The Routledge Handbook of Modern Turkey
Edited by Metin Heper and Sabri Sayan
(New York, NY: Routledge, 2012) pp. 400.

Reviewed by Dr. Wyndham Whynot, Professor of History, Livingstone College

During the latter 1900s the Library of Congress’ Federal Research Division printed a series of Country/Area Handbooks focusing on a number of different countries; each book provided a wide range of information in a combination of encyclopedic and almanac style. After this series was ended, the CIA World Factbook became a somewhat briefer replacement for the handbooks. Both of these works give a good general overview, especially the former; give a good overview of the countries reviewed, including previous copies of their works on Turkey.

Over the last few years Turkey has become a major player in world affairs, especially within southwest Asia. Sitting across a strategic crossroad along the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, separating Europe and Asia, Turkey is a regional power that has the capacity to shape the events of the Middle East. Yet, even today many people who haven’t studied the country or the region truly understand what shapes the policies and actions of this country. Heper’s and Sayan’s handbook is an attempt to provide a more in-depth examination of Turkey’s history, culture, economy, politics, society and geography. According to the editors, “this important reference work gives a unique in-depth survey of Turkish affairs, past and present.”(i)

Unlike the earlier handbook and factbook, which are quite useful for providing a lot of data and general information, this book seeks to provide greater depth of knowledge in six major areas with thirty-five articles written by thirty-eight authors. Using a mix of both Turkish and non-Turkish authors, the book presents a wide range of views about such matters as culture, history, politics, and religion, the latter three covered by 24 essays. Each essay is approximately ten pages in length, providing a relatively concise examination of a specific topic, yet this limit also results in information gaps, especially in regards to the history essays.

Certain themes are present throughout many of the articles: the various authors continually focus on the push of secularism versus the importance of Islam within Turkish society, the role of the military throughout modern Turkish history, as well as the efforts to modernize Turkey and its efforts to join the European Union. Political matters are heavily covered throughout the book; in addition to more articles being focused on politics (11), numerous other essays often bring the political dimension into their articles as well.

Despite Turkey’s relatively long history, either as the Ottoman Empire or modern Turkey, there are more chapters on Turkish culture, (seven), than on the country’s history (six). Unfortunately, sixty pages to cover over 700 years of history truly is not adequate; for example the essay on Turkish cinema has one less page than the first 200 years of Ottoman history. Cultural essays include Turkish fine arts, audio-visual arts, Architecture, and Islam. Arguably the section on Turkish geography is probably the weakest; in the two articles, one on the environment and the other on demographics, little is discussed of the impact of Turkey’s unusual physical geography and the importance of place. Some elements are seen in the essays on cities and urbanizations, yet much of the importance of Turkey’s locations has be drawn out from multiple articles.

This reviewer has mixed feeling about this work. The articles are well documented and written; the editors have done an excellent job of presenting information about Turkey; however, some concerns exist about how useful this work would be for the general readers. Although one could debate the need for illustrations, it seems unusual to have essays concerning the arts and have no pictures demonstrating the various schools of art; additionally a more egregious omission is the lack of any maps.

Arguably, this book is more suitable for graduate level students and individuals with a fairly good background in Middle Eastern history. Laypersons could have a difficult time with the technical terminology that is found throughout the work, as well as the information gaps caused by the word limitations placed on authors’ articles. For those interested in obtaining factual data and/or statistics, the annually updated CIA Factbooks would be a better source, but for those interested in a more detailed, but brief analysis about various elements of Turkish life, politics, etc. this book is an excellent choice to gain a deeper understanding of the basics of Turkish history and society.