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.

2 thoughts on “The Turkic World

  1. Thanks for your post “The Turkic World”. I have a comment for you to consider on the usage of ‘East Turkistan/East Turkestan’. The term ‘East Turkestan’ does not define a ‘pro-independence’ or separatist position. Instead, it is used by Uyghurs wishing to assert their cultural distinctiveness from China proper. ‘Xinjiang’ (the name used by the PRC for the region), meaning ‘new boundary’ or ‘new realm,’ was adopted by the Manchus in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and reflects the perspective of those who gave it this name. This use of terminology, whether ‘Xinjiang’ or ‘East Turkestan,’ is often compared by Uyghurs to use of the term ‘Tibet’ by Tibetans. That is, Tibetans use the name they choose, and not a translation of the Chinese ‘Xizang,’ meaning ‘western treasure-store.’ Uyghurs also choose to use a name other than the one designated by the Chinese authorities.

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