Turkey is dynamic and its rich history and culture challenge Western stereotypes of a homogenous Islamic Middle East. This dynamism is evidenced through the struggle to carve out a uniquely Turkish identity after the end of World War I, the effects of Atatürk’s modernizing reforms, and lasting tensions between Islamism and secularism. Turkey’s unique location at the border between Europe and Asia creates a cultural pivot point between East and West. At the same time, Ottoman history is a backdrop for many of Turkey’s living artistic and cultural practices today.

This book is the result of a collaboration with university students in Turkey that explored some of the most salient aspects of contemporary Turkish cultural life and new means for understanding the daily experiences of people living there. In Autumn 2017, our Introduction to Turkish Culture class had the opportunity to learn about this fascinating country and communicate with Turkish peers from İstanbul University. Our peers made what we learned in the classroom relatable and were a valuable resource in the construction of this eBook. Their perspectives provided additional “windows” into an ever-changing nation. We include quotes from our conversations with them throughout the book.

Over the course of the semester, we studied Turkey in great detail, from fashion to food and everything in between, and we are pleased to be able to share what we’ve learned. Much of Turkey’s beauty comes from its complexity, so we hope that we have succeeded in providing enough information to familiarize readers with Turkey’s background while also making it easy to digest. We hope this eBook leaves you eager to learn more.

The chapters of this eBook will reveal that Turkey is a culturally diverse nation with a rich variety of musical, artistic, and cultural traditions. It is rich in history and culture, while also playing a critical role in global economic and political spheres. This class has given us an appreciation of Turkey’s prominence in world affairs. We wrote this introduction1 to provide some facts and background information about Turkey’s economy, geography, government, history, people, languages, lifestyles, and religions, that provide a general basis for delving into particular facets of Turkish culture in the chapters that follow.

Image of Suleymaniye Mosque ceiling
Suleymaniye Mosque’s ceiling, Edirne, photo credit: Melisa Akbulut. All Rights Reserved.



Turkey currently has a strong, diverse economy. Turkey’s economy is ranked 17th nominally and 13th by price point parity. Turkey’s GDP can be divided up into three major sectors. The largest sector in Turkey’s economy is services. Services account for 64.3% of Turkey’s GDP and 52.6% of the country’s labor force. The second largest sector is industry, which accounts for 27.1% of Turkey’s GDP and 26.7% of the labor force. The smallest of Turkey’s economic sectors is agriculture, which accounts for 8.6% of Turkey’s GDP and 20.7% of the country’s labor force.

Turkey is considered a newly developed nation with a diverse array of industries ranging from textiles, food production, automobile and electronics manufacturing, tourism, mining, steel and petroleum production. Istanbul is the country’s financial capital and is ranked fifth in the world for the amount of billionaires at a whopping 37%. Turkey’s boastful economy was not always the globally ranked powerhouse it is today: Turkey had a weak industrial base under the Ottoman Empire. World War I and the Turkish War of Independence caused significant disruptions in Turkey’s economy. The agricultural sector was once Turkey’s largest economic sector, but it lost immense amounts of laborers when they went to war. Turkey’s economy continued to grow at steady levels until they halted in 1930 as a result of the Great Depression. The government stepped in to promote economic recovery, which stagnated at the start of World War II.

Turkey suffered economic disruptions about once per decade since the 1950s due to industry-led periods of rapid economic expansion which resulted in balance of payment crises. The military intervened to prevent major economic issues in the 60s and 70s. In the late 1970s, Turkey endured its worst economic crisis since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The crisis was caused by insufficient measures taken by Turkish authorities to adjust oil prices. This cut down industry production to half and caused triple digit inflation as well as 15% unemployment. The Turkish government was unable to pay off interest on foreign loans, causing significant economic stagnation.

Turkey was impacted by the global financial crisis from 2007 to 2012. The government introduced economic stimulus measures such as tax cuts that increased the production of durable consumer goods. Turkey is now a major economic player on the world stage. It is expected to be one of the fastest growing economies among OECD members during 2015-2025, with an annual average growth rate of 4.9 percent.


From sea-level coasts dotted with sailboats to mountainous ranges covered with snow and arid deserts of rolling dunes, the geography of Turkey is unlike anywhere else on earth. Its diversity in climate, geology, flora, and fauna may come as a surprise to some, but keeps the Turkish landscape unique and lavish.

Within Turkey, there are many lakes, with the most notable (and largest) being Lake Van, and an even greater number of rivers including the Euphrates, Tigris, and Green (Yeşilırmak) rivers. Amidst these waterways, climates shift dramatically between the warm Mediterranean Sea and the temperate Black Sea coasts, the dry south-east and the continental mainland areas, and the windy, mountainous regions neighboring Armenia and Iran.

Image of Cesme Marina Panaroma
Cesme Marina Panaroma by Dogan Iyice, 2012 C.C. 2.0

In Ankara, as much as a 0-30°C difference can be experienced, with only an 18-28°C variation in Istanbul. In addition, earthquake activity under the earth’s crust forms an interesting habitat around Turkey, radially inscribing the country, with the least movement at the heart of Ankara. Turkey is home to approximately 3,000 native species of plants and 65% of the world’s boron, a useful mineral for human consumption. Along with boron, Turkey also produces a variety of other minerals, including copper, nickel, and marble, producing an annual revenue of 2.5 billion USD for the country.



In 1923, after the Ottoman Empire was dissolved, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Republic of Turkey. The Republic was governed by a single political party for the first few decades, but in 1946, Turks were introduced to a multi-party system.

Currently in Turkey, there are more than ten political parties, plus independents, but the majority of the parliament is made up of four main parties: Republican People’s Party (CHP), Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The governing party right now is the AKP or AK Party. They are known for moving Turkey closer to the Eastern world. Even though Turkey is a secular state, religion is increasingly influencing the government and politics. Turkey is currently a Democratic Republic, but with the recent referendum the prime ministry was abolished and the president was granted more power, which led to considerable controversy.



Turkey’s position at the border of East and West has resulted in a long, fascinating, and complex history. In ancient times, the Turks were a nomadic people originating from Central Asia. They migrated across Central Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, forging empires. By the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks had settled in and began to rule in Anatolia. The Seljuks were weakened by the Mongols, leaving room for the Ottoman Empire to emerge in 1299 under the leadership of Osman I. 1453 marked the Ottoman capture of Constantinople (Istanbul). The fall of Constantinople put an end to the Eastern Roman Empire and allowed the Ottomans to advance into Europe.

The Ottoman Empire lasted 623 years and, at its peak, included territory in three continents. As time went on, the once great Ottoman Empire began losing territory and found itself in financial trouble. The decision to side with the defeated Triple Alliance in World War I was the final blow to the “sick man of Europe.” The following occupation of Ottoman territories gave way to the Turkish National Liberation War, which lasted from 1919-1922 and was led by a charismatic, young commander, Mustafa Kemal. The Republic of Turkey was officially founded on October 29, 1923, with Kemal (known as Atatürk) serving as the first president. Atatürk led the new nation through a series of modernizing reforms that served to align Turkey with Europe. Turkey, in recent years, has remained an important player politically, economically, and socially, mostly due to its strategic location, its influence on neighboring countries, and its global alliances.


The Turkish language stems from the Altaic branch of the family Ural-Altaic. It is in close relation to languages such as Japanese, Korean, and Mongolian. Turkish can be traced back to nearly 8,500 years ago. Some distinguishing factors of the Turkish language include: vowel harmony, verbs at the end of the sentence, and no use of genders. Turkish is spoken in many regions across both Europe and Asia.

The history of this language can be split between three different periods: Old Anatolian Turkish, Ottoman Turkish, and 20th century Turkish. The Old Anatolian period took place between the 13th and 15th centuries and was influenced by Persian and Arabic. At the same time, Anatolia was trying to restrict the influences of other languages. In 1277, Turkish became the official language of Anatolia. The Ottoman Turkish period took place from the 16th to the 19th century, when foreign languages again gained influence and some Turkish words became obsolete. During the 19th century Ottoman Reform, though, “pure” Turkish was reinforced and the empire began to eliminate foreign words from their texts. This was due to the influence of nationalism from the West. Lastly, with the election of Atatürk in the early 20th century, the language was reformed once again. Atatürk introduced the Latin alphabet and was a strong proponent of Western culture. The Turkish Language Association, created in 1932 (previously named the Turkish Linguistic Association), continues to follow Atatürk’s path by continually establishing vocabulary from Turkic roots as part of the official language.


Socio-Cultural Diversity in Turkey

There are a number of significant religious minorities in Turkey: Alevis, Jews, Armenian Christians, Greek Orthodox Christians, and Assyrian Christians. While their numbers were reduced significantly due to population exchanges and other forms of displacement during the formation of the Republic, they remain an important part of Turkish culture and history.

Ethnic communities such as Roma (“Gypsies”), Kurds, Dönme, Caucasians, Arabs (indigenous, and now many newly arrived from Syria and other Arab countries), numerous Balkan cultural communities, and others, play an important role in Turkish society. Furthermore, Turkey is home to several languages other than Turkish: Arabic, Kurdish, Zaza, and Laz are especially significant. It isn’t possible to provide detailed information about all of these communities, but a few require some discussion because of their prominence in international news coverage, as well as internal Turkish politics today. Particularly the Kurds, Alevis, and Roma face complex circumstances in Turkey with regard to national identity.

The situation with the Kurds has been a particularly complex one throughout the history of the Republic of Turkey. When the Ottoman Empire fell after World War I, the Kurds attempted to create an independent state, Kurdistan. However, this attempt failed and the Kurds were met with much discrimination following the creation of the Republic of Turkey. There are currently anywhere from 25 to 35 million Kurds who primarily inhabit Eastern Turkey, but are also found in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Armenia (they are the 4th largest ethnic group in the Middle East). For decades, the Kurdish language was banned in Turkey along with other aspects of Kurdish culture, such as dress, dance, and music.

Alevis practice a very small sect of Islam called Alevism. Similar to the Kurds, they have experienced much discrimination, violence, and lack of acknowledgement by Turkey’s government and society. Alevism still is not recognized as an official religion in Turkey and Alevis lack political representation.

The Romani people are primarily Muslims. Because they are aligned with Sunni Islam they are not defined as an official minority. However, they have recently become engaged in a political movement to gain recognition as an underprivileged group and the government is investing in programs to improve their housing, healthcare, education, and employment.



Religion in Turkey is a complicated topic because of the tensions between official laiklik (secularism) and the religiosity of the population. For example, although the country is officially secular, Turkey has a department of the government devoted to religion, the Directorate of Religious Affairs.

The majority of Muslims in Turkey are Sunni, while there exists a significant population of Alevi and other Shi’i Muslims. At the same time, Turkey is not strictly a Muslim nation. As mentioned above under the section “Socio-cultural Diversity”, Christianity is also found in Turkey. Before the Ottoman period, Turkey was ruled by the Christian Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire for over a thousand years. Thus, some of the mosques and historical buildings in the country were once churches.

Today, public schools in Turkey teach about Islam as a part of Turkish history and identity.  President Erdoğan has overseen the implementation of an Islamic curriculum in state schools and crafted policies to increase enrollments in religious schools.

1Thanks to Acala Cresci for her contribution to this section.


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Windows into Turkish Culture Copyright © 2018 by Danielle V. Schoon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.