Modern day Turkey is located on what is literally a land bridge that joins the continents of Europe and Asia. A small part of northwestern Turkey is within the European continent, where it borders Greece and Bulgaria. The rest of the country is considered part of Asia, bordered on the west by the Aegaen sea, to the north by the Black Sea, to the south by the Mediterranean Sea and to the east by Iran, Iraq, Syria, Georgia and Armenia. Because it lies in a major crossroad between civilizations and cultures, it has a rich and vast history. We are only visiting western Turkey, along the Aegean coast, so this history summary is going to focus on the west.
Western Asia Minor was already inhabited by the Neolithic Age (about 6000 BC). Trade is evident from very early on with both Europe and the Middle East, and it appears that Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) influenced the cultures of the local people groups. The first great empire of Turkey was the Hittites. The Hittites conquered a portion of central Turkey around 1800 BC, and from there continued conquering the surrounding areas. In the later stages of the Hittite empire, subject cities, including Troy on the northwestern Aegean, began to rebel. The Greeks invaded the western portion of Asia Minor and easily conquered thanks to superior weapons made of the latest and greatest technology, iron. The famous story of the war between the Trojans and Greeks (as recorded by Homer in The Iliad) occurred during this time. Invaders from other directions continued to weaken the empire and it eventually fell. With the fall of the Hittites, city-states went back to ruling themselves.
The Greeks were steadily moving east along the Mediterranean Sea. The Greeks had a huge influence on the other people groups in the area. The Greek influence enraged the Persian King Cyrus, so he invaded Asia Minor in 547 BC and gained control of the region. The Persians had a high taxation rate, and in 498 BC, several cities in the west joined together in the Ionian Revolt. The rebels were aided by mainland Greece. This instigated the Greco-Persian Wars.
In 334 BC, Alexander the Great invaded, starting in the northeast corner of the Aegean coastline then sweeping south and east until all of Persia (modern day Iran) was conquered. Like most of Greece, after Alexander died the city-states went back to being independent, but were constantly at war with one another vying for power. There were also a few short lived invasions from outsiders, including the Seleucians (an empire in the Middle East) and Egyptians. Pergamum, near the middle of the western coast, became the dominant power of the province. When the Seleucians attempted to re-take the region, the Romans came to Pergamum’s aid and defeated the Seleucians in 190 BC. King Attalus III of Pergamum died in 133 BC with no male heirs, so he bequeathed his kingdom to the Romans. With their foot in the door, the Romans kept conquering east to the Persian border.
The new religion of Christianity began in the Roman province of Israel/Palestine in 33 AD. The apostles spread their message throughout the Roman Empire, concentrating major efforts in western Asia Minor. In 330 AD, Roman Emperor Constatine decided to open a second Roman capital in the town of Byzantium, later renamed Constantanople (today Istanbul). Byzantium was a central location on the east-west trade route, and a key military location for defending the Danube River. This move effectively split the empire in half the Latin west and the Greek east. The eastern half evolved into the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire flourished economically and culturally, dominated by Christianity and the Greek language. The western half collapsed into the Dark Ages.
The Arabs, in an effort to spread their new Islamic religion, began actively conquering the Middle East and North Africa. They swept through the southwest of Turkey and in 674 and 718 AD unsuccessfully tried to take Constantinople. Being stopped in Constantinople kept Islam from spreading to Europe for another 700 years. The Arab siege was short lived, but the Islamic culture was influenced greatly by the Byzantine contact. The Arabs admired the Byzantine domed churches and created mosques with a dome design that eventually became the standard for the Islamic world. The Arabs took the scientific and philosophic works of the Greeks back with them and expanded upon them, flourishing as an intellectual and artistic civilization.
In the meantime, a nomadic people group out of Central Asia called the Turks were progressively moving west. They ran into the Arabs and were converted to Islam. The Seljuk tribe of the Turkish people group conquered parts of what is today Iran and Iraq, then began raiding Byzantine lands, taking western Turkey around 1071 AD. The Byzantines and Seljuks fought on and off for control of the western Asia Minor region for 200 years. The Seljuks are credited with creating the first truly Islamic art form. The Seljuk Empire became fragmented by internal power struggles and weakened by resistance on several fronts, including the first Crusades and attacks from Mongolia, causing it to eventually crumble.
The Ottomans, another tribe of the Turkish people group, began conquering the former Seljuk territories. They took western Asia Minor in the late 1390′s/early 1400′s, then continued moving west, conquering the Balkans, Hungary and what is now Greece. They were also conquering east and south, taking most of the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt. The Ottomans appeared to an unstoppable force, and at their peak were one of the largest empires of all time.
The empire began to decline in the late 1600′s. Europe had gotten rich and powerful exploiting the new world, and were now more formidable adversaries than they had previously been. And with the Industrial Revolution, Europe had made huge strides in technology that the Ottomans lacked. For example, the Ottomans didn’t start using the printing press for 150 years after it was introduced in Europe. The Ottomans lost some battles in attempts to overtake more of Europe, and in losing were forced to cede some other European lands they had previously won. France and Russia invaded Ottoman lands, and while both lost, they were the first Europeans that had been the aggressors instead of the defenders. Other aggressors followed and succeeded, for example, Italy attacked and got control of Libya and the Dodacanese Islands. Finally, many people groups within the empire rebelled and gained independence, including the Greeks and Egyptians. Slowly but surely, the empire steadily shrank until World War I.
In the early 1900′s, there was a coup that took over de facto power from the sultanate. The new leader, Enva Pasa, was German educated and chose to take Germany’s side in World War I. The allies attacked the Ottoman on four fronts at opposite corners of the empire. One of the fronts was Arabia, where Lawrence convinced the Arabs to turn on the Ottomans and led the Arabs to victory. The only front the Ottomans were victorious on was Gallipoli in the northeast, thanks to the brilliant leadership of Mustafa Kemal. Kemal became a national hero.
In the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 dismembered what was left of the Empire, taking the best lands and leaving the Turks with a small territory. The Turks were humiliated by the Treaty of Sevres. A national sense of pride kicked in and a resistance movement began, led by Mustafa Kemal. As a side note, in dividing up the Ottoman holdings in the Middle East, the Europeans created several new countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq. Rather than drawing lines based on ethnic groupings, the borders were arbitrary. The poor line drawing has led to internal turmoil within several Middle East countries as the various people groups vie for power. Iraq’s current civil war between the Shia, Sunni and Kurd people groups is an example.
Greeks in the Peloponnese and the southern mainland won their independence in 1829. The goal of the Greeks was to regain all the land held during the Byzantine Empire (basically most of what is present day Turkey & Greece, plus a little more), and battles with the Ottomans were constant as the Greeks tried to regain more and more land from the Turks. Shortly after the WWII ended, the Greeks attacked again. The Turkish resistance movement fought back with surprising vigor, expelling the Greeks. In the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the Turks were able to get a good deal of land back from foreign occupiers. The borders set by the treaty are the same as today.
The Turks abandoned the sultanate system and Mustafa Kemal, nicknamed Attaturk, became the first president of the new republic. At that point Turkey was impoverished and devastated from so many years of war. Kemal dreamed of creating a modern Turkish secular state and aggressively set about doing so. He instilled a strong sense of nationalism in his people. In trying to align themselves with Europe, Turkey adopted the western Gregorian calendar and Roman script, abandoning the Muslim calendar and Arabic script. Many other changes were made on every level. Most of his decisions proved to be wise and he is still to this day revered by the Turkish people. One exception to his prudent judgment was the population exchange with Greece and the Balkans. They lost many educated people and gained scores of uneducated peasants.
Attaturk’s successor was careful to not get involved in World War II. Starting in the 60′s, there has been a parade of political parties in power and a few short military coups. The country’s economy collapsed in 2001. The economy has since recovered and the government seems to be stable right now.