Geographically linked to three major surrounding regions, Europe, the Middle East and the Caucasus, Turkey is the three-sided piece of the Eurasian jigsaw puzzle. Having been at the heart of the Eastern Roman and Ottoman Empires, the country’s history is especially representative of this unique and composite identity.
Yusuf Akçura, a Russian-born Crimean Tatar intellectual who lived in the Ottoman Empire and later, the Turkish Republic, is perhaps one of the most perceptive observers of Turkey’s distinct position. At a time when the crumbling Ottoman State was much in need of a unifying national identity to consolidate the loyalty of its subjects and strengthen itself by doing so, Akçura summarised the country’s extraordinary situation in an article he wrote in 1904 attempting to address this national predicament.
Akçura wrote that the empire had three options; one was to pursue a secular French-Swiss style ideal to unite the empire’s ethnically and religiously diverse population as Ottoman subjects, another emphasised the empire’s Islamic attributes and its role as the world’s leading Muslim power, and the third was based on the empire’s Turkic heritage, linking it to the Turks of Azerbaijan and Central Asia, then ruled by the Tsar.
As a non-Ottoman Turk who lived in the empire, Akçura’s perspective as both an outsider and insider is particularly useful for understanding the Ottoman Empire’s triple identity; this is because he was able to comprehend the similarities and differences between the Ottomans and their other Turkish counterparts abroad, as a result of his experiences in Russia. When taking this into account, the variety in identity that he refers to indicates that the Ottoman Empire had firm intellectual and cultural links in all directions and was an integral part of Europe, the Middle East and the Turkic world, an identity which modern-day Turkey has inherited as the empire’s most direct successor.
When considering the country’s archaeological and architectural heritage, this mix becomes even more apparent. One needs only to visit some of Turkey’s great museums and historical sites to see these rich identities come to life.
Take for example, the Anatolian Civilisations Museum in Ankara or the Antalya Museum; both reveal the extent of Greco-Roman influence in ancient Turkey, which the Turks themselves would later build upon. Showcasing numerous artefacts, we can see that the people of ancient Anatolia enjoyed life and leisure in the same way as many other Roman subjects. We see images of gladiators and statues of gods and goddesses and in Antalya especially, a statue of Emperor Hadrian. The person of Hadrian, who visited Antalya as its emperor in 130 CE is especially illustrative of Turkey’s wider Roman connection to Europe; indeed, he was born in Spain, ruled from Rome and built a famous wall in Britain. At this time, Turkey was part of a European or at least Europe-centred imperial entity even before the Ottoman Empire, and shared in the cultural life of the Roman world while being so.
While it is true that the Turks themselves did not yet inhabit the territory now comprising the Republic of Turkey when Hadrian visited Antalya in the 2nd Century, the importance of Roman culture and history was not lost on them after they had arrived and settled. Turkish migration to Anatolia began to grow in the 11th Century with the defeat of the Eastern Romans or Byzantines by the Turkish Selçuk Sultan Alp Arslan at the Battle of Manzikert or Malazgirt in 1071, but this military defeat for the Romans did not entirely translate into a cultural one.
Instead, with the arrival of the Turks, the country’s Roman heritage was complemented with additional Islamic and Turkic layers, displayed beautifully by the Hagia Sophia, once the largest church in Europe. Built in the 6th Century by Roman Emperor Justinian I in Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, this church was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II when he conquered the city in 1453. Importantly, the Muslim Ottoman conquerors did not destroy this great piece of Roman Christian architecture, but exalted it and repurposed it to suit their own religious needs, adding minarets for example. This great structure still symbolises this synthesis today, having served as a museum in the Turkish Republic since the 1930s with historical Islamic calligraphy and Christian mosaics and frescoes on display in its interior.
Importantly too, this cultural fusion continued in the classical Ottoman period, as architects began to replicate the Hagia Sophia’s domes and cubic structure when building other mosques, gradually developing a distinctive Ottoman style. Mosques like these both large and small can still be found across contemporary Turkey, especially in Istanbul including the city’s most famous ones such as the Sultanahmet, Süleymaniye and Rüstem Paşa mosques to name just a few. It is through this architectural synthesis that Turkey’s three historical identities blend in a tangible way; culturally Turkish sultans and nobles endowed these mosques that were designed using Roman churches as their blueprints, and with it, Turkic, Islamic and European heritage blended in bricks and mortar. So there it is, even since the most critical and important periods of the country’s history through the many centuries of the Ottoman Empire and beyond into today’s republic, Turkey has been a country with many influences and connections to the East, the South and the West. It is and long has been, Eurasia’s three-sided jigsaw piece.
Text by Edward Rowe