Turkey and the Winds of History

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This ancient nation at the intersection of Europe and Asia is feeling the contrary pulls of Islamism and Westernization. What is ahead?


The past is always part of the present, and this is very clear in the modern nation of Turkey (spelled “Türkiye” in Turkic). In the last century, Turkey has been an important, but not dominant, player on the world stage and is emerging as a pivotal player in the affairs of Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East. I traveled in Turkey recently and found a modern secular state with a culturally Muslim people. The nation is modernizing and growing economically but is always aware of its very ancient history.

Turkey may be going through an historic social and political realignment, and to consider its future, one must understand something of its past. For the last half-century, Turkey has been oriented more to the West than to the Middle East, but that may be changing.

Geography Matters!

Historically, Turkey has been at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. The Turkish Straits (comprised of the Bosporus, Dardanelles and Sea of Marmara) separate Asia Minor from Europe, and Turkey actually has a small amount of territory on the European side. At its narrowest point, the Turkish Straits are only 1,200 meters wide. The beautiful and influential city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) overlooks this narrow and extremely important seaway. If you are invading the Middle East from Europe as the Greeks did, or if you are invading Europe from the Middle East as the Persians and Turks did, you must cross at this critical point.

Ancient History

The region of Modern Turkey (known in ancient times as Anatolia) has millennia of history, with kingdoms rising and falling. Many people today are familiar with the great legends associated with the ancient city of Troy, which was strategically located on the Turkish Straits. Those legends include the Trojan Horse and great warriors such as Achilles, Hector and Odysseus. The excavated ruins of Troy can be seen today.

The Persians conquered this area in the 5th and 6th centuries bc. In 334 bc, Alexander the Great and his Greek army successfully invaded from the European side and brought the lasting influence of Greek culture to the region. Later, during Roman rule, various cities in the area are mentioned prominently in the Bible in the letters of Paul, since Christian congregations were founded there.

Biblical Times

In biblical times, Galatia was a region in central Turkey, and the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to them, which we call the Book of Galatians in the Bible. The Book of Acts mentions the Galatian cities of Lystra, Iconium, Derbe and others. Some other Anatolian cities mentioned in Acts are Pisidia, Pamphylia, Perga, Attalia and Troas. Revelation mentions Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea—the archeological sites of which can all be visited today in western Turkey.

The book of Ephesians is a letter written to the Church of God in the city of Ephesus, now part of modern Turkey. There, Paul caused a riot, because he was teaching that idols are not true gods. The book of Acts records the incident.

“And about that time there arose a great commotion about the Way. For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Diana, brought no small profit to the craftsmen. He called them together with the workers of similar occupation, and said: ‘Men, you know that we have our prosperity by this trade. Moreover you see and hear that not only at Ephesus, but throughout almost all Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands. So not only is this trade of ours in danger of falling into disrepute, but also the temple of the great goddess Diana may be despised and her magnificence destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worship.’ Now when they heard this, they were full of wrath and cried out, saying, ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’ So the whole city was filled with confusion, and rushed into the theater with one accord, having seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians, Paul’s travel companions. And when Paul wanted to go in to the people, the disciples would not allow him” (Acts 19:23–30).

The location of this incident can be visited in Turkey today in the excavated ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus. The actual theater where this took place has been excavated and partially restored. There was only one such theater in the city. You can stand in its midst and easily imagine what the tumult must have been like with the crowd shouting in unison about their pagan goddess, Diana.

“Then some of the officials of Asia, who were his friends, sent to him [Paul] pleading that he would not venture into the theater. Some therefore cried one thing and some another, for the assembly was confused, and most of them did not know why they had come together. And they drew Alexander out of the multitude, the Jews putting him forward. And Alexander motioned with his hand, and wanted to make his defense to the people. But when they found out that he was a Jew, all with one voice cried out for about two hours, ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’” (v. 31–34).

The region comprising modern Turkey is rich in Biblical history, and many of the locations have been excavated by archaeologists and can be visited today.

The Muslim Empire in Europe

Turkey has been officially a secular state since 1923, and while the vast majority of its citizens are Sunni Muslim, many are not very active in their faith. For instance, many Turkish women do not wear head scarves, and they are not often seen wearing the burka—the covering black dress.

Among the world’s religions, Islam is a relatively recent arrival. Muhammad, who Muslims consider to be the last prophet, was born c. 570 ad, and personally brought the Islamic faith to the Arabian Peninsula. After his death in 632ad, Islam was spread largely by military campaigns throughout the Middle East—including in what is modern Turkey. It also stretched from India through northern Africa. Because it was ruled by a Caliph, it was known as the Caliphate. In 711 ad, a Muslim army crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from Africa into Spain and began Islam’s conquest of Western Europe. This included the conquests of Sicily and southern Italy. Then, in 732ad, in what is now modern France, the Muslim army under Abd al-Rahman was defeated by Charles Martel and his Frankish (early French) army at the pivotal Battle of Tours. Only Martel’s troops stood between al-Rahman and Paris. This battle was a great watershed moment in European history, because with it began the Reconquista, or reconquering, of Catholic Europe from the Muslims—a long and arduous effort, with many setbacks. In 846 ad part of Rome was sacked by a Muslim army, and the old St. Peter’s Cathedral was looted of its treasures. The last Muslim stronghold in Spain was defeated when Granada fell in 1492.

The Ottoman Turks

Beginning in the late 1200s ad, the Turks created one of the world’s great imperial empires. First, successive dynasties united Anatolia (the area of modern Turkey) and then expanded the empire by military conquest to encompass much of western Asia, southeastern Europe and northern Africa. The reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–1566) brought the Ottoman Turk Empire to its zenith. Historically, it was one of the world’s most enduring empires, lasting over six centuries until World War I.

The primary residence of the sultans for about 400 years was the Topkapı Palace (“Cannon Gate Palace”). The huge, luxurious complex is located on the European side of the Bosphorus, and now houses a museum containing many jeweled articles of great value that once belonged to the sultans. I visited the palace in a recent trip to Istanbul. Our Turkish guide explained that while a sultan might have many wives and concubines who lived in great luxury, there was fierce competition between them. The sultan chose his successor from among his sons, and intense intrigue among his wives, even murder, was common in the palace.

The Turkish Caliphate

The Ottoman Turk sultans dominated Islam for centuries and claimed the title of Caliph, beginning with Mehmed II after his conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Mehmed II was the sultan that began construction of Topkapi Palace. Islam had been pushed out of Western Europe by the Reconquista, but the Ottoman Turks began to extend it into Eastern Europe by military force.

In the 1500s, the Turkish forces were sweeping aside all opposition in Eastern Europe, and they did so in the name of Islam. There were occasional setbacks, but the sultans were waging a holy war against the Holy Roman Empire, which was headquartered in Vienna, Austria. In 1521, Suleiman the Magnificent took Belgrade and killed King Louis II of Hungary. Then he attacked Vienna, but was forced to withdraw temporarily. At its height, the Turkish Empire held much of Eastern Europe, including what is modern Romania, Bulgaria, the former Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, parts of Russia and much of Austria-Hungary. Resentments against that long Muslim conquest still run deep in parts of Eastern Europe. After the Turks lost the Third Battle of Vienna in 1663, they began a long decline in power and the end of nearly a millennium of “holy wars” against Western and Eastern Europe. The peril of these wars is deeply etched into the historical memory of Catholic Europe.

The Decline and Fall of the Turkish Empire

However, by the early 1900s, Imperial Turkey was in decline. From 1913 to 1918, a reform group called Young Turks exercised absolute control over the Ottoman Empire. They signed the Ottoman–German Alliance resulting in the Ottoman Empire entering World War I on the side of the German and Central Powers. During World War I, this leadership was responsible for the Armenian Genocide, resulting in the deaths of more than one million ethnic Armenians.

After the Central Powers were defeated in World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and the Allies, including Britain, France and the U.S ended more than 600 years of imperial Turkish Empire. In 1916, during World War I, the Sykes-Picot Agreement had carved up the Ottoman Empire in anticipation of an allied victory and British/French administration of the territories. As a result of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, much of the Ottoman Empire in Central Asia and the Middle East was dismembered and placed under British and French control. The national lines of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that still remain are in the news these days. as a renewed caliphate called Islamic State denounces them as invalid.

The Era of Ataturk

The greatest and most respected figure in modern Turkish history is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He was a successful officer in the Turkish army in World War I and in the 1920’s became a prominent figure in Turkish politics. He was instrumental in setting up the Republic of Turkey in 1923 and is considered to be the father of his country. Ataturk instituted numerous social, political and cultural reforms during his fifteen-year tenure as president and changed Turkey into a modern, secular state. Since the early years of Islam, Islam had been the official religion of Turkey (Anatolia). But since Ataturk, Turkey has not been officially a Muslim country—rather, it is officially secular. But that may be changing.

The Era of Erdoğan and a Streetcar Named Democracy

Turkey stands astride Asia and Europe, and for nearly a half century, it has looked towards the West. Turkey is a member of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which stood as a bulwark against the hegemony of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Since 1987, Turkey has sought to join the European Union, but extensive EU conditions and seemingly unending negotiations have prevented full membership so far. Many analysts think that Turkey’s leadership may be beginning to look toward the East.

Although Turkey is officially a secular state, the current President, Recep Erdoğan, may not think it should continue that way. He was an Islamist in his early political career when he famously said, “Democracy is like a streetcar. You ride it until you arrive at your destination and then you step off” (“Momentof Truth for the EU and Turkey,” Turkish Daily News, November 10, 2006).

Does President Erdoğan have dreams of restoring some of the glory of the Ottoman Turk Empire? Perhaps even the Ottoman Caliphate? Some critics think so and note that he is becoming increasingly autocratic.

Erdoğan’s brutal and autocratic neighbor to the south, President Bashir Assad of Syria, is very blunt about the reasons for the Turkish President’s recent actions against Syria. “Erdoğan thinks that if Muslim Brotherhood [a radical Islamist group] takes over in the region and especially in Syria, he can guarantee his political future, this is one reason. The other reason, he personally thinks that he is the new sultan of the Ottoman and he can control the region as it was during the Ottoman Empire under a new umbrella. In his heart he thinks he is a caliph. These are the main two reasons for him to shift his policy from zero problems to zero friends” (“Assad: Erdogan thinks he’s Caliph, new sultan of the Ottoman.” Interview with Sophie Shevardnadze, RT.com, November 9, 2012). Others in the region have expressed similar opinions.

President Erdoğan has recently completed a new palace on a hilltop near the Turkish capital, Ankara, that contains over 1,000 rooms and cost over $600 million. It is called Ak Saray (White Palace), and it rivals the luxury and grandeur of the Topkapı Palace at its height under Suleiman the Magnificent.

In a recent speech quoted by the London Daily Telegraph,  Erdoğan actually compared himself to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth. “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insists he is not seeking to be a sultan, but more like the British Queen… Erdoğan’s comments, reported in Hurriyet Daily News, included an attack on those who said Turkey was becoming like a monarchy and that he aspired to be like an Ottoman sultan despite other countries also having presidents” (“Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan: I want to be like Queen of UK,” January 30, 2015).

Many analysts think that Turkey is making a historic shift back towards the Middle East and its Islamic roots. But whether the Turkish president will lead a revived caliphate—or wants to—is very speculative.

King of the South

But what will actually happen to Turkey and the Middle East in the near future is not speculative. The Bible tells that region’s future history and views the future events from the perspective of Jerusalem. Near the end of this age, a powerful alliance of Middle Eastern nations south of Jerusalem will form and will “push” against or “attack” a powerful ten-nation European alliance to the north of Jerusalem. “At the time of the end [of this age] the king of the South shall attack him; and the king of the North shall come against him like a whirlwind, with chariots, horsemen, and with many ships; and he shall enter the countries, overwhelm them, and pass through. He shall also enter the Glorious Land, and many countries shall be overthrown” (Daniel 11:40–41). These events are prophesied to occur shortly before the return of Jesus Christ.

The radical Islamist group known as Islamic State is claiming to be the revived caliphate and sees itself as restoring the Muslim conquest of the Middle East and Europe. This may seem like déjà vu for the Europeans, and particularly the Vatican. The ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claims the title of Caliph, but whether he will be the final “King of the South” is not evident at this time. In any case, a number of Islamist groups in the Middle East and Asia have pledged allegiance to him.

Watch the Middle East!

Jesus had an important instruction for His followers. “Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is. It is like a man going to a far country, who left his house and gave authority to his servants, and to each his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to watch. Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming—in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning—lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!” (Mark 13:33–37).

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