Spiritual Undercurrents of Anatolia

Turkish (Anatolian) society is going through a tumultuous transformation. On the surface, it seems as though the society is becoming more dogmatic. Sunni Islam is taking over all state institutions. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s great experiment failed after 87 years. He tried to create an enlightened society, based on the separation of state and religion, from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Many scholars predicted that this experiment would fail and it seems that it did. There is so much to say on what happened and how it happened. I will say what I have to say in due time. For the time being, I just want to say this: Nothing is like it seems in Anatolia.

America has been a melting pot for few centuries. Anatolia has been a melting pot for thousands of years. Each tribe, each nation, and each culture that became dominant in Anatolia left an imprint. There is an Anatolian synthesis but it cannot be observed on the surface. The synthesis was formed not in the minds but in the hearts of people.

There are strong spiritual undercurrents in Anatolia. These undercurrents are very much like the invisible currents of life energy in our bodies. When you visit you will feel the energy of these spiritual currents. They are sometimes carried by sad music and sad faces. Spirituality is not always about joy and bliss. Anatolian spiritual traditions talk about the intense pain of separation. In Anatolia, spirituality is all about the intense longing to unite once again with the Beloved.

Prehistory of Anatolia

Modern Humans (Homo sapiens) appeared in Anatolia around 50 thousands years ago. Evidence for this comes from the mtDNA and Y-DNA studies conducted by the Genographic Project [1]. The mtDNA haplogroup N* is prevalent in Anatolia which points to the appearance of modern humans about 50 thousand years ago. The Y-DNA studies are very interesting too. Modern humans carrying the M70 marker appeared in Anatolia about 30 thousand years ago. Between 50-30 thousand years ago modern humans co-existed with other hominids such as Neanderthals.

Before the appearance of modern humans, and before the Neanderthals, Homo erectus lived in Anatolia for at least 1 million years. In fact, Anatolia was the main route of dispersal of Homo Erectus to Eurasia. [2][3].

Since the appearance of the first modern humans there were waves upon waves of human migration to Anatolia. Migrations were not always westward. During the last ice age European populations migrated back to Anatolia. Later, during the Neolithic period, as a result of the invention of agriculture, there was a population explosion. Anatolian people expanded in circles in all directions. The language of the Anatolian people prior to this expansion was most probably Proto-Indo-European [4].

The Proto-Indo-European language spread in all directions during the Neolithic period.
1. to the west towards Greece
2. to the north of Black Sea from Balkans
3. to the north of Caspian sea from Caucasus
4. to the south towards Egypt.

Gobekli Tepe, which is considered to be the first open air temple built by modern humans is located in Southwest Anatolia. Gobekli Tepe was built 11.5 thousand years ago. The language of those people was most probably Proto-Indo-European.

Using the Y-DNA markers as labels for migration routes, and combining everything I learned from linguists [5] it seems to me that when M17 people of Northern Caucasus and Western Central Asia moved into the Iranian plateau between 10 and 8 thousand years ago they were speaking the Vedic language which evolved from the Proto-Indo-European. When they mixed with the J2 (genetic marker that originated in Anatolia and Eastern Mediterranean) people the Vedic language evolved into Indo-Iranian. The Indo-Iranian language spread:
1. to the east towards Indus Valley and India
2. to the west towards Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Current Anatolian Population

Migration of Turcoman tribes to Anatolia from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Iran is relatively new (started one thousand years ago). Prior to the migration of Turcoman tribes there were migrations of the Arabic people to Anatolia during the expansion of the Arabic/Islamic influence. Hittite, Kurdish, Armenian, Greek, Roman, and Jewish populations were always there. Migrating Turcoman tribes slowly mixed with the locals over the centuries. Thanks to science we now know more about this.  Genetic studies by the Stanford University team [6] indicate that 30% of the women in Anatolia carry Central Asian genetic markers today. Percentage of men carrying Central Asian genetic markers is much smaller. It is only 10%. This indicates that many local men married Turcoman women over the centuries increasing the genetic influence of the Central Asian women. This also explains how Turkish language replaced Greek in Anatolia. Mother’s language is always the first language. Among the males the dominant Y-DNA haplogroups are J2 and J1. The J2 haplogroup originated in Anatolia and Eastern Mediterranean and currently constitutes more than 20% of the Anatolian, Greek, Italian, Jewish and Kurdish populations. There is an eastern branch of the J2 as well. The J2 haplogroup is also seen in Iran, Pakistan and India. The J1 haplogroup is common in Jewish and Arabic populations.

After the WW I, the Muslim populations of the Eastern Europe migrated to Anatolia. During the same time people from Caucasus moved to the Black Sea region (northern coast of Anatolia). Black Sea region is very interesting in many respects; it will be the subject of another article. During the political crises in the Balkans Anatolia received more immigrants from Balkans in recent decades. Most recently Russians are immigrating in small but steady numbers. The number of marriages between Turkish men and Russian women exceeds 200 thousand and this number is growing every day.

Following the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 Mustafa Kemal Ataturk promoted the Turkish language. Ataturk defined “Turkishness” as being the citizen of the modern Turkish Republic. Today, the Turkish language is the strongest bond that holds the ethnically mixed Anatolian society together. Some people claim that religion should be the unifying factor. I completely disagree. In the case of Anatolia the Turkish language is acting as the glue and there is no reason to deviate from this formula. Other alternatives are very risky.

What does Anatolia mean?

In Greek Anatolia means the “eastern land”. In Persian (Farsi) Asia Minor was known as Rum which means the Roman land. Persians referred to Anatolia as the land of Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. The great Sufi philosopher and poet Rumi is known by that name because he lived in Konya in the central region of Rum which is Anatolia. He wrote in Persian and his Persian admirers have known him as Rumi because he lived in the land of Rum. Turkish people know Rumi as Mevlana meaning someone who is one with Divine Love.

Open Secret

There is an open secret which is a taboo in Anatolian society. During 600 years of Ottoman rule many local populations converted from Christianity and Judaism to Islam. A little bit of background first.

Ottoman sultans were not religious. It was customary for the Ottoman sultan to marry women from Europe and Caucasus. Mothers of many sultans were originally Christian. In the early days of expansion, Ottoman tribe made pacts with influential Christian families in the Balkans. For example, the famous names from Ottoman history, Evrenosogullari, Mihailogularri and Malkocogullari, were originally Evrenos, Mihail and Malkovic families, respectively. A significant number of wives of the Ottoman sultans were Serbian.

In the early days of the Ottoman Empire, until the sultan became the Caliph for the Muslim world, they allowed the local populations to practice their own religions. Freedom of religious practice became a pillar of the early Ottoman administration. After they obtained the caliphate they did the opposite, they forced the Sunni interpretation of Islam on the Anatolian society and seriously worked on conversion tactics. Until then the Anatolian Islam was based on Ahmet Yesevi’s Sufi oriented interpretation. The great Anatolian Sufis of the 13’th century, Rumi, Haji Bektash Veli, Yunus Emre were all inspired by Ahmet Yesevi. Later, as Sunni Islam became the state religion and as Christian and Jewish populations converted to Islam under various pressures they adopted the interpretation established by Ahmet Yesevi instead of the Sunni one. Everything changes though. These groups slowly developed their own unique interpretations. Today, under the umbrella of Alevism we see groups whose ethnic origins vary widely. The biggest group among Alevis is the original Turcomans but there are also many groups whose origins go back to the Christian and Jewish converts. Today, Alevism seems to put more emphasis on Ali (Prophet Mohammad’s son-in-law) than Ahmet Yesevi. Compared to Sunnis, Alevis are more Sufi oriented but Alevi teachings today are somewhat removed from Yesevi’s teachings. The current Alevi interpretation of Islam is uniquely Anatolian, a blend of Turcoman and ancient Anatolian cultures.

Ethnic and religious backgrounds of the majority Sunni population in Anatolia vary widely too. Sunni population is not a uniform block either. In my opinion, the Sunni Interpretation of Islam is uniquely Mesopotamian. If Alevism is uniquely Anatolian, Sunni Islam is uniquely Mesopotamian, not Arabic. Mesopotamian culture distinguishes itself by its claim to the invention of agriculture, the invention of writing, and the establishment of the first cities in the world. The concept of organized religion was invented in Mesopotamia as well. In Mesopotamian culture the state is subordinate to the religion which is seen as a tool for the establishment of social harmony. Sunni Islam was developed by various Islamic states and it always emphasized law and order. It vaguely touches on the spiritual life. Sufism on the other hand is all about spirituality. There are Sunni organizations claiming that they are spiritual groups. They talk about Rumi a lot. I grew up in a Sunni family and I spent some time with these so-called spiritual Sunni organizations. They spend an extraordinary amount of time talking about religious and social duties and they constantly emphasize the fear of God. They don’t spend enough time talking about the Divine Love. Even though I grew up in a Sunni family, I find Alevi approach to spirituality closer to my actual practice which is the path of devotional love, Bhakti Yoga.

Civilizations in Anatolia

3000 BC – 700 BC Troy
2500 BC – 2000 BC Hattians
2400 BC – 2150 BC Akkadian Empire
2000 BC – 1750 BC Assyrian trade colonies
1680 BC – 800 BC Hittites

685 BC – 547 BC Lydian Kingdom
559 BC – 331 BC Achaemenid Empire of Persia
334 BC – 301 BC Kingdom of Alexander the Great
305 BC – 64 BC Seleucid Empire
302 BC – 64 BC Kingdom of Pontus
282 BC – 129 BC Attalids of Pergamon
190 BC – 428 AD Kingdom of Armenia
133 BC – 27 BC Roman Republic
27 BC – 330 AD BC Roman Empire

330 – 1453 Byzantine Empire
1071 – 1300 Seljuk Sultanate of Anatolia
1300 – 1923 Ottoman Empire
1923 – Present: The Turkish Republic

Spiritual Undercurrents

As I mentioned in the beginning, it seems that the rigid Sunni way of life is taking over all institutions.  Other faiths and spiritual traditions will be tightly controlled by the Sunni authority for the foreseeable future. The Anatolian Sufi tradition lives as the main undercurrent, and will continue to be the major force behind the scenes. It may soften the rigid Sunni rule in this new era.

From the writings of St.Paul and St.John (both of them lived in Ephesus) we know the history of early Christianity in Anatolia. Later, during Byzantine times Anatolia was also a Christian land. Greek Orthodox Christianity was dominant in the Western Anatolia and Armenian Christianity was dominant in the Central and Eastern Anatolia. Cappodocia in Central Anatolia was the spiritual center of Christianity. When Turcoman tribes arrived in Cappodocia, a special blend of cultures was formed through marriages. The great Sufi teacher and philosopher Haji Bektash Veli moved to Cappodocia for a special purpose. He wanted to unite the Christians with the Turcoman immigrants. He was equally respected and loved by Christians and Muslims. His spiritual influence created a genuine synthesis forming the basis of Anatolian spirituality which is a unique synthesis of all the traditions of the Near-East. The sources of these spiritual undercurrents include Hittite spiritual cult, Ancient Egyptian influences during the Hittite-Egyptian interaction, Platonism and Neo-Platonism which is a unique blend of Greek and Egyptian spirituality, Shamanism of Central Asia, Persian religions and mythology, Christianity, Judaism, and Mithraism which was the dominant spiritual cult prior to Christianity.

As far as spiritual undercurrents are concerned, I would say there are three major ones. The first one that deserves special mention is Neo-Platonism. Spiritual Philosophy of Sufism is very similar to Neo-Platonism. The most important philosopher/mystic of Neo-Platonism, Plotinus, was influenced by the teachings of classical Greek, Persian and Indian philosophy and Egyptian theology.  His metaphysical writings later inspired numerous Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Gnostic metaphysicians and mystics over the centuries. Anatolia was no exception. Anatolian mystics were definitely influenced by Neo-Platonist ideas.

The second and more visible undercurrent in Anatolia is the Persian influence. Sufism borrowed heavily from the spiritual traditions of Persia. Some of the great Sufis of Anatolia, including Rumi and Haji Bektash Veli moved to Anatolia from Horasan which is in Eastern Iran.

The third and very strong undercurrent is the Central Asian Shamanism. People don’t talk about it because it is so ancient but it is perhaps the most powerful one because it is so deeply imprinted in Turcoman mentality.

I posted a photograph of Goreme from Cappadocia to make a point.  Cappodocia, the spiritual center of Anatolia, reminds us that Anatolia is about cultural synthesis. I hope the new rulers of Anatolia remember this.

[1] Genographic Project

[2] J. Kappelman et al. “First Homo erectus from Turkey and implications for migrations into temperate Eurasia“. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 135 (1): 110–116

[3] Harun Taskiran, “Thoughts about the Acheulean in Anatolia“, Mendeley, Volume: 112, Pages: 140-152

[4] Renfrew, A.C., 1987, Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, London: Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-6612-5

[5] Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, “Genes, Peoples, and Languages”, University of California Press (2000); Merritt Ruhlen, “The origin of Language”, John Wiley (1994)

[6] Cengiz Cinnioglu et al, “Excavating Y-chromosome haplotype strata in Anatolia“, Hum. Genet. (2004) 114 : 127–148

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About Suresh Emre

I have worked as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory. I am a volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement. My main goal is to inspire the reader to engage in Self-discovery and expansion of consciousness.
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