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Is Turkey in the Middle East? 9 Major Things to Know

As a Turkish, I have not given much thought to if Turkey is considered in the Middle East, but today a business form asked me if my country is in the Middle East or not.

I was puzzled, and the question was somehow uneasy about the answer, so I decided to research the subject. Here are the facts, my opinion, and much more.

Short answer.

Turkey is a transcontinental country that is located both in Europe and Asia. 3% of Turkish lands and 14% of the Turkish population are on the European side of Turkey.

Turkey is in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the Balkans at the same time.

Turkey’s Asia part (Anatolia) is in the Middle East, and Turkey’s Europe part is in the Balkan region of Europe.

Long Answer.

Turkey is sometimes considered to be in the Middle East, but most Turkish people and I believe Turkey is not a Middle Eastern country. 

Besides its religious ties with the Middle East, Turkish culture is not Middle Eastern culture. Turkey’s culture has its roots in Anatolia, the Balkans, and Central Asia.

In this post, I will tell you some facts about Turkey as well as similarities and differences between Turkey and the Middle East.

Middle East Map as accepted by CIA Factbook

Location of Turkey in the Middle East Map

The Middle East is a term used at the beginning of the 20th century, yet there is no consensus on which countries are Middle Eastern countries.

The Middle East was a term used to describe European powers’ colonies in Western Asia. Yet, Turkey was never conquered or colonized by European powers.

On the other hand, the Middle East may seem like a geographical designation, but the Middle East is not a geographical designation.

For this reason, the Middle East has no clear boundaries making the term unstable.

The Middle East and North African Countries (MENA) by IMF Source Wikipedia

Because Turkish economic structure and sociological structures are different, international financial and social institutions are likely to group Turkey with European countries. 

Turkey is not always considered to be in the Middle East. The UK, World Bank, IMF, and most United Nations organizations (FAO, UNAIDS, UNICEF, UNHCR) define Turkey as a European country. Source 1 Source 2 

While the CIA Factbook defines Turkey as a Middle Eastern country. Yet, CIA Factbook‘s brute definition also includes Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, which are European countries.

The Middle East and North African Countries (MENA) by Worldbank Source Wikipedia

Recently, a broader definition has been used instead of the Middle East. The new term, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) defines the Middle East and North African countries together. 

Turkey is rarely grouped with MENA countries.

Turkish Climate vs the Middle East Climate

You are mistaken if you think Turkey has a typical Middle Eastern climate. 

As you can see in the below climate map, the climate of Turkey is different from the Middle East.

Climate systems in the Middle East Source Wikipedia

Turkey generally does not resemble the Middle East when you look at the weather conditions.

While all Middle Eastern countries have desert and arid climates, Turkey has diverse climate systems ranging from the Mediterranean to Oceanic climate systems. 

The landscape of Turkey is also totally different from the Middle East. The landscape and climate of Turkey are similar to Greece, Spain, Italy, and Southern France.

Just an interesting fact here, camels are not native animals of Turkey, as shown in several James Bond movies.

Today, only several hundred camels live in Turkey because, after the industrialization of Turkey, Camels are no longer needed as work animals. 

The only reason that camels are present in Turkey is for Camel Wrestling Festivals and Camel Beauty Contests. If you wish to learn about this UNESCO Candidate Turkish Tradition, check my article on Camel Wrestling Festivals.

Turkish economic development is not limited to Istanbul. In the picture, Izmir is the third biggest city in Turkey. Photo Source

Turkish Economy vs the Middle Eastern Economies

Turkey is one of the world’s leading producers of agricultural products, textiles, motor vehicles, transportation equipment, construction materials, consumer electronics, and home appliances.

Turkey is an industrialized country with few natural resources.

Unlike big economies in the Middle East, Turkey is not blessed with natural resources like oil. The mining industry is not a significant sector of the Turkish economy.

The Turkish economy is more diverse and depends on technology rather than natural resource production.

Since the foundation of the Turkish Republic, Turkey has always embraced liberal economic principles, and Turkey is strongly aligned with European countries.

Turkey is also in Customs Union with the EU, and the Turkish industry can compete with European brands in most product categories.

For these reasons, Turkey’s economic and sociopolitical structure is also different from the oil-rich or underdeveloped economies of the Middle East.

Suggested Reading: Why is Turkey a First World Country? Explained

Turkey has deep-rooted democratic traditions.

Turkish Culture vs Middle Eastern Culture

Turkish culture is a fusion of Anatolian (Asia Minor), Balkan, and Central Asian cultures.

Turkey is often linked to the Middle East because the dominant religion is Islam in Turkey. Yet, Turkey is an industrialized economy with democracy, and its social structures are different from the Middle East.

A Canadian Political Cartoon: Women were granted the right to vote in Turkey in 1930 but not in Quebec until 1940.

Turkey was one of the first European countries to accept secularism, and Turkey was also one of the first countries to recognize equal voting for women in 1930. (A decade before Belgium, France, and Italy.)

For more, please read my article on Turkish Women – How and Why They Are Different?

Middle Eastern influence in Turkey is more closely tied to religion. For example, Turkish has %5 loanwords from Arabic and French at the same time.

Arabic loanwords are mostly religious terms.

Yet, French words are in every part of our culture because Turkey was in an alliance with the French from 1536 until the Napoleonic wars.

Similarly, Turkish culture had a major influence in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries. Many European artists were influenced by Ottoman art, culture, and music. 

The Turkish Ottoman Empire was seen as a major European power until World War 1.

Please read my article Why is Turkey considered European? Explained With Unknown Facts to learn more.

If you judge Turkey with European criteria, we can have the lowest ranking in some areas compared to European countries.

Yet, if you consider Turkey with the rest of the world, we have one of the best rankings and a very similar Europe.

For centuries, the capital of the Middle East was Istanbul

One of the significant reasons why Turkey is associated with the Middle East is that historically Turkey and the Middle East were one country for a very long time. 

The countries in the Middle East gained their independence in the 19th century after World War I.

The common trait of all Middle Eastern countries is that they were all ruled by Turkey, and Istanbul was the Middle East’s capital for centuries. Iran is the only exception.

Let’s start with the Roman Empire. Rome controlled the Middle East in ancient times, but when the Roman Empire split into two parts, the East Roman Empire’s capital became Istanbul.

Byzantine Empire 476 AD

(At that time, Istanbul was called Constantinople) and the East Roman Empire (also called Byzantium) controlled the major hubs in the Middle East.

You can read my article to learn more about how Constantinople’s name changed to Istanbul.

When Byzantium fell, the Turkish arrived. Turkish people not only conquered Istanbul but also adapted to the traditions of the Eastern Roman Empire.

For this reason, Turkish Sultans have claimed to be the East Roman Empire’s rulers.

Map of Countries and Regions where Turkic People are the majority. The red dots show the indigenous minority population of Turkic People.

Turks are not Arabs or Persian

Turkish People are not Arabs or Persian. Turkish people are culturally and linguistically different from Middle East nations.

Turkish People’s origins lie with nomadic Turkic tribes of Central Asia. Turks settled in Turkey around 1200 BC by mixing with the ancient people of Anatolia.

Additionally, Turkish people are genetically most similar to Greek and South Italian people with Central Asian DNA. source

Suggested Reading: What Do Turkish People Look Like? With Pictures and History

The main difference between Turkish people and South Europeans is that Turkish people also have Central Asian ancestry.

Turkish language is also a Central Asian language which is most similar to Azerbaijani and Turkish is totally different from Middle Eastern languages.

Only 1.5-2 million Turkish citizens have Arab ancestry, which is about 1,5% of the Turkish population.

The Turkish language is closer to the Korean or Hungarian Language than the Arabic language. Click on my articles to read more about Turkish Language Origins or the Difference between the Turkish and Arabic Languages.

Turkey is a Secular Country

Turkey is the only democratic country with a liberal and secular government while being a majority Muslim country.

Turkey is seen as a Middle Eastern country because the dominant religion in Turkey is Islam. Yet, Turkish legal rules are not based on religious practices, and Turkey is a secular country.

Lately, it is easier to criticize Turkey for not being as secular as it used to be, but I can’t entirely agree.

In recent years, Turkey has been ruled by more religious politicians, but legal rules and the legal system are still based on western principles and the European legal system.

Nobody in its logical mind wants Sharia law in Turkey. We have 20 years of Islamic politicians’ rule, and still, not a single law is based on Islamic Sharia.

You can not find an article in our civil, commercial, criminal law, or other regulations referring to Islamic principles.

Turkish Islamic politics are evolving to something similar to Christian Democrats in Europe and not something similar to a Middle Eastern political arena, but it is taking time.

Religious politics of today are a kind of the antithesis of earlier decades.

In the old times, secular Turkish politicians took it too far to ban religion in public life. In my early years of life, I was also a supporter of these bans. Yet, after my legal training in Turkey and the UK, I can see my mistakes now.

I believe banning headscarves or not allowing some religious acts may be okay in the 1920s world, but the secularism of the 1980s was violating human rights.

Istanbul is the only place on Earth where you can travel continents with public city transport in under 10 minutes.

Additionally, according to Middle Eastern people, most Turkish people are light Muslims at best, and according to most Turkish people, Arabs got it all wrong, and they are practicing Islam in a backward way.

The Middle East does not have Turkish traditions, history, and Islamic practices. Turkish Sultans had the title of Khalifa, and they were the spiritual head of Islam.

Yet, even Turkish Sultans drank alcohol and enjoyed many things that are forbidden in Islam. Moreover, the Turks abolished the Khalifa institution after the Turkish Republic was founded.

Turkey is probably one of the few countries in the Middle East where you can watch the scenery of Mosques and enjoy your beer. Check my article if you wish to know more about Turkish drinking culture.

Just another thing to note is non-believers of the Islamic faith are common in Turkey.

According to a recent survey, 8% of the Turkish population declared that they were not affiliated with any religion and identified themselves as Deist or Atheist. Source

Istanbul Orthodox Library

Turkey also has a historic Christian and Jewish native population.

The Istanbul Patriarch, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christianity, still functions in Istanbul since the Roman Empire split into East Roman (Orthodox) & West Roman Empire (Catholic).

The equivalent of the Istanbul Patriarchate is the Vatican of the Western Roman Empire.

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Monday 16th of January 2023

No offense but, alongside giving false information (arabic words in Turkish language represents more than 10% of words, not 5%), you didnt give a single evidence of how Turkish culture would be any closer to Balkans or any part of Europe (or even to central asia) than to middle east. Secularism is not an evidence, lebanese people are often more secular than Turks, but are always seen as middle eastern

Also, in the only online poll i have seen, 80% of people in the world think of Turkey as mostly or fully middle eastern

Efe Genit

Wednesday 15th of February 2023

As a Turkish, when travelling I feel like a stranger in the Middle East. I feel very close to home in the Balkans. In Central Asia or Azerbejian, I feel at my brother's house and can speak my native language with locals.

Shui Shui

Wednesday 10th of August 2022

Have enjoyed your article on Turkey. Visiting Turkey in Nov n just wanted to understand the country as I hear is a very beautiful country. Thanks to your article I have more understanding. Always thought Turkey is a Middle Eastern State with majority of population are Muslim.

Hakki Hatay

Friday 5th of August 2022

Turkey is not in Middle East although has borders with ME countries. Correct geographic location of Turkey is Asia Minor or equivalently Near East. Please don't misinform people.