For Roads & Kingdoms’ Edge of Europe series, writer Joshua Kucera is traveling along the disputed border between Europe and Asia, from Istanbul to the Russian Arctic, to explore the ancient history and current politics of how we divide up the world.
Every day, more than 2 million people cross between Europe and Asia across Istanbul’s Bosphorus waterway. They can do so over one of Istanbul’s two traffic-choked Bosphorus bridges or through underwater subway or road tunnels. But the most quintessentially Istanbul way to do it is on a passenger ferry, where most of the commuters are so accustomed to the incomparable surroundings—the sweep of a booming, 15-million strong, millennia-old metropolis; the hills above the shores dotted with spectacular mosques; the occasional Russian submarine—that they spend the trip buried in books or on their phones.
The idea that Istanbul is a transcontinental city—the literal bridge between Europe and Asia that represents a metaphorical bridge between East and West—has become an integral part of the city’s, and Turkey’s, identity. Turkey is a modern, secular (i.e., “Western”) country with Islamic (i.e., “Eastern”) roots. The issues that vex Turkey today—its increasing authoritarianism and Islamization, its strained ties with the European Union and NATO—are all interpreted, both inside and outside of the country, as factors nudging Turkey one way or another along a spectrum marked “East” on one end and “West” on the other.
The border between Europe and Asia, unlike the other continental boundaries, has no scientific basis. There are no tectonic plates that meet around the Bosphorus or the Black Sea or anywhere else on this imagined line. By the time the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote about it in the fifth century B.C., the origins of the continental borders were already obscure and struck him as arbitrary. “I cannot conceive why three names [Asia, Europe, and Africa], and women’s names especially, should ever have been given to a tract which is in reality one,” he wrote, “nor can I even say who gave the three tracts their names, or whence they took the epithets.” And yet the border defined by the ancient Greeks—from the Bosphorus across the Black Sea, along the Caucasus isthmus and up through Russia to the Arctic Ocean—remains pretty close to the line we use today.
One day this summer, I took the ferry from Europe to Asia and asked Ugur Korkmaz, a twentysomething who ran the boat’s concession stand, where he thought Turkey was. “We’re neither East nor West. We haven’t decided yet,” he said. “Our religion makes us Eastern, but the way we live our lives is maybe more Western.” We were speaking just after the attack on Atatürk Airport that killed more than 40 people in June. “If we made a strong decision one way or the other, we wouldn’t be suffering through these bombings. This is a symptom of us not making this decision.” So which would he choose? “I’d like to be Eastern, with my brothers,” he said, by which I took to mean his fellow Muslims. His voice trailed off. “But I don’t want to say anything bad about the West. You are a guest.”
One of the passengers on the ferry, roughly the same age, was Tunc Erenkus, wearing Tevas and wire-rimmed glasses and traveling with his mountain bike. He had a different take, reflecting on his relatively sheltered upbringing in Istanbul and how things have changed since then. “I grew up thinking we belonged to the West, but when I grew up, I was disappointed when I learned that Turkey isn’t as Western as we were told,” he said. “When I was younger, maybe you could say Turkey was a mix of East and West, but in the last five or 10 years, the separation has been increasing. As soon as someone opens their mouth you know which side they’re on.”
For the ancient Greeks, the distinction between Europe and Asia had no political or cultural significance; they meant nothing more by it than “to this side of Greece” and “to that side of Greece.” In the intervening millennia, however, the division between Europe and Asia has accrued layers upon layers of meanings and stereotypes. In the Middle Ages, it became the difference between Christians and heathens. The Enlightenment brought the idea of reason, which was supposed to be the unique property of Europe, as well as notions of enlightened versus despotic rule, which were thought to be European and Asian attributes, respectively. In the 19th century, this distinction became a racial one, with the idea that the Western world, via European colonization, was fated to rule over the benighted East. This transitioned into the geopolitical divide of the Cold War, when the “West” came to mean democracy and the “East” communism and tyranny, connotations that persist today in the promotion of human rights—that is, “Western values”—around the world.
As this global history of us-vs.-them progressed, something strange happened to the Europe-Asia border. The borders of a political, cultural “Europe” or “West” shifted to coincide more and more precisely with the Greeks’ arbitrary geographic border between Europe and Asia. In the Middle Ages, Christianity and a European identity spread through formerly pagan territories of Scandinavia and the Baltics. Christian forces reconquered Muslim Spain and Sicily and the Ottoman Empire gradually lost its European possessions in the Balkans. Various Muslim peoples settled around the Ural Mountains, and were then conquered by Russians. The post-WWI population transfers between Turkey and Greece made the Aegean Sea and the Bosphorus a much harder “East-West” boundary than it had ever been before.
Along the way, Turkey began to consider where it belonged, in Europe or in Asia. The country’s sense of itself as part of Europe is relatively recent. For most of Turkey’s history, the fact that the Bosphorus represented the divide between Europe and Asia was treated mainly as a geographical curiosity, not a fundamental statement about the country. In the early days, the Ottoman Empire saw itself as distinct from Europe and superior to boot: It didn’t deign to send embassies West, instead requiring European diplomats to come to Istanbul. Europeans, for their part, saw Turkey as firmly fixed in Asia, the epitome of the Orient. Alexander Kinglake, in his 1844 travelogue Eothen: Traces of Travel Brought Home From the East, wrote of crossing the Sava River from the Austro-Hungarian empire into Belgrade, then on the Ottoman border:
I saw the Ottoman’s fortress—austere, and darkly impending high over the vale of the Danube—historic Belgrade. I had come, as it were, to the end of this wheel-going Europe, and now my eyes would see the splendour and havoc of the East. The two frontier towns are less than a cannon-shot distant, and yet their people hold no communion. The Hungarian on the north, and the Turk and Servian [Serbian] on the southern side of the Save are as much asunder as though there were fifty broad provinces that lay in the path between them.
The Ottomans’ arrogance began to wane as they weakened, and later sultans began a process of reforms along European lines. This was a pragmatic shift, not a civilizational one. One thing, though, led to another. The first reformer sultans “thought of Westernization primarily in military terms, so the technical side of modernization was dominant,” Murat Belge, a Turkish historian and writer, told me. “But they also could see that there were other things that made Europeans more effective on the battlefield.” That led to a wide-ranging westernization of Ottoman society, including new schools with European curricula, and the introduction of European-style architecture and clothing.
Westernization has now become a global phenomenon, but Belge argues that it was Turkey, along with Russia—another Europe-Asia boundary country—who were the pioneers. Belge has just published a book on the parallels between Turkish and Russian literary reactions to Westernization. “The Ottomans and the Russians were the first to make the decision to become Westernized, and then the rest of the world followed,” he said. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that these are the two countries, to this day, most tormented by their identity vis-a-vis the West. The process of Westernization “changes, of course, from society to society, but there are certain basic standards. And maybe the most important basic thing is to change yourself, and that’s very traumatic,” Belge said. For Turks it was especially traumatic, given their earlier disdain for Europe: “They had to imitate these despised people.”
Westernization was taken up far more forcefully after World War I and the creation of the Turkish Republic under its first president, Kemal Atatürk. Atatürk’s reforms are well-known: dissolution of the Caliphate and secularization of the government; exchanging the Arabic alphabet for the Latin one; moving the capital from Istanbul to Ankara, a new city laid out on European lines; and the ban on the traditional Turkish hat, the fez. As Atatürk explained in a 1925 speech: “Let us not fool ourselves. The civilized world is very advanced. To catch up to it, to be included in Civilization’s Circle, is our obligation. We must get rid of all our sophistries. To debate whether we should wear a hat or not is meaningless. We shall not only wear hats but appropriate all the works and ways of Western Civilization.”
This concept of “catching up” to Europe, the idea that the West was not so much a place as a time, is central to the Turkish idea of modernization. “The whole notion of civilization was so crucial for Ottoman reformers,” said Avner Wishnitzer, a historian who has studied Turkish conceptions of time. “Civilization lies at the tip of this arrow of time that is pointing toward the future. Civilization is Europe, and we are behind, they say this over and over and over again.”
The trauma wrought by this forced Westernization is also one of the central themes of the novels of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, the great Turkish novelist of the early republican period. This was a somewhat unfashionable topic at the time, but Tanpinar is enjoying a renaissance today as Turks increasingly question Atatürk’s legacy.
Twentieth-century Turks have suffered from the “awful thing called belatedness,” Tanpinar wrote. Pankaj Mishra—one of today’s most eloquent chroniclers of life as an “Easterner”—in the introduction to another Tanpinar novel, The Time-Regulation Institute, expands on that phrase: “That is, the experience of arriving late in the modern world, to find one’s future foreclosed and already defined by other people’s past and present.”
Post-Atatürk, Turkey has undertaken a series of correctives to that dislocation, and the wholesale rejection of the Eastern past has softened. Turkish leaders first formulated the idea that Turkey is a “bridge between Europe and Asia” when it began trying to get into the European Union, to sell the idea that Europe could use Turkey as a foothold into the East. The idea also was adopted for domestic consumption, to placate both Islamists and anti-NATO leftists who objected, in varying ways, to being “Western.” And it gained strength upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Turkey’s role as NATO’s eastern bulwark diminished and newly independent states of the Caucasus and Central Asia, with linguistic and cultural links to Turkey, became a new foreign policy priority for Ankara.
Today, under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it’s commonly said that Turkey is “drifting to the East” by taking a more explicitly religious tack in public, frequently criticizing Europe, and dabbling with joining anti-Western alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. These moves are more tactical than strategic, and the “drift to the East” is exaggerated. But they point to the ways in which Turkey’s position between Europe and Asia can continue to gain new meanings in new political contexts.
And the reference to the Europe-Asia border keeps popping up in this discussion. When former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was heading the team drafting the European Union constitution, he argued in a newspaper interview that Turkey should not be let in because “its capital is not in Europe, 95 percent of its population live outside Europe, it is not a European country.”
Turks, though, can use the same geographical argument to claim that they are, in fact, European. “Turkey is a European country, and it has been since the Ottoman Empire; the capital of the Ottoman Empire was on the European part of Turkey. Therefore, we always believed that we were a part of the European administrative system. Modern Turkey maintains this understanding, while simultaneously perceiving itself as a Middle Eastern and Caucasian country,” the head of the state-run foreign policy think tank said a few months ago.
As this idea has become more diffuse and malleable, it’s been taken up as a tourism draw. Tiger Woods has hit a golf ball from Asia to Europe, and Venus Williams has played transcontinental tennis on the bridge. A café on an island in the Bosphorus has an ersatz border marker with arrows pointing to “Europe” and “Asia” as a photo backdrop for tourists.
“Everyone benefits from this. This is why this bullshit is so popular. Turkey is this ‘crossroads,’ a ‘bridge,’ a ‘mix.’ It’s a sexy cocktail. So it’s good for tourism,” Ceren Kenar, a contrarian newspaper columnist, tells me over espresso in the rapidly gentrifying Karaköy neighborhood next to the Bosphorus. It also provides justification for almost any political agenda, whether excluding Turkey from or tying it to Europe, she adds. “But does it mean anything? For me it doesn’t.”
For many, though, it still does. I’ve long been a fan of travelogues of this region, and one of the most interesting tropes they employ is the traveler’s “crossing into the East,” usually when the combination of mosques, covered women, and disorder reach an orientalist’s critical mass, as with Kinglake’s “splendour and havoc” in Belgrade. That may seem a relic of the 19th century, but it’s still common today. Parag Khanna wrote in his 2009 book The Second World:
Eastward from Konya, culture and landscape blend from European to Asian. Wheat fields, melon stands, roadside car repair shacks, stray cattle, and strewn trash are all signs of this other, far larger Turkey. As one drives along endless rows of skinny trees, the tractor replaces the automobile as the mode of intra-village transport, melodic truck horns echo to Central Asia, and street names are both unknown and irrelevant. Many women wear headscarves, several hundred honor killings are reported each year, and the angular Seljuk forts and mosques hark back to a more austere time …
Inspired, in a way, by these examples, I undertook a journey of my own, not across the border into the East, but traveling along that border. I tried to follow the conventional border between Europe and Asia as closely as possible, passing through the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea, Kazakhstan and Russia, ending up close to the Arctic Ocean. My goal was to explore the ways in which ideas of East and West, Europe and Asia—bullshit or not—continue to exert a powerful influence over the people who live here.
This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.