies. Over the next two centuries the Ottoman Empire rose, expanded throughout Anatolia and continued into the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. By 1453 they captured Constantinople, defeating the Byzantines for good. In the 16th century the Ottomans expanded into Algeria and Egypt and began competing with the Portuguese for control of the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–1566) the Ottoman Empire reached its peak, advancing through the Balkans and parts of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; contending with the Spanish Habsburgs, Genoa, Venice, Tuscany and the Holy Roman Empire for control of the Mediterranean Sea; while pursuing territorial disputes with the Persians. The Ottoman Empire began to decline from the beginning of the 19th century; this ongoing process led to nationalist sentiment and ethnic tensions, including violence against Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians.

After World War I the Allies sought to occupy and partition the Ottoman state. Turkish nationalists responded by abolishing the Sultanate and forming a parliamentary republic. Per the Treaty of Lausanne, 1.1 million Greeks left Turkey and moved to Greece, while 380,000 Muslims left Greece for Turkey. Mustafa Kemal became the first president of the Republic of Turkey; he received the honorific Atatürk (“father of the Turks”), becoming Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Turkey remained neutral during most of World War II and in June of 1945 became a charter member of the United Nations. It joined NATO in 1952 and helped keep the Soviet Union from expanding into the Mediterranean region. While various political and human rights issues are ongoing, there is greater political stability and more vigorous economic growth in Turkey than there have been in a long time. The economy is relatively healthy; the country has its own currency, the Turkish lira, and has brought inflation and unemployment rates down from formerly high levels.

Visitors to Istanbul will enjoy its beautiful estuary harbor, long known as the Golden Horn; its dynamic, cosmopolitan atmosphere; its spectacular architecture (e.g., the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the “Blue Mosque,” Hagia Sophia, which means “divine wisdom,” and Topkapı Palace); its historic bazaars; its cuisine (a fusion of Middle Eastern, Balkan and Slavic with excellent seafood as well); and its traditions, including the iconic sound of the Muslim call to prayer. Cultural activities include annual music and film festivals and the Istanbul Biennale in odd-numbered years. On the sports front, Turkey is mad for soccer and they also love basketball, volleyball, wrestling and auto racing.