On July 15, 2016, a faction within the Turkish military attempted a coup d’etat against state institutions, which involved violence across the country and an attempt on the President’s life. They justified their actions as a response to democratic backslide in Turkey and the country’s falling repute on the international stage. At the time, the surrounding region was the most politically volatile in the world, as well as the backdrop of diplomatic sparring between Russia and a burgeoning American presidential candidate, Donald Trump. The troubled relationship between these two global superpowers threatened to turn into a new Cold War over the situation in Syria, in which Turkey was a major player. When all these tensions erupted simultaneously in the form of a coup, I was afraid that this was the start of something very bad.
I was in Moscow that summer, writing for a local publication. Russia’s own relations with Turkey were already in the gutter and showing little signs of recovery after the downing of a Russian fighter jet over Turkish airspace in November 2015. With plenty else on my editorial plate, I wasn’t thinking much about Turkey before the coup. Their poor relationship with Russia seemed the result of somewhat typical and cursory tensions that tend to escalate when Eurasian countries behave differently to how Vladimir Putin would like. Then, a correspondent at my publication took a trip to Istanbul. One night, he began tweeting about explosion-like noises and the scrambling of helicopters across the city. I had still never been to Turkey, and the past few years had provided plenty to dissuade me from a visit, from Arab Spring protests to the rise of Islamic State. The thought of visiting never left my mind, until the coup of 2016 threatened to expel it for good. Then, only 24 hours later, Turkey’s government declared that the coup had failed.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a state of emergency, and the government arrested academics and officials with suspected ties to the coup. His regime showed no signs of backing down to the fair share of criticism it received, including allegations of corruption and authoritarian behavior for blocking access to sites like Twitter and Wikipedia. Whether these trends will be reversed remains to be seen, as Erdogan earned re-election earlier this year and assumed new executive powers comparable to those enjoyed by an American president in the process. It can safely be assumed that he will remain in power for the duration of his term, until 2023.
Whatever can be said of this president and his style of rule, Turkey is a stable country, and other nations in the region have long looked to it as an example of a Muslim democracy; in fact, scholars assert that participants in the Arab Spring were inspired to seek reform based on the perceived success of Turkey. Moving forward, it is in every Eurasian power’s best interest that Turkey remains a stable country, one which has a formative impact on the future of the whole region. Much of my work focuses on Russia, and I find the current situation in that country rather comparable to Turkey. The population has grown increasingly critical of the Putin regime over the past decade, but for better or worse, political and socioeconomic structures have stabilized the country and cemented his rule for the next few years. I’ve gotten many strange looks and questions about my travels to Russia and my desire to visit Turkey; on occasion, friends and family have warned against it entirely, in no uncertain terms. The State Department currently suggests that Americans, “reconsider travel” to Turkey and Russia.
What are we to make of warnings against travel to places that have experienced unrest? It’s difficult to say. There are dangers wherever one ventures, and travelers should always be extra vigilant in unfamiliar places. Whether or not your destination is considered more volatile than another, it is important to remember that destinations across the globe are home to people just like you and me, trying to live their lives in peace. In major centers such as Istanbul, or Moscow, especially, people see tourists in their neighborhoods as you would see them in yours, thinking little to nothing of them. Most major cities, and their respective countries, have sustained numerous major terrorist attacks since the beginning of the 21st century, sometimes more than one a year.
When I come face-to-face with everyday people in their homelands, I almost immediately forgot about all of the filters and frames through which I’d been conditioned to think about a country and its people. That’s what makes traveling in a divided world so important. Istanbul, Turkey, and Moscow, Russia are like any other places that have supported civilization for over a thousand years. Though they have experienced their share of violence and unrest, a belief in life and society have always prevailed.
Unfortunately, senseless violence does exist in the world, and it does not discriminate. While it has been said before, those who would perpetrate these acts want nothing more than to disrupt the normal rhythm of life as people know it everywhere. In fact, skepticism over the safety of your next destination is probably as good of a reason as any why you should still go. I don’t often remember the travel experiences when I was proven right, but I definitely always remember those when I was proven wrong, or even better, when I was able to disprove preconceived notions and misconceptions. Now more than ever, the world needs people willing to bridge the gaps between us. Actual violence is one thing, but the imagined threat of it is based, more often than not, in politically charged fear-mongering. If we buy into that, we’ve put walls up where they didn’t need to exist, which endangers the people on both sides.
In Turkey, those walls have caused more immediate and material concerns. 42 million tourists made it the world’s sixth most-visited country in 2014. That number fell sharply to 25 million in 2016, and is only now starting to recover. In an economy where tourism accounts for 10 percent of all activity, those numbers can make or break the livelihoods of Turks who depend heavily on the business of foreigners. There is truly no time like the present for anyone who wishes to visit Turkey, especially those travelers who are more budget-conscious; industries are making an effort to be more accommodating than ever on account of the mid-decade slump. The country’s currency, the Lira, continues to weaken. For those of you after some reassurance about the security situation in the country, take it from the man himself: President Erdogan finally ended the national state of emergency, initiated in response to the attempted coup, in July of this year (almost exactly two years later).
It is no surprise that Turkey is a major international power. Its strategic position alone, straddling two continents with access to a third, will ensure that it remains a hotbed of political and cultural activity that constantly grabs the attention of the rest of the world.
Surviving at these crossroads has required innovation and the forging of a strong nationhood amongst Turks, a people whom, for all the criticism of their country and its leaders, I know to be some of the most in-touch and enamored with their culture and history. Amongst the rich history, beautiful architecture, and delightful cuisine lies the reason that Turkey became one of the world’s most visited countries: it is willing to share. Looking at the headlines these days, it’s easy to be frightened. In many cases, we ought to be outraged as well. Inaction speaks as loudly as action in the modern world, and it can divide us just as much. The fact is that in places like Turkey, everyday beauty remains in the hands of everyday people, and nothing should stop you from admiring it.
Header image by Engin Akyurt