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Fans of classic history are well-aware that in pre-modern times, Asia Minor (now Turkey) was home to a plethora of non-Turkic cultures. And we are here to explore it. Turkey continues to be a place full of history and curiosities (especially in the last decades). But we’re here to talk about their history, the movement of Turkey’s population and ouching briefly their Ottoman Era.
Many of these early inhabitants(Turkic peoples) with turkish ancestry spoke Indo-European languages, such as the Hittites, Phrygians and Luwians. Following Alexander’s conquests in Asia Minor, it became mainly Hellenized for centuries until the 11th century. Armenians were typically dominant in eastern parts of this territory since ancient times. So what happened and how did the turkic peoples come to be? Well, if you want to know, continue reading you historical nerd.
Brief not so brief history of turkic Tribes
Over the course of the first half of 1000 CE, nomadic turkic tribes began pouring into Central Asia from their native land in western Mongolia. Reaching as far as Eastern Europe (but this comes much later). As they settled down or merged with Iranian-speaking locals, it left many wondering how exactly these individuals got to Turkey. Today’s home to a vast majority of Turkish people.
During the 11th century, the movement of Turkic people were abundant at the borders of Anatolia and under control by Greeks. Notably, they had been hired as mercenaries by Arab and Persian rulers living to the east of Armenia and Byzantium Empire — which then held authority over Asia Minor.
Later on, in 1037, the Seljuk Empire was established near Iran in Central Asia and quickly conquered most of Persia, northern Iraq, northern Syria and Levant. Toward the end of that decade, their boundaries joined with Byzantine Asia Minor. It is important to keep in mind that Turkic people were a minority group actually. Howverm they were controlling this vast area populated by Persians, Arabs, and Kurds as major ethnic groups.
The primary strategic threat for the Turks was the Fatimid Caliphate based in Egypt. The Ismaili Shia-led Fatimids had control over Jerusalem and Mecca, which posed a huge threat to Sunni Islam that was upheld by most Turks. At this time, Baghdad’s Sunni Caliph effectively relinquished any political power as it was instead held tightly by Seljuk sultans.
Similar to many other empires, conflicts between nomadic rulers and the sedentary population caused problems for the Seljuks. Obviously! The Turkish tribes under their reign were often restless and frequently raided villages ruled by them. You could say that they “couldn’t keep their hand to themselves.” Creating yet another obstacle for this powerful dynasty to overcome.
As a result, many of the Turkic clans and tribes were settled on the borders of Seljuk Empire, including those near Byzantine Empire. Gradually, Turkish incursions into Asia Minor began to occur frequently infuriating further the Byzantines in the process. See where this is going?
In 1045, the Byzantine empire seized control over Armenia. Unfortunately, their border with the Seljuks remained volatile due to hostile skirmishes. Many Armenians were reluctant to support them against Turkish incursions.
Ultimately, this weakened Byzantium’s chances at effective defense and put them at a disadvantage in future conflicts. After bearing the brunt of relentless Turkish raids for years, by 1071 the Byzantines were at their wit’s end and resolved to mobilize a massive army to once and for all put an end to this menace.
Does that sound like a good idea to you? Unfortunately, their decision to fight a pitched battle was not a good one or wise by any means. As they were predominantly used to defending outposts against lightly armed tribal warriors. By engaging in such an encounter, the risk of total defeat loomed large.
The story goes on for the Seljuk Turks
Additionally, the Seljuk Turks were unlikely to bring hostility toward the Byzantines. Instead, they prioritized targeting Egypt. It was only wholly separate tribes that could not be managed by the central Seljuk control which caused raids of Byzantine lands. Romanus IV Diogenes, the Byzantine Emperor, created a new threat for the Seljuks by moving some 40,000 troops to his eastern border. This made Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan aware of the threat from Asia Minor.
The Byzantines were trying to get the Turks’ attention away from Egypt. So they got a Turkic army to come to Asia Minor from Persia and Central Asia. The Seljuk and Byzantine armies met at Manzikert in eastern Turkey. The Byzantines lost badly. This is one of the most important battles in history because it resulted in the establishment of Turkish power in Asia Minor.
With treachery likely at play, the Byzantines’ fate appeared sealed when powerful court factions in Constantinople sent their generals to fight but never engaged in battle with turkish troops. Instead, these units chose to return home after simply being present for a limited time and not helping at all.
Sultan Alp Arslan captured Emperor Diogenes and offered to let him go home if he promised not to fight the Turks again. But soon after, there was a war in the Byzantine empire between Diogenes and other people who wanted to be the emperor. Some of the generals broke the treaty with the Turks.
The lack of soldiers in Asia Minor presented an opportunity for the Turks to seize control and thus, by 1081 they had successfully infiltrated across the Bosphorus Straits from Constantinople. Some of the land in Asia Minor was taken back by Byzantine and Crusader forces, but most of it remained under Turkish control. During this time period, Turks commanded several countries throughout the Middle East and South Asia.
How did they come to predominate in Turkey?
Following the victorious Seljuk uprising, a great number of Turks migrated to Asia Minor. Later on they set up their own small states while ruling over the indigenous population. This increase was made even bigger by the people who ran away from the Mongolian invaders and who used to live in Persia and Central Asia. Migration went on for a period of time thus creating the largest ethnic minority.
Despite the fact that it is typical for a majority to absorb minorities, because of the tumultuous atmosphere of this frontier region, this was not the case with Turks. In fact, many locals (ethnic Greeks and Armenians) sought out Turkish warlords as protectors.
The client-patron relationship reached many bands and tribes across Asia Minor. This caused most of the population to adopt Turkish religion (Islam), language, and culture instead of the other way around. Many Turks served to help and protect the locals and certain groups closely related to the region.
This phenomenon, known as elite dominance, occurs when a minority culture forcibly imposes itself on the majority. A solid illustration of this is the Turkification of Asia Minor. DNA analysis has revealed that today’s turks are genetically more aligned with Greeks and Armenians than they are to Central Asian Turkic people such as Uzbeks or Kazakhs.
Consequently, despite their dominance in Asia Minor, the Turkic culture was rapidly blended into the local population. Don’t misinterpret this statement to mean that there is no Central Asian genetic link among today’s Anatolian Turks. Genetic studies prove that around 9-15% of Turkish genetics comes from Central Asia – a number which continues to increase with each new discovery!
Asia Minor served as the heart of the Byzantine Empire, home to its largest population. Without it, there were simply not enough resources for the empire to effectively compete over time; and Turkification was heavily favored due to religious distinctions between Greeks and Turks. In Greece, the act of converting to Islam was famously referred to as “going Turk” – an occurrence that wasn’t possible in Islamic countries like Persia or the Middle East.
In addition, during the later Empire, Turkish language was used more often than other regional dialects at a governmental level.T here were many things that led to a large number of Turkic-speaking people in Asia Minor. This area used to be home to lots of different groups of people. This relocation significantly impacted global geopolitics for centuries afterward and continues to be felt today.
So where is Turkey right now, politically?
The process to nowadays Turkey was slow, long, sometimes tedious and sometimes went through glory (Otoman Empire anyone?). Before reaching to today’s Turkey with their economical and political stability, several things happened. However, we will go through just a few major events that brought Turkey to what it is today.
Skipping the glory of the Ottoman Empire, by the 19th century, the empire’s downfall began when ethno-nationalist rebellions spread rapidly throughout its borders.
This meant that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, around 7-9 million Muslim refugees from places like the Caucasus, Crimea, Balkans, and Mediterranean islands moved to Anatolia and Eastern Thrace. By 1913, the ruling government of the Committee of Union and Progress initiated a policy to coercively assimilate non-Turkish minorities into Turkish culture.
World War I began in 1914. During the Battle of the Dardanelles in 1915, the Turks were successful in Gallipoli. During World War I, the government of the Committee of Union and Progress continued to implement its Turkification policies. This affected non-Turkish minorities, such as the Armenians during the Armenian genocide and the Greeks during various campaigns of ethnic cleansing and expulsion. In 1918, the Ottoman Government agreed to the Mudros Armistice with the Allies.
Not only did non-Turkish minorities endure ethnic cleansing under the Young Turks, but an estimated of 2 million people were killed. Many od them were deported as well, in what is known as the Persecution of Muslims during Ottoman contraction. This tragedy has been dubbed an ‘unrecognized genocide’ by Paul Mojzes and will forever remain a major element of The Balkan Wars.
The Treaty of Sèvres was a agreement signed in 1920 that ended the Ottoman Empire. The Turks rejected the treaty and fought for their independence. This resulted in the Treaty of Sèvres never being ratified and the Sultanate being abolished. With that, after an impressive 623-year reign, the Ottoman Empire ended.
In 1919, Mustafa Kemal bravely led the Turkish Muslim majority in a determined fight for independence against occupying Allied forces from the former Ottoman Empire. Through his unwavering leadership and perseverance, he spearheaded the successful efforts of the Turkish National Movement to expel foreign occupiers out of their homeland by 1922.
The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 marked the birth of modern Turkey with a unified Turkish identity, and under Atatürk’s presidency it was ushered into a period of groundbreaking reforms. These changes completely transformed the nation from its former state to one that is secular, democratic, and offers equal opportunities for all citizens regardless of creed or gender.
From the 1920s to 1930s, Turks and other Muslims from different countries such as the Balkans, Black Sea region, Aegean Islands, Hatay, Middle East and Soviet Union were immigrating to Turkey. The majority of them settled in urban parts of north-western Anatolia where they received the name “Muhacirs”. Most Balkan Turks who migrated during this time experienced discrimination and intolerance in their homelands which pushed them away.
The Turkish government wanted to keep the Turkish communities in other countries so that the Turkish character of these neighbouring territories could be maintained. From 1940 to 1990, a wave of ethnic Turks immigrated to Turkey with approximate 700,000 Bulgarians making up the last influx. These immigrants have made a difference in today’s Turkish population, comprising between one-third and one-quarter of its total populace!
The Turkification of Asia Minor was a complex process that involved many different factors. Migration, the client-patron relationship between Turks and locals, religious distinctions, and language were all part of the story.
This mass relocation changed global geopolitics for centuries afterward and continues to be felt today in Turkey and other parts of the world. Understanding how this happened is key to understanding current international relations in the region as well as how cultural identity has been shaped over time.
Then the fall of the Ottoman Empire and its transition to modern Turkey came as a slow and complex process involving many different actors, events, policies, and people. From Mustafa Kemal’s brave leadership in leading the Turkish National Movement during World War I to the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 which ushered in a period of groundbreaking reforms.
Turkey, it is clear that this country has come an incredibly long way since its former state. The influx of immigrants from other countries such as Bulgaria also played a role in transforming Turkey into what we know today. This remarkable journey demonstrates how far determination and perseverance of the people of Turkey took them!