5 Observations on Turkish culture and society

Turkish culture and society - header

Visiting Turkey is always a pleasure for us. In fact, it was the third time that we had visited this diverse and rich land and there never seems to be an end to things to explore and experience. Turkey is huge, hitchhikes are long but the going is good and the people friendly so it never feels like a chore. I would never claim to fully understand this country, though some things about Turkish culture and society feel familiar and warming, others confusing and taxing…

5 Observations on Turkish culture and society

– 1 –

The first point I would like to explore is the obligation of military service. Simply, it is a cloud that hangs over the heads of young men who want to do anything but stop their lives for a year (or six months if you are university educated). They want to travel, to earn money, to have fun. Anything but stand around night on night, fighting an enemy that isn’t there. Waking up to be screamed at. Shitting in a room with 30 other men. We met countless people who were desperately trying to avoid going, spending all their savings on what is essentially a payment for their freedom (if they are lucky enough to have their service coincide with one of the governments payment exception schemes). Military service is a joke and the quicker it is abolished the better for all.

Soldier ourside the Ataturk Mausoleum, Ankara, Turkey - Turkish culture and society

– 2 –

Another thing that struck me was the divide that exists in the society, which has only grown deeper in our four year absence from the country. Without wishing to over-simplify what is a difficult concept, many people seem to support the drift back to tradition (and religious influenced government) that is personified by the figure of authoritarian strongman Recep Erdoğan. The man is either revered or reviled, and everybody holds a fierce opinion either way. Young, urbanised and westernised people fear the direction that the country is moving in, believing (in my opinion correctly) that the country is moving away from a European facing policy. The schism between West and East has existed as long as one can remember, but following the Gazi Park protests, the divide seems more concrete.

Mosque in Trabzon, Turkey - Turkish culture and society

– 3 –

There is one thing that does tie all Turks together, though, and that is an unshakable belief in the correctness of Turkey (and by extension the Ottoman empire) throughout history. Turkish people are patriotic to the extreme and this clouds their judgment on history. We have spoken to some very educated, liberal and essentially great human beings but dare to question their interpretation of history and problems quickly arise. According to Turks, the Armenian genocide didn’t happen or if they admit it did, they always diminish its scale. This is contrary to every report, study and examination by every historian worth their salt. Arguing the point is worthless and it is too engrained into their collective culture. It is the one frustrating element of Turkish culture that I could not reconcile myself to.

Victory Monument, Ankara, Turkey - Turkish culture and society

– 4 –

On a more positive note, if you manage to avoid politics or history, Turkish people are, on the whole, amazingly hospitable. In smaller towns and cities it is difficult to walk 100 metres without a head poking out of a shop, a hand beckoning you and tea being served. You would expect budget travellers such as we to lose some weight, due to lugging heavy bags around everywhere, but I assure you that it isn’t the case. We were offered so much food that the kilos have been piling on and our every attempt to reject such offering was waved away with a dismissive hand. Also, we are extremely greedy and we don’t need to be offered food twice before it swiftly disappears :)  Turkish food is wonderful and most definitely amongst the best in the world. Food such as yayla çorbası, kuymak, mantı, hamsi, kısır, Arnavut ciğeri and lahmacun were new experiences for us and we definitely plan to try reproduce them once we get home.

Eating Albanian liver with our Turkish friends in Rize - Turkish culture and society

– 5 –

Finally, a moment to celebrate the plethora of local dances in Turkey. Each regions has its own local dance specific to its area (Zeybek in Western and southern Anatolia; Horon and Kolbastı on the Black Sea Coast, Halay in central and eastern Anatolia – for more details check out the map below). However, the king dance of this trip in Turkey was the hilarious Horon (watch the VIDEO of us trying to learn it :)

Turkish regional folk dances map - Turkish culture and society

written by: Jon


Have you been to Turkey? What are your impressions on Turkish culture and society? What else would you add? We would love to hear your opinion!



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  • >>>There is one thing that does tie all Turks together, though, and that is an unshakable belief in the correctness of Turkey

    I don’t agree with this one. Well, I haven’t been to Turkey yet, so in some sense your observations has more grounds, but I have many Turkish friends, and I see that in the recent years, especially, following the assasination of journalist Hrant Dink (of Armenian origin), it is changing. There are protests and rallies organized by Turks who carry posters saying “We are all Hrant Dink. We are all Armenians”. And just recently, on April 24th, Armenian genocide commemoration day, there was another one. Many people are demanding a recognition. Although the government prosecutes all those people. But it is changing, slowly, but changing. As Serj Tankian of System of Down said during their concert in Yerevan few weeks ago, all those Turks should be treated as heros. And I totally agree with him :)

    • Hey Arty, Thanks a lot for your well written and reasoned comment. You are right to highlight there is a slow changing of ideas concerning the Armenian genocide question, but this process is far too gradual in my opinion. My experience obviously effects my view and I found it a shame that many times, and even with people I regard as intelligent and liberal, there was a reluctance to accept the historical culpability of Turkey. Now it may be correct that it is especially the government pushing this view (for instance the moving of the event to mark Gallipoli to a day earlier so it clashed with Armenian attempts to mark the genocide) but I found it irritating that this line was parroted far too often by normal people on the streets.

      I am always prepared to stand corrected however, and I would love to hear some opinions from Turkish people on this issue.

      • To me, the whole problem lays in the political sphere. And as you’ve mentioned, it’s the government that pushes this policy of denial by imprisoning journalists/writers who date to raise their voices. So it’s ok when people fear to speak out. You see, the same problem is with Azerbaijan. Putting aside the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the dispute about whos the land belongs to. There is the official propaganda that claims that Armenians of the whole world are the number 1 enemery of the Azeri state. But when you go to Russia, you can see Armenians and Azeris doing business together. And that’s a fact. But what happens inside the country? If the government wants to get rid off political opposition leaders, they declare them “supporters of Armenia”, or that they have Armenian roots. So it’s normal that common Azeris fear to say anything that’s opposed to the official propaganda.

        There will be people in Turkey who will never agree with the fact that the genocide took place, and there will be people in Armenia who will never believe that Turkey can change.

        But we are in constant process of evolution, so everything changes. :)