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Turkey, whether as part of the Roman, the Byzantine or Ottoman Empires has been for millenia the hub to the spokes of trade routes extending east overland as far as China and west over the Mediterranean to ports that still remain and others submerged or deserted.  Tens of thousands of years before New York became the multicultural artistic and financial magnet of the world Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul drew traders, financiers, soldiers and traders from the peoples of three continents who had the interest and means to go beyond their own high walls or protecting armies.

How does a newcomer to Turkey begin to get a grasp on all that has transpired over the centuries — from the remains of fabulous Greek cities to the preaching of the first apostolic generation following Christ, from the fast horseback raiders of Turkic speaking tribes to modernity’s alliances, wars, and fecundation of  cultures?  I’ve tried a couple of books, history and fiction. and movies as well. I’m as well educated as a Turkish third grader.

Turkey Unveiled by Nichole Pope and Hugh Pope, is a good place for the reader who doesn’t require the formality and rigor of a serious historian to begin some self-schooling. The Popes, like Steven Kinzer whose Crescent and Star I also read, are journalists.  In  both books there is a fluidity and pace to the writing often missing in academic history.  On the other hand, especially as the narrative moves into recent decades, as yet un-historicized,  it also allows generalized and unsupported statements about what “people think,” or what “is well known.” Observations of the authors, from reading newspapers or talking to residents while living in, or visiting, Turkey enter the text. The Popes do a better job at keeping this to a minimum, or at least providing a source,  and are less publicly enthralled with their subject than Kinzer, making it a more reliable book for me.

The Popes, for example, say  “…critics of his fiercely statist and secularist policies claim that the republican establishment has turned Kemalism into a form of religion.”  Whereas Kinzer has it that “Turks must profess… a highly developed faith [in the] the cult of Ataturk.”

Though Turkey Unveiled is subtitled  “A History of Modern Turkey,” there are welcome descriptions, explanations and indicators of the deeper roots of the modern state.  We hear of the Scythians, that Attila the Hun is considered to be a Turk,  of the Seljuks –whose denomination by Chaucer as Turks is likely the first in English, of the universe changing battle in 1071 at Malazgirt, north of Lake Van, when the Seljuks soundly defeated the Byzantines, all of this contributing to the wild tapestry that is Turkey today.

All in all, though Turkey sees itself as an ethnho-cultural unit, it turns out to be the repository of the many peoples who have lived, taken refuge or simply passed through here,.  One recent study…has counted the relics of fifty identifiable ethnic and religious sub-groups still present in the country.

Second and third chapters takes us through the high points of the Ottoman Empire ( about 1290 to 1908), the battles against the Seljuks, the invitation to cross the Dardanelles in 1340 by Byzantine Emperor John VI, the sacking of Constantinople in 1452, the rise and fall of the Janissaries as the power behind the throne, the constant tension with Russia which reached a bloody peak with the Crimean War of 1854-56.

The long arc of ethnic/religious conflict is sketched, Armenians and Kurds being the two largest minority groups, and often viciously at each other, as well Turks against both, or using one against the other.  The Greek war of Independence in the early 1800s was a major sloughing away of a part of the empire, which opened the floodgates to independence struggles all across the Balkans and subsequent loss of those Ottoman lands.  A later Greek attack on Izmir/Smyrna in 1919 was a catastrophe to nationalist anti-Ottoman Turks which, along with the threat of eastern Turkey being handed over to Armenians by the Victorious Allies of WW I, ignited the revolt led by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) and the declaration of independence against the occupying allies in October 1923.

Following the obligatory –and important to new visitors to Turkey — chapter on Ataturk, the bulk of the book is taken up with a fairly detailed look at the successions of Prime Ministers and Presidents since his death in 1938.  The rise and fall of political parties as they are banned by once-a-decade interventions of the Kemalist Army, and which morph into new, slightly adjusted parties of different names is charted. So we have the National Order party banned in 1971, sliding into the National Salvation Party banned in 1980, becoming the Welfare Party banned in 1998.  We get a fair and good picture of the slow re-growth and increasing influence of Islamist parties, after their total banning under Ataturk could not be sustained in a country which had professed Islam since only decades after the death of The Prophet.

The unhappy history of joint Greek-Turkish occupation of Cyprus and the Turkish invasion of 1974 has its place, dim memories of which will be with some readers.

The multiple military interventions, not to say “coups” are of interest of course.  The most significant was in 1980 following a decade of bloody street strife between partisans of the Marxist left and Islamist right.  The re-written constitution of 1982 is still the governing document of the land.

The succession of Prime Minsters itself, while not gripping to the non-Turk, should be of some interest to visitors, particularly the mold breaking tenure of Turgut Özal following the 1980 coup, which broke the stultifying grip of Government-Business cronyism and set the stage for the economic, trade, and industry explosion that has followed, making Turkey one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

The current Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is likely known to many, though not all the reasons for.  His, and his Justice and Development (AKP) party’s, rise to power is without precedent.  He himself had been banned from politics by the military for his public profession of Islamic faith.  The party conducted for years, exemplary grass-roots organizing, not only of the political but the social groupings of the people.  Secular citizens, not only the army, were much alarmed by his rise, particularly following the disaster of the proselytizing Necmittin Erbakan, Prime Minister for only a year before being forced out of office, his Welfare Party banned, for too much Islamism.

Erdoğan, however, has cut a road that has satisfied many.  In parliamentary elections of 2007, against a backdrop of rising army unrest and rumors of yet another secularizing coup, the AKP finished 13 points higher than in the 2002 voting.  The threat of army intervention may have finally been put aside for good.  The Popes do not indulge in quite the cheer-leading for Erdoğan as Kinzer, though in their judgment he has been a stabilizing and generally forward looking leader, though in recent years some of the glow has diminished.  There are some 94 journalists in Turkish jails at last count.

This close in time of course, we are speaking not of history but current events and journalism.  For a recent, not very flattering take on Erdoğan, see Dexter Filkins, March 2012 New Yorker article.

For the casual,  first time entrant, into Turkish history there is perhaps too much political detail, swimming in a context not yet secure.  After a visit there, however, for those whose minds turn naturally to questions of governance and power, who can’t help reading the daily news of three English language newspapers in Istanbul, the material in Unveiling Turkey will be the place to turn for clarification and background. The statues on tour of the once disgraced, now re-graced, leaders will have an explanation. [See Adnan Menderes, for example.]

Among the chief revelations to me were the diplomatic and national stratagems  in Turkey as former parts of the Soviet Union became independent republics in what is now known as Central Asia.  Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakistan had been carved up by the Soviets, as Western Colonialists had done for years in Africa,  with borders cutting across national identities and tribal groupings.  As the Soviet Union came apart, minorities in one country sought union with their compatriots in another, sometimes with the force of arms.  Turkey saw great opportunity in these new and independent “Turkic” states and hurried to take advantage — as their elder Turkic brother.

I’d known that Russia had had tumultuous relations with Turkey, during and following the Ottomans, as well as before, during and after the Soviet Union.  A glance at the map and Russia’s lack of its own ports on the Mediterranean explains it all.  The continuance of those struggles in modern times, when I might have been more aware of, were a surprise.  Now it was oil, and still the need to get “Russian”oil to market through the Bosporus.   Turkey’s swift overtures and proposals  to the ex Soviets to “follow the Turkish model” to democracy and free markets were, naturally enough, seen as a threat to the Russians who had once had governed there.  That these overtures were strongly seconded by the United States added heat to the unhappiness. And all the while the Iranian revolution was at full power. The new state of Armenia, split off from the USSR, and Armenian fighters in Azerbaijan, a blockade of Armenia joined by Turkey and revenge assassins added fuel from another side.

Or, little did I know that the first president of Azerbaijan made wild claims to territory in North West Iran…

The tenures of both Prime Minister Özal and Erdoğan were affected by US actions in their back-yard.  Özal was in office during the first President Bush’s Gulf War in Iraq and the consequent turmoil of the Kurdish populations in Iraq and Turkey, which Özal and the army had to deal with.  Erdoğan came to power the month of the second President’s invasion of Iraq, again with related tensions over Kurds, landing rights, disruption of Turkish trucking across their southern hinterlands, and rising Turkish nationalism not happy about a western invasion of a Muslim nation.

This is why we keep reading I think.  These events that affected Americans so much, in one way, also had enormous ramifications for others, about which we knew nothing.

Turkey Unveiled [have a look] was first published in 1997.  The current edition is 2011, with an afterword looking at the country after the authors’ full immersion there.  They report decent if uneven progress in many fields, from education to treatment of the Kurds who now have some 36 members in the Parliament, while sporadic fighting continues in the south east.  The long festering history and questions about an Armenian genocide in 1915 are being discussed with some openness, at least in academic and journalistic circles, despite the 2005 prosecution of Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel prize wining novelist, for “denigrating Turkishness” by talking about the massacres.

It will be very interesting to be in Turkey for three weeks this April, 2012.  I’ll be glad I’ve read Turkey Unveiled, though I expect many more veils to go flying as I take in the scenes.