Turkey’s first known human inhabitants appeared in the Mediterranean region as early as 7500 BC, and the cycles of empire building, flexing, flailing and crumbling didn’t take long to kick in. The Great Seljuk Turkish Empire of the 11th century was the first to rule what is now Turkey, Iran and Iraq. The Seljuks were shaken by the Crusades and overrun by Mongol hordes, but they hung onto power until the vigorous, ambitious Ottomans came along. The Ottoman Empire began as the banding together of late 13th century Turkish warriors fleeing the Mongols. By 1453 the Ottomans under Mehmet the Conqueror were strong enough to take Constantinople. Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-66) oversaw the apogee of the empire: beautifying Constantinople, rebuilding Jerusalem and expanding the Ottoman to the gates of Vienna. But few of the sultans succeeding Suleiman were capable of great rule and the Ottoman Empire’s long, celebrated decline had begun by 1585. By the 19th century, decay and misrule made ethnic nationalism very appealing. The subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire revolted, often with the direct encouragement and assistance of European powers. After bitter fighting in 1832, the Kingdom of Greece was formed; the Serbs, Bulgarians, Rumanians, Albanians, Armenians, Romanians and Arabs would all seek independence soon after.

The European powers hovered vulturelike over the disintegrating empire, while within Turkey various disastrous attempts to revivify the country were undone by the unfortunate decision to side with Germany in WWI. In 1918, the victorious Allies set to carving up Turkey. At this point, Ottoman general Mustafa Kemal began to organise resistance, sure that a new government must seize the fate of Turkey for the Turkish people. When Greece invaded Smyrna and began pushing east, the Turks were shocked into action. The War of Independence lasted 1920-22, ending in a bitterly won Turkish victory and the abolition of the sultanate. Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk or Father Turk) undertook the job of completely remaking Turkish society. By the time he died in 1938, a constitution had been adopted, polygamy abolished and the fez, mark of Ottoman backwardness, prohibited. Islam ceased to be the official state religion, Constantinople became Istanbul and women obtained the right to vote. Atatürk remains a true hero in Turkey: his statue is everywhere and there are laws against defaming or insulting him.