The Turkic World

I discussed in a previous post (post of 8.03) how I sometimes think of the world in networks. Our trip is largely based on one such network–the network of Islamic countries, spanning from Senegal in the west to Indonesia in the east. One of the greatest and most basic misconceptions about the Islamic world–one which would probably be dispelled with just a few seconds’ thought but nonetheless persists–is that all Muslims are Arabs and vice versa. It is true that all Arab countries are predominantly Muslim, but it is false that all Arabs are Muslims–see posts of 4.16, 10.01 and 10.21. Also, while the Arab countries form in many senses–geographical and historical, among others–the “core” of the Islamic world, the world of Islam is of course far broader than just the countries of the Arab League; the faith of Mohammed spreads northwest of Syria into the Balkans, southwest of the Maghrib into the Sahel, northeast of Iraq into Central Asia and southeast of Oman all the way to Indonesia. Further, not only is the Arab world not coterminous with the Islamic world, but Arab ethno-linguistic identity is not without competition for primacy in the world of Islam; almost as important, arguably, is the Turkic world.

Turks, an originally nomadic people of the plain, originated in Central Asia but spread far west, through Iran and the Anatolian peninsula into the Balkans. The leading Turkic power in relatively recent history, the Ottoman Empire, conquered not only the Christian Byzantine Empire but most of the Islamic world, and the Ottoman Sultan was for much of its history recognized as the Caliph, or head, of all Muslims. And the Turkic footprint goes well beyond the Ottomans. Many of the great Arab empires were ruled by a Turkic military class, including Mameluke Egypt, and Turkic troops were involved in intrigues as far west as medieval Morocco. Turkic influence in the Persian world is also hard to underestimate–the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal India were both Turkic in “ethnicity” (if Persian in courtly culture, see post of 3.28), and much of Iran itself is Turkic, from the Azeri Turks to the Turkic nomads of the southeast, from the Qajars and to possibly even the Safavids. Turks were, historically, phenomenally successful in occupying the seats of power in the Islamic world.

Today, areas that are almost exclusively Turk include Turkey, Azerbaijan, the “Stans” of Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang (also called East Turkistan, see below), an area thousands of miles across. Additionally, it is estimated that some 25% of Iran’s population is Turkic (and at least some Iranian Turks whom we met very much identified themselves as being Turks, somehow different from the Persian majority). Trade still runs along this network. Turkish Airlines flies to all of the Central Asian capitals. We saw Turkish restaurants and grocery stores in Tajikistan (technically Persian and not Turk, but effectively a part of the Turkic world because of its Central Asian location), and Turkey exports food products all the way east to Xinjiang. We saw Uzbek embroidery for sale all over Cappadocia and in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. [Bukharan embroidery travels along another network–the Jewish world–from Uzbekistan to Tel Aviv, where we also saw embroidery for sale–those Uzbeks sure must be busy churning out all that cloth!]

Embroidery, from thousands of miles away, on sale at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

The Ottoman Empire, and Turkic rule over all of the Middle East, may be gone, but Turks in Turkey are well aware of their leadership role within the greater Turkic world. We saw one decommissioned mosque in Istanbul being used as a cultural center for Balkan Turks and another titled the East Turkistan Foundation – Cultural Center (“East Turkestan” is the name for Xinjiang favored by those with separatist leanings). On the walls of the East Turkistan Foundation were photographs of great Uyghur leaders, people who are no doubt labeled dangerous rebels by the PRC government, as well as the flag of East Turkistan, essentially a blue Turkish flag. The friendly Turk who welcomed me to look around started by asking where I was from, and was relieved that I was not Chinese, half-jokingly suggesting that if I were he would have tossed me out. Of course, the Turkish defence of Cypriot Turks is also well known (see post of 10.27).

So what are the Turkic legacies on the rest of the Islamic world (and perhaps especially Iran), given hundreds of years of Turkic leadership? I think that perhaps the best way to answer that question is to consider things that the Turkic world, from Turkey to Xinjiang, have in common. Some observations on the Turkic world:

We had been to Turkey and Central Asia before this trip, but those prior visits (2001 and 2003, respectively) were far enough apart in time that it did not occur to us how Turks in Turkey physically look compared to Central Asian Turks. Visiting the two regions in quick succession, we realize now how similar Turkish Turks and Central Asian Turks (be they Turkmen, Uzbek or Uyghur) are, from an ethno-physical perspective. Given the thousands of miles separating Turkish Turks and Uyghurs, it is a pretty astonishing fact (although, I should note, the Kyrgyz are the odd man out, looking as east Asian as they do).

A young Turkish woman who would fit in perfectly in the Stans

One of my favorite pasttimes, the hamam [hammam] (see post of 4.27), known popularly as the Turkish bath, exists all over the Turkic world, from Istanbul to Uzbekistan, as well as parts of the Arab world that were subject to Turkic influence, such as Egypt and the Levant. My best guess is that the Turks adopted this custom from people that preceded them (especially the Romans), and there are certainly hamams that predate or are otherwise not originally Turkic (such as in Syria or Morroco), but Turks adopted the hamam as their own and very much contributed to its survival and popularity.

Buyuk Hamam, Nicosia, Cyprus (sadly closed, according to a guidebook since an American tourist claimed to have been molested by a masseur (the tourist clearly needed to be enlightened on the many services offered by hamam attendants throughout history–see post of 4.27))

Ottoman-era hamam, Nablus, West Bank

There is certainly a lot of great food and a developed cuisine in Turkey, but Turks from Turkey to Xinjiang are most famous for grilling meat, recalling the Turks’ nomadic days, and the kebab has risen to claim a central role in many cuisines of the Islamic world as a whole, especially in the Levant and Iran. Some foods of non-Turkic origin seem to have traveled great distances through the Turkic network: Chinese style dumplings were adopted by Mongols and then Turks, resulting in manti (from Chinese mantou) “ravioli” being served from Tashkent to Istanbul. (I should note that they don’t really get all that tasty from west to east until you get to China.) Turkish ayran and Iranian doogh (a salty yoghurt beverage Derek thinks of more as a sauce to be added once the food is already in his mouth than a drink) are, no doubt, essentially the same drink.

Making shashlyk, Uzbekistan

Grilling kofte, Istanbul, Turkey

Making manti, Istanbul, Turkey

Soup, Tasucu, Turkey. The first spoonful brought Central Asia to our minds immediately (not really a good thing, when it comes to flavor).

Other Turkic commonalities? Religious moderation and friendliness come to mind. Looking at the Islamic world as divided into Arab, Persian and Turkic spheres of influence, the Turkic clearly stands out for the moderation of its religious practice. I’m not sure whether this is a “Turkic” trait, or whether it’s because of the influences of Ataturk and Communism (in Turkey and Central Asia, respectively), but in an age when some Islamic countries lean dangerously toward the fundamentalist, it is perhaps healthy for there to be a countervailing moderate voice of the religion from the Turkic world. From a traveler’s perspective, the Turkic world stands out for including some of the friendliest parts of the world. Turkish Turks, despite the hordes of tourists that arrive each year, remain endearingly generous and hospitable. One man we heard of who biked from Europe to Asia believed that Uzbekistan and Iran were by far the friendliest and most welcoming countries, with repeated offers of (free) food and lodging, and, from our experience, other than some Turkmen and Kyrgyz who seem to be stuck in a Soviet mindset, Turks from Istanbul to Turpan are almost uniformly friendly.


Every nation has its heroes. For the United States, two of the top candidates would no doubt be Abraham Lincoln, for preventing the dissolution of the Union and for his stance against slavery, the country’s greatest stain, and George Washington, for leading the country to victory in the War of Independence and serving as its first president. In some countries, especially many monarchies or de facto monarchies, the current ruler is placed on a highly public pedestal for adoration (see post of 5.4). Communist Russia, China and Vietnam all chose to honor their “greatest” leaders by embalming them and putting them on display. No country I can think of, however, can lay claim to a man whose stature in the country is as monumental, and as well-deserved, as Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

At a teahouse in Cappadocia

Ataturk is several heroes wrapped up in one. First, and perhaps foremost, he was a great military general, who not only was victorious in important First World War battles but more importantly saved the country from disintegration after the war. Upon the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in the First World War, there was a definite possibility that the Turks would lose not only the more far-flung outposts of their empire, such as now Iraq, the Levant and Arabia, but substantial territory in the Turkish-ethnic heartland of Anatolia (now Turkey). The Treaty of Sevres, signed in 1920, carved Anatolia up into several pieces to be occupied by the victorious Allied powers, including France, Britain and Italy, and, perhaps more perilously for Turkey, Greece was rewarded for its war efforts with an Anatolian concession, around the city of now Izmir, which went beyond occupation to a sort of attempted integration of a significant part of Anatolia into Greece through conquest and ethnic cleansing. It was up to the forces of the new Turkish Republic, led by Ataturk, to fight back–including by quickly gaining the support of France and Italy–and save the homeland, to create a new Turkish state from the remains of the Ottoman Empire.

Like George Washington and so many others, Ataturk turned his military role into a political one, first by transferring his First World War hero status into a role as a republican revolutionary against the Ottoman Empire and then by using his leadership in the Turkish War of Independence against the Brits and the Greeks to become the first president of the new Turkish Republic.

Spice Bazaar, Istanbul

It is his actions as president that to me define his stature, his paramount importance to Turkey. Ataturk had a singular determination to create a modern and westernized Turkish state, which could only be accomplished by creating a new Turkish national identity. The radical reforms that Ataturk introduced are almost too great and numerous to believe, ranging from the national language and legal system, to people’s dress, to religious life and the role of women in society. Even with complete cooperation from all within the country, even with a hundred years much less the fewer than twenty that Ataturk had, it would have been miraculous to institute such changes over an entire nation.

In Turkish Cyprus. (It wasn’t clear to me whether the native Cypriots of Turkish descent cherish Ataturk as much as the more recent immigrants from Turkey, who make up a significant percentage of the population of Northern Cyprus.)

Language. The Turkish language as used by the Ottoman court was infused with Arabic and Persian and written in Arabic script. Ataturk reformed the Turkish national language on the spoken vernacular and invented a new alphabet based on the Latin alphabet. The reformed and standardized national language no doubt improved literacy and communications, and the modified Latin alphabet in particular makes traveling through Turkey today far easier and makes the country, its language and even its people seem to the westerner less foreign than the Arab world or Iran.

Dress. Ataturk outlawed much traditional dress, including traditional male hats and headdresses, which were associated with titles (including religions offices), and burqas. Ataturk was the foremost model of clothing reform and in every depiction is exceedingly dapper in modern and stylish, almost movie star-glamorous, western dress. One of Turkey’s greatest contemporary controversies stems from this reform–it is hotly disputed whether women should be allowed to wear headscarves, required by Islamic custom, in schools and official settings.

Religious affairs. Ataturk in many ways ended Islam as it was practiced in Turkey. The office of the caliphate, the nominal head of all Sunni Islams, was abolished in 1925 and to this day there is no Sunni caliph. When it became clear that religious institutions threatened the Republic and its reforms, all religious convents and dervish lodges were also banned. All religious education was shut down, to be replaced with modern secular education.

Legal system. Ataturk changed the legal system from one based on Islamic law to a secular civil law system.

Women’s rights. Women gained complete legal equality, including the right to vote, which was not only radical for a predominantly Muslim country but not far behind Christian ones (the U.S. nineteenth amendment was ratified in 1920). Ataturk’s wife (of his rather short-lived only marriage, which produced no offspring (other than perhaps the denim vendor below)) presented a public face to the new possibilities for women in Turkish society.

Other international standards. Turkey adopted the western calendar, clock and weights and measures. Ataturk also passed a law requiring the adoption of surnames, at which point in time he was given his new surname of “Ataturk,” meaning “Father of the Turks.”

Ataturk look-alike (selling jeans), Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

When we see countries that seem lost today, we often think, “This country needs an Ataturk.” But Ataturks are not easy to come by. Also in the 1920s, Mohammed Reza of Iran’s Pahlavi dynasty attempted a similar secularization and modernization of Iran. The extremely painful backlash came in the form of the Islamic Revolution. Ataturk, through force of personality and political will, was able to impress upon his country the importance of his reforms in such a durable manner that Ataturk is a living influence to this day, more than seventy years after his death. Even when it appears that some secularism may be rolled back in favor of religious freedom, the defining principles of Ataturk’s reforms are not in doubt, and his positions and statements still carry immense weight in Turkish political discourse–“What would Ataturk do?”

The Anit Kabir, Ataturk’s tomb in Ankara, a massive hilltop complex complete with a museum dedicated to Ataturk and Turkish nationalism. Ankara itself is an Ataturk creation–Ataturk felt it important to remove the nation’s capital from the various entrenched influences of Istanbul and so made the small town of Ankara, more centrally located in the middle of Anatolia, the new capital of the country.


The more we travel the more we decide that places that are famous and well-touristed are often that way for a reason. Cappadocia very much fits into that pattern.

We didn’t really know what to expect. We knew that there were “fairy chimneys,” but didn’t think that pictures of the terrain looked so remarkable, compared to, say, Bryce Canyon in the American Southwest. We knew that there were “underground cities,” but despite their size, we didn’t see why they should merit great fame, given the existence of other large manmade cave and tunnel systems around the world. We had some vague sense of the Christian history of the region, but had little context to put it in.

As it turns out, Cappadocia is not really about the fairy chimneys or about the underground cities. Much like Petra (see post of 10.09), Cappadocia is greater than the sum of its parts, a combination of natural beauty and human construction that defies the imagination. Moreover, Cappadocia, like much of Turkey, is a pleasurable travel destination, with tranquil villages, friendly locals and an outstanding selection of hotels and restaurants, which would almost merit a visit were there nothing at all to see. We were even impressed by the sites–the range and quality of Christian art on display is impressive, clearly world-class. The nature of the scenery has us already looking forward to our next visit, as we would love to see the region in all of its different seasons.

Some pictures:

For us, outdoing the “sights” of Cappadocia, by which I mean the cave churches and underground cities, were the Cappadocian towns themselves.

Utterly picture perfect, the town of Ortahisar lies at the base of a beautiful rock formation which has been pierced through with chambers and a pathway to the top, more like swiss cheese, as they say, than any other structure we have seen. From nearby, a view takes in Mt. Erciyes (Dagi) in the distance, perfected framed by the “castle” and the tall minaret of the local mosque. While the castle seemed to be officially closed, perhaps for safety concerns, a painted arrow pointed the way around the blocked gate and through an open window with a brick conveniently placed as a step up.

Not quite rivaling Ortahisar in beauty, but a wonderful place to base a Cappadocia stay, is the town of Uchisar, a sort of French tourist ghetto a few kilometers south and uphill from the principal village of Goreme. The view from the cozy hotel La Maison du Reve is, as one says, worth a million dollars.

Close-up, Uchisar. As you can see, a great deal of the town is actually cut into the rock, the chambers providing not only living space but temperature-controlled storage for perishables, such as fruit.

Cappadocia may lie squarely in the middle of now Turkey, but a wealth of churches with Christian art and Greek script leaves no doubt as to the identity of the then-residents of the region. The reported existence of a Cappadocian civilization goes back to Herodotus (5th c. BC), and it is believed that Cappadocia was Christianized in the 4th c. AD, with the surviving churches dating mainly from the 8th-11th c. AD. The Greek Christian population moved away in the twentieth century population exchange (see post of 10.28).

The Goreme Open-Air Museum, located just uphill from the village of the same name, contains the large concentration of Christian cave churches and art in Cappadocia.

“The Nunnery,” Goreme Open-Air Museum

Apple Church, Goreme Open-Air Museum

Dark Church, Goreme Open-Air Museum

Home sweet cave. There are several hotels in Cappadocia with cheesy names such as “Flintstones” and “Bedrock” (in fact, we stayed at the latter and recommend it), and many hotel rooms and some private homes in the region are, in fact, built into caves or fairy chimneys.

The Ihlara Valley, southwest of Goreme, contains a second set of (somewhat less impressive) cave churches, built scenically along the banks of a small stream.

The churches in the Ihlara Valley are cut into the base of the cliffs of the canyon.

Perhaps the most impressive site in/near the Ihlara Valley is the Selime Monastery, which features some of the greatest rock-cut architecture we have seen, far exceeding anything else in Cappadocia and reminiscent of the Ajanta Caves (see post of 7.24).

Underground city of Kaymakli. There is much evidence of Christian habitation of the underground cities, but the Christians were not the first to live underground in Cappadocia, with at least some underground dwellings described in the region since classical Greek times. The underground cities acted as hiding places in times of conflict, such as the Arab conquest, and made use of hidden entrances and defensive barriers to prevent invasion.

An expensive, but popular, excursion: Cappadocia by hot-air balloon

Sunrise, Cappadocia

Greeks and Turks

Traveling from Palestine to Cyprus, two infamously divided/occupied lands, it occurred to me how so many hostile pairs are, to outsiders, so similar. This post is entitled Greeks and Turks, and it is on them that I wish to focus, but first let’s start with some other pairs. Jewish Israelis and Muslim Arabs: Conservative factions of both groups have relatively severe rules on gender (such as men and women worshipping apart), neither eat pork, both have dietary certification regimes (kosher and halal) and their languages are not horribly far apart. Indeed, Jews and Arabs belong to the same Semitic ethnic group. Is there any doubt that many Jews look like Arabs and many Arabs look like Jews, however offensive it may be to point this out to either such subgroup? Chinese, Koreans and Japanese–however much hostility there may be against the Japanese for 20th century history, let’s face it, no-one can tell east Asians apart 100% of the time. They all use chopsticks to eat rice and salty side dishes, drink tea and have a tendency to fall in line and respect hierarchy. As much as Iranians may hate Israel and Zionists, for whom do they reserve a perhaps deeper well of hate and mistrust? Sunni Saudis. Never mind that many outsiders don’t even know that Persians are not Arabs, or the distinction between Sunni and Shia Islam. And what minority in Iran suffers from the greatest discrimination? Probably the Afghanis, who speak the same language and share much of the same culture as Persians.

But back to Greeks and Turks. Despite all of the conflict between North and South Cyprus, a Greek Cypriot confirmed to us that it is impossible to physically identify a Cypriot as Greek or Turk. He explained that the two communities intermarried for hundreds of years, often dividing up the children of a mixed marriage so that the boys became Christian and the girls Muslim, or vice versa. In fact, prior to the conflicts of the last forty years, it seems that Cypriots didn’t even think of themselves as Greek or Turk, but only as Christian or Muslim–simply a difference of faith rather than ethnic identity. Cypriot cuisine itself is a hybrid of Greek and Turkish food, and does not vary between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities–both eat fish meze and grill halloumi/hellim. During British control, we were told, Greek and Turkish Cypriots attended together English-language schools, only separating for classes in their respective mother tongue.



Setting the Cypriots aside, are Greeks from Greece and Turks from Turkey all that different? Both cultures dine on the small appetizers called meze, drink an anise liqueur called ouzo or raki (not too different from pastis or sambuca, for that matter), drink a thick sludgy coffee called Turkish coffee or Greek coffee (or, it in Cyprus, Cyprus coffee) and snack on a shawarma-like food called döner or gyros. They may be easier to distinguish in appearance than Jews and Arabs or Chinese and Japanese, but there are certainly some physical traits (e.g., hairiness) that they notoriously share in common.

Turkish Coffee

Greek Coffee

No doubt these similarities come from centuries of cohabitation. Ever since the Turks arrived from Central Asia into the eastern Mediterranean, they have been living together with Greeks (and Armenians–see post of 5.17), who had established cities in the region more than a thousand years before. Although the hostility in the early twentieth century (or the late twentieth century, in the case of Cyprus) resulted in Greeks and Turks moving apart into their own sovereign states, essentially to the exclusion of Greek and Turkish minorities within the other state, cultural similarities developed over centuries of living together cannot help but persist.

The same goes for the Jews and the Arabs, and east Asians. I suppose, in the end, that it could be all those years of living together, and all the similarities, that generate the hostility. Cohabitation, especially over hundreds of years, creates the opportunity for regretful incidents, periods of hostility for which grudges are held. Neighbors, with whom there were centuries of trade, cultural exchange and even intermarriage, become mortal enemies. That these opposing cultures are so similar means that, to foster a sense of uniqueness in national identity, there is a constant need to define against, to emphasize differences lest identity become muddled, and so every Chinese child is told that to be proud to be Chinese means in part to hate Japanese, and every Greek child is told that, despite appearances to the contrary, Greek identity is a world apart from, and superior to, Turkish identity. Another example of this is Uzbekistan, which denies the Tajik heritage of some of its citizens and greatest cities, to enforce a stronger sense of Uzbek identity (see post of 7.08). At times we need to forget the past, focus on similarities with our neighbors and not our differences and spend more time thinking about how to work together to promote mutual well-being rather than using scapegoats to promote a shorter-sighted ethnocentric nationalist agenda. The European Union seems to be showing us that this is possible–hopefully the rest of the world can follow its lead.