Turks – Who are they & How did they get to Anatolia?

Who are the Turks?

The word Turk conjures up some pretty specific images to a Westerner – an Islamic, vaguely Eastern-looking citizen of Turkey, for instance.  However, the more one tries to answer the question “what is a Turk?”, the more one realizes the answer is far from simple.  The only thing all Turks have in common is a language with high percentage of Turkic words.  That doesn’t mean all or even most Turkic speakers can understand each other.  To give you an idea of the complexity of the Turkic world, here’s a genetic perspective.


So how did the Turkic peoples become so diverse?  Geography played a big part.  Stretching across Eurasia, from Mongolia to Hungary and Anatolia lies a vast open plain with cold winters, hot summers, and little or unevenly distributed rain.  The dominant flora, when there is flora and not desert, is grass.  About the only way to make a living is to herd animals, and that was a pretty meagre existence until humans began riding horses, around 3500 B.C.  The latest evidence points to this happening in what is now Kazakstan – right in the middle of the the Turkic world.

Riding horses led not only to an ability to maintain larger herds of animals, leading to greater wealth and population growth, but also to a nomadic lifestyle covering large territories quickly,  and thus a rapid spread of ideas over this vast area – ideas including an all-cavalry, lightening-fast, nomadic style of warfare.  We know that many peoples occupied these Eurasian steppes, but we know little about them, because none of them had a written language.  The earliest surviving records of these nomads were written by the Chinese, who began fighting with and thus writing about pesky nomadic warriors they called Tatars.

Tatar/Turk Ebb and Flow and Ebb

As stated above, Mongols, Tatars, and Tartars may or may not be the same peoples, depending on the era in question, the location of the peoples talked about, and who’s doing the talking.  Suffice it to say Turkic-speaking people originated in central-to-East-Asia (present-day Mongolia), and have at various times occupied and often ruled vast swaths of land between China and Europe.

People in the West first got a taste of these marauding nomads with the invasion of the Huns, ca 400 A.D.  Then there were the Mongolian invasions of Genghis Kahn, ca 1200 A.D,  and Timur (Tamerlane), ca 1400 A.D.  Below is a Russian perspective (therefore they’re called Tatars).  Slavic Russian identity was forged during 1500 years of struggle, first to overcome Tatar aggression. and later to incorporate Tatar peoples in its empire.


The Turkic-speaking Huns-Bulgars-Khazars-Pechenegs-Mongols-Tatars-Tartars have been known by Westerners as Turks for only about 1000 years.  The land of Anatolia was invaded first by Turkic-speaking Seljuks around 1066 – 600 years after the Huns swept through Europe.  The Ottoman Turks took over in the 1300’s and by the 1600’s had reached Vienna.  The Ottoman tide turned, and in 1912 the Turks were driven out of Europe, by 1920 they had almost lost control of Anatolia.

1920 – Turks Hit Bottom.


The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_S%C3%A8vres marked the Turks’ low water mark.  The victors of WW1 (Britain, France, Italy, Greece, plus Armenians, Kurds, Assyrians) dictated the treaty to whomever it could find willing to represent the Ottoman Empire (ex-Ambassador Hadi Pasha, ex-Minister of Education Rıza Tevfik Bölükbaşı, and second secretary of the Ottoman embassy in Bern, Reşad Halis).  The treaty would have given parts of Anatolia to Armenians, Kurds, Italians, French and Greeks, and would have left other parts under the control of Britain, France, and Italy.  Only an area around Ankara (yellow in the above map) would remain under Turkish control.  The treaty so outraged Turkish public opinion that they rallied behind Mustapha Kemal (later known as Atatuk – “Father of the Turks”), thus igniting the Turkish War of Independence.  By 1923 the Turks had regained Anatolia and a new treaty, the Treaty of Lausanne, established the Republic of Turkey, and most of its current boundaries.

Population Exchanges

Anatolia ethnic, 1910

The period of 1900 – 1930 marked a tremendous upheaval of the peoples of Anatolia.  Around 1900 the peninsula was occupied by a patchwork of  Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Bulgars, Lazes, Arabs, Circassians, and many others.  Between 1884 & 1922, Turks (and occasionally their allies the Kurds) massacred up to 3.8 million Anatolian Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians, and expelled millions more.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_massacres_in_Turkey

However, during approximately the same time period, Europeans (including Russians) massacred or expelled similar numbers of Turks.  To quote Wikipedia “Historian Mark Biondich estimates that from 1878-1912 up to two million Muslims left the Balkans either voluntarily or involuntarily while Muslims casualties in the Balkans during 1912-1923 within the context of those killed and expelled exceeded some three million.[92]

Total Muslim deaths and refugees during these centuries are estimated to be several millions.[93] It is estimated that during the last decade of the Ottoman Empire (1912–1922) when the Balkan wars, World War I and war of Independence took place, close to 2 million Muslims, civilian and military, died in the area of modern Turkey.[94]

As the topmost YouTube shows (beginning at the 6:44 mark) this new Republic of Turkey began in 1922 as a territory recently vacated of millions of non-Turks, AND recently infilled with millions of Turks from other nations – many of whom weren’t even genetically Turks – like Bosnians & Pomaks (Slav), Albanians, Roma, & Romeyka (Greek).

To my mind, one of the best Balkan CD’s ever made is Ayde Mori, a survey of music (by 3 Turks and an Istanbul-based Canadian), from formerly Ottoman-ruled Balkan countries. The CD provided the music for 3 well-known Balkan 2nd G dances – Çobankat, Kerem Eyle, and Jarnana.

Even more diversity is indicated by the continued presence of the Kurds, (who comprise nearly a quarter of the population of Turkey, and who are genetically and linguistically closer to Iranians than Turks), and by the recent influx of approximately 3.5 million Syrians.

On the YouTube front, some of the best examples of Macedonian dances like Paydusko can be seen on YouTubes from Turkey

Then there’s Ekrem & Ersan – ex-Macedonians living in Turkey.  Here’s a small sampling of their excellent series of YouTubes.

Thus Turkey is a country, though predominantly and increasingly Muslim, with a Balkan pedigree nearly as pure as Muslim Bosnia and Albania, and as diverse ethnically as other Balkan nations.

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