State and Empire: The Road to Ankara
The Republic of Turkey is an established fact, an accepted member of the community of nations. It is a founding member of the United Nations, as well as a member of NATO, the World Trade Organization, and the G20. A recognized figure on the world stage and a major regional player, its internal dynamics and relations with its neighbors greatly impact stability and progress throughout the eastern Mediterranean. For its citizens and the outside world, that is the facts on the ground reality.
The story of how we arrived at today’s Turkey is far more dramatic and endlessly fascinating. It is a nation wrought from an empire founded by nomads. The scope and scale of its epic journey from its origins to the present unfolds over two thousand years, across a vast geography extending from the steppes of Inner Asia to Europe, taking in many peoples, languages, and religions. Entire societies rose and fell, their influence on history and culture incorporated into the societies that succeeded them. No single straight line will take us to our destination. Lines will cross from east to west, and west to east. Ways of life intersect, clash, and blend, as steppe nomads encounter settled agriculture and commercial towns, with the conquered culture becoming the victor as the nomads gradually became settled themselves.
In the language of theory, today’s Turkish Republic is the result of a long series of dialectics in which Conflict and Convention were resolved as Rights of Settlement, contested and resolved over and over again up to the present. With one foot each in Europe and Asia: geographically, historically, politically, and culturally, this modern secular democracy, built around a core identity of citizenship in the republic and the Turkish language, draws from a diverse and complex background fitting for a nation that once had the sweeping and gathering powers of a great empire. Each of its contributing components underwent its own series of dialectics to become that middle term encountered by the Turkish antecedent.
What do we know about Turkey, its land and people? Its background is both multi and poly ethnic; they speak, or have spoken, a number of languages; and though Islam is the dominant religion, and an Islamist party currently in power, it has been religiously tolerant and multi-confessional. Broken down into all the bits and pieces that contribute to the current whole, we discover an astonishingly diverse, even contradictory, mix of peoples and geography. Yet its identity as state, country, and nation is distinctly Turkish.
Neither Thrace nor Anatolia, that is European and Asian Turkey, are the homeland of Turkic peoples. Though its name is Turkey, and its citizens Turkish, ethnic types in Turkey bear little outward resemblance to other Turkic speaking peoples, especially as you move farther east through Central Asia. Language, more than any other characteristic, is the unifying factor in Turkic identity, in Turkey and throughout the Turko-Mongolian world. Steppe culture of nomads on horseback may once have been key, before the society mixed with settled populations and later became a landed state. Ethnicity, tribe, and racial type were a fluid mix since the earliest times in Inner Asia, as tribes were conquered or formed confederations, where identity rested with the tribe and its leader. Turkic became one of the dominant language groups, from Inner and Central Asia westward into the Caucasus, the Balkans, the Levant and into Egypt in North Africa.
So, we have here today, within the borders of Turkey, the Turkish homeland, a state whose ethnic identity, if not predominate genetic makeup, originates over 5,000 kilometers to the east in Inner Asia, as does its language, itself surviving numerous conquests, and whose religion, for whom their leader, the sultan, was once the supreme authority, comes from over 2,000 kilometers to the south in Arabia. If not by place of origin, language, or religion, how then does Turkey come by its present status as a legitimate state among the community of nations? The short answer is that Turkey earned its place in the world the same way every other nation has and must, by prevailing in war, making alliances, and signing treaties backed by both the force of law and arms; finally, in Turkey’s case, established by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.
There are distinctions between the terms state, country, and nation, of which Turkey is all three. The Turkish state is its political entity; country, its territory; and state, the shared identity of its citizens. For Turkey, they came together only relatively recently compared to China, though the same argument could be made for most states today. But, as all journeys must have their beginning, for Turkey a good place to begin is with the Xiongnu, in what is now Mongolia, in about the 3rd century BCE.
The Xiongnu are credited with creating the first empire of the steppe. They were one of a number of tribal groups living in the area from the Tarim Basin to the Manchurian Plateau to the north of the Chinese. They made the transition from tribe, with its characteristic of identity and organization, to empire, a more diverse collection of groups whose loyalty was to the emperor. Chanyu Modun and his successors, at war and allied with the other nomads of the northern steppe, challenged the Chinese through periods of Conflict and Convention.
Prior to the rise of the Xiongnu, Iranian nomads such as the Saka were dominant on the steppe. Their influence on steppe culture continued, not only in the cities of the Tarim Basin, but across all of Central Asia. Like the Saka, the Xiongnu experienced their peak and decline, and like the Saka their influence persisted, notably in the diversity within steppe empires and their effectiveness in administration and rule. China prevailed against the nomads, even as others followed the Xiongnu, establishing the early Turkic khanates. The Uyghur Khanate lasted only a hundred years, from 744 until 840, as their place in Mongolia was taken by succeeding Turkic, and later Mongol, peoples. They migrated southwest, and today are the major ethnic group in the Xinjiang autonomous region of China.
By the end of the 1st century AD the defeated Xiongnu began the first major westward migration of Turkic peoples. It is thought they may be the origin of the Huns whose empire reached into Europe in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and who were possibly the source of the Hungarian and Finnish languages. Some eight hundred years after the dispersal of the Xiongnu, another Turkic peoples, the Oghuz Turks migrated west to the area roughly between the Caspian and Aral Seas. Their empire lasted some 300 years spanning the mid-8th to mid-11th centuries. In the story of Turkey, they are of crucial importance for two of their sub-groups, the Seljuk and the Ottomans.
The Seljuk empire (1037-1194) stretched east throughout Anatolian Turkey to include Persia and beyond into western Afghanistan. In 1071, at the Battle of Manzikert, the Seljuks defeated the Byzantines, commencing the Turkic transformation of Anatolia. Between the decline of the Seljuks and the ascendency of the Ottomans, another group migrated west making conquests and founding a new empire, the Mongols.
The history of the Mongols is the stuff of legends. They ruled through two dynasties, the Chinggisids, that is Genghis Khan and his descendants, ruling the Mogol Empire (1206-1368), and the Timurid Empire (r. 1370-1507), ruled by Timur—or Tamerlane—and his descendants. The empire united the entirety of Eurasia from the Mediterranean to the Pacific under the administration of the khans. While depicted by the Europeans as ruthless, laying waste to conquered lands, the truth is much more complex. They continued the features and innovations of earlier steppe nomads—effective administration over an extensive empire, encompassing steppe and sown, and notably religiously tolerant. A Pax Mongolica greatly enhanced trade along the Silk Road, as all manner of goods and ideas could travel safely through the united territories. It was during this period that Marco Polo made and documented his travels from Europe to China. Across the breadth of Central Asia all the way through Anatolia to Europe, the Mongols mixed and blended with the Turkic and Iranian peoples they conquered, producing a Turko-Mongolian culture with Persian influences.
In the mid-13th century, by the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, a tribe of Oghuz Turks established what became the Ottoman Empire and the ruling dynasty of sultans beginning with Osman I, under whose leadership the Ottomans succeeded in conquering the nearby Byzantine areas, securing Turkic rule over Anatolia. From Mehmed II the Conqueror (1432-1481) through the last sultan, Mehmed VI (1862-1926), the history of the empire is already well-trod ground. The end of the 17th century saw the Ottoman Empire proper along with its vassal states at its greatest territorial extent. It encompassed Anatolia and all of Thrace; the Balkans into Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Crimea and the north side of the Black Sea; Egypt across into North Africa, the Levant, and the Hejaz along the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula; and, the courses of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers through Mesopotamia down to the Persian Gulf. The 18th and 19th centuries were a period of steady territorial decline, with gains made by the Hapsburgs, Russians, English, and Greeks at the expense of the Ottomans, reducing the empire to Anatolia, the part of Thrace around Istanbul, the Levant, Mesopotamia, and the Hejaz by 1914 at the start of World War I. From early in the 20th century the sultanate had given way to the Young Turks and the Three Pashas. The Kemalist period after the war saw the full transformation from empire to republic in all respects: geographically, politically, and socially.
While every nation is unique in its particulars, as each will assert in its Narrative, all will have developed within the parameters and pattern described by the Principle. Turkey is not only no exception, it exemplifies the model. Much is made of “an indigenous people living in their homeland,” and their inalienable rights to place and culture. Yet, even as Turkey’s status as a recognized state within its borders is unassailable, its entire history suggests the opposite. What is more, when we examine nations that are commonly perceived as the natural expressions of people and place, such as the UK and Italy, layer by layer of the Principle, dialectic by dialectic, they, too, will be found to be the result of the mixing and blending of cultures over time and geography.