“Turkey (Turkiye in Turkish) is a country located at a point where the 3 continents of the old world (Asia, Africa and Europe) are closest to each other and where Asia and Europe meet. Because of its geographical location, Anatolia has always been important throughout history and is the birthplace of many great civilizations…- Out of the total land, 97% is in Asia and this part is called Anatolia or Asia Minor; 3% is in Europe which is called Thrace. Although 97% of Turkey is located in Asia, in many respects it is accepted as a European country and as a result, Turkey takes its place in nearly all European contests and associations.” (http://www.turkishodyssey.com/turkey/turkey.htm)
Today, maybe more than ever before, we have to ask: what is Europe? The content of Europe has varied in different times. Is Europe a “natural fact”, a continent, an imagined community, a lieu de mémoire or a distinct geographical entity? Europe is often defined in a moment of crisis or confrontation. Then a self-definition is needed to describe one’s own identity. It has often been said that Europe is a political and cultural concept that was created for the needs of an intellectual elite. The definition of Europe is then simply a pragmatic description of the western edge of Eurasia, the earth’s largest land mass.
We Europeans have once again witnessed how the old world is dissolving and the new one is taking shape. But still Europe is a continent with real and imagined boarders. A part of the European life is to cross these borders, usually defined by geographical dimension north – south / east –west, back and forth all the time. As a result of innumerable geo-economic, cultural-religious and geo-political division a multiplicity and diversity of cultures have come into existence.
One factor determining the relative unity is the European way of life and thinking, which colours the European self-reflection. Their root goes back to ancient Mediterranean, where Greco-Roman cultures and Christianity began. They are still the two most important cornerstones of the concept of European civilization. This is where Turkey and south west corner of Asia comes in to the European reality. To start with – for me Turkey, the geographical area of its present location, this part of the Mediterranean, is a part of my Europe. European politics has been an essential part of this area since the prehistoric times, first during the European trade networks. Few countries can present so fascinating history than Turkey, mixing up many European and oriental, Christian and Islam elements. To start with one name linked to the history of Anatolia is Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia. He was one of history's foremost military leaders who established an Empire that extended from Greece to India. He conquered the Persian Empire and annexed it to Macedonia. The period between Alexander’s death and the Roman conquest of Anatolia is called the Hellenistic age.
Europeans fascination for foreign cultures and civilisations is to be seen later during the Roman times, when Asia (being a great part of modern Turkey) was an essential part of Roman Empire. A Roman administrative reorganization took place in Anatolia which brought the Roman culture to the area. It was no surprise that the area of modern Turkey became the second Rome – East Roman or Byzantine Empire bringing forward the glorious power of Roman culture in its eastern form. The Byzantine Empire is one of the longest-lasting empires in world history. Its name, which is derived from the name of the city of Byzantium, was given by 19C historians. Byzantines always called and regarded themselves as Romans. In 330 AD Constantine made Byzantium Rome's second capital, naming it Constantinople which meant "city of Constantine". The Byzantine era was essential intellectually, culturally and technically for the Europeans – many innovations came to Europe through Arabic infiltration. Byzantine Empire had to face threats from Westerners and from Turks in the East. Gradually reduced in area, the Empire finally succumbed in 1453 AD to the Ottoman Turks, who pronounced Constantinople to be the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
The tradesmen in this area have linked the western shipping routes to oriental ones in different periods of history. On the other hand, the eastern part of the Mediterranean has during the history represented the “otherness”. The Persian state, the Kingdom of Pergamum and later the many independent states on this area formed well known enemies to the dominant ancient European cultures. The Turks were the first people who invaded Anatolia completely. During Medieval times the crusades formed the European views dramatically. Politically, the Crusades did not effect much change. The almost endless quarrels among rival lords in the Levant exposed a fatal weakness of the West and strengthened the Moslem conviction that the war could be carried farther west. In this sense, the Crusades led directly to the Turkish wars of later centuries, in which the Ottoman Empire expanded into the Balkans and threatened the very heart of Europe. Through the Crusades, Islamic science, philosophy and medicine deeply influenced intellectual life in the West. This two sided history is still to be seen in how Turkey is described in encyclopaedias. See above.
Why is then Turkey “Asian”, “oriental” or “non-European”
in mind of many western politicians?
For many Europeans, Turkey is still the Ottoman Empire. It was a Moslem Turkish state that encompassed Anatolia, South-eastern Europe, the Arab Middle East and North Africa from the 14C to the early 20C. This led to a differentiated development from the Europe, which progressed towards consensual and even constitutional government and parliamentary democracy. A tradition of civic societies evolved over along period. They are characterized by increasing economic and political freedom of individuals, and also some sort of collective care and solidarity for that individual – a mixture of nationalism and liberalism, entrepreneurship and participation, social democracy and consumerism. Due to a number of historical accidents in Turkey, such structures and traditions are weaker, concentrating to the 20th century.
The divergent interpretations of European history have generally taken place within certain mutually accepted parameters. One such parameter has been, for several generations, the nation state. The importance’s of nation state boundaries have been as the taken-for-granted unit of analysis. Similarly, the Europe’s history has often been written as that of sum of national histories. This way leads to the centre, to the Great Nations of Europe and their interrelations. It marginalizes the role of smaller or more peripheral states and ignores their capacity of innovativeness and survival. Also alternative stories and topics are ignored. This is the situation where the Turkish experience can not be applied. Turkey as a European “nation state” is of more recent origin, dating back to the period of early 20th century, and proclamation of the Republic on 1923.
Europe is a lieu de mémoire , a place of collective memory. But it also forms and renews local and national lieux de mémoires. History is a European discipline. Memories make us vulnerable and cautious. To write the “story of Europe” as the twenty-first century is at its beginning is therefore to write in a period of many uncertainties. There is no future for only western Eurocentric approach, defining Europe as the model for all the world to follow – as the repository of “Western Civilization”, the source of progress, democracy, religious and cultural tolerance, science, philosophy and arts. The suppressed minorities, peripheral regions and social groups have re-articulated the darker sides of European history. The new, comprehensive story of our continent must explore historical failures as well as dominant ones, continental as well national and regional topics, with full geographical coverage of all-Europe. Here Turkey has a clear European position.
Is Europe only a dream? As the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright writes, “the integration of Europe has not only a unifying but, in relation to the rest of the world, also a separating aim.” This means that we need to emphasize and strengthen the common interests. But at the same time we must remember that Europe has through its history been very globally linked. The process to create of “world-state” has always happened under Western eyes. In this situation the European values must once again be examined. The idea of Europe has often been voiced out either as the utopia, or as the propaganda instrument. In many cases this utopia has become a reality. The vision must be based on uniting history and future, tradition and continuity, underlying tolerance and diversity. Whose Europe is it that is now in process of being shaped? Enlargement of Europe will be a great challenge especially of young people.
The vision of Europe could be created so that Turkey is a part of it. Turkey is in many ways an interesting European-Asian country. Geopolitically is has succeeded to combine many elements from the “east” and “west”, from orient. It is a cultural-political construction that has been developed under three different political rules (the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman state and independent republic). As a nation it is strongly rooted to the European experience.
14 VI 2006
Professor in European History
Department of History
University of Helsinki
PO Box 59
00014 University of Helsinki