You may be familiar with Turkey’s epic history, lyrical landscapes and beautiful beaches, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Did you know, for instance, that it boasts one of the oldest and largest Christian churches in the world? Or that its official name is the Republic of Turkey? Most people get its capital wrong too, assuming the vibrant metropolis of Istanbul is the capital, rather than Ankara. Interested in finding out more? Here are seven interesting facts about Turkey that might surprise you.
Interesting Facts About Turkey
1. Saint Nicholas (aka Santa Claus) is from Turkey
Nope, not the North Pole. The story goes that Nicholas was born to wealthy parents in the ancient Lycian city of Patara. When his parents died, he inherited huge wealth, which he generously donated to the poor. There are some amazing tales about how Saint Nicholas helped those in need. One of the most famous tells the story of a rich man who fell into poverty and couldn’t provide a dowry for his daughters. To save the man from selling his daughters, Nicholas stepped in. One night, he hopped onto the roof and quietly dropped money down the chimney, and it landed in – you guessed it – a stocking.
He became bishop here in the fourth century and the stories of a generous man spread across Europe. Poems were written, cartoons were drawn and Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus. You can visit the church in Demre today, known as the burial place of Saint Nicholas himself. His bones were stolen in 1097 and taken to Italy, but you can still see some well-preserved frescoes depicting his good deeds.
2. There are 82,000 mosques in Turkey…
… and Istanbul is home to 3,000 mosques alone. The largest mosque in Turkey is the Grand Çamlıca Mosque, an elaborate Ottoman-style house of worship sitting on the top of an Istanbul hill, overlooking the Bosphorus Strait. It opened in 2019 and also includes an art gallery, library and conference hall.
Istanbul offers some of the most famous imperial mosques of the Ottoman era, but there are historic mosques across the country. It’s worth heading to some of the more out-of-the-way locations, such as Selimiye Mosque in Edirne and Mahmud Bey Mosque in Kastamonu. Divriği Grand Mosque & Darüşşifası, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is widely recognised as one of the most beautiful complexes in the world. Interested in finding out more? Here are some of the most beautiful mosques in Turkey.
Around 99% of the Turkish population is Muslim.
3. Turkey was one of the world’s first wine-producing areas
Legend has it that when Noah’s ark grounded on Mount Ararat in Turkey, he planted the first vines. There may not be any evidence for Noah’s winemaking skills, but there is plenty proving Turkey has been producing wine for over 7,000 years.
Turkey became one of the most prominent wine exporters in the early 14th century during the Ottoman Empire. That changed after World War I, which brought massive political instability and upturned the wine industry.
Not many people associate Turkey with wine, but vineyards are actually a very common sight if you’re driving around rural parts. There are around 600 indigenous varieties of grapes in Turkey, covering 502,000 squared hectares (5020 squared kilometres). To put that into context, that’s around 10 % more than the United States. Most of those vineyards produce table grapes, but the tables are changing.
4. Istanbul is the only city in the world spanning two continents
The Bosphorus River divides Istanbul into two parts. On the west bank, Istanbul sits on the European continent, neighbouring Greece and Bulgaria. On the east bank, it sits in Asia, neighbouring Syria, Iran and Iraq beyond the Turkish borders. Only 3 % of Turkey is in Europe, the majority of it is technically on the Asian continent. You can walk between the two banks by crossing the Galata Bridge.
Istanbul is a cultural and ethnic melting pot, fusing Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and modern Arabic influences. Take a look at how to spend 48 hours in this beautiful city.
5. It’s illegal to wear a Fez in Turkey
Hat laws go back a long way in Turkey. Back in 1829, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mahumad II banned traditional turbans in an attempt to westernise his subjects. In its place, he decreed that everyone must wear the fez. After some getting used to it, people took to the Fez. That was, until 1925, when Kemal Ataturk introduced a new Hat Law, banning the fez. It became a symbol of rebellion against modernisation and wearing one was punishable, in some cases by death.
You’re unlikely to be arrested for wearing one today but since the law has never been officially overturned, you never know!
6. Without Turkey, Holland’s tulips would be… nothing
Lots of people associate Holland with tulips but they’re actually native to Central Asia and Turkey. They first travelled from Turkey to Holland in the 16th century and they quickly became popular. High demand and popularity resulted in a ‘tulipmania’, one of the most famous market bubbles and crashes of all time. Speculation drove the value of tulip bulbs to extremes. At its height, the most prized bulbs were as expensive as a house.
Turkey had its ‘tulipmania’ between 1718 and 1730. The then Sultan Ahmen III, known as the Tulip King, was obsessed with them. He would organize tulip parties for every night of the tulip season. Tortoises would carry candle holders to illuminate the tulip gardens. In April, there’s still a week-long festival throughout Turkey honouring the national flower.
The botanical name for tulips derives from the Turkish word ‘tulbend’ or ‘turban’, which the flower resembles.
7. Turkey is the home of the hazelnut
The last of our interesting facts about Turkey may surprise you. It’s the world’s largest producer of hazelnuts, accounting for 75% of global production. About 60% comes from the Eastern Black Sea Region, with the remaining 15 % produced in the Central Region. It is estimated that more than 4 million people in Turkey depend directly on the marketing, production, and processing of hazelnuts. Nuts are commonly used in Turkish cooking, particularly in desserts such as baklava.
It’s not just hazelnuts either. There are 65 provinces in Turkey producing pistachio nuts, the third-largest producer of chestnuts and the fourth-largest producer of walnuts. The Turkish government is now providing financial support to new farmers growing walnut orchards too. As a result, walnut production will rise by around 40 tons within the next ten years.