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Forgotten History­: Rethinking Turkey’s Past

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Forgotten History­: Rethinking Turkey’s Past

When trying to understand the modern nation of Turkey, few look far enough into its history.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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A church bell sounds. The staccato thudding of mallet on plank summons monks to afternoon prayers. Deep voices are raised in communal chant. And high in the great tower of Pantokrator Monastery, a metal library door swings open.

There, deep inside the medieval fortified monastery in the Mount Athos monastic Orthodox Christian community, researchers are for the first time tapping a virtually unknown treasure—thousands of Ottoman-era manuscripts that include the oldest of their kind in the world. The documents contain a rare glimpse into Turkey’s past.

The nation has long been an enigma to neighboring countries. Its population is 99.8 percent Muslim, yet it was also the capital of the Roman Empire from roughly 330 to 1453. It has had a bid to join the European Union since 1999, but talks have stalled because of concerns about human rights and rule of law.

What the nation’s leaders will do next can seem impossible to pin down.

Consider a few headlines regarding how Turkey has responded to the Russia-Ukraine War:

  • “From Ally to Mediator: How Russia’s Invasion Has Changed Ukraine-Turkey Relations” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)
  • “Turkey’s Balancing Act on Ukraine Is Becoming More Precarious” (Foreign Policy)
  • “Keeping Turkey on the right side of the battle between US and Russia” (The Hill)

So can these Mount Athos manuscripts shed any light on the Turkish peoples?

The libraries of the self-governed community, established more than 1,000 years ago on northern Greece’s Athos peninsula, are a repository of rare, centuries-old works in several languages including Greek, Russian and Romanian.

Many have been extensively studied, but not the Ottoman Turkish documents, products of an occupying bureaucracy that ruled northern Greece from the late 14th century—well before the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, fell to the Ottomans in 1453—until the early 20th century when the area became Greek again.

Jannis Niehoff-Panagiotidis, a professor at the Free University of Berlin, said, seated at a table piled with documents and books, “The first documents that shed light [on the first period of Ottoman history] are saved here, on Mount Athos.” Others, the rarer ones, are stored in large wooden drawers.

These include highly ornate Sultans’ firmans—or decrees—deeds of ownership and court decisions.

The manuscripts tell a story at odds with the traditional understanding in Greece of Ottoman depredations in the newly conquered areas through the confiscation of the Mount Athos monasteries’ rich real estate holdings. Instead, the new rulers took the community under their wing, preserved its autonomy and protected it from external interference.

“The Sultans’ firmans we saw in the tower…and the Ottoman state’s court decisions show that the monks’ small democracy was able to gain the respect of all conquering powers,” Anastasios Nikopoulos, jurist and scientific collaborator of the Free University of Berlin, said. “And that is because Mount Athos was seen as a cradle of peace, culture…where peoples and civilizations coexisted peacefully.”

These documents are fleshing out the fact that Ottoman Turks would often allow conquered areas to keep their cultural and administrative systems in place.

But researchers have just scratched the surface. The project is expected to continue for several months, even years.

“What could emerge in the long term I’ll be able to say when we have catalogued and digitized all the documents,” Mr. Niehoff-Panagiotidis said. “Right now, nobody knows what’s hidden here. Perhaps, even older documents.”

Years of research will unearth more information about the Ottoman Empire, which ended 100 years ago in 1922—before the nation became a republic a year later. Yet an even older document outlines Turkey’s national character in clear terms. And this book is not hidden at all—the Bible.

Melting Pot

Before delving into the Bible, we ask: Why is Turkey so hard to understand?

Turkey is a nation where continents collide. Literally. The Anatolian tectonic plate covers most of the country, and it is surrounded: the Eurasian Plate borders the north while the African and Arabian plates line the south and southeast, respectively.

Seismic tension builds from every compass direction and results in regular devastating earthquakes. Centuries ago, architects and civil engineers took this factor into account. Many times after a temblor, modern structures have collapsed while centuries-old palaces and mosques remain standing with little or no damage.

Even today, geologists study these still-standing buildings to glean information on how to make structures earthquake-proof. Byzantine and Ottoman landmarks—such as Hagia Sophia, Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the Blue Mosque), and Selimiye Mosque—have stood for many hundreds of years. Each was built to resist the clash of continental plates.

Turkey is also built for continental collisions of a different sort. The nation, often called “the crossroads of civilizations,” is where Europe meets Asia and the Middle East.

A strong potpourri of historical and cultural influences defines the nation. Greek and Roman fingerprints still exist from their respective empires. Byzantine culture left its mark before the Ottoman Turks rose to power. The ubiquitous presence of Islam in the country means there is a strong Middle Eastern flavor. Also, since the Turks came to Anatolia from western Mongolia, there are Asian influences.

Supercharging these influences is Turkey’s central location, which has made it a major trade route from antiquity until today.

A Financial Times article “Silk Roads Lead to Turkey’s Resurgent Power” demonstrated this point. The CEO of export firm TAV Group told the newspaper, “We used to say that Turkey was surrounded by three seas”—the Black Sea, the Aegean, and the Mediterranean—“Now we say Turkey is surrounded by markets.”

The article continued, “Vaunting cultural, religious and historical ties, Turkish businesses have fanned out elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa, central Asia and beyond.”

At the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey’s most populous city, the mercantile character of the nation is clear. There, one can purchase Russian caviar, Chinese tea, and Indian curry, along with Turkish specialties of fine apparel, foodstuffs, ornate rugs, and elegant metalwork.

So where does Turkey fit? The Middle East? Europe? Asia? Most Turks would probably tell you somewhere in between.

Origin of the Turks

Encyclopaedia Britannica explains the dual branches of Turks: “The Turkic peoples may be divided into two main groups: the western and the eastern. The western group includes the Turkic peoples of southeastern Europe and those of southwestern Asia inhabiting Anatolia (Asian Turkey) and northwestern Iran. The eastern group comprises the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, Kazakhstan, and the autonomous region of Xinjiang in China. Turkic peoples display a great variety of ethnic types.”

While there has been some intermarriage, the western Turks are generally Caucasoid (white) and known as Oguz. The eastern clans are distinctly Mongoloid (of Asian descent).

Britannica continues by stating that when eastern tribes fought for control of Mongolia from the 8th to 11th century, the western Oguz Turks “migrated westward into Iran and Afghanistan. In Iran the family of Oguz tribes known as Seljuqs created an empire…In 1071 the Seljuq sultan Alp-Arslan defeated the Byzantine Empire at the Battle of Manzikert and thereby opened the way for several million Oguz tribesmen to settle in Anatolia [modern Turkey].”

The source continues, “These Turks came to form the bulk of the population there, and one Oguz tribal chief, Osman, founded the Ottoman dynasty (early 14th century)…The Oguz are the primary ancestors of the Turks of present-day Turkey.”

Notice that the Oguz did not fit in with the eastern Turks. The reason? Central Asia was not their original homeland.

A clue to the origin of the Oguz Turks can be found in the name “Ottoman.” Note that it was adapted from the ruler Osman, which is also spelled Othman and Uthman. Volume II of Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire includes additional spellings: “…Thaman, or Athman, whose Turkish name has been melted into the appellation of the caliph Othman.”

Thaman was a family name with roots in the Bible: Teman was a chieftain of the ancient Edomite kingdom and the grandson of Esau. William Hazlit’s The Classical Gazetteer spells Teman as Thaman.

Old Testament passages show that Esau was the son of Isaac and older twin of Jacob (who was renamed Israel). Both brothers were grandsons of the patriarch Abraham.

The Oguz Turks have a direct tie to the land of Israel. Esau was born in that region!

What most do not realize is that nations are simply families grown large. Many modern nations today are populated by the descendants of single families. More often than not, these peoples are unaware of their origins.

Two examples of this are the Assyrians (the modern Germans and Austrians) and ancient Israel (which today includes Israel, America, Britain and many Western European nations).

Esau also became a great nation that has forgotten its ancient roots. Read Genesis 36: “These were dukes [chieftains] of the sons of Esau: the sons of Eliphaz the firstborn son of Esau; duke Teman, duke Omar, duke Zepho, duke Kenaz” (vs. 15).

The Esau-Eliphaz-Teman line gave rise to the Ottoman Turks and modern Turkey.

Earmarks of Edom

The Ottoman-Teman connection is just one proof of where most of Esau’s descendants reside today. Esau is synonymous with Edom: “Thus dwelt Esau in mount Seir: Esau is Edom” (Gen. 36:8).

A classic Edomite trait is allying with other peoples and adopting their cultures—such as the Oguz among the Mongoloid Turks.

This started with Esau himself. He married a daughter of Ishmael (the father of the modern Arabs), a daughter of the Hittites, and another Hittite woman who also had ties to the Hivites (Gen. 36:2-3).

Yet Esau still retained characteristics that have defined his offspring throughout history.

While the descendants of Esau spread throughout the region, many originally made their home in Mount Seir, a mountain range east of Israel. The Edomites set up a kingdom there with cave dwellings and a formidable rock fortress. Many considered Edom to be invincible because of this defensive stronghold. Remnants of cities built into rock can be found throughout the region. The most notable example is the city of Petra, which was inhabited by the Nabataeans—a people who took over the region after most Edomites moved east.

Britannica adds, “Edom prospered because of its strategic location on the trade route between Arabia and the Mediterranean and its copper industry at Ezion-geber.”

Is it any wonder that the Ottoman Turks settled in Anatolia, a significant trade route even today?

Amazingly, one of the routes of the famed Silk Road from Asia to Europe was Urgup in Cappadocia (Eastern Turkey). In this area, unique rock formations were carved out for use as dwellings. The locations of Uchisar and Ortahisar were rock fortresses.

As with the Edomites, the Ottomans were often believed to be invincible by their enemies.

Another interesting point stems from the Turkish flag, which is red. Turkish tradition assigns colors to compass directions, with red meaning “south.” In Hebrew, the name Edom means red, and Teman means south.

Information from Brown University reveals even more connections: “According to tradition, in [circa] 1200 BCE, the Petra area (but not necessarily the site itself) was populated by Edomites and the area was known as Edom (‘red’). Before the Israelite incursions, the Edomites controlled the trade routes from Arabia in the south to Damascus in the north. Little is known about the Edomites at Petra itself, but as a people they were known for their wisdom, their writing, their textile industry, the excellence and fineness of their ceramics, and their skilled metal working.”

Even today, Turkey’s main exports include apparel, textiles and manufactured metal products. In addition, beautifully crafted Ottoman-period Iznik pottery, characterized by its intricate blue patterns, is famed the world over. Also, many Turkish sultans were renowned for their wisdom such as Suleiman the Magnificent.

To summarize, the descendants of Teman, Esau’s grandson, migrated to Central Asia and then to the Anatolia region (modern Turkey).

In addition, other Edomites almost certainly moved north much earlier. Recall that Esau married two Hittites. The majority of these peoples resided in the Anatolia region.

Ties to the West

While Turkey is distinctly different from Europe, the two do have one major similarity: an unmistakable interest in the land of Israel. For many centuries, both powers coveted this tiny sliver of land. The territory was under Ottoman control from 1517 to 1917, the majority of the empire’s 600-plus-year reign.

In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte, who was later crowned Holy Roman Emperor, intended to capture Jerusalem during a military campaign in Egypt and Syria. A loss at the Siege of Acre (in today’s northern Israel) meant he never made it to the “City of Peace.”

During the Crusades, European forces entered Jerusalem in triumph in 1099 and held the city until falling to Muslim ruler Saladin in 1187. There were numerous attempts to regain control of the Holy Land up until the last major medieval Crusade in 1272.

In the centuries before the Middle Ages, the Romans controlled Israel. The Roman Empire gained control of the region by defeating the Greco-Macedonian Empire.

At its peak, this Grecian empire touched three separate continents, stretching from Greece to the north, Egypt to the south, and to parts of India to the east. The Holy Land was part of its vast territory.

The empire’s most well-known ruler was Alexander the Great. He had a special link to Israel.

Jewish historian Josephus recorded in his Antiquities of the Jews that Alexander visited Jerusalem before confronting the Persians. The account states: “…and when he [Alexander] went up into the temple, he offered sacrifice to God, according to the high priest’s direction, and magnificently treated both the high priest and the priests. And when the [Bible] book of Daniel was showed him, wherein Daniel declared that one of the Greeks should destroy the empire of the Persians, he supposed that himself [Alexander] was the person intended…”

Daniel 8:5-7 tells of a military leader, represented by a “he goat” with a “notable horn,” that comes from the West to defeat a great power in the East.

Sure enough, the Greco-Maced­onian Empire completely defeated the formidable Medo-Persian Empire, verifying Alexander’s supposition. Palestine, which up until then was under Persian rule, was included in the Greeks’ spoils of victory.

Yet the prophecy in Daniel does not stop there.

Read verse 8: “Therefore the he goat [Alexander] waxed very great: and when he was strong, the great horn was broken; and for it came up four notable ones toward the four winds of heaven.”

After Alexander’s death at age 33, his kingdom was split between his four generals, Lysimachus, Ptolemy, Seleucus and Cassander.

Daniel 11 adds more: “And when he shall stand up, his kingdom shall be broken, and shall be divided toward the four winds of heaven; and not to his posterity [Alexander had no heir to take his place], nor according to his dominion which he ruled: for his kingdom shall be plucked up, even for others beside those” (vs. 4).

This all came true! This is just one proof of the validity of the Bible. You can learn many more in the booklet Bible Authority...Can It Be Proven?

Another proof of Bible prophecy is found in Daniel 2. It lists a succession of kingdoms that conquered Israel—including the great European empires.

Chapter 2 describes a peculiar “great image” revealed to be a giant statue of a man. This man was made of four separate metals from head to toe—gold, silver, bronze and iron—each metal equating to a successive world-ruling kingdom or empire.

Verse 38 reveals that Nebuchad­nezzar II’s Neo-Babylonian Empire was the statue’s head of gold. Following this was the Persian/Achaemenid Empire torso of silver. The bronze was Alexander’s Greco-Macedonian Empire. And the legs and feet of iron represented the Roman Empire. All four world-ruling kingdoms held the land of Israel.

Historical Allies

Throughout history, Esau’s descendants have regularly allied with other nations, especially against the Israelites.

In the biblical book of Judges, the Amalekites (descendants of Esau) joined forces with the king of Moab to attack ancient Israel (3:12-13). Later in the book, an army of Midianites and Edomites come against Israel (6:3).

Yet Edom also worked with the “metal man” empires foretold in Daniel 2.

In 586 BC, Edom was involved when Nebuchadnezzar II’s army razed Jerusalem and destroyed Solomon’s Temple. Psalm 137 states: “Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Raze it, raze it, even to the foundation thereof” (vs. 7).

Edomites also held prominent places in the “metal man” governments. Haman the Agagite was influential in the Medo-Persian Empire, during the reign of King Xerxes I. He hatched a plot against the captured Jews.

Esau has even deeper ties to this empire, which reveals how early some of his descendants began moving east. The Edomite King Husham of Genesis 36:31-43 was a descendant of Teman. He likely controlled Mount Seir and parts of what are today Iraq and Iran. There are strong indications that Husham is the same as Hushang, a fabled early king of the Persians.

Under supervision of the Roman Empire, Herod the Great and his successors ruled over Judea from 37 BC to AD 92. This was an Idumean family. Idumea is the Greek term for Edom.

The motivation for the animosity between Edom and Israel stems from a bitter sibling rivalry. Genesis 25 and 27 show that Esau was the elder brother, yet Jacob tricked him out of his birthright. This blessing was later passed onto Jacob’s grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh and can be summarized as them becoming “a multitude of nations” and a singular “great” nation (48:19). Centuries later, this came to pass with the British Empire and the United States—the greatest multitude of nations and single nation of all time.

Losing this awesome birthright has been perpetuated in bitterness toward Israel—which has been evident in Esau’s descendants throughout history.

This rivalry will again push the Edomites, including modern Turkey, to an alliance with ties to Europe.

Coming Confederation

Bible prophecy outlines this coming coalition. The first details come in Psalm 83. This chapter lists a confederation of nations: “The tabernacles of Edom, and the Ishmaelites [Saudi Arabia]; of Moab [southern Jordan], and the Hagarenes [Syria]; Gebal [Lebanon], and Ammon [northern Jordan], and Amalek [Edomites scattered throughout the Middle East]; the Philistines [Palestinian Arabs, including Gaza] with the inhabitants of Tyre [Lebanon]” (vs. 6-7).

Verse 8 states that “Assur also is joined with them: they have [helped] the children of Lot…”

Assur is another term for Assyria. This includes modern Germans and Austrians. Today, the children of Lot live in modern Jordan.

Daniel 11 shows the Psalm 83 coalition will storm the Middle East, likely to destabilize the region. Notice that their troops “shall enter also into the glorious land, and many countries shall be overthrown: but these shall escape…even Edom, and Moab, and the chief of the children of Ammon” (Dan. 11:41).

Notice that this Assyrian-led coalition will invade certain nations, but Edom is spared because of an alliance.

Obadiah, a book entirely about Edom’s future, reveals Turkey’s role as armed forces enter Israel. Notice: “In the day that you stood on the other side, in the day that…foreigners entered into [Israel’s] gates, and cast lots upon Jerusalem, even you were as one of them” (1:11).

As forces take on the Israelites, the Edomites will be “as one of them”—in league with the Assyrian power.

Guiding Force

The animosity of Edom toward Israel will fuel its partnership with the resurrected Assyrian power, but it is not the main motivating factor.

Daniel reveals the true driving force behind world events: “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever: for wisdom and might are His: and He changes the times and the seasons: He removes kings, and sets up kings: He gives wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding” (2:20-21).

Realize that it is the God of the Bible who places rulers into power—“removes kings, and sets up kings”—and who is ultimately guiding world events. He is willing to reveal His incredible purpose for mankind to those who will listen.

While Edom plays an important role in prophecy, it pales in comparison with God’s supreme goal: salvation for all mankind.

Note that He is “not willing that any should perish” (II Pet. 3:9) and wants “all men to be saved, and come unto the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4). He will do everything in His power to make sure the vast majority of humankind receive salvation.

This crucial fact brings purpose and reason to the tumultuous prophecies found in the Bible that could otherwise be seen as cruel and harsh.

Mankind as a whole is not ready to be governed by God, and is intent on ruling himself—despite millennia of failed governments. The only way man will listen is through national punishment.

This will not happen unexpectedly. As with any loving parent, God warns before He chastises. He will do just that when He soon intervenes in world affairs.

For those in Edom who do not listen, God reserves a special punishment: “As you [Edom] did rejoice at the inheritance of the house of Israel, because it was desolate, so will I do unto you: you shall be desolate, O mount Seir, and all Idumea, even all of it: and they shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezek. 35:15).

While this obviously is severe chastisement, God makes His purpose clear: “…that they shall know that I am the Lord.”

Human nature makes mankind hardheaded. Without this swift and severe action, only a scant few would listen!

Isaiah 63 shows another element of Edom’s punishment: “Who is this that comes from Edom, with dyed garments…that is glorious in His apparel, travelling in the greatness of His strength? I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save” (vs. 1).

Yes, who is this that comes from Edom?

The answer comes at the end of the previous chapter of Isaiah: “Behold, the Lord has proclaimed unto the end of the world, Say you to the daughter of Zion, Behold, your salvation comes; behold, His reward is with Him, and His work before Him” (62:11).

This is God coming to Earth! Yet what is the “work before Him”?

Ultimate World Government

Return again to the book of Daniel. It adds a crucial point about Christ’s Return. Read carefully the text immediately following the description of the “metal man:” “You saw [the statue] until that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay [representing an unstable European empire], and broke them to pieces. Then was the iron, the clay, the brass [Greco-Macedonian Empire], the silver [Medo-Persian Empire], and the gold [Neo-Babylonian Empire], broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff…and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth” (2:34-35).

The governments of men, represented by these four humanly shaped and crafted metals, will eventually be destroyed by a “stone.” This “stone” is Jesus Christ! He is commonly referred to as a “stone” and a “rock” throughout Scripture (I Pet. 2:8).

God will come and smash the governments of men when He sets up His Kingdom—a world-ruling supergovernment—and bring about the next phase of His Plan. He will offer salvation to everyone who has ever lived, both past and present. This includes those who perished during the national punishments mentioned earlier.

With God in charge, the governments of men will cease. His Kingdom, as a great “mountain” (a prophetic term symbolizing a government), will fill the entire Earth—and erase all crippling effects of national rivalries.


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