Straddling the continents of Europe and Asia, Turkey’s strategic location has made it a cradle of civilisation since the Stone Age. A large country with soaring mountain ranges, a large inland plateau, and a breath-taking coast, radically different geographic zones, it is a fascinating destination to travel and explore on holiday.
Turkey’s land mass is 774.815 sq km. and the country has a coastline some 8333 km long. Known as Asia Minor in antiquity, the region that makes up modern day Turkey, can be easily divided into a number of relatively distinct geographical zones: the central landmass of Anatolia, and its various coastal areas.
The Marmara Region
Includes the European part of Turkey as well as the northwest section of the Anatolian plain. It comprises a central rolling plain surrounded by low mountains. Primarily because it includes the old capital city, Istanbul, it has by far the highest population density, and is also the most economically advanced and developed region in Turkey. The service and manufacturing industries of Istanbul are its driving force, but the area also supports farming, including tobacco, wheat, rice, sunflower, corn, olives, and grapes.
The Marmara Region – Istanbul
Founded over half a millennium before Christ, Byzantium (later Constantinople, now Istanbul) is the only city in the world to be situated in two separated continents. Equipped with an excellent harbour, the Golden Horn, and sitting astride the Bosphorus, a narrow waterway between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, Istanbul’s position has made it one of the pre-eminent centres of human culture for some 2,500 years.
The lowlands of the Marmara and Aegean regions of Turkey contain about half the country’s agricultural wealth. Effectively made up of the west coast of Turkey, the Aegean region is watered by a series of rich flowing rivers, like the famed Maeander. The resulting large fertile valleys offer a farming paradise: including the Izmit Valley, the Bursa Plains and the Plains of Troy.
Several export crops, form the basis of the wealth, including tobacco (more than 50% of Turkey’s total), cotton (30% of the total), high-quality grapes suitable for drying as raisins and sultanas, olives (more than 50% of the Turkish output) and figs (such as the celebrated Smyrna figs from Izmir). The region also has significant amounts of forestry.
The south coast of Turkey stretches all the way from Bodrum in the west, along the beautiful turquoise coastlines of Caria and Lycia, past rocky Cilicia, to the Great Plains where cities like Tarsus grew up. The region is dominated by the chain of Taurus Mountains that in places drop sheer into the sea, in other places rise up significantly behind the shore.
The coastal areas produce cotton (60 percent of Turkey’s output), sesame, citrus fruits (more than 90 percent of the country’s production – such as the oranges of Finike), early vegetables and the small bananas from around Alanya. Many of the alluvial plains are now swathed in greenhouses producing tomatoes, peppers, and aubergines.
The higher elevations, known collectively as yayla, offer a cooler retreat in summer. Lacking significant arable land the hills are sometimes terraced for grain or offer pasture for sheep, cows, and goats. A small number of semi-nomadic peoples, the Yoruk, still follow age old transhumance routes with their flocks between highland and lowland. Much of the hill and mountain sides are covered in dense pine forest, for several millennia a vital timber resource. Today pine honey is a lucrative product often sold by farmers by the roadside.
The Black Sea Coast
Turkey’s mountainous north coast offers a stark contrast to the entire rest of the country. Rivers hurtle down through gorges towards the steep and rocky coast. The mountain range acts like a gigantic wall along the coast severely limiting the number of good harbourages and access to the interior. Densely forested, the region makes up over a quarter of Turkey’s forests and woodland.
Principal crops include corn, tea grown in the eastern coastal strip, tobacco around Samsun and Trabzon, and hazelnuts (some 80% of the world’s hazlenuts come from Turkey) around Giresun and Ordu.
The main rump, the very heartland of Turkey, is the main plateau region known as Anatolia. Rising progressively towards the east, it’s broken by a significant number of river valleys, including the Dicle (Tigris) and the Firat (Euphrates) – the key rivers of the Fertile Crescent, the Garden of Eden, and ancient Mesopotamia.
Situated right in the middle of Turkey this upland plateau region varies in altitude from 600-1,200 m (1,970-3,940 ft) west to east. For the most part, the region, like a giant Steppe, is relatively bare and monotonous, with large areas given over to wheat or grazing. Vast flocks of sheep and goats are grazed there, so wool is a key product – like Angora wool which comes from goats that get their name from a corrupted version of the country’s capital Ankara (ancient Ancyra). Overgrazing is a significant problem, and soil erosion which results in a fine wind-blown yellow powder gives the area its characteristic hue.
The highest area in Turkey, the vast majority of it has an average altitude of 1,500-2,000 m / 4,920-6,560 ft. and the region is frequently characterised by the country’s highest peak, Mount Ararat. The largest geographical zone in Turkey, it’s also the most thinly populated.
Harsh snowy winters, steep slopes, and thin eroded soil, make agriculture difficult. For the most part farming depends on summer wheat and barley, but the humid northeast makes for good beef and dairy pasture.
A border land between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, this is also a cultural borderland between Turks and Kurds. With vast areas virtually barren or wild, farming is relatively thin on the ground, and confined to irrigated valleys, where wheat, rice, vegetables, and grapes are the primary crops. A giant project of dams aims to transform the area into a green and prosperous bread basket. Not surprisingly tourism generates relatively little economic gain in this area.