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Book Review: Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know by Andrew Finkel

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Turkey is one of the most studied countries in the world. It’s also one of the least understood.

All countries and cities are unique, of course, although many fit into the same general mold. A few cities around the world are even in a class of their own. But there’s one country, and one city, that own their own genre. Only one city has been called the Crossroads of the World with no exaggeration and no hyperbole. You can find the footprints of Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Tamerlane, and the Apostle Paul in these environs.

Turkey also has the distinction of a city that straddles two continents. At various times Istanbul has been called Stamboul, Constantinople, The Pearl of the Orient, the Queen of Cities, Byzantium, Augusta Antonina, Byzantion, Lygos, New Rome, Kostantiniyye, or simply the City. These names reflect the national origins, which also reflect the ethnic makeup, of the people who call themselves Turks. While most Turks are brunettes, you’ll also see redheads and natural blondes. Turkey was old before the Native Americans came to what’s now North America. Wrap your head around that one!

Turkey is more a region (or a small continent, as the author states) than a country. It’s a region comprised of a number of different peoples: Armenians, Assyrians, Georgians, Greeks, Hittites, Kurds, Lydians, Mamluks, Ottomans, Persians, Phrygians, Romans, and Seljuk Turks, to name a few. The land consists of snow-covered peaks, semi-tropical shoreline, rolling hills, and barren plateaus. It’s three times the size of the United Kingdom, and has 10,000 plant species. There are more species in Istanbul province than in the whole of the UK. It has peat bogs, heath lands, steppes, and coastal plains.

Because of all the above, the ancient history of the country changes on an almost-daily basis. Plunge a shovel into the earth just about anywhere in Turkey and you’ll find relics of the past. The trick is to recognize them as such, and not as just a bunch of rocks. On the other hand, if you’re looking for the latest in electronics, movies or entertainment, you needn’t look long, nor too hard. While you’re looking at these items, a vendor usually offers a cup of çay (chai, tea) or kahve (coffee), made the same way as it was by the ancients, serving it to you today while you sit on a luxuriously-rich hand-woven carpet made the same painstaking way for the past thousand years.

The US has never understood Turkey, at least in my lifetime. But then, we’re a nation of people who think we can become knowledgeable in world politics by sitting in front of a television. The Turkish government had already once kicked the US out of its most important intelligence collection listening post in the region, Sinop, or Diogenes Station, a promontory on the coast and only 200 miles across the Black Sea from Russia. I was at Sinop for a year in the early 1980s during the brief thaw in relations when the Turks allowed the US back in, yet the path the country was on was clear then. But when Turkey said ‘no’ to the US’s formal diplomatic request to use the big US Air Force base at Izmir during the Iraq War, even though Turkey is a NATO member, US diplomats were stunned. The Turks evicted the US military again, this time for good(?), in 1992.

Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know is written in a Question and Answer style format, and is short. But the information that Andrew Finkel packs into under 200 pages is phenomenal. It’s a primer, not a guidebook nor a course of study. It gives succinct sketches of the country with a series of chapters on the country’s history, economy, its place in the world, its politics, its military, its society and its religion.

It’s an excellent précis of an area that probably ranks as the least known of any populated area on Earth. Finkel’s book gives enough to become familiar with the country, and should be required reading for visitors. It’s a difficult country in many ways, but it’s also a country rich in history and memories of past dynasties. If you’re very lucky, you’ll get the opportunity to see Istanbul, and Turkey. If you fail to take advantage of that opportunity if offered, you deserve every bad thing that should ever happen to you. The only acceptable excuse for missing such an opportunity is death … maybe.

Writer’s Note: Andrew Finkel has lived in Turkey for the past 20 years, and first came to Turkey to live as a child in 1967.

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About Lou Novacheck

  • Jonathan Simmons

    I am an American that has been living in Istanbul for more than a year now and I agree with this comment very much: “But then, we’re a nation of people who think we can become knowledgeable in world politics by sitting in front of a television.” I think one of the reasons why I moved here is exactly because of this quote, it is a valuable experience to see the country up close and experience it personally as an inhabitant rather than a distant observer. Another aspect that must be mentioned is that I am not alone in this endeavor, a very large expat community can be found in the city who all live and work here and seem to be quite content. If I had the chance to tell people back home about Istanbul I would probably send them a link to a magazine called The Guide Istanbul, one of the few English language publications in the city that does a very good job of keeping up to date with what’s going on, you can always find a copy at places where expats like to hang out. [Edited]

  • Lou Novacheck

    Political diatribes are neither appreciated nor wanted.

  • David Davidian

    What some do not know is that the Turks were the first to have engaged in state sponsored genocide of its own citizens. The 1915 Turkish genocide of its Armenian population, followed by those in Russia and Persia became a pattern of extermination adopted by the Nazis just 25 years later.

    Finkel neglected to note that the International Association of Genocide Scholars has clearly recognized the Turkish extermination of the Armenians as genocide.

    Finkel didn’t write that Raphael Lemkin, the lawyer who coined the term genocide, stated, “I became interested in genocide because it happened to the Armenians; and after the Armenians got a very rough deal at the Versailles Conference because their criminals were guilty of genocide and were not punished.” in a 1949 CBS TV interview.

    Finkel was remiss in mentioning that the Republic of Turkey was formed on the bones of millions of Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks and to this day isn’t big enough yet to admit its crimes against humanity.