Tuesday, May 28, 2024

A (Very) Brief History Of Anatolia I

One of the first things that I needed to remind myself of when I started on day one of our trip to Turkey is that Turkey the country and Turkey the landmass are two interconnected but not synonymous things. Turks (the people) have a history in the region since the mid to late 11th Century A.D. Turkey the country has a history dating back to 1923.

Turkey the landmass has a history going back thousands of years.

If we speak of Turkey the landmass as Anatolia, we would both be using a historically accurately name as well as allowing some room between what we currently understand and what historically have been two very different places.


Anatolia has several geographic factors that define it: A high interior plain (the Anatolian) plain. Two major mountain ranges that run parallel through the landmass, creating a series of valleys. A coastline that abuts onto the Mediterranean Sea, including a series of islands that could be taken all the way to Greece by ship. And perhaps most significantly, the Bosporus Strait, a 6 mile/3.1 km strait between the continents of Asia and Europe, which makes transit between the continents convenient instead of taking the longer routes of sailing from the Black Sea to the other side or taking the longer land route around the Black Sea.


Kingdom of Lydia

As a result of its location, Anatolia found itself both as a route for trade and invasion as well as a place of multiple cultures and civilizations – ultimately becoming the last point in the Silk Road that allowed overland trade with China. The Hittite and Neo-Hittite cultures flourished here, and in the south of modern Turkey is the ancient city of Ur of the Chaldeans. While Ancient Egypt never conquered the Anatolian plans, their culture moved along the Levant. In time the Phrygians and Lydians arrived and built empires, while to the West, the Greeks – those ever adventurous travelers – engaged in trade in the Mycenean era (and went to war, if The Iliad is to be believed) and later founded colonies along the coast and followed the Bosporus through to what we now know as The Black Sea (The Pontic Sea in their day) to trade and grow the grain they could not grow at home – at one point, the coast of Anatolia was considered simply an extension of the Greek mainland and the “Ionian Greeks” were simply Greeks citizens of another polis, not barbarians from another country.

Ionian Greece
Persian Empire - Fullest Empire

The Lydians were overcome by the expanding Persian Empire, which swallowed up both the Lydians and intervened in the Greek colonies, a clash of cultures that would result in almost two hundred years of what would be called the Greco-Persian Wars. Twice the Persians moved from Asian Anatolia to Greece to invade and were repulsed twice at the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.) and the battle of Platea (479 B.C.), after which the Persians reduced their activities to making alliances and supporting one side or the other in the Peloponnesian War, seeking to influence the war to sow disruption among the network of city-states: if they could not outright defeat them, they could at least keep the Greeks divide.

The Peloponnesian War did not result in the unification of Greece or a major threat to Persia; after a short period of invasion of Anatolia led by the Spartans in 3XX B.C., the Persians turned their money to restoring Athens and sowing discord in Greece. This combined with the internecine wars meant that Greece fell farther and farther into disarray until from the North, Philip the Second of Macedonia moved in and by a series of battles and diplomatic intrigue, became the effective head of all of Greece. He looked toward invading the Persian Empire but was assassinated in 336 B.C.; however his son, Alexander, proved to be even more brilliant a tactician than he and in 334 B.C. invaded Anatolia, allegedly under the guise of bringing justice to the Persians for their invasions of Greece. Advancing down the Anatolian Coast, he never truly moved to the interior of Anatolia – but his defeat of Darius III and acquisition of the Persian Empire meant that all of Anatolia fell to him by right. At his death in 323 B.C., the Empire splintered and Anatolia became a patchwork of Macedonian successor states.

Kingdoms of Anatolia circa 240 B.C.

Anatolia came to split among three successor states: Antigonid Macedonia, the kingdom of Pergamum, and the Seleucid Empire with smaller states such as Bithynia and Pontus. The successor states were part of the larger Hellenistic World, and Anatolia continued to serve as as conduit for trade and for international warfare, the empires and kingdoms sought to maintain and even increase their power.

The successor states enjoyed various degrees of success until the Romans – first the Republic and then the Empire – acquired power by inheritance or outright conquest. By the first century of Christ, the Anatolia was a series of Roman provinces, its Eastern border with Sassanid Persia now an international flash point.

The conquest by Rome represents a major shift in the history of Anatolia. For the next almost 1500 years, Anatolia would be considered Roman, not Greek, Persian, or Sassanid.


  1. Nylon126:12 AM

    Man, today's post brings me back to my freshman year at university, three quarters of Ancient Civ, good post TB.

    1. Nylon12, this is a part of the world rich in history. I do not think I realized how much it was until I got there. Try to orient myself was useful, although the areas of history kept bleeding into one another: Istanbul alone has Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Turkish history overlayered one on top of the other. Certainly we in the United States are not used to some a place that has something like 2700 years of continuous human occupation.

  2. I certainly appreciate this post more having recently been to Greece, the battle site of Marathon and just seeing how near Turkey was on the maps.

    1. Ed, it is funny how the geography becomes so much more real when you actually see it. From one of our night on the Aegean Sea in Turkey, we could see the island of Samos, which belongs Greece. It cannot be more than 20 minutes by boat.

  3. What a great morning read. I'm looking forward to another interesting series, TB.

    My takeaway is twofold.
    1) History is continually repeating itself, i.e., all nations experience a continual flux of people groups.
    2) Five of the seven musical modes take their names from some of the historically dominant groups in Turkey: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Lydian.

    1. Thanks Leigh! I hope it is an informative one.

      As to the lessons,

      1) All civilization, nation-state, and empires rise and fall. In a way, the late 20th to early 21st century have been abnormal in that by and large, the borders have been "fixed". It is something of a historical anomaly.

      2) I did not know that about the musical modes. Surely there is a reason for that.


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