Site Index


Wars A brief overview of political violence in Turkey and Kurdistan.

Personalities Some information on powerful (or interesting) people in the region.

TravelAn alternative Guide to Turkey.

Media LinksLinks to political sites about Turkey and Kurdistan.

Political LinksSome on-line media about Turkey and Kurdistan

Peoples & CreedsSome information about the ethnic groups in Turkey, where they live, their languages and their religious practices.

Getting Ethnic

Anatolia is one of the oldest continuously inhabited regions of the Earth which is why the land looks so worn out. The Sumerians, Hittites, Frigians, Lycians, Assyrians, Medes, Gauls, Greeks, Romans -- everyone who was anybody in the ancient world had to make it in Anatolia if they really wanted to be in the big leagues.

The consequence of this is that Anatolia has a wonderfully mixed population, dark skinned arabs, fair Circassians, red-headed decendants of the Gauls, blondes, pale Slavic types and so on. There is no "Typical" looking Turk or Kurd. But the variety of physical types is dwarfed by the ethnic, religious and linguistic variety existing in its timeless mosaic on this mountainous peninsula. This is by far the most fascinating aspect of the area, and it is exactly this aspect which causes powerful people in Ankara and Bagdad to go into coniptions.


Well, there really aren't any people who are ethnic Turks. While the government has for years been trying to invent this ethnicity, it is really only descriptive of those people whose linguistic background is Turkish. The numbers of Turkic invaders who invaded Anatolia in the eleventh century were relatively small compared to the numbers of people already in Anatolia. Their advantage was advanced military tactics -- not overwhelming numbers.

In Ottoman times the word "Turk" was a derisive term applied to the backward, dirt-farming Turkish-speaking peasants of Anatolia. It meant "hick." The term was rehabilitated by Mustapha Kemal after the formation of the Republic. Wherever you go in Turkey you see signs or writing in white stones on hillsides reading "How Happy is he who calls himself a Turk." In places like Agri where the population is 90% Kurdish this has a very sinister ring.

The variety of Turkish dialects and Turkish-speaking peoples in Anatolia is really staggering. There are strong regional variations in the language (the Black Sea dialects are notorious for being unintelligible to Istanbullus), strong religious differences, vast differences between village and city and unspanable gaps between social classes.


Kurds are also not homogeneous. They are divided into four major dialect groups which are sometimes so different that they can be considered different languages, e.g. Zaza. All of these dialects are closely related to Old Persian and thus are on one of the branches of the Indo-European family of languages. Turkish is from an entirly different langage family, the Altaic. Kurds have lived in their mountains for thousands of years, long before the Turks rode in from the steppes of Turkistan.

Kurds have always been a tribal society, their lords or agas immensely powerful and rich when compared to the abject poverty of most Kurdish people. This has led to much intranacine conflict between these tribes, something which is a trademark of Kurdish politics. While tribalism has declined due to economic changes and the rise of urbanism, agas can still hold considerable power. A prime example of this is Sedat Bucak, the aga of the Bucak tribe. He is in league with fascists in the interior ministry and maintains a private army of tribesmen of at least 10,000 which are used as irregular troops in the dirty war against other tribes who may support the PKK. A similar factionalism is very evident in South Kurdistan where the PUK and the KDP spend far more time fighting each other than they do fighting Saddam Hussein.

Most Kurds are Sunni, but of a different school than most Turkish muslims. A good number of Kurds are also Alevi (especially the Zaza) which has caused them to be damned twice. As Kurdistan is far less economically developed than other places in the region, folk Islam is very strong.

There are some 12 million Kurds in Turkey, 4 million in Iraq and 1.5 million in Iran. In Turkey most still live in the Southeast, but the military campaign of destroying villages and thus creating refugees has led to large numbers of Kurds to migrate to Istanbul, Adana and Mersin outside of Kurdistan. In Kurdistan the vast majority of people are engaged in subsistence agriculture or pastoralism, herding animals over the dry, denuded mountains.

Kurds have their own distinct musical tradition, with elements which can be found in Iran, Kashmir and even in Hindu classical music. It does not resemble at all the arabesque music so popular in Western Turkey, Syria and Egypt. Their food is by far the spiciest, no doubt reflecting their hot tempers.

The Laz

These Black Sea people are really Caucasians, an echo of when the Medieval Georgian empire stretched into Eastern Anatolia. Their language is related to Georgian, but is not commensurable. The Laz inhabit the tea growing regions around Rize and farther back in Bayburt. They are known for their ferocity as fighters, their immaculate hospitality and their stubborness. Laz jokes are very popular in Turkey. There are perhaps half a million Laz in this area, but they have come under very heavy assimilation pressure. Like the Kurds, their language is not recognised, which means it is not taught in schools, publishing or broadcasting is forbidden and so on. Much fewer than the Kurds, the Laz are in some danger of losing their language and culture.


Before the treaty of Lausanne in 1923, Greeks made up some fifteen percent of the population of Anatolia. These were the Rum, the leftovers from the Byzantine empire. The treaty ended most of this and there was an exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey, and so the only Greeks still in Turkey are in Istanbul. Tense diplomatic relations between Greece and Turkey in the last forty years has resulted in most of these Istanbul Greeks leaving Turkey for Greece as well. Estimates are that fewer than one hundred thousand Rum Greeks still live in Turkey. The Orthodox Patriarchate, the governing authority for all Orthodox churches, is still in Istanbul, although its operations are very limited.


Before the Great War, Armenians made up the merchant classes in Istanbul and were the bulk of the peasantry in Eastern Anatolia. 1915 changed that with the genocidal campaign by the Ottomans and Kurdish tribal forces against the Eastern Armenians on the justification that the Armenians were helping the Russians in the war. Thus the Armenians, a people who had been in the region even longer than the Kurds were driven out or outright massacred through much of the region. In Istabul and Izmire the represion was not so extreme. Many Armenians found refuge with Alevi Zaza in Dersim, and the Alevi of Dersim were repaid by the Kemalists with their own genocide in the 1937-38 Dersim war.


These Nestorian Christians continue to practice an ancient monosophite creed which predates the establishment of the Roman church. Their language is in the Semitic family, closer to Arabic and Hebrew than it is to either Turkish or Kurdish. The Assyrians have fared very badly in this century, repressed along with the Kurds when the Kurds were the target of pogroms and repressed by Kurds at other times. Along with the Armenians, the Assyrians were decimated in the Great War. Currently the relations between the remaining Assyrians and the Kurds is much improved. However, there are fewer than a hundred thousand left in Turkey. Far more live in Iran, but they have predictable problems from the fundamentalist Shii regime in Tehran.

The Alevi

The Alevi are not an ethnic group, but a Muslim religious sect on the Shii branch. They number perhaps twenty million in Turkey, mostly in the big cities and in Central Anatolia. The Alevi are heterodox, they have no mosques, no formal clergy, do not recognise Mohammed and no not view the Koran as a perfect book. This has, of course, resulted in a good deal of persecution against the Alevi by the Sunni in Turkey, and this repression continues to this day. While Islamic religious instruction is mandatory in Turkish primary schools, these lessons are oriented only to the Sunni school. Alevi have been prime targets for the fascist Grey Wolves, the most notable incident in recent history being the 1978 masacre of some 300 Alevi in Kahramanmaras.

The Alevi dominate the artistic and literary life of Turkey. Most of Turkey's intellectuals, writers and musicians are Alevi. In 1993 a Sunni mob attacked and firebombed an Alevi writers' conference in Sivas killing 37 people inside the hotel. Since the Alevi have no other place to go, they are almost always on the political left and back the secular republic far more than other groups.


This term is a catch-all for the Muslim peoples of the Caucusus mountains who fled to the Ottoman Empire when their lands were conquered by the Russians. There are very many Circassian groups, each with their own language, practices and customs. Some of these are the Cerkes, Chechen, Abaza and Kabardi. There are many villages in the country where the Circassians settled and some of these still form cohesive communities where their language survives. Frequently these communities are very insular, not marrying outside their groups.

However, being ever fewer than the Laz, they have largely succumbed to assimilation pressures. Fewer and fewer young Circassians know their native languages any more. They have been fairly succesfully economically, being lucky enough to have settled in Western Anatolia for the most part.


The Ladino jews first came to Istanbul in the 16th Century during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent. Escaping the Spanish inquisition, they settled in Istanbul's district of Eyup where they came to dominate the Empire's slave trade. The Jews have been very successful economically and while they have maintained their own Ladino dialect of Spanish, they have largely assimilated into the general Turkish population of Istanbul or imigrated to Isreal. There are perhaps twenty thousand Jews still in Istanbul.

The Zaza

There is a good deal of debate as to whether the Zaza are a distinct group or a Kurdish sub-grouping. Their language is very different from any other Kurdish dialect and most Zaza are Alevi and live in the Dersim region. Since the government only grudgingly admits that Kurds exist, the Zaza have achieved very little in the way of cultural rights.