Why is Turkey considered European? 12 Major Things To Know

I remember the time when I was a Rotary exchange student in Denmark. I was 19 years old at the time, and the year was 2001. We were a group of teenagers all around Europe.  It was a decade after Eastern European countries like Poland, Ukraine and Estonia became independent countries when the Soviet Union collapsed.

We were a group of kids from all over. In one of the Rotary meetings, an elder Danish asked which of us are coming from Eastern Europe? I raised my finger, and I remembered the confusion. Yes, Turkey was in the East of Europe but was it really in Europe or European?

Turkey is a transcontinental country with parts that are considered in Europe and Asia. Turkey also shares borders with European countries with Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Georgia, Azerbeijan and Middle Eastern (Asian) countries Iran, Iraq, Syria.

The unique location of Turkey and being a bridge between geographies always confused foreigners that try to classify Turkey. Honestly, our geography also puzzles Turkish people. In this post, I will write my personal opinion if Turkey is considered a European country or not.

Turkey is a European country because Turkey has been a major European power since the Middle Ages. Turkey is culturally, economically, historically tied to Europe on many levels.

Turkey is also a founding member of major European institutions, and Turkish society embraces European legal, democratic, liberal principles.

It is also argued that Turkey is not a European country on the basis of geography and religion. Yet, as far as I am aware, Europeanness is not defined by Christianity.

Europeanness should be determined by how much of a culture and the values of a nation are embedded in European cultural identity. Turkey is not one of the countries that European’s taught how to be civilized. Turkey is a part of European civilization.

I will give specific details in my post. If you do not agree with me, I think I can convince you or at least change your perception of Turkish Culture.

If you wish to know why Turkey is classified as a first-world country and a Western country, please read my article on this. In this article, I will write more about why Turkey is part of European culture.

Turkey is a European Country

Today, you may criticize Turkey’s democracy and other practices, but remember, just 80 years ago, when Europe was living its darkest moments during World War 2, Turkey was the beacon of hope in Europe. 

In the 1940s, Turkey was one of the most democratic countries in Europe with equal voting rights for women, a secular Republic and a liberal economy. At that time, Turkey faced existential threats from Germany in the west and Communist Soviets in the East, yet Turkey did not abandon its core values.

In those times, Turkey provided a safe haven for all regardless of their religion and provided an example of what Europe should be.

Many Turkish institutions benefited from the expertise of these refugees, like my law school, Istanbul University, Law School. Professor Andreas Bertalan Schwarz, a jew of German origin, is still respected for his deed for the teachings regarding civil law among Turkish legal scholars.

Turkey is a European country and part of the Western Alliance since its foundation. In addition, Turkey is a founding member of the Council of Europe, OECD and G20, a member candidate to the European Union, one of the oldest members of NATO and regional power in Europe and the Mediterranean.

Turkey is in accession negotitation of with EU and is in Customs Union with EU countries.

Even when half of Europe was experiencing communism, Turkey was an equal member of the democratic Western World.

The Council of Europe was an international organisation in 1949 after World War II to uphold human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Europe. Turkey is one of 12 founding states. Today, all European countries are members of this organization.

Map of Member States of Council Europe. The countries in blue colour are regarded as European countries.

Only European countries that are not accepted to the Council of Europe are Belarus and Vatican. Belarus is not accepted as a member because of its human rights record not fitting to European standards. Vatican is not a member because it is a theocracy and not a democracy.

It is also believed that Kazakhstan can become a member because the country has some European territory, yet the human rights records of Kazakhstan is not aligned with European standards.

Now let’s I should get more specific.

Geographical Location of Turkey

Turkey is a transcontinental country located in both Asia and Europe. According to the classical definition of Europe, 97% of Turkish territory lies in Asia, and 3% of its territory in Turkey is in Europe.

The European part of Turkey is called the Thrace region, and Turkish European territory is nearly the same size as the country of Belgium. Turkish population living in the European side of Turkey is more than Belgium’s total population, which is around 12 million.

In reality, Europe is not a continent. Europe is a peninsula of Asia. Europe being a separate continent is an artificial term. You can best understand this artificial reality in Istanbul. Istanbul is a city located in both Asia and Europe, and yet there is no difference between both sides of Istanbul.

Antalya, one of the tourist major destinations of Turkey, is considered to be in Asia. Still, Cyprus, south of Antalya, further away from Europe, is considered to be in Europe. Yet, the Turkish coast is deemed to be Asia.

Turkey in Culture and History of Europe

European countries are a diverse set of countries like Estonia, Spain, Ukraine, UK, Germany and Turkey is one of them. 

What makes them European is not where they have territory but their shared culture and history.

Between 1500-1800 Turkey was a major power in Europe.

Turkey is one of the oldest countries in Europe and one of the sources of European civilization. Between those dates, Turkey was one of the most advanced countries in Europe.

Ottoman Empire was an Empire controlled by Turks and the Turkish Dynasty of Osman. Turkish Empire controlled Southeast Europe and parts of North Africa and the Middle East for centuries.

Ottoman Empire in 1566
Ottoman Empire in 1829

Turkish Culture in European Culture

Europe was fascinated by Turkish culture. Turquerie was the name of the fashion trend in Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries, imitating aspects of Ottoman art and culture. Even Elizabeth I was a fan of Turquerie fashion. Source

Madame de Pompadour, a member of the French court and the chief mistress of Louis XV, is portrayed as a Turkish lady by Charles André van Loo.

Besides fashion, many well-known artists in Europe are known to be influenced by Turkish art and music.

Rembrandt is one of the greatest visual artists in the history of art and one of the most important Dutch painters of all time. He also was influenced by the Ottoman culture and thought Turkish fashion symbolizes greatness and honor.

Man In Oriental Costume (“The Noble Slav”) by Rembrandt was drawn in 1632. As seen in the picture, European emulation of Ottoman dress was used to portray a dignified, elite appearance.

Turkish March (Ronda Alla Turca) was a masterpiece composed by Mozart, inspired by Turkish music. Ronda Alla Turca was composed in 1783.  You probably heard this music thousands of times but never knew it was inspired by Turkish culture.

Mozart had many works inspired by Turkish culture, his opera  Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) is also known as Turkish opera, tells a story of a comic story of a Turkish noble who seems sinister in the beginning but demonstrated as noble and generous in the end.

Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 is also often referred to by the nickname “Turkish” Concerto. The music composition contains slow parts interrupted by Turkish music.

There are countless European art masterpieces inspired by Turkish culture and arts. Yet, the last example, I will give is from Beethoven.

Beethoven’s Turkish March

Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which is the most played composition of all time and the official anthem European Union, is also partially inspired by Turkish music.

Turkey also played a major role in European history. If I were to write them all, It would be a book of European history.

Moreover, I just wanted to give some major facts and some cool facts about Turkish and European history.

Turks helped to save Britain from Spanish Invasion

Elizabeth I was one of the followers of Turquerie fashion, and she is known to wear Turkish accessories. Elizabeth I and Turkish Sultan Murad 3 were Pen Pals, constantly writing to each other and exchanging views.

It is known that Elizabeth I thinks Islam and Protestanism are similar and should unite against Catholic World.

The main English ally was the Turks against the Catholic World, but this fruitful alliance is not emphasized as other deeds of Elizabeth I.

Lately, It became evident that Turks played a major role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the prevention of the Spanish invasion of England. The Guardian wrote a historical note with “Why we must thank the Turks, not Drake, for defeating the Armada.”

In the era of Elizabeth I, Turks and English coordinated many of their European strategies. Turkish Navy was dispatched to attack Spanish positions in Spain and Italy. For these reasons, the Spanish could not direct all their efforts to invade England.

Ottoman Navy and its galleys were the most effective and biggest naval force in the Mediterranean. Spanish ocean-faring large ships lacked the maneuverability of the Turkish fleet and were not effective in inland seas.

For these reasons, the main naval power in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea was the Turkish Navy.

Ever heard of the fictional Spanish pirate Barbarossa? He is Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha, the grand admiral of the Turkish navy, who is characterized as one of the ultimate villains in Spanish culture.

Barbaros Hayreddin, the grand admiral of the Turkish Navy holding the trident of Poseidon.

France and Ottoman Alliance lasted for centuries

Francis I was having difficult times with the House of Habsburg. The Habsburg dynasty was controlling Central Europe, Spain, and parts of Italy. 

Francis I and France were under threat and at that time in the year 1526, French King’s delegation reached to Ottoman Capital of Constantinople.

From that year on, Turkey and France supported each other European affairs, and they formed a political bloc that would balance other Central European powers.

After this alliance, French culture also started influencing Turkey. For this reason, 5% of the Turkish language is loanwords from French.

In fact, French culture is affected the Turkish language more than Arabic because Arabic loanwords are mostly religious terms.

If you think the Turkish language is Arabic, you are very wrong. Please check my article on Turkish and Arabic Languages.

The Franco-Ottoman alliance that began in 1590 continued for more than two and a half centuries until Napoleon attacked Ottoman Egypt between 1798–1801.

Francis I (left) and Suleiman the Magnificent (right) formed a Franco-Ottoman alliance. The painting was painted by Titian circa 1530 to illustrate the friendship between France and Turkey

Turkish Military Tactics Ended Feudalism in Europe

Turkish military tactics breached the walls of Istanbul which were thought to be unbreachable. The employment of cannons and other siege tactics changed the political landscape of Europe.

The castles were more easily breachable with this new technology. As a result, bigger countries were formed in Europe, and the Feudal Ages ended in Europe.

Turks Intervened in Europe in desperate times

World War II is not the first time Turkey saved European Jews, in 1492 Turkey dispatched its flotilla to save and provide sanctuary to Spanish Jews when they faced Spanish Inquisition.

Irish Great Famine, Turks were there. Turkish Empire donated 2000 Pounds, but Turks also sneaked their supply ships to Drogheda harbor by breaking the English blockade. For this reason, the crescent is one of the most used symbols in the Irish city of Drogheda.

A copy of the letter sent by Irish nobles to Ottoman Sultan Abdulmejid I for his aid to Ireland during the Great Famine in 1847, in Dublin, Ireland ( Ahmet Gürhan Kartal – Anadolu Agency )

Turks preserved the Orthodoxy Sect of Christianity

Turks saved Orthodoxy Christianity in Eastern Europe by fending Catholic powers from the Balkans. Turks also preserved the Orthodox Patriarchy of Istanbul.

Today if the Serbian, Greeks, Bulgarians, Hungarians, and many other European are still orthodox because of Turkish rule over Southeast Europe.

Turkey, unlike other European powers, continued Roman Empire traditions and tolerance of other beliefs. For this reason, assimilation was not the state policy of the Ottoman Empire.

Even IKEA’s Swedish Meatballs are Turkish

Turkish is embedded in European culture so much that Turkish cultural roots in European culture are hidden in plain sight.

Charles XII of Sweden sought refuge in Ottoman Empire between 1709 – 1714. By the time he left, he left with great knowledge of Turkish culture and many Turkish soldiers. Those soldiers later did not return to Turkey and were called Askersson (the word asker in Turkish means soldier).

Charles X11 is known to start popularising the Turkish habit of drinking coffee. Apparently, another thing he imported to Sweden was the Turkish meatball recipe. Recently Swedish government admitted, despite the objections of IKEA. Source Source 2

Source Swedish Government Twitter

Turkey as the Ultimate Villain of Europe

As a major European power with a different religion and different language, Turkey was something to be feared in the European mind. It was a significant other in Europe. (Please check my article to learn the origins of the Turkish Language.)

Turkish fear is still strongly embedded in some European cultures. “Mamma li turchi” in Italian and `Türkengefahr in German are some of the popular expressions relating Turkish people with fear.

In 1480 and 1610, the Turkish sieges of Vienna created so much fear in European nations between 1480 and 1610, twice as many books were printed on the Turkish threat to Europe than the discovery of the New World. Source

This subconscious rejection and fear, I believe, is the major barrier that Europeans seeing the Turkish people as not European.

Yet Turkish culture is everywhere in European culture from crescent-shaped croissants to yogurt. 

There are not many countries in Europe that shaped the destiny and culture of Europe like Turkey.

Efe Genit

I am a father, a passionate traveler, and a Turkish lawyer. You can enjoy my guides and tips about Turkey that only Turkish locals would know.

3 thoughts on “Why is Turkey considered European? 12 Major Things To Know

  1. Thanks for the insight.I am a political science graduate….I studied a lot about Turkey.I now live in Turkey and will learn as much as I can.

  2. A real eyeopener, how much Turkey did for the Europeans – maybe it’s time to accept and understand the Turks better, this article helps a lot.

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