With continent spanning borders and a history straddling cultural boundaries, Turkey is a transcontinental nation. Is Turkey in Europe or Asia? Here’s everything you need to know.

‘Turkey is a European country, an Asian country, a Middle Eastern country, a Balkan country, a Caucasian country, a neighbour to Africa, Black Sea country, Caspian Sea, all these.’

Ahmet Davutoglu, former Prime Minister of Turkey.

If you’ve been watching 2024’s UEFA European Football Championships (The Euros), you may have questioned the involvement of Turkey in the competition. Geographically, as much as 97% of Turkey is physically located in Asia, and yet, the transcontinental nation aspires to join the European Union, is a founding member of the Council of Europe and in the past, even competed in Eurovision, that most hallowed of European cultural events.

Turkey’s unique geographical position at the crossroads of Europe and Asia has long sparked debates and curiosity. Straddling both continents, Turkey presents a blend of cultures, histories and geopolitical abnormalities that makes it challenging to categorise the country strictly as either European or Asian. The majority of Turkey’s landmass lies in Asia, on the Anatolian Peninsula, while a smaller, yet historically and strategically significant portion, known as East Thrace, is situated in southeastern Europe. The division between these two regions is marked by the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, the only city in the world that spans two continents.

Throughout history, Turkey has played a pivotal role as a bridge between East and West, influencing and being influenced by both European and Asian civilizations. From its roots in the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, which controlled extensive territories in Europe, to its modern-day aspirations and affiliations with European political and economic organisations, Turkey embodies a complex duality. As former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu once said, ‘Turkey is a European country, an Asian country, a Middle Eastern country, a Balkan country, a Caucasian country, a neighbour to Africa, Black Sea country, Caspian Sea, all these.’

This article explores the geographical, historical, cultural, and political factors that contribute to Turkey’s identity and examines whether it aligns more closely with Europe or Asia. Is Turkey in Europe or Asia? Here’s everything you need to know.

Is Turkey in Europe or Asia?

Turkey is a transcontinental country, straddling both Europe and Asia. The majority of its landmass (specifically the Anatolian Peninsula), approximately 97%, is situated in Asia, where around 85% of the population resides. The remaining portion, about 3%, lies in Europe, mainly in the region known as East Thrace, where 15% of the population lives. Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, uniquely spans both continents, divided by the Bosporus Strait. This strategic positioning has historically made Turkey a significant bridge between cultures and civilizations from both continents.

Bettany Hughes, a pre-eminent historian who’s written extensively on Turkish history, said how: “Almost everything I have read about Istanbul talks about it as the gateway to the east. We’re so programmed to think of it like that but for much of the world, it’s the gateway to the west, or even where north meets south.”

To me, her words explain why many in wider Europe are often reticent to consider Turkey as ‘European’. We think in western terms, seeing Turkey not as the entrance to Europe but as Hughes puts, the “gateway to the east”, when in fact, Turkey has historically had as much influence on the European side of its borders – in the Balkans, the Mediterranean and along the Black Sea – as it does in the Caucasus or Middle East. Turkish culture blends elements of both continents, be it in the cuisine or religion, and yet all too often, the European side of the country is overlooked, or perhaps overawed, in favour of its Asian side.

To Europeans from the west or north of the continent, Turkey often appears more Asian in character than it does European. That sense of being both within Europe and without is reflected in the opinions of Turks themselves, many of whom don’t believe that the continent sees them as European. In 2022, for example, Statista reported that as many as 63% of Turks didn’t believe the European Union would allow them membership, even if they met all of the requirements for entry.

The country’s unique transcontinental location has created a duality of worlds, however, and in many ways, Turkey is privileged in the way it can pick and choose which elements or Europe or Asia it wants to embrace. The football team are proud to play in the Euros, for example, Turkey aspires to join the European Union, and yet geopolitically, it’s a huge player in the Middle East, as we’ve seen across its southern borders in Iraq and Syria.

Ultimately, Turkey is a nation that lies within both Europe and Asia. Let’s take a look at both sides of the transcontinental arguments, to see why.

The Bosporus marks the divide between Europe and Asia.

Read more: How Many Countries Are in Europe? Everything You Need to Know.

Geographical perspective

Geographically, Turkey is a transcontinental country. The larger part, about 97% of its territory, is in Asia, in the region known as Anatolia or Asia Minor. The remaining 3% of its land, which includes part of Istanbul, is in southeastern Europe, in a region called East Thrace. The Bosporus Strait in Istanbul is the physical boundary dividing the two continents​.

Historical and cultural perspectives

From a historical and cultural standpoint, Turkey has deep-rooted connections to both Europe and Asia. The city of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, a significant European power. Later, as the centre of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey exerted considerable influence over southeastern Europe, leaving a lasting legacy on the region’s demographics and culture​​. The Ottoman Empire’s historical reach into Europe reinforces Turkey’s European ties.

Political and economic perspectives

Politically, Turkey has sought closer integration with Europe, exemplified by its long-standing ambition to join the European Union. Turkey is a member of various European institutions, including the Council of Europe and NATO, highlighting its strategic and political alignment with European norms and values​.

Cultural and identity perspectives

Culturally, Turkey exhibits a blend of influences from both continents. While the majority of its population practices Islam, a significant portion of its societal structures, legal systems, and cultural norms align with European traditions. This duality is reflected in the everyday lives and identity of Turkish people, who may consider themselves part of both European and Asian heritage​.

Read more: How Many Countries in Southern Europe? Everything You Need to Know.

European vs. Asian Identity

The argument for Turkey being part of Asia is grounded in its geographical bulk and historical roots in Central Asia. The Turks originally migrated from the region around the Altai Mountains, which is in modern-day Mongolia, before settling in Anatolia​. On the other hand, those arguing for Turkey’s European identity point to its historical influence in Europe, its alignment with European political structures, and its cultural contributions to European civilization​​.

Turkish cuisine blends European and Asian influences, as seen here in this delightful mezze platter!

Read more: How Many Balkan Countries Are There? Everything You Need to Know.

Where does European Turkey end and Asian Turkey geographically begin?

European Turkey, also known as East Thrace, ends at the Bosporus Strait, which serves as the natural boundary between the European and Asian parts of Turkey. The Bosporus, a narrow, natural strait, connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and runs through the city of Istanbul, effectively dividing it into a European and an Asian side. The city of Istanbul is therefore a prominent landmark signifying where European Turkey ends and Asian Turkey begins.

In addition to the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles Strait also form part of the boundary between the two continents. The Dardanelles, located to the southwest of the Sea of Marmara, connects it to the Aegean Sea, further delineating the boundary between European and Asian Turkey. This geographical division underscores Turkey’s unique position as a transcontinental nation.

The Princes’ Islands, off the coast of Istanbul, are located in the Sea of Marmara.

Read more: How Many Countries in the Mediterranean? Everything You Need to Know.

Was the Ottoman Empire in Europe, Asia or both?

The Ottoman Empire, which lasted from 1299 to 1922, was a transcontinental empire with territories spanning both Europe and Asia, as well as parts of Africa. Its geographical reach and historical influence make it difficult to categorise strictly as either a European or Asian empire.

The Ottoman Empire may have collapsed over a century ago, but tracing its boundaries and spheres of influence can help us to better understand the modern character of Turkey, the empire’s successor state. Here’s a brief overview.

European influence and territories

  • Expansion into Europe: The Ottomans expanded significantly into southeastern Europe, controlling vast territories including present-day Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and parts of the Balkans. The empire’s reach into Europe was solidified with the conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453.
  • Cultural and Political Influence: The Ottoman Empire had profound cultural and political interactions with European states. It was a key player in European geopolitics, often involved in alliances, wars, and diplomacy with European powers.
  • European Administration and Laws: The empire adopted many aspects of European administration and law, especially during the Tanzimat reforms in the 19th century, which aimed to modernise the empire and bring it closer to European norms.

Read more: 15 Ancient Ruins You Can Visit in Turkey

Asian influence and territories

  • Origins and Heartland: The origins of the Ottoman Empire lie in the region of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), which is geographically part of Asia. The early Ottoman state was initially centred in this region.
  • Territories in Asia: The empire controlled significant territories in Asia, including the Middle East (modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan), the Arabian Peninsula, and large parts of North Africa.
  • Cultural Ties: The Ottomans were culturally influenced by their Asian and Islamic heritage, which was reflected in their language, religion (Islam), and many aspects of their culture and governance.

The Ottoman Empire was both a European and an Asian empire due to its extensive territories and influences across both continents. Its dual continental nature allowed it to serve as a bridge between East and West, influencing and being influenced by both European and Asian civilizations. The empire’s impact on global history is marked by its transcontinental reach and the cultural, political, and economic exchanges it facilitated between Europe and Asia.

A Turkish flag flies above the Bosporus.

Read more: How Many Countries Are in the Middle East? Everything You Need to Know.

Is Istanbul an Asian or European city?

‘On the meeting point of two worlds, the ornament of Turkish homeland, the treasure of Turkish history, the city cherished by the Turkish nation, İstanbul, has its place in the hearts of all citizens.’

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey.

To me, the above quote from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey, sums up the dichotomy of Istanbul perfectly. It is at once European and Asian, a place where two spheres of history and geography collide on the banks of the Bosporus. And for Turks, it’s an enduring symbol of their transcontinental identity, an identity that spans the gap between Europe and Asia. Istanbul is simultaneously in Europe and Asia, just as Turkey itself is.

The European side of Istanbul, often referred to as the historic and economic heart of the city, includes areas such as Sultanahmet, Taksim and Galata. This part of the city houses many of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks, including the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace. It is also home to the main business districts, significant cultural institutions, and many modern amenities. The European side is more densely populated than the Asia..

The Asian, or Anatolian side, includes areas such as Kadıköy and Üsküdar. This part of Istanbul is known for its residential neighbourhoods, green spaces, and a slightly more relaxed pace compared to the hectic European side. The Asian side tends to attract those looking for a quieter, more suburban lifestyle while still being connected to the European side of the city by Istanbul’s fleet of ferries and the transcontinental Marmaray metro line.

Galata Tower is an iconic landmark on the European side of Istanbul.

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Is Turkey in the European Union?

Turkey is not a member of the European Union (EU). Turkey has been a candidate country for EU membership since 1999, and it formally applied to join the EU in 1987. However, the accession process has been prolonged and complicated by various political, economic and human rights issues.

Turkey’s EU accession negotiations began in 2005, but progress has been slow and sporadic. The negotiations have faced numerous hurdles, including concerns over human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, and Turkey’s ongoing disputes with EU member states such as Cyprus​. As Euronews reported in 2023: “After a continued succession of ups and downs, promises and threats, it has become apparent that Turkey’s accession is a unique case of policy-making that Brussels has not quite learned how to manage.”

The EU has also expressed concerns about Turkey’s internal policies and the political climate, particularly under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The democratic backsliding, crackdowns on dissent, and issues surrounding the independence of the judiciary have further strained relations between Turkey and the EU​.

Despite these challenges, Turkey remains a significant partner for the EU, particularly in areas such as trade, security, and migration management. The EU and Turkey have established a Customs Union agreement, and Turkey is a vital player in managing migration flows into Europe, exemplified by the 2016 EU-Turkey refugee agreement​.

Ankara, the Turkish capital, often has strained relations with the European Union.

Read more: 14 Best Things to Do in Ankara, Turkey

Is Turkey in the Council of Europe?

The Council of Europe is an international organisation founded in 1949, aimed at promoting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Europe. It is distinct from the European Union and includes a broader membership, comprising 46 member states. The Council of Europe’s main bodies include the European Court of Human Rights, which enforces the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Committee of Ministers, which is its decision-making body.

Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe. It was one of the organisation’s founding members and joined in 1949. As a member, Turkey has committed itself to adhering to the principles and standards set by the Council, including those related to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.

Turkey actively participates in the Council’s activities and adheres to its conventions. However, its human rights record and adherence to the rule of law have been subjects of scrutiny and criticism within the Council’s monitoring mechanisms.

Ankara, in Asia, is the site of the Turkish capital.

Read more: How Many Countries in Asia? Everything You Need to Know.

Does Turkey enter the Eurovision Song Contest?

Turkey has participated in the Eurovision Song Contest. Turkey first entered the contest in 1975 and has participated 34 times in total. The country’s most notable success came in 2003, when Sertab Erener won the contest with the song ‘Everyway That I Can.’

However, Turkey has not participated in the Eurovision Song Contest since 2012. The Turkish national broadcaster TRT announced their withdrawal due to dissatisfaction with the contest’s voting system and the presence of the ‘Big Five‘ (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom) who automatically qualify for the final regardless of their results in previous contests. There have been discussions and occasional hints at a possible return, but as of now, Turkey remains absent from the competition.

Turkey spans both Europe and Asia.

Read more: 18 Historic Places to Visit in Istanbul

So, is Turkey in Europe or Asia?

So is Turkey in Europe or Asia? As you’ve seen, Turkey’s unique geographical position straddles both Europe and Asia, making it a transcontinental nation. The majority of Turkey’s landmass might lie in Asia, while a much smaller portion is in Europe, but historically and culturally, Turkey has deep ties with both continents.

Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, was the capital of the Byzantine Empire and later the Ottoman Empire, both of which had significant influence on European history. Modern Turkey continues to maintain strong political, economic, and cultural connections with Europe. It is a member of European organisations such as the Council of Europe and NATO and has been an EU candidate country since 1999, reflecting its long-standing ambition to integrate more fully with European institutions.

In conclusion, Turkey’s identity as a nation is intricately linked to both Europe and Asia. This dual heritage enriches its culture and underscores its strategic importance as a bridge between the two continents. While geographically more Asian, Turkey’s historical, cultural, and political connections with Europe make it a unique and integral part of both continents’ narratives.

FAQ: Is Turkey in Europe or Asia?

Here’s an FAQ on the topic, ‘Is Turkey in Europe or Asia?’:

Q1: Is Turkey geographically in Europe or Asia?

A1: Geographically, Turkey is a transcontinental country, with the majority of its landmass (approximately 97%) located in Asia, specifically the Anatolian Peninsula, and a smaller portion (about 3%) in Europe, known as East Thrace. The Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul serves as the dividing line between the two continents.

Q2: Which part of Turkey is in Europe?

A2: The part of Turkey that is in Europe is called East Thrace. This region includes cities such as Edirne and a portion of Istanbul. The Bosphorus Strait separates the European side from the Asian side.

Q3: What is the significance of Istanbul in the context of Turkey’s geographical position?

A3: Istanbul is uniquely positioned as a transcontinental city, straddling both Europe and Asia. It is divided by the Bosphorus Strait, with its historic and economic centre on the European side and extensive residential areas on the Asian side.

Q4: How does Turkey’s history connect it to Europe?

A4: Historically, Turkey has deep connections with Europe through the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, both of which had significant influence on European history. Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) was a major cultural and political centre during these empires.

Q5: Is Turkey a member of European organisations?

A5: Yes, Turkey is a member of several European organisations, including the Council of Europe and NATO. It has also been a candidate for European Union membership since 1999, although its accession process has been prolonged and complicated by various political and human rights issues.

Q6: What are the cultural influences on Turkey from Europe and Asia?

A6: Turkey exhibits a blend of European and Asian cultural influences. Its legal and political systems and many aspects of its daily life align with European traditions, while its language, customs, and significant parts of its population maintain strong ties to its Asian roots.

Q7: Does Turkey participate in European events like Eurovision?

A7: Turkey has participated in the Eurovision Song Contest, entering the competition for the first time in 1975. However, Turkey has not participated since 2012 due to dissatisfaction with the contest’s voting system and the automatic qualification of the ‘Big Five’ countries.

Q8: What are some arguments for Turkey being considered part of Europe?

A8: Arguments for Turkey being part of Europe include its historical connections through the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, its participation in European political and economic organisations, and its cultural contributions to European art and music.

Q9: What are some arguments for Turkey being considered part of Asia?

A9: Arguments for Turkey being part of Asia include the fact that the majority of its landmass is in Asia, its historical origins in Central Asia, and its cultural and linguistic ties to other Turkic nations in Asia.

Q10: What is Turkey’s official stance on its continental identity?

A10: Turkey embraces its transcontinental identity, acknowledging its role as a bridge between Europe and Asia. This unique position enriches its culture and strategic importance, allowing it to play a significant role in both European and Asian contexts.