Turkish is spoken by 87% of the population and is written with the Latin alphabet. Body language and the use of gestures is widespread in Turkey and often conveys as much, if not more, expression than speech.
English is one of the most common foreign languages spoken in Turkey, followed by French and German, which are generally understood in resorts and tourist areas.
Turkey is largely ethnically homogeneous. In addition to the Turks, there are minority groups who originate from Caucasus (Laz, Georgian, Circassian) and the Balkans (Bosniaks, Bulgarians, Pomaks), but the Kurds are the largest minority, followed by Arabs, Armenians and Greeks. The Turkish population is fairly evenly distributed across the big cities of the west, the Caspian region and portions of the Aegean and Mediterranean coastline. The mountainous regions of northeast have the lowest population density.
The vast majority of Turks belong to Sunni Islam. However, there are other Muslim communities such as the Alevis. In large cities, Christian minorities of various faiths have freedom of worship within their respective communities and the same applies to Jews. Turkey is officially a secular state although religion is taught in public schools. The role of religion within the state is an ambiguous one and a historically divisive issue.
October 29: Republic Day (proclaimed in 1923). Parades and military parades are held throughout the country. April 23: Celebration of National sovereignty and children, to commemorate the formation of the government in Ankara in 1920. 30 August: Victory Day. That of the Turks over the Greeks in 1922.
Three kinds of festivals punctuate the year in Turkey: common religious festivals in all Muslim countries, the festivities associated with historical events and traditional seasonal festivals. These are moments of precious collective joy for the population, which celebrate their roots through music, folklore, sports and entertainment.
Muslim religious holidays : Ramadan. Eid al-Fitr and Seker Bayram (The Sugar Feast), mark the end of Ramadan. Kurban Bayram (Day of sacrifice or sheep), commemorating the sacrifice of Abraham. The dates of these festivals depend on the lunar calendar and therefore change every year.
- 1 January: New Year’s Day.
- March 21: Kurdish New Year (Nowruz). This day marks the beginning of the year for the Kurdish calendar. Large bonfires are organised and Turkey's Kurds have made the event a main symbol of their identity.
- April 23: Saint George. The Orthodox community organise a pilgrimage to the island of Büyükada. Other events follow the Greek Orthodox calendar.
- May 1: May Day (the celebration of Labour Day on this date has been banned since September 1980). This is one of the most important traditional festivities and celebrates the arrival of spring. This event takes place in the countryside and women formulate wishes, weave crowns and prepare offerings.
- 19 May: Festival of Youth and Sport and commemoration of Atatürk, on 19 May 1919.
The history of Turkey spans thousands of years and a number of empires have risen and fell across the nation. Within them, the Hittites, Greeks and Romans all successfully made their mark. The Greek civilisation grew roots within the country in 1100 BC and settled along the Mediterranean coast. The famous names of Homer, Troy, Ephesus and Pergamum all played a part in Turkey’s early history. Around 658 BC the Greeks founded the city of Byzantium, a place that became a pillar of the Byzantine empire and the Euro-Asian trade. In around 546 BC the Persians took over much of Anatolia with Cyrus the Great at the helm. In 334 BC Alexander the Great was victorious over the Persians and conquered Turkey. By 130 BC Rome was the dominant power in the region and Anatolia became part of the Roman Empire. Christianity slowly became more widespread after the installation of churches. Constantine the Great established the new capital of the Roman Empire in the city of Byzantium – he names it Constantinople. In the sixth century, under the Emperor Justinian, Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire experienced a golden age. In 1071, the defeat of the Byzantine army in the Battle of Manzikert opened the door to the Turks who took control of Turkey and introduced Islam. In 1299, Sultan Osman first conquered the Byzantine city of Mocadène: the Ottoman Empire was born and the Ottomans took the stage.
The Ottomans changed the game, replacing the Seljuk Turks, invading Greece and the Balkans and strangling Constantinople (renamed Istanbul later), bringing about the end of the Byzantine Empire. The reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1495-1566) in the sixteenth century was marked by the Ottoman Empire’s supreme power – the territory extended from the gates of Vienna in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to Algeria. The empire was at its peak. But by 1571, the Battle of Lepanto marked the willingness of Western monarchies to resist the Turkish advance. The Turks sieged Vienna in 1683 but failed and the Ottoman Empire then began a slow retraction. In the 19th Century the Turkish Empire continued to decline with the rise of nationalism in Europe and part of the empire broke away. In the early twentieth century, Turkey was at the side of Germany in the First World War and it emerged defeated. Greece, France, Italy and Britain occupied the territories of the Ottoman Empire, eventually marking its end. From 1919 to 1922, Mustafa Kemal led a double battle against the occupation and for national independence, and his fight resulted in success. In 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne recognised the borders of Turkey and the Republic was proclaimed.
The country was modernised and secularised vigorously. Turkey remained neutral in World War II but became a NATO member in 1952. Turkey’s request for associate membership of the European Economic Community was granted in 1959 and the country’s development was rapid in the second half of the century. The 60s and 70s were marked by the arrival of the army in political affairs, the intervention in Cyprus (1974) and the Kurdish question. Modern day Turkey, always ringside in political affairs, now aims to steady its course in the turbulence created by clashes between radical Islam and the West.
Turkey is a parliamentary republic. The head of state is elected for seven years by the National Assembly. It has 450 members, elected by universal suffrage for five years. The President of the Republic, guarantor of the Constitution, separation of powers and national unity, is not re-elected. He appoints the Prime Minister (usually the leader of the majority party in the Assembly), which form a government. The current constitution dates from 1982.
- Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1880 or 81-1938). Known as the Father of the Turks, Atatürk was the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey. The Kemalist social revolution has put the country on a track of modernity inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution.
- Paul the Apostle (around 10 AD- to 65 AD). Known as Saint Paul, he was born on the eastern Mediterranean coast of what is now Turkey. The apostle is considered, from his writings and missionary journeys, as a major player in the initial expansion of Christianity.
- Hurrem Sultan (1502-1558). Also know as Roxelane, Hurrem was a prominent and powerful figure in Ottoman history. A wife of Ottoman Sultan Soliman, she influenced and manipulated policy behind the scenes.
- Ibrahim Tatlises (born 1952). A folk singer and actor. A famous and successful musician, his golden voice was one of the most popular throughout Turkey.
- Ferit Orhan Pamuk (born in 1952). A writer famous for illuminating Turkish history and life whose novels earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. His two biggest tiles are: My Name is Red and Istanbul, Memories of a city.
Turkish culture is known for its generous spirit and marvellous hospitality, so it’s likely you’ll be extended more than one invitation for a drink of tea or even dinner at someone’s home during your trip. Remove your shoes before entering and when reaching for bread or similar at the dinner table do so with your right hand as the left is considered unclean. Tuck feet under the table and never point your feet at anyone as this is considered offensive. Modest clothing – covered legs and shoulders – will enable an easier entry into mosques, where you must also remove shoes. While bars are common throughout tourist towns, public drinking and drunkenness is less acceptable in other more rural parts of the country. Public displays of affection are also sometimes frowned upon if too overt. In Turkey, as is the case in many places, it’s forbidden to photograph military camps. Always agree with locals before taking their photo and street performers or sellers may ask for a small tip for the pleasure.
The crafts on offer in Turkey are bountiful and often bargainous. Cappadocia is one of the richest areas for beautiful souvenirs but in many streets of the country there are shops, bazaars and roadside sellers hawking exquisite handmade treasures. Shopping in Turkey is next-level good and an adventure in its own rite. Jewellery is plentiful and varies greatly, from pristine luxury diamonds to pretty trinkets and designs with a stunning, nomadic influences. Ceramics are one of the most popular traditional crafts to bring home and you’ll find dishes and plates, tiles and bowls, all adorned in gorgeous detail with motifs steeped in tradition, history and local culture. Turkey exports many textiles that can be bought locally at a lower cost and it’s rare to walk down a Turkish shopping street without coming across at least a handful of carpet sellers. The elaborate patterns are traditional and characteristic of a region, city or town, or even a tribe. If you are not a particular connoisseur in Turkish carpet, it’s safer to head to an established dealer rather than a market trader. Generally, the price of carpets are in keeping with their famed quality and beauty. Bags and leather are often sold at a great price – soft leathers with a barely perceptible grain are the best and always check the strength of the seams to assess the quality of an item. Onyx stone is mined in many parts of Turkey and is used to create a diverse range of objects: chess sets, vases, bowls, statues. The price depends on the size and labour involved, but, above all, the quality of the stone (the white-grey onyx being the most sought after). If all else fails, bag yourself some Turkish delight, sold pretty much everywhere, and you can guarantee you’ll delight friends and family upon your return.
Turkish cuisine, in all its richness and variety, is rated among the best in the world. Each of the country’s seven regions has its specialties – Marmara offers spectacular meat, fish, vegetables and fruits in abundance. Further south, the Aegean region uses vegetables, herbs, figs and grapes, seafood and olive oil. In Central Anatolia, as in the southeast, a wide variety of meat is enjoyed in large quantities, while cereals, rice and bulgur (cracked wheat) are preferred and vegetables are all generously spiced. Dairy products, cereals and wild plants all flourish in the area. Finally, the Black Sea region is known for its corn, anchovies, cabbage and beans. While each region’s food is distinctive, there are common elements and flavours throughout and Istanbul acts as the chief Turkish culinary melting pot. The city’s kitchen has formed over the centuries and has raised the standards of cooking in cities worldwide. Influences include Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Frankish, Arabic, Russian, Kurdish and Caucasian. Dishes invariably begin with a soup. Olive oil, lemon or vinegar flavour the vegetables, which are often pickled, a cooking method appreciated throughout Anatolia. Alongside lip-smacking Turkish dishes there is almost always bread – a staple food for the Turks and their version of a divine accompaniment to any meal. Yoghurt, in various forms, often joins the party. And then there are the desserts – famed for their sweetness, lightness and moreish-ness – you can expect milky sweet puddings that melt in your mouth, sticky cakes soaked in syrup and crunchy on the outside, sweet and soft on the inside fried dough balls. And not forgetting the Turkish favourite – baklava – this classic flaky, sweet, pistachio-infused delight of a dessert is always a winner.
Tap water is unsafe to drink, so bottled is recommended and visitors should avoid ice. The preparation of Turkish coffee is longer than usual – it’s typically brewed over hot coals and can be served sade (without sugar), orta (medium sweet) or sekerli (very sweet). After leaving the grounds to settle, it’s drunk in small sips. Tea (çay) is the national drink and most of it is produced in the region of Rize. Long-infused, it is usually very sweet and offered in small glasses. The Turks drink several glasses a day and offer it out as a sign of good hospitality. An apple tea infusion has appeared recently, which is a tasty alternative. The country’s beers Efes and Tuborg share the Turkish market and are known for their quality. Raki is another very popular alcoholic drink – it’s an anise brandy, frequently served with meals, diluted with ice water.