By Thomas Jones
Throughout its history, Turkey has been the scene of many an invasion and migration of peoples moving west-east and vice versa. The Ottomans absorbed many cultural aspects of the various regions they conquered, often added new dimensions to them. As such, the Turks are predominantly a mix of West Mediterranean, West Asian (Semitic) and even Central Asian ethnic backgrounds; all since unified by a common tongue and faith.
The historian Andrew Mango, noted for his biographical work on the Turkish Republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, describes the Turkish nation as such:
“The Turkish nation took shape in the centuries of Seljuk and Ottoman power. The nomadic Turkish conquerors did not displace the original local inhabitants: Hellenized Anatolians (or simply Greeks), Armenians, people of Caucasian origins, Kurds, Assyrians and—in the Balkans—Slavs, Albanians and others. They intermarried with them, while many local people converted to Islam and ‘turned Turk’. They were joined by Muslims from the lands north of the Black Sea and the Caucasus, by Persian craftsmen and Arab scholars, and by European adventurers and converts, known in the West as renegades. As a result, the Turks today exhibit a wide variety of ethnic types. Some have delicate Far Eastern, others heavy local Anatolian features, some, who are descended from Slavs, Albanians or Circassians, have light complexions, others are dark-skinned, many look Mediterranean, others Central Asian, many appear Persian. A numerically small, but commercially and intellectually important, group is descended from converts from Judaism. One can hear Turks describe some of their fellow countrymen as ‘hatchet-nosed Lazes’ (a people on the Black Sea coast), ‘dark Arabs’ (a term which includes descendants of black slaves), or even ‘fellahs’. But they are all Turks.”
Prior to Ottoman defeat in WWI, giving way to language reforms initiated by Atatürk, the Turkish language was heavily influenced by both Arabic and Persian. Turkey’s largest religion, Islam, is in many ways an expression of Arab culture. Indeed, Atatürk, a secularist, claimed it was a form of Arab nationalism. Atatürk tried to eradicate the old Arab-Persian cultural dominance and Islam in favour of a renewed Turkish language, culture, and French-style laïcité secularism. It didn’t work.