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 answering, and I decided to research the subject. Then, I read so much that I felt the urge to write about the topic. Here are the facts, my opinion and much more.

Turkey is one of the fascinating countries that you can visit in the world. For this reason, each year, 30 million tourists visit Turkey. Not only is Turkey’s cultural and historical heritage mind-blowing, but Turkey is in a unique position at the crossroads of Asia and Europe.

Turkey’s Asia part is in the Middle East, and Turkey’s Europe part is in the Balkan region of Europe. Turkey is the only country where Europe meets the Middle East because Turkey is located on two continents, both Asia and Europe. 

Turkey is in the Middle East, but Turkey is not a Middle Eastern country.  Turkish institutions are European, and the Turkish Language is from Central Asia. 

Besides Turkey’s exceptional location, Turkey has its own culture. Turkish culture is too unique to be classified as Middle Eastern or European. 

Turkey is a country that acted as a major between different parts of the world. Turkey has been a cultural hub with elements from Europe, the Middle East, the Balkans, and Central Asia.

For this reason, Turkey is a multicultural, transcontinental country with a historical diversity that is not matched by any country in the world.

Turkey became a major tourist center, not by coincidence. Turkey is similar but different to both Middle Eastern and European tourists.

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

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 is a term coined that used to describe countries located in Western Asia. 

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.

According to the CIA Factbook, Iran, Israel, Arab countries, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijani, are the countries located in the Middle East. 

Middle East Map as accepted by CIA Factbook

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

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

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

Turkey is rarely grouped with MENA countries.

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

Turkish Climate

If you think Turkey has a typical Middle Eastern climate, you are mistaken. 

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

Climate systems in the Middle East Source Wikipedia

As you can see in the above climate map, how the climate of Turkey is different from the Middle East. Turkey, in general, does not resemble the Middle East when you look at the weather conditions.

The landscape of Turkey is also totally different from the Middle East. In Turkey, the landscape resembles Greece, Spain and 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 Camel Wrestling Festivals and Camel Beauty Contests. If you wish to learn about this UNESCO Candidate, check my article on Camel Wrestling Festivals.

Turkey Has a Unique Location

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, Middle East, and the Balkans at the same time.

In fact, Asia and Europe are the same continents. For this reason, Turks also prefer to state that their country is a Euroasian country like Russia.

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

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 Roman Empire. Rome controlled the Middle East in ancient times, but when 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.

Turkish (Ottoman) Empire’s capital was also Constantinople (in other words, Istanbul). Under Turkish rule, Istanbul ruled far more places than it used to be when it was the capital of the East Roman Empire.

Istanbul has played crucial roles in the history of the Middle East for centuries and influenced the Middle East more than any city in the world.

Turkish Economy vs. the Middle East

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.

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

Since the foundation of the Turkish Republic, Turkey has always embraced liberal economic principles, and Turkey is strongly aligned with European countries. Turkey is in Customs Union with the EU, and the Turkish industry can compete with the European brands in most product categories.

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

Turkey’s Economic Development is not limited to Istanbul. In the picture Izmir, the third biggest city in Turkey. Photo Source

Turks are not Arabs

Turkish People are not Arabs. Turkish people have Central Asian ancestry. For this reason, Turkish people are culturally and linguistically different from Middle East nations. Turkish people are genetically most similar to Greek, South Italian people with Central Asian DNA. source

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

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. For this reason, the Turkish Language is totally different from Middle Eastern languages.

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.

Map of Countries and Region where Turkic People are the majority. Red dots show the indigenous minority population of Turkic People.

Turkish Religion Practices

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 is being ruled by more religious politicians, but legal rules and the legal system are still based on the western system. You can not find an article in our civil code, commercial code, criminal law, or other regulations referring to Islamic principles.

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. At that time, I believe Muslims could practice their religions more openly in the UK than in Turkey.

Religious politics are rising on this reaction in today’s Turkey. This reaction is a kind of the antithesis of earlier decades. Now let’s go back to the Middle East.

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

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. 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.

According to Middle Eastern people, we, the 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.

I thought we had different views from Middle Eastern people, yet interacting with them in London, showed that Turkish beliefs have significant differences.

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

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.

Turkey also has a historic Christian and Jewish native population.

The Istanbul Patriarch, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christianity, still functions in Istanbul since 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.

Istanbul Orthodox Library

Turkish Culture

Turkey is also heavily influenced by Western values but not that much by the Middle East.

Turkey abolished the last remnants of religious rule in 1920, and it is one of the first countries to recognize equal voting of women in 1930. (A decade before Belgium, France, and Italy.)

In my personal view, Turkey is a westernized country with a unique culture like Japan. 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.

If you judge Turkey with European criteria, in some areas, we can have the lowest ranking compared to European countries, but if you consider Turkey with the rest of the world, we have one of the best rankings.

Turkey is Middle Eastern and European at the same time, but not exactly any of them. Europeans may feel Turkey is not European, and at the same time, most Middle Easterners feel Turkey is not the Middle East. 

Long story short, Turkey is 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.

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