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History of Ancient Turkey


Agriculture had come early to Anatolia (that part of the modern country of Turkey which is called Asia Minor). By the 8th century BCE farming communities were well established in the region, and some of the earliest towns excavated by archaeologists were located here. Most notably, Catal Huyuk, dating to the 8th to late 7th millennia BCE, was a large community with an elaborate culture. While not comparable in size or material culture to the cities of Mesopotamia which appeared later, during the 4th millennium, Catal Huyuk shows that Anatolia was amongst the most progressive parts of the Neolithic world.

In the 4th and 3rd millennia BCE, the Sumerian cities of Mesopotamia had an ever-expanding appetite for metals – above all, for tin and copper with which to manufacture bronze artifacts. Whereas Mesopotamia itself was poor in such minerals, Anatolia was rich. It was also a plentiful source of precious and semi-precious stones. Important trade routes began to link the Mesopotamia with Anatolia. Trade brought wealth, literacy and urban civilization; it also may have stimulated the endemic warfare that is evident in the fortified towns and villages which spread through Anatolia, and by the prominence given to weapons as grave goods.

See map of Ancient Turkey in 2500 BCE

In around 2000 BCE, further upheaval seems to have spread from the west. This indicates a large-scale migration of peoples from Europe, probably of Indo-European speakers. These were probably the ancestors of the Hittites, who were shortly to play a prominent role in Anatolian – and Middle Eastern – history.

After things had settled down, trade seems to have expanded again. New towns sprang up on the west coast of Asia Minor. Semi-autonomous colonies of Assyrian merchants, involved in the metal trade, began to appear in a string of cities stretching from northern Mesopotamia into central Anatolia. This period saw a marked upturn in literacy (adapted from the Mesopotamian cuneiform script), with material culture taking on distinctive Anatolian characteristics. These cultural features were to survive a general upheaval which occurred around 1740 BCE, in which several cities in central and eastern Anatolia were destroyed and the Mesopotamian colonies vanished.

The Rise of the Hittites

By this time, the Hittites and other Indo-European groups were well-established in Anatolia, as well as in other parts of the Middle East. By all evidence they had co-existed peacefully with pre-existing populations. Now, however, they seem to have taken control of the towns in or near where they lived, perhaps taking advantage of a new military technology spreading amongst the Indo-European chiefdoms, the chariot. It is from this period that a strong Hittite kingdom dates. It flourished from the end of the 18th century BCE to the end of of the 13th century BCE, and made a tremendous mark on ancient Middle Eastern history. A king of the Hittites sacked Babylon in 1595 BCE, and from c. 1350 BCE the Hittites were one of the leading powers of the region, recognized as the equals of the Assyrians and Egyptians.

See map of Ancient Anatolia in 1500 BCE

While the Hittite kingdom was experiencing its triumphs and disasters, western Anatolia had come increasingly under the influence of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations. The city of Miletus, for example, may well have been a Minoan colony, while to its north Troy became an impressive city with palaces, temples, spacious houses and massive encircling walls.

In the years before 1200 BCE, the Hittites seem to have expanded their power into western Asia Minor, perhaps even bringing Troy under their control. However, this era was brought to an end by a mass movement of peoples from the west, which eventually affected all the great kingdoms of the Middle East.


Phrygian tribes moved into western Asia Minor from Thrace, in Europe, and the “Sea Peoples”, a group of coastal peoples set in movement by events in Europe, raided Anatolia with such force that the Hittite empire collapsed.

The Hittite domination of Anatolia and northern Syria was replaced by a multitude of small kingdoms and tribes, and those states on the west coast of Asia Minor were overwhelmed by further migrations from the west. In the two centuries leading up to 1000 BCE, Greek settlers, driven from their homeland by population movements there, founded many small kingdoms along the western coast of Asia Minor. To the south, these newcomers mainly belonged to a group of the Greeks called the Ionians, while in the north they belonged to the Aeolian group. Central Anatolia became dominated by the Phrygians, at this time divided amongst different tribes; the Kaska remained in the northeast.

In the southeast of Anatolia and northern Syria, the Luwians, a people closely related to the Hittites, who had been dominated by the Hittites for centuries and who had absorbed Hittite culture, populated a network of small kingdoms which modern scholars have labelled “Neo-Hittite”. It seems that in some cases, including the kingdoms centered on Matalya and Carchemish, the rulers of these Neo-Hittite kingdoms could trace their ancestry back to the old Hittite royal family. Scholars increasingly view these little states as playing an important role in the development of the later Mediterranean civilization.

Renewed progress

The material civilization of the Greek settlements on the coast of Asia Minor gradually increased in wealth and sophistication, and by the early 8th century they had become thriving city-states. The Ionian cities were in fact at the forefront of Greek civilization at this time: the first and greatest of Greek poets, Homer, lived and worked here, and the “Ionian philosophers” pioneered Greek philosophy and science.

Greek colonies, including Sinope and Trapazus, were founded along the southern coast of the Black Sea. On the other hand, the non-Greek peoples of western Anatolia, the Lycians, Carians and Mysians, while having close links with the Greek cities of the coast, remained comparatively aloof from Greek civilization at this time.

By the 8th century the Phrygians had formed a well-organized kingdom in central Anatolia, with its center at Gordium, and during that century expanded over much of Anatolia. The high degree of culture and wealth attained by this kingdom were reflected in the later Greek legend of Midas, king of Phrygia, who was inflicted with the curse that anything he touched turned to gold. In its early days, cultural influences from the east, especially the neo-Hittite kingdoms and Assyria, seem to have been paramount, but by the late 8th century Greek art and architecture were have a major impact. They certainly seem to have acquired their alphabet from the Greeks, in the mid-8th century.

The Phrygians successfully kept the Assyrians at bay, even though the latter gradually extended their control over the Neo-Hittite kingdoms of eastern Anatolia and northern Syria. However, at the beginning of the 7th century BCE the power of the Phrygian kingdom was brought to an end by a destructive invasion from the steppes of central Asia by a nomadic tribe called the Cimmerians.

Urartu, Cimmerians and Lydia

Another kingdom that arose during the 8th century was that of Urartu, in eastern Anatolia. Originally centered on the shores of Lake Van, it expanded over a sizable territory to the north of Assyria. Its culture mixed Mesopotamian influences with home-grown features to make a unique civilization.

Urartu soon represented a major threat to Assyria, and, defended by mountainous terrain and a network of forts, the Assyrians were to find its conquest hard going. Several major Assyrian campaigns were needed to bring Urartu under their control. By the end of the 8th century, however, northern Syria and south eastern Anatolia were under Assyrian rule.

The Cimmerians, having destroyed the power of the Phrygians in 696-5, seem to have settled in northern Anatolia, pursuing their traditional nomadic lifestyle and continuing to harass more settled peoples. In the power vacuum that followed the fall of Phrygia, the Lydians came to the fore, and established a powerful kingdom centered on Sardis. Like the Phrygians before them, they also gained in wealth, and have a major claim in history to being the first kingdom to use metal coinage. They had close links with the Greeks on the coast, and their culture was deeply influenced by Greek civilization. The kingdom suffered a major setback when the Cimmerians raided in 652, sacking Sardis and killing the king, Gyges. Further attacks by the Cimmerians and allied Thracian tribes followed, but Lydia was able to survive and, eventually, flourish again.

From the end of the 7th century Lydia exercised a growing hegemony over the Greek cities on the coast. Lydia secured her eastern borders by negotiated a peace treaty with the Medes, who had taken over control of eastern Anatolia from the Assyrians. King Croesus of Lydia (c. 560-546) was so fabulously wealthy that he made a deep impression of the Greeks.

Croesus completed the subjection of the Greek cities in Asia Minor, and had plans to extend his conquests further. However, the appearance of a new power to his east put an end to these ambitions – and to the existence of Lydia as an independent kingdom.

The Persian period

This power was the Persian empire, which had conquered the Medes. Croesus attacked the Persians, but was swiftly defeated by Cyrus the Great, king of the Persians. Sardis was captured, and all Anatolia was now in Persian hands.

See map of Ancient Anatolia in 500 BCE

The region came under the rule of powerful satraps, governors appointed by the Persian Great King. Locally, however, the subject peoples retained a large measure of autonomy. They were allowed to keep their own laws and customs, and in most cases their own native rulers, now governing as vassals of the Persian overlords. The Greek cities on the whole retained their own republican constitutions, also under Persian overlordship, and even after the defeat of the Ionian revolt of 499 BCE, which instigated the Greco-Persian wars, the Greek cities retained their autonomy.

As a result of these wars, several Greek cities in Asia Minor were liberated from Persian rule in the first half of the 5th century and joined the Athenian-led Delian League. However, after 387 BCE, under to the terms of the ”King’s Peace” between the leading Greek cities and the Persian Great King, the Greek cities in Asia Minor were confirmed again as being under Persian rule.

After 372 BCE, the Persian empire was shaken by a civil war (known as the Revolt of the Satraps), and after that local autonomy for both the cities and kingdoms of Asia Minor increased sharply.

During the Persian period in Anatolia, Greek cultural influence spread to neighboring non-Greek peoples in western and southern Asia Minor. Carians, Lycians, Mysians, Pamphylians and Cilicians came under the spell of Greek civilization. In eastern and northern Asia Minor, Persian cultural influences predominated.

The Hellenistic period

In 334–333 BCE the armies of Alexander the Great conquered Anatolia from the Persians. After Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, and the struggles between Alexander’s generals which followed, Anatolia came to be divided between two of the leading dynasties of the Hellenistic world, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. The Seleucids gained the upper hand, but their hold on the vassal kingdoms of northern Anatolia, particularly Pontus and Bithynia, quickly loosened.

This process was aided by an invasion of Gauls in 278. This was defeated in 275 by a combination of local and Seleucid forces, and the Gauls were settled in a district of central Anatolia which came to be called Galatia. The net result was to weaken Seleucid control still further, and in the middle of the 3rd century Cappadocia and Pergamum became independent kingdoms.

See map of Ancient Anatolia in 200 BCE

The most ambitious of all Seleucid kings, Antiochus III (223-187), sought to restore Seleucid control over the various states of Anatolia, but his efforts provoked his enemies to seek the aid of the Romans. The Romans were at first reluctant, but when Antiochus crossed into Greece and threatened the Roman sphere of influence there, they intervened against him, and decisively defeated him.

This ended Seleucid rule in Anatolia, which was now divided amongst various kingdoms. However, although most of Anatolia was now under native dynasties, the region was very much a part of the Hellenistic world. It was dotted with large, Greek-style cities – indeed some, such as Ephesus and Pergamum, were amongst the largest cities of the period – and its people contributed to the Hellenistic civilization of which it was a part. The royal families of the different states were all at least partly Greek or Macedonian in blood, often related to the leading dynasties of the Hellenistic world, the Antigonids of Macedonia, the Seleucids of Syria and Ptolemies of Egypt. They were brought up and educated in Hellenistic ways, and this allowed these rulers to appeal to the loyalties of their many subjects who were Greek in language and culture; but they could also appeal to those of their subjects who retained their Asiatic heritage by presenting themselves in a more Persian guise.

Another feature of this period was the appearance of communities of Jews in the larger cities, clustered round their synagogues.

The Roman empire

In 133 BCE, Attalus III of Pergamum, having no heirs and wishing to prevent civil war, bequeathed his kingdom to Rome. His kingdom then became the Roman province of Asia.

Thousands of Roman and Italian merchants, tax collectors and administrators started descending on western Asia Minor. The growing Roman presence in this region provoked intense resentment, and in 88 BCE the king of Pontus, Mithridates VI, quickly expanded his power over western Asia Minor, where he was welcomed as a liberator, and organized the massacre of thousands of Roman and Italian merchants and their families.

This provoked the Romans to war, but, distracted as they were by their own political troubles, they were unable to inflict a decisive defeat on Mithridates. It was not until 63 BCE that the Roman general Pompey the Great was able to finally defeat him, and all Asia Minor was brought under Roman rule.

See map of Ancient Anatolia in 30 BCE

For the first two centuries of the Roman Empire, Anatolia knew almost unbroken peace. This allowed the region to prosper as never before, its trade fostered by the thousands of miles of roads built by the Roman government.  Anatolia was the location for many large and wealthy cities, leading centers of Hellenistic civilization. Romanization made little headway against this glorious cultural heritage, at least so far as the spread of the Latin language was concerned. Roman citizenship, however, did spread widely in the cities, and by 200 CE the region had produced many families whose members sat in the Roman senate.

Many cities of Asia Minor also housed thriving Jewish communities, whose numbers were reinforced after the Jews were excluded from their homeland after the Jewish revolts of 66-70 CE and 133 CE. These Jewish communities had initially helped early Christianity to spread rapidly throughout Asia Minor, as can be seen in the New Testament accounts of the missionary activities of St Paul. For a long period Asia Minor probably remained the main center for this new faith, although Christianity fairly soon broke away from its Jewish roots to become a separate religion.

See map of Ancient Anatolia in 200 CE

The 3rd century CE saw Asia Minor experience a taste of the chaos visited upon other parts of the Roman empire by Germanic invaders. The Goths attacked the region on three occasions in the years after 256, each time committing much destruction. However, these raids were largely local in character, and although major cities were sacked, notably Ephesus in 263, they soon recovered after peace had been restored.

The 4th century was a period of renewed stability and prosperity, though perhaps not on the same scale as in the earlier empire. There seems to have been an upswing in brigandage in some parts of the region, most famously by the Isaurians, a people living in the barren wildernesses of south-eastern Asia Minor (these people in fact would produce more than one emperor in future centuries). However, most of the region remained untroubled by this.

In the later Roman empire the cities of Asia Minor were leading centers of the new chief religion of the empire, Christianity, and its bishops played a major part in the life of the Christian Church as a whole, their influence spreading well beyond their own region.

In the 5th century, Asia Minor, along with most of the rest of the eastern provinces of the empire, escaped the wholesale anarchy visited upon the western provinces. The region was one of the leading centers of Graeco-Roman civilization in this period, its cities remaining large and wealthy, and housing a sophisticated, Greek-speaking population and a highly educated elite.

See map of Ancient Anatolia in 500 CE