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Turkey - History

Turkey History

Turkey's first known human inhabitants appeared in the Mediterranean region as early as 7500 BC, and the cycles of empire building, flexing, flailing and crumbling didn't take long to kick in. The first great civilisation was that of the Hittites, who worshipped a sun goddess and a storm god. The Hittites dominated Anatolia from the Middle Bronze Age (1900-1600 BC), clashing with Egypt under the great Ramses II and capturing Syria, but by the time Achaean Greeks attacked Troy in 1250 BC, the Hittite machine was creaking. A massive invasion of 'sea peoples' from Greek islands put untenable pressure on the Hittites and a jumble of smaller kingdoms played at border bending until Cyrus, emperor of Persia (550-530 BC) swept into Anatolia from the east. The Persians were booted out by Alexander the Great, who conquered the entire Middle East from Greece to India around 330 BC. After Alexander's death his generals squabbled over the spoils and civil war was the norm until the Galatians (Celts) established a capital at Ankara in 279 BC, bedding down comfortably with the Seleucid, Pontic, Pergamum and Armenian kingdoms.

Roman rule brought relative peace and prosperity for almost three centuries, providing perfect conditions for the spread of Christianity. The Roman Empire weakened from around 250 AD until Constantine reunited it in 324. He oversaw the building of a new capital, the great city which came to be called Constantinople. Justinian (527-65) brought the eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire to its greatest strength, reconquering Italy, the Balkans, Anatolia and North Africa, but five years after his death, Muhammed was born in Mecca and the scene was set for one of history's most astounding tales. Sixty years after Mohammed heard the voice of God, and 50 years after his ignominious flight from Mecca, the armies of Islam were threatening the walls of Constantinople (669-78), having conquered everything and everybody from there to Mecca, plus Persia and Egypt. The Islamic dynasties which emerged after Mohammed challenged the power and status of Byzantium from this time, but the Great Seljuk Turkish Empire of the 11th century was the first to rule what is now Turkey, Iran and Iraq. The Seljuks were shaken by the Crusades and overrun by Mongol hordes, but they hung onto power until the vigorous, ambitious Ottomans came along.

The Ottoman Empire began as the banding together of late 13th century Turkish warriors fleeing the Mongols. By 1453 the Ottomans under Mehmet the Conqueror were strong enough to take Constantinople. Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-66) oversaw the apogee of the empire: beautifying Constantinople, rebuilding Jerusalem and expanding the Ottomap to the gates of Vienna. But few of the sultans succeeding Süleyman were capable of great rule and the Ottoman Empire's long, celebrated decline had begun by 1585. By the 19th century, decline and misrule made ethnic nationalism very appealing. The subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire revolted, often with the direct encouragement and assistance of European powers. After bitter fighting in 1832, the Kingdom of Greece was formed; the Serbs, Bulgarians, Rumanians, Albanians, Armenians and Arabs would all seek independence soon after.

The European powers hovered vulture-like over the disintegrating empire, while within Turkey various disastrous attempts to revivify the country were undone by the unfortunate decision to side with Germany in WWI. In 1918, the victorious Allies set to carving up Turkey. It didn't look good.

At this point Ottoman general Mustafa Kemal began to organise resistance, sure that a new government must seize the fate of Turkey for the Turkish people. When Greece invaded Smyrna and began pushing east, the Turks were shocked then galvanised into action. The War of Independence lasted 1920-22, ending in a bitterly won Turkish victory and the abolition of the sultanate. Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk or Father Turk) undertook the job of completely remaking Turkish society. By the time he died in 1938, a constitution had been adopted, polygamy abolished and the fez, mark of Ottoman backwardness, was prohibited. Islam was removed as the state religion, Constantinople became Istanbul and women obtained the right to vote. Atatürk remains a true hero in Turkey: his statue is everywhere and there are laws against defaming or insulting him.

Atatürk's successor, Ismet Inönü managed a precarious neutrality in WWII, then oversaw Turkey through the transition to a true democracy. The opposition Democratic Party won the election in 1950. In 1960, and again in 1970, an overreaching Democratic Party was brought back into line by watchful army officers, who deemed the government's autocratic ways a violation of the constitution. In 1980 political infighting and civil unrest brought the country to a halt. Fringe groups caused havoc, supported on the one hand by the Soviet bloc and on the other by fanatical Muslim groups. In the centre, the two major political parties were deadlocked so badly that for months they couldn't elect a parliamentary president. The military stepped in again, to general relief, but at the price of strict control and some human rights abuses.

The head of the military government, General Kenan Evren, resigned his military commission and became Turkey's new president. Free elections in 1983 saw Turgut Özal's centre-right party take power and oversee a business boom which lasted through the 80s. Özal's untimely death in 1993 removed a powerful force from Turkish politics and set the scene for uncertainty: the rest of the decade has seen unstable coalitions formed between unlikely bedfellows and resurgent support for the religious right. In early 1998, Turkey's Constitutional Court banned the Islamic-oriented Welfare Party, and along with it, previous PM Necmettin Erbakan. The Welfare Party was found to be working to undermine Turkey's secular democratic basis, but, ironically, the ban opens up the question of just how democratic Turkey is.

Turkey's EU aspirations are further jeopardised by an unhappy human rights record, a shaky economy and the ongoing stoush with the Kurds. Turkey's sparsely populated eastern and south-eastern regions are home to 6 million Kurds; 4 million Kurds live elsewhere throughout the country, more or less integrated into Turkish society.

Kurdish separatism is one of Turkey's hottest issues. Ankara pursued a policy of assimilation following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire: officially there were no 'Kurds', only 'mountain Turks' and the Kurdish language and other overt signs of Kurdish life were outlawed. Marxist Kurdish guerillas based in Syria, Iraq and Iran made hundreds of raids during the 1980s into southeastern Turkey killing thousands of civilians. The Turkish crackdown and the incursion of thousands of fleeing Iraqi Kurds (after a chemical-weapon attack by Iraqi armed forces in 1988, and again following the Gulf War in 1991) put the Kurdish question on the national (and international) agenda.

Ankara has come around a little on how to deal with its Kurdish population, to the point that it nervously relaxed restrictions on Kurdish culture, but in early 1999, following the arrest of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, the nation went on red alert. The situation has improved markedly. Ocalan's group, Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK), declared a ceasefire and there has been some liberalisation of official attitudes to the Kurds. In this new atmosphere of relative peace, Turkey continues to inch toward joining the European Union. In December 2002 an EU summit set the end of 2004 for the start of possible membership negotiations, provided reforms continue.

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