Turkey today is a stable, secular, pro-Western democracy, and in recent years it has sought to become part of European Union, although the recent financial crisis has dampened enthusiasm. But its recent past is turbulent. Disastrous defeats in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and WWI led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent declaration by President Kemal Ataturk, of a secular Turkish Republic, and the traumatic ‘exchange of populations’, when more than one million ethnic Greeks left Constantinople, Izmir and other towns and villages for Greece, while around half a million Turkish Muslims returned to Turkey from Greece.
Ataturk is the revered father of modern Turkey, and he and his successors were determined modernisers. Turkey remained neutral during WWII, but in the postwar years the army intervened several times to overthrow elected governments of which it disapproved. In 1974, Turkey and Greece came close to war over Cyprus, and the ‘Cyprus issue’ is the biggest obstacle to Turkey joining the EU, with the country divided along the Green Line – the north is Turk-Cypriot, whilst the south is Greek-Cypriot. Additionally, since the 1960s, Kurdish separatists seeking an independent state in southeast Turkey have clashed with security forces.
These events are just part of a history that stretches back more than 5000 years. Asia Minor cradled the Hittite kingdom which rose around 2200 BC, ancient Troy, and the Greek city-states which rose along the coasts during the first millennium BC. Their struggle with the Persian Empire ended with the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great. Alexander’s empire broke up after his death, and by 2BC the region had been conquered by Rome.
Relics such as the Temple of Diana at Ephesus and the Roman theatres at Aspendos and Side are among the great sights of present-day Turkey. In 330AD, Emperor Constantine I moved the Roman capital to Byzantium, strategically located on the Bosphorus, renamed it Constantinople (after himself), and imposed Christianity on the Empire. The Seljuk Turks trickled into Anatolia (eastern Turkey) in the 11AD and were followed by the Ottoman Turks. In 1453 Constantinople fell to Sultan Mehmet II. His successors expanded the Ottoman Empire further, and at its apogee, they held sway over an empire that stretched from the Balkans to the Red Sea and the Nile.
With recent uprisings in the Middle East, including the 2011 Arab Spring and Syria’s civil war, Turkey’s stability now finds itself under threat. Most recently, the heavy-handed quashing of demonstrations in Istanbul and Ankara against the authoritarian style of the police under Prime Minister Erdogan’s government have brought international condemnation. It remains to be seen what effect 2014’s presidential elections will have on the state of Turkish democracy.