World Travel Guide > Guides > Europe > Turkey

Turkey History, Language and Culture

History of Turkey

Turkey is a relatively stable, secular democracy that remains broadly pro-Western, seeking to eventually become part of European Union. However, its recent past is more turbulent. Defeat in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and World War 1 led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent declaration by President Kemal Ataturk, of a secular Turkish Republic, and the ‘exchange of populations’, when more than a million ethnic Greeks left Turkey for Greece, while around half a million Turkish Muslims returned to Turkey.

Turkey remained neutral during World War 2, but in the post-war years the army intervened several times to overthrow governments of which it disapproved. In 1974, Turkey and Greece came close to war over Cyprus, and the issue remains 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. Since the 1960s, Kurdish separatists seeking an independent state in southeast Turkey have clashed with security forces.

Turkey’s history stretches back more than 5000 years. Asia Minor cradled the Hittite kingdom, from 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 its conquest by Alexander the Great whose own 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 AD330, Emperor Constantine I moved the Roman capital to Byzantium, strategically located on the Bosphorus, renamed it Constantinople and imposed Christianity on the Empire. The Seljuk Turks trickled into Anatolia (eastern Turkey) 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 a territory 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 Erdoğan’s government has brought international condemnation.

An attempted coup in July 2016 failed to gain public support and was followed by a decisive crackdown on the civil service and Erdoğan’s opponents.

In 2017, a referendum was narrowly passed in favour of the winner of the 2019 election assuming full control of government, thus ending the country's parliamentary political system and strengthening Erdoğan’s grip on power. The three largest cities, Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir voted against these measures, and the opposition party intends to challenge the results.

Did you know?

• Turkish coffee is on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list for Turkey.

• Since Ottoman times Turkey’s national sport has been Yağlı güreş, oiled wrestling.

• As many as 99.8 per cent of Turks are Muslim.

Turkey Culture

Religion in Turkey

Muslim, with around 70% Sunni, 25% Alevis and a very small Christian minority. Turkey is a secular state which in theory guarantees complete freedom of worship to non-Muslims.

Social Conventions in Turkey

Shaking hands is the normal form of greeting a stranger;  kissing on the cheek is reserved for meeting friends and family. Hospitality is very important and visitors should respect Islamic customs. Informal wear is acceptable, but beachwear should be confined to the beach or poolside. Smoking is widely acceptable but prohibited in cinemas, theatres, buses, coaches and dolmuş (collective taxis).

Until recently women working in civil service or government roles, or studying in university, were banned from wearing headscarves. This ban was lifted in 2013, but the subject remains a contentious issue. However, if visiting a mosque, women are advised to take scarves to cover their hair and to wear long-sleeved tops. Both men and women should have legs covered from the knees upwards.

Language in Turkey

Turkish is the official language. Kurdish is also spoken by a minority in the southeast. French, German and English are widely spoken in major cities and tourist areas.

A digital image at

Related Articles

13 of the best lost cities

Determined archaeologists have helped to uncover ancient lost cities and put them on the map again, and here are our top picks

Book a Hotel