Had it not been for Mustafa Kemal, there might not be Turkey today. Most Turks rejected the terms of the peace agreement and rallied behind him in a war of independence from 1912 to 1922, banishing the Greeks and deposing the sultan.
Mustafa Kemal founded the Turkish Republic on 29 October 1923 and took the name Atatürk, which means ‘Father of the Turks’. The sultanate was abolished and the capital moved inland to Ankara, while Atatürk set about modernizing the country, abolishing the power of Islamic Holy Law, replacing the Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, banning polygamy and even introducing votes and equality for woman. Western-style dress replaced the fez, the veil and the turban. Turkey had finally arrived in the 20th century.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Istanbul played a second fiddle to Ankara. But the city’s natural resources, location and appeal, combined with a string of financial incentives to business, a wave of investment engulfed the city and the Marmara area, bringing thousands of migrant workers.
As a leader Atatürk was the personification of good-time Turkey. A man of immense energy, he drank and gambled all night, napped for a couple of hours and then got up to conduct the country’s affairs. He may have moved the capital to Ankara, but his heart was in Istanbul.
Atatürk died at 09:50 on 10 November 1938. His casket was placed in the throne room of Dolmabahçe Palace, where hundreds of thousands came to view the body. He was succeeded by Ismet Inönü, who had masterminded the Turkish forces in the war against Greece, but Atatürk has hardly been allowed to die and his image is still to be seen all over Istanbul today.
World War II
At the renewed outbreak of war in Europe, Turkey opted to remain neutral. Battle did go on in Istanbul, however, as the city became the espionage capital of World War II. No less than 17 different intelligence agencies operated there and half the population seemed to be making a living trading information. Packed with refugees from all over Europe, Istanbul was also something of a safe haven for Jews escaping the Nazis.
Turkey finally entered the war on the Allied side in February 1945 in order to secure a seat at the United Nations when it was founded later that year. During the Cold War Turkey also sided with the West. Under pressure from its new allies, Turkey introduced parliamentary democracy.
Turkey since World War II
The 20th century was hardly the period of calm Atatürk had envisioned. The Democratic Party won the first democratic elections in 1950 under Adnan Menderes, but throughout the decade the country fell into economic decline, to the extend that the army intervened and a new constitution was drawn up.
By 1965, the True Path Party was in power under the ultra-liberal, nationalistic Süleyman Demirel, but the army had to step in once again in 1970 for a further three years. Bülent Ecevit came to power in 1974 and led Turkey into the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, occupying the northern third of the island and causing a seemingly irreparable rift with Greece.
Yet another military coup took place in 1980, suspending all the political parties and also arresting their leaders. Turgut Özal, the leader of the centre-right Motherland Party, was elected prime minister of Turkey in 1983, and subsequently replaced in 1989 by his colleague Yildirim Akbulut.
The 1990’s were a series of political muscle chairs. Süleyman Demirel of the centre-right True Path Party was elected prime minister in 1991, where he stayed until 1993, by which the inflation was running at a whopping 70 per cent. In 1993, Demirel became president and Tansu Çiller became Turkey’s first female prime minister.
In the local elections of March 1994, the people of Istanbul voted in the 40-year-old Tayyip Erdoğan, making him the city’s first Islamist mayor in republican history. Erdoğan used his record as mayor of Istanbul – where even his opponents grudgingly admitted he improved services – as a platform to enter national politics. AKP, under the leadership of Erdoğan, received 34% of the votes in the 2002 general elections. He became prime minister in March 2003.
The year 1998 saw countrywide celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the Turkish Republic. However, just one year later a colossal earthquake struck north-western Turkey with devastating consequences, tragically killing thousands.
But the city continues to grow, not just outwards but upwards. Over the last 20 years a series of high-rise office blocks and luxury hotels have transformed the city’s skyline. Many have been built by large corporations that have grown rich on the back of Özal’s free-marker reforms.
In the meantime, the city has also regained much of its assertiveness and pride, becoming a regular venue for international conferences and sports events. Ambition off the field has been accompanied by success on it, particularly in football. In 2000 Galatasaray, one of the top three Istanbul teams, won the UEFA Cup. Meanwhile the Turkish national team, which invariably plays its home matches in Istanbul rather than Ankara, finished third in the 2002 World Cup. In 2003 Sertab Erener won the Eurovision Song Festival for Turkey with ‘Every Way That I Can’.
As Turkey edges closer to full membership of the EU, efforts are under way to transform Istanbul into a cosmopolitan European city. A long-awaited metro system has finally opened and more infrastructure improvements are currently being carried out, among which a tunnel under the Bosphorus to link the European and Asian shores and rail lines.
In 2007 AKP again emerged victorious (47%) in advanced elections after a crisis over the elections of the new president. Abdullah Gül is the current President of Turkey.
Although no one doubts that the city, for all its bewitching beauty, still faces major problems, a corner does seem to have been turned. For many years, the city slumbered in a kind of post-war gloom – but now the lights are all back on.
With thanks to TimeOut Istanbul