'Who Are the
Turks?', Prof. Dr. Justin McCarthy
The simplest questions can be the most difficult to answer. The
Turks are obviously a people separate from other peoples, but a
people can be defined in many ways --language, religion, cultural
traits, citizenship, loyalty to a ruling house, or many other
feelings of kinship. The Turks of today are citizens of the Turkish
Republic. The name Turk is also used to describe the people in
Turkey who share the distinctive Turkish culture, especially the
Turkish language, which all Turkish citizens do not share, no more
than all Americans speak English. Or a Turk can also mean a member
of the great linguistic and cultural family of the Turks, a family
that stretches from China to Europe, bound together by language and
history. The best way to define the Turks may be to consider which
people make up the Turks of Turkey and how they defined themselves
politically, first as subjects of the Ottoman Empire, then as
citizens of the Turkish Republic.
The original speakers of the Turkish language lived in Central Asia.
They roamed as nomads over a vast region that today lies in Siberia,
Western China, and Kazakhstan and other ex-Republics of the U.S.S.R.
They were known at an early time to both the Chinese and the Middle
Eastern Persians and Arabs, but they first appeared in the Middle
East in large numbers, as nomadic soldiers, in the tenth century.
Finding the Middle East more pleasant than the cold steppes of
Central Asia, they remained.
The Turks had converted to Islam while in Central Asia. Although
some of the Turks in history had been Christians and Jews, Islam
became the religion of the vast majority and remains so today.
The Turkish nomads expanded westward under the leadership of the
Seljuk family of sultans. The Seljuks quickly took Iran and Iraq,
capturing Baghdad, the capital of the old Abbasid Empire, in 1055.
Their forces were unlike what is ordinarily thought of as an army.
The first Seljuk troops were nomads who brought all their lives with
them --families, dwellings (tents), animals, and belongings. They
were at home wherever the pastures were good for their sheep.
Relatively soon after their arrival so many Turks had come that the
region to the southwest of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, was Turkish.
Large groups of Turks were also spread over other regions of Iran
The nomads did not stop once Iran and Iraq were conquered. They were
soon raiding into the Byzantine Empire, which lay to the west of
Iran, in Anatolia. In 1071, the Byzantine defeat to the Seljuks in a
great battle at Manzikert opened Anatolia to Turkish settlement.
Over the next two hundred years the nomads kept moving into Anatolia
in great numbers. Although the Turks themselves did not use the
term, Anatolia had become Turkey. Many other peoples remained there.
Greeks, Kurds, Armenians, and others shared the land, and many of
them adopted the Turkish language, converted to Islam (forced
conversion was almost unknown), and became Turks themselves. Because
the Turks had no concept of "race" that would exclude anyone, they
accepted those who wished to be Turks as Turks. The Turkish people
were thus made up of the descendants of the Turks of Central Asia
and those who had become Turks.
Nineteenth and early twentieth century refugees added to the numbers
of Turks in Anatolia. In the time of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish
population had spread throughout the Balkans. The descendants of
these Turks lived for five hundred years in the areas that are today
Bulgaria, Greece, and other countries of Southeastern Europe. Large
numbers of these Turks were either killed or exiled when the
countries rebelled against the Ottoman Empire and became
independent. Russian invasions of the Ottoman Balkans and the
creation of new Balkan states resulted in the expulsion of more than
a million Turks. The exiles eventually settled in Anatolia and
The Russians were also responsible for the immigration of more than
two million Turks and other Muslims from the Crimea and the Caucasus
Region. Both regions were overwhelmingly Muslim in population.
The Crimean Tatars were Turkish-speakers who had lived in the Crimea
for centuries. The Caucasians, primarily the peoples known as
Circassians, Abkhazians, and Laz, were not Turks but were Muslim
peoples who had lived on their lands since the beginning of history.
All the groups were forced to flee their homelands by Russian armies
or laws. They too came to what today is the Turkish Republic.
From 1800 to the 1920s more than three million refugees came to what
today is Turkey. Many of the immigrants were already Turks in
culture and language. Others, such as the Circassians and
Abkhazians, kept many of their ethnic traditions but became Turkish
in language and loyalty. The ethnic Turks of modern Turkey thus came
from Central Asia many centuries ago. A number are also descendants
of peoples whose ancestors were Hittites, Phrygians, or other early
peoples of Anatolia. Others descend from the peoples exiled from
their homes by Russians and others taken in by the Turks of Turkey.
Peoples are often defined by the unique states to which they belong.
This is especially true of the Turks, who were tied to one of the
greatest empires of history, then to one of the first successful
"developing" countries of the modern world.
Partly because the poetry, art, and other aspects of the Turkish
character are little known to the West, Europeans and Americans have
usually thought of Turks as soldiers and administrators. While there
is much more than this to the Turks, it is true that Turks rank
among history's great empire-builders and rulers. Under the Ottomans
they conquered vast territories in the Balkans and the Middle East
and ruled for six hundred years. The Ottoman Empire was founded at
the end of the thirteenth century by a Turkish military leader,
Osman, and his son Orhan. They and their successors conquered in
Europe, Asia, and Africa. One sultan, Selim I, took all of what
today is Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon in one campaign. His
son, Süleyman the Magnificent, expanded the empire by taking Iraq
and Hungary. When Süleyman died in 1566 the Ottoman Empire stretched
from the borders of Poland in the North to Yemen in the South and
from near Venice in the West to Iran in the East. For centuries, the
Ottoman Empire was the primary homeland of the Turks.
The Ottoman Turkish administrative genius lay in retaining and
governing what they had conquered. The survival of any government
for six centuries is in itself a testimony to greatness. The Turks
proved to be adaptable to new circumstances. They managed to turn
their system from a nomadic state whose members were more naturally
wanderers than statesmen to a settled empire with laws, land
registers, taxation systems, and economic might. Their system was
not without troubles, but revolts and sometimes poor politicians
could not bring it down. The state was based on tolerance of
differences among its subjects. Christians and Jews were allowed to
keep their religious practices and their means of gaining a
livelihood. This was good for the Ottomans, because satisfied
subjects did not rebel. It was also good for the subjects.
Tolerance and administrative ability were not enough for the Empire
to last forever. In the 1600s and 1700s the Ottoman central
government weakened just as European power immensely increased. The
Europeans were translating the benefits of the Renaissance, the
scientific revolution, and the discovery of the Americas into
military and economic advantage. Europeans began to dismantle the
Empire, taking Ottoman lands for themselves, causing the great exile
of Turks and other Muslims mentioned above. Ethnic and religious
groups, such as the Bulgarians and Greeks, became affected by
European ideas of nationalism. In the nineteenth century they
revolted and created their own nation sates, once again expelling
many of the Turks who lived within their new borders.
As the Ottoman Empire compressed, the Turks also began to develop a
national consciousness. Driven into Anatolia, the Turkish exiles and
the Turks of Anatolia began a slow process of thinking of themselves
not only as a religious group, Muslim, or the mainstay of an empire,
Ottoman, but as the Turkish People. Turkish philosophers and
politicians called upon the Turks to think of themselves as a
The ultimate push toward Turkish nationhood came after World War I.
Following Ottoman defeat in the war, the Arab and Muslim provinces
had been stripped from the Empire. Anatolia, Istanbul, and a small
portion of Europe were all that was left to the Turks. Then, in
1919, Anatolia was also invaded. Aided by Britain, France, and
Italy, the Greek army landed and took control of Western Anatolia
and Eastern Thrace. The European allies took Istanbul themselves.
Many Turks already had been driven from both Europe and Asiainto
Anatolia, and Anatolia seemed about to be lost also. Drawing on
their old military skills, the Turks organized to save what
remained. They rallied under the leadership of General Mustafa Kemal,
defeated the Greeks, and created a new state, the Turkish Republic,
in Anatolia and Eastern Thrace.
The identity of the modern Turks was forged in the Turkish Republic
under the tutelage of Mustafa Kemal, who became the first president
of the Republic. Once again the Turks proved adaptable to change.
Mustafa Kemal devised political, economic, and social reforms that
would bring Turkey into the modern world. Radical change was
legislated covering most facets of life. Soon after the founding of
the Republic, Turkey became a secular state. Islam remained the
religion of most of the people, but the state was not religious.
Other changes followed quickly: The veil and the fez were banned and
Western styles of clothing appeared. Women were given the vote and
elected to Parliament. The Turkish language began to be written in
Western characters, not the Arabic letters used previously. Laws
were based on Western legal codes. Schools followed Western models.
In short, Turkey became rapidly Westernized under Mustafa Kemal. As
a symbol of change, Mustafa Kemal's government required all Turks to
change the habit of centuries and adopt family names, as in the
West. Mustafa Kemal himself took Ataturk ("Father Turk") as his
surname. An entire culture began to be altered. Nevertheless, study
of history and traditions of the Central Asian Turkish ancestors of
the Turks of Turkey was stressed, as well.
Why follow the ways of Europe and America? Atatürk and the Turkish
reformers felt that Western ways could not be adopted piecemeal.
They believed that copying the industries and economies of the West
was not possible unless one also accepted Western schools, business
practices, and social customs. It was the whole of the Western
culture that allowed Europe to develop economically, Atatürk felt,
and he wanted his country to develop, so the country had to
Westernize. Accepting the ways of the West meant accepting
democracy. Atatürk kept authority in his own hands, but he
deliberately schooled the people in the forms and ideas of a
democratic society. In the 1950s the Turks created a real democracy
which, despite some obstacles, continues to this day.
Westernization is another facet of the Turkish makeup. While some
Turks would prefer to go back to old ways, the country as a whole
has been committed since the time of Atatürk in the model of the
West. Turkey has been a full member of NATO since 1952 and an ally
of Europe and America in the Gulf War with Iraq.
Who are the Turks? They are the descendants of the nomads from
Central Asia and the refugees from the Balkans and the Caucasus,
brought together in the Turkish republic. Most of the Turks are
Muslims, following the prayers of Islam in the mosque, but living in
a secular state. They are also the inheritors of the governmental
traditions of the Ottoman Empire and the democracy of Atatürk and
The citizens of today's Turkey do not come from one ethnic group, no
more than do the citizens of the United States. As in the United
States, the ancestors of today's Turkish citizens come from many
different places and many different cultures. The majority are
ethnically Turkish. That is, they speak Turkish at home and feel
themselves to be a part of the great ethnic tradition that goes back
to central Asia. Some others are "Turks by adoption." They speak
Turkish as their first language, but their ancestors came to Turkey,
primarily in the nineteenth century, speaking other languages.
Others are Turkish citizens but do not speak Turkish at home. This
too is similar to the United States.
Of those who are Turks by adoption, the majority are the descendants
of refugees from the Caucasus and the Balkans. The refugees were
driven from their homes by Russian and Balkan armies and settled in
what today is Turkey. Peoples such as the Circassians and the Laz
have kept some of the folk traditions from their old homeland.
However, they seldom speak the old languages. They have become part
of the Turkish "melting pot."
The largest concentration group of non-Turkish speakers, the Kurds,
is centered in Southeastern Anatolia. Other Kurdish-speakers live in
Iraq, Iran, and other parts of what was the Soviet Union. Many Kurds
now also live in cities all over Turkey, integrated into the general
society. Groups of Arabic speakers live in a province that border
Syria. Of late, large groups of Persians have come to Turkey,
refugees from the regime in Iran. There are also numerous smaller
groups who have come from all over Europe and Asia.
The Jews in Turkey are both distinct and integrated. Today, their
primary language is Turkish, but they have a separate language,
Judeo-Español, which is also used. Most of the Turkish Jews are
descended from those who were expelled from Spain in 1492. Although
they are economically and politically completely integrated into
Turkish life, the Turkish Jews retain a strong sense of ethnic and
By no means do all the ethnic Turks originally come from Anatolia
and Eastern Thrace, the area of modern Turkey. The ancestors of
many, more than two million, were exiles from the Balkans and what
today is the Armenian Republic. Other Turks were forced out by the
Soviets in the 1950s. Still others came in large numbers in the
1980s when the Bulgarian State first discriminated against them,
then allowed them to migrate to Turkey.
All of these groups make up the citizenry of the Turkish Republic.
Dr. Justin McCarthy,
Professor of History, College of Arts and Sciences, University of
Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, USA