Eastern Turkey - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Eastern Turkey: the Bradt Travel Guide

The Ottoman Empire

At the end of the 13th century Anatolia found itself in the hands of three major forces: the Mongols, the Muslims of the cities (heirs to the Seljuk Empire) and the Turcomans. The power and number of the latter continued to grow, and they conquered and founded various beyliks on the periphery of the Seljuk Empire, the most powerful of which was Karaman in the western Taurus mountains. It was however Orhan, son of Osman (after whom the Ottoman dynasty was named), whose beylik was to provide the future masters of Anatolia. He seized Bursa in 1326 and made it his capital. By the time of Orhan’s death in 1362 the Ottomans controlled almost all of the Marmara region, the Dardanelles and eastern Thrace. Murat I seized Edirne and made it the second capital of the Ottomans.

In 1389 the victory at Kosovo over the Serbs and the Bosnians opened the gate of the Balkans to the Ottomans, and in 1399–1402 another Mongol invasion led by Tamerlane laid waste to Anatolia, taking Sultan Beyazıt prisoner. Tamerlane died shortly afterwards and the Ottomans went on to retake control of their territory.

In 1453 the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (the Conqueror) took Constantinople and the city became İstanbul, third and final capital of the Ottomans. The first Ottomans were still semi-nomadic, wintering on the plains and retiring in summer to the freshness of the mountains, but they did not reject urban life either. The Ottoman town offered a synthesis of rural and urban cultures, and the Arabo– Persian civilisation inherited from the Seljuks existed side by side with the popular and heterodox Islam of the nomads. The first medreses and tekkes of the Sufi dervishes were closely connected to the early Ottomans, and the Bektaşi order exerted a strong spiritual authority on the Janissaries, infantry soldiers who were the Sultan’s household troops and bodyguards.

In 1462 Bosnia was annexed and in 1511 there was the revolt of the Kızılbaş (‘red-heads’, ancestors of today’s Alevis). These Shi’ites were supported by the Shah of Persia against the Sunni Sultan and their revolt put the stability of the Empire in danger.

The Ottoman golden age is generally recognised as being the reign of Selim II (the Grim; 1512–20) who doubled the size of the empire during his eight-year rule, and the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent (1521–56), when Rhodes was taken in 1522 and the St John Hospitallers fled to Malta. In 1529 the Ottomans tried to take Vienna and in 1536 François I, King of France, signed a commerce treaty with them, known by the name of ‘capitulations’. Süleyman was a classic ‘Renaissance man’, composing verses in Persian in his rare moments of leisure, and commissioning the building of many of İstanbul’s great buildings, under the supervision of his court architect, Sinan. He also reorganised the secular law of the empire, so that his Turkish surname is Kanuni, the Legislator. A huge bureaucracy emerged as a result, directed by the Sultan and his grand vizir, with whom he nominated the governors of provinces and other high officials.

After Süleyman’s death in 1566, the Ottoman Empire suffered its first big military setback in 1571 with the naval defeat of Lepanto against Spain and over the course of the next centuries the empire began to shrink, abandoning Hungary and part of the Balkans to Austria.

Between 1768 and 1774 war broke out between Russia and the Ottomans, in which the Russians triumphed, taking part of the Black Sea coast, and marking the beginning of the process of dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.

The following century saw further wars and uprisings and the abolition of the Janissaries and the Sufi Bektashi order. The 1839 Gülhane Edict deeply transformed Ottoman society, giving the same rights to all subjects of the empire. A wave of liberal reforms (Tanzimat) was inaugurated which continued until 1876. In 1840, Egypt acquired its independence under the nominal sovereignty of the Sultan and in 1865 the secret society of Young Ottomans was founded, later the Young Turks.

The Crimean War, in which the Russians opposed the Turks, the French and the English, raged from 1853 to 1855. It was resolved by the Treaty of Paris (1856), which marked the subservience of the Ottoman economy to the European powers.

By 1876 the Ottoman State was declared officially bankrupt and became known as ‘the Sick Man of Europe’, and in 1878 Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria all became independent. Greece obtained its independence in 1830 after nine years of war and in 1897 Crete was re-attached to Greece. In 1908 the Revolution of the Young Turks took place and Sultan Abdul Hamit II was forced to announce the constitution before being deposed (1909). During the Balkan Wars, 1912–13, Turkey lost most of its European territories with the exception of eastern Thrace and Edirne.

During World War I (1914–18) the Ottoman Empire allied itself to Germany. Responding to a Russian initiative supported by the Armenians in eastern Anatolia in the winter of 1914–15, a Turkish counter-offensive resulted in the massacre of Armenians in spring 1915 and the deportation of massive numbers of Armenians in the southeast and in 1915–16 the Turks under the command of Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) won a decisive victory at the Battle of the Dardanelles over the Allied Forces who could not hold the straits.

In 1916 a series of Arab revolts began which ended in the detachment of the Arab provinces from the Ottoman Empire (Hijaz, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq), and after the war in 1920 the Treaty of Sèvres dismantled the Ottoman Empire and put it under European tutelage. The Turks under Mustafa Kemal refused to accept the conditions of the treaty and fought a war of independence against the occupying Greeks from 1920 to 1922, resulting in the abolition of the Sultanate. The 600-year Ottoman Empire had come to an end. In 1923 the Treaty of Lausanne liberated Turkey from foreign tutelage and recognised its independence within the reduced borders of the former Ottoman Empire.

Natural history

National parks

Turkey’s Ministry of the Environment was established in 1991 in response to the growing awareness of environmental problems in Turkey, notably pollution and conservation of nature. There are 40 national parks scattered throughout Turkey, about half of which are in the eastern region, most of them in forested or mountainous areas where biological diversity is being protected. The Turkish government has also passed special legislation to grant Special Areas of Environmental Protection in places where tourism and construction might damage the habitat of endangered species and the natural beauty of the environment. The Ihlara Gorge in Cappadocia is one such area, and there are national parks in the Rize and Trabzon regions of the Black Sea. Protected animals in these areas include fallow deer, roe deer, northern bald ibis, pheasant, francolin, partridge, wild goat, waterfowl, Mediterranean monk seal and mouflon.


Eastern Turkey offers a tremendous range of climbing for the mountaineer: from near-tropical landscapes in the Pontic Alps (Kaçkar Mountains) just inland from the Black Sea to arctic peaks with permanent snow covering like Mount Ararat and the Hakkâri range in the extreme southeast. Mountains form an essential part of the landscapes of eastern Turkey. Much of the plateau, though itself already high at a minimum of 1,000m, is very flat and the surrounding countryside is therefore dominated for miles around by any major peaks. This is especially true of the volcanoes which tend to rise up in splendid isolation, their majesty undiluted by a cluster of lesser peaks.


Along the roadsides the large, hairy Bactrian camels are still to be seen in the southern Mediterranean areas, giving way in the central Anatolian regions to the distinctive black water buffalo with their long beards and fierce horns. Both are used as beasts of burden. Sheep and goats abound in many shapes and forms and there are also plentiful cattle. Chickens, geese and ducks are often all over the roads in the villages of the interior.

Further afield in the remoter and more mountainous areas, the game which the Turks shoot includes badger, bear, boar, deer, ibex, jackal and gazelle on the Turkish–Syrian border areas, and wild cats and even leopards in the forests. There are also many wolves and wild dogs in the mountains.

Common game birds are wild duck, wild geese, quail, partridge and pheasant.


Travel in eastern Turkey means long distances, sometimes through a spectacular and dramatic landscape, at other times through scenery that is less immediately interesting. But there is one feature as you travel that can always keep you on your toes and which gives every stop an extra dimension and an interest beyond the immediate archaeological, architectural or scenic – the birdlife.

Carrying a pair of binoculars will enhance your trip even if you are totally inexperienced and have never paid any attention to birds before. The best book to have along for reference is The Birds of Britain and Europe with North Africa and the Middle East (Collins Pocket Guide) by Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow. Bird identification can at times be a frustrating and disappointing experience if you are not an expert, though it is always challenging and continues to exercise the mind long after the bird in question has disappeared from view.

Inevitably there are the ‘big brown birds’ of prey and the numerous ‘little brown birds’ which are aggravatingly difficult to identify because of distance, lack of experience or inability to distinguish birdsong. But all the birds mentioned here are to be seen while travelling from one town to another along the routes you would be following anyway, so do not necessitate any detour. Birdwatching can therefore be easily incorporated to add interest to the long road journeys.

People and culture

Even to most western and İstanbuli Turks, eastern Turkey remains something of an enigma, with few having travelled there. This is gradually changing as more western Turks are starting to discover the other half of their own country. No familiar Greek and Roman influences are to be seen here, and Europe seems far away. It is home to Turkey’s ethnic minorities, such as the Kurds, concentrated mainly in the southeast and around Lake Van, and the Georgian Laz, found in the northeastern Georgian valleys around Artvin. There used to be many Armenians as well, until the population disappeared in the early 20th century, a subject of heated debate and much sensitivity. The people here are also different, more self-contained and less outgoing than those of western Turkey, and certainly less accustomed to tourists. Armenians, Greeks and Jews are recognised minorities under the Turkish constitution. Other ethnic minorities include Circassians and Bosnians, Muslim refugees who fled persecution in Russia and the Balkans respectively. Today most of these smaller groups are loosely dispersed in the larger cities.

The Turks

From their origins in the steppes of Asia the Turks arrived in Asia Minor in the 10th century having adopted the religion of the Arabs en route, and for the last six centuries they have lived half in and half out of Europe. Today they are neither Asian nor Middle Eastern nor European, having aspects of all three yet being distinct from them.

In 1970 David Hotham, who spent eight years living in Ankara as The Times correspondent, expressed their complexity memorably:

The Turk is unusually full of contradictions. Not only has he East and West in him, Europe and Asia, but an intense pride combined with an acute inferiority complex, a deep xenophobia with an overwhelming hospitality to strangers, a profound need for flattery with an absolute disregard for what anybody thinks about him. Few people, capable of such holocausts, are at the same time so genuinely kind, helpful, magnanimous and sincere as the Turks. It is as if his nature compensated its capacity for one extreme by a propensity towards the other.

On the whole Turks are not great businessmen. Until the 1920s it was the Greeks and the Armenians who busied themselves with the country’s commerce. Even today the Turks are still not naturally adept at selling themselves or their goods, and do not have the ‘gift of the gab’ that comes so readily for example to the Greeks or the Lebanese. They do, however, have great dignity and great national pride. Atatürk’s dictum: Ne mutlu ‘Türküm’ diyene (How happy is he who can say he is a Turk) still strikes a chord.


Despite appearances of submissiveness in eastern Turkey, women have made enormous strides since Atatürk’s reforms. Turkish women long ago entered the professions and can be found in universities and in parliament – Turkey even had its first woman prime minister, Tansu Çiller, in the early 1990s. Many writers and journalists are women, and in the arts there are excellent actresses, ballet dancers, opera singers and musicians. In banks you will be struck by the number of women working behind the counter, many of them very senior, and in the Turkish civil service there are many women in prominent positions. Turkish women were granted the vote in 1930, years before Greek women got it (1952), and they also achieved this status ahead of the women of Portugal, Spain, Bulgaria, France, Belgium and Switzerland.

Yet in spite of all this there is far less equality between the sexes than might be suggested by these high-profile Westernised ladies, especially in the eastern provinces: there, old attitudes die hard, and in cinemas and schools there is still often separate seating for women. As Hotham says, ‘You can change a law but not a mentality’.

Attitudes towards Europe

Turks today, especially the younger ones, are increasingly regarding themselves as European. Associate members of the EU (previously the EEC) since 1963, they are now intensifying their efforts to gain full membership. Desperately anxious for acceptance by the West, they are keen to cast off their barbaric image.

David Hotham, posing the question, ‘Is the Turk a European?’ at the beginning of his book The Turks (John Murray) ends by concluding that the Turk is ‘a potential European’, poised to move towards Europe. If however Europe is not welcoming, Turkey increasingly has the confidence to carve its own path, turning east instead, and improving its relations with its eastern neighbours.

Back to the top

Eastern Turkey articles

View all

9 lost cities of the world

From crumbling Persian empires to colossal Roman cities, here are some of our favourite ruined civilisations from around the world. 


Gaziantep: it’s the nuts

Hugh, our Senior Marketing Executive, goes off the eaten track to discover Gaziantep, a Turkish city brimming with food, just north of the Syrian border. 


Cappadocia – for underground cities, cave churches & sunrise hot-air balloon rides

Take to the skies, explore underground cities and sleep in cave, all in one weekend. 


Related books

View all