Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

History of Turkey


A protester holds a poster of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk at a demonstration in Istanbul /Photo Corbis.

According to some experts, Turkey might be labeled as “The Confused Republic.” This label originated from the conflict between two characteristics of the republic’s identity.

On the one hand, Turkey’s identity has an influential secular element forcibly imposed by Atatürk and the military institution. On the other hand, Turkey has a deep-rooted Islamic element by which Turkey ruled the Islamic world for hundreds of years as a sultanate and a Caliphate. Currently ruled by “Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” Turkey played a decisive role in many historical files, such as the Sunni-Shia conflict, the “Eastern Question,” and the construction of the Arab and Kurdish nationalities.

Turkey’s historical role does not end here. On this land was the Islamic Caliphate capital, the Byzantine Empire capital, and a confrontation space during the Crusades.

In this section, we will try to cover this country’s history from its present to its past. By this, we attempt to get through the conclusive events which laid out Turkey’s present and identity from a historian’s perspective.

Erdogan redraws the Turkish political milestones /features (2002 - 2020)

In 2002, no one would have imagined that the Justice and Development Party’s leader Erdogan would dominate over the Turkish political scene in 2020. Erdogan – who sits at the top of the presidency – converted the political regime from a parliamentary to a republican system in 2018, dissolved the partnership with the “Gülen movement” in 2016, and diminished the army’s role in politics in 2010.

But Erdoğan’s role did not come in a vacuum, as he could enhance the Turkish economy, and solve the issues with the Kurds, in addition to his reliance on a conservative base that has long-awaited embracing the state’s Islamic heritage, far from the dreams of joining the European Union.
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Political instability and the army’s decisive role (1938 - 2002)

Three military coups and a threat of a fourth are enough to reveal the Turkish army’s role in drawing Turkey’s features. The pressure imposed by the army forced the Islamic Welfare Party leader “Necmettin Erbakan” to resign from the premiership under the allegations of a threat to the country’s secularism. Also, the Turkish army was the sole side controlling the ongoing conflict with the Kurds, which resulted in more than 40,000 victims. Despite the efforts made to establish liberal political features for Turkey by Turgut Özal and the Motherland Party, the country could not rid itself of the authoritarian rule imposed by the 1982 constitution. This army-imposed constitution came out due to a decade full of confrontations between the far-left and right-wing parties.

Before this phase, the Turkish army turned against political pluralism and the Democratic Party’s rule and its leader “Adnan Menderes” in 1960. Before the 10 years of the Democratic Party’s rule over Turkey, the Republican People’s Party (GHP) held the reins of power during the phase that came after the death of “Mustafa Kemal Atatürk,” the founder of the Republic of Turkey in 1938.
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Atatürk and the transition from the Sultanate to the Republic (1908-1938)

World War One victorious countries imposed the Treaty of Sèvres on the Ottoman Sultanate in 1920. The treaty, in its essence, meant the practical elimination of the Ottoman Sultanate, as the British, the Italians, The French, and the Greeks took over areas of influence in the heartland of Turkey. The treaty granted the Armenians and the Kurds the right to self-determination and independence as well.

While the treaty posed an existential threat to Turkey as a state, it created an opportunity for Atatürk to move towards a secular republic, far away from its Ottoman and Islamic heritage. Atatürk, who won the “Wars of Independence,” enforced structural changes in the Turkish culture and society’s core. These changes included imposing “Kemalism,” using Latin characters, the abolition the sultanate and the Caliphate, and abolishing the Sufi movement. Furthermore, Kemalists imposed prayers to be done in the Turkish language. Naturally, these changes came with the support of the military institution from which Atatürk came from.
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From an Islamic Identity to a Strict Nationalism (1808-1938)

The last century of the Ottoman Sultanate was a critical point in Turkey’s transition from a Caliphate to a secular republic. What started with reforms made by Sultan Mahmoud II (most notably the organization of the Turkish army on a western basis) reached a hectic level with the European countries’ pressure to impose “The First Constitutional Era.” This era included the constitution of the Chamber of Deputies and announcing a constitution for the country).

Despite Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s attempts to sustain the Ottoman empire’s Islamic element, the groups supporting Turkification prevailed at the expense of the other “Ottoman” ethnic elements of the state. This new orientation encouraged steps towards dissolving the Ottoman state after WWI.
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The Ottomans from a Strong Empire to the Eastern Question (1299-1808)

Turkey has lived for hundreds of years in the heart of the ongoing international conflict between a Christian Europe and the Islamic World, represented by the Ottoman state. Over time, this state transformed into a major empire with its capital in Istanbul (since 1453). The Ottoman armies besieged Vienna (1683). It is worth mentioning that the Ottoman Sultan became the Muslims’ Caliph after the victory over the Mamluks in 1517. That year, the Abbasid Caliph confessed the caliphate to Sultan Selim I.

After facing repetitive defeats to the Russians and the growth of the European powers (Britain and France), the empire reached a stage of decay in the middle of the 19th century. The Ottoman empire was labeled as (The Sick Man of Europe). The European countries’ interest in influence have grown in the Ottoman Empire. These countries competed to acquire political and economic gains in the core of the empire in what was called “The Eastern Question.”
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From Alexander the Great to the Byzantine Empire (334 BC-1453)

Over more than a millennium, the Byzantine Empire produced an ancient civilization that combined Greek, Roman, Eastern, and Christian elements.

For centuries, this empire was able to face Islamic expansion. However, it reached the beginning of the end when it was defeated in the battle of Manzikert (1071).

Turkey has fallen under the rule of the Roman Empire by the year 188 BC, after the Hellenistic rule since 334 BC.

The Anatolia region is one of the most ancient populated areas in the world. This territory was a homeland for prehistoric societies and states, such as Acadians, Hittites, Phrygians, and Lydians. Also, these ancient times were marked by three groups: Greek, Armenians, the Persians.
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