Demographics of Turkey

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Modern Turkey spans bustling cosmopolitan centres, pastoral farming villages, barren wastelands, peaceful Aegean and Mediterannean coastlines, and steep mountain regions. More than half of Turkey's population lives in urban areas that juxtapose typically Western lifestyles with mosques and markets.

Turkey has been officially secular since 1924, although 99% of the population is at least nominally Muslim, a few people insist on being labeled as atheists, a peculiarity unknown in most other Muslim countries where this is at least socially unacceptable, and often a legal offence and a one-way ticket to jail for apostasy.

Most Turkish Muslims belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, but probably more than 25% are Alevi Muslims, of whom most are ethnic Kurds, and an unknown percentage Shi'a Muslims, mostly in the region along the Armenian-Azerbaijan (Nakhichevan)-Iranian borders.

The appeal of political Islam and the Kurdish insurgency continue to fuel public debate on several aspects of Turkish society, including the role of religion, the necessity for human rights protections, and the expectation of security.

Some facts

Demographics of Turkey, Data of FAO, year 2005 ; Number of inhabitants in thousands.

Population: 69,660,559 (July 2005 est.)

Age structure:
0-14 years: 26% (male 9,232,439; female 8,897,135)
15-64 years: 67.3% (male 23,806,367; female 23,053,536)
65 years and over: 6.7% (male 2,140,242; female 2,530,840) (2005 est.)

Population growth rate: 1.09% (2005 est.)

Birth rate: 16.83 births/1,000 population (2005 est.)

Death rate: 5.96 deaths/1,000 population (2005 est.)

Net migration rate: 0 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2005 est.)

Sex ratio:
at birth: 1.05 male(s)/female
under 15 years: 1.04 male(s)/female
15-64 years: 1.03 male(s)/female
65 years and over: 0.85 male(s)/female
total population: 1.02 male(s)/female (2005 est.)

Infant mortality rate: 41.04 deaths/1,000 live births (2005 est.)

Life expectancy at birth:
total population: 72.36 years
male: 69.94 years
female: 74.91 years (2005 est.)

Total fertility rate: 1.94 children born/woman (2005 est.)

noun: Turk(s)
adjective: Turkish

Ethnic groups: Turkish 75-92%, Kurdish 7-25%
The Minority Rights Group report of 1985 (by Martin Short and Anthony McDermott) gave an estimate of 19% Kurds in the population of Turkey in 1980, i.e 8,455,000 out of 44,500,000, with the preceding comment 'Nothing, apart from the actual 'borders' of Kurdistan, generates as much heat in the Kurdish question as the estimate of the Kurdish population. Kurdish nationalists are tempted to exaggerate it, and governments of the region to minimize it. In Turkey only those Kurds who do not speak Turkish are officially counted for census purposes as Kurds, yielding a very low figure.'. In Turkey: A Country Study, a 1995 on line publication of the U.S. Library of Congress, there is a whole chapter about Kurds in Turkey where it is stated that 'Turkey's censuses do not list Kurds as a separate ethnic group. Consequently, there are no reliable data on their total numbers. In 1995 estimates of the number of Kurds in Turkey ranged from 6 million to 12 million.' out of 61.2 million, which means from 10 to 20%. And higher percentage (between 20 and 25%) can be found elsewhere in various sources. Kurdish national identity is far from being limited to kurmanji language, as many Kurds whose parents migrated towards Istanbul or other big non Kurdish cities mostly speak Turkish, which is one of the languages used by the Kurdish nationalist publications.

Religions: Muslim 99% (3/4 Sunni, 1/4 Alevi), the rest are either Christians, Jews or atheists.

Languages: Turkish (official), Kurdish (and related languages like Zaza), Arabic, Armenian (and its Hamshin dialects, mostly spoken by hundreds of thousands of Muslims with Armenian origins, converted in the XVII and XVIIIth centuries), Georgian (and its dialects, Laz and Ajar), Greek and Pontic Greek, Serbo-Croat and several others. The 1965 census determined that 7.1% of the population has used the Kurdish as the primary language and the knowledge of the language has been stated by the 12.7% of the population in total.

definition: age 15 and over can read and write
total population: 86.5%
male: 94.3%
female: 78.7% (2003 est.)

Ethnicity in Turkey

The question of ethnicity in modern Turkey is a highly debated and difficult issue. Figures published in several different sources prove this difficulty by varying greatly.

The Oğuz people, which once constituted the majority of the reigning fraction of Turkic people in Anatolia, gained political and military dominance in the region but remained for centuries demographically speaking only a tiny part of the population. Anatolia, which was formerly a part of the Byzantine Empire, was (and still is) especially an ethnically very mixed region where the official religion was Greek Orthodox, with many adherents of other Christian churches or "deviant" Christian or syncretist movements, as well as Jews. It is, therefore, absurd to speak about a "pure Turkish race", even more in the tangled ethnic mix of Anatolia. Race as a genetic-based social category is in nay case a concept of the XIXth century, no longer accepted by social scientists.

As a matter of fact, most present-day Turks are the offspring of all sorts of populations whose original languages have sometimes been extinct several centuries ago. While perhaps less than one-third of those who self-identify as ethnic Turks in Turkey today are predominantly of Altaic origin, the remainder are actually an amalgamation of Turkified Greeks, Armenians, Roma, Georgians, Kurds, Slavs, Assyrians and other peoples. Islam spread slowly over many generations either through voluntary or forced conversions; many poor families chose to become Muslims in order to escape a special tax levied on conquered millet peoples or for reasons of upward mobility. Another common motivation was to escape the devşirme system for recruiting Janissaries to the Ottoman forces, and the similar institution of using dhimmi children to serve as odalisques or köçeks in the Ottoman harems or as tellaks in the hammams. Conversion to Islam was usually accompanied by the adoption of Ottoman-Turkish language and identity and eventual acceptance into the mainstream population, because conversion was generally irreversible and resulted in ostracism from the original ethnic group.

An exception is the the Hamshenis, Armenian Christians converted to Islam in the XVIth and XVIIth centuries, still keep some Christian traditions and retain the use of two distinct Armenian dialects but reject Armenian ethnic or national identity whereas their Laz neighbours name them "Ermeni", the Turkish term for Armenians. There are also some Pontic Greek-speaking Muslims.

Among the Black Sea Turkish intellectuals there have been in the last few years a revival of interest for the forgotten ethnic and religious identities of many ancesters who feared to pass on any non-Turkish or non-Muslim traditions to their children from fear of a rehearsal of past massacres and genocides. The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Black Sea website based on the research by Özhan Öztürk, but also the books of Ömer Asan and Selma Koçiva (see also her site at only in Turkish and Laz languages) are good illustrations ot this trend, unthinkable 5 years ago and still under attack of (right- and left-wing) Turkish nationalists who label it as pure "national treason" and "betrayal of Atatürk's heritage".

There have also been through the XIXth and XXth centuries, and still nowadays, rumors of the existence, mostly in rural and small town areas, of large populations of Crypto-Christians and Crypto-Jews, notably among the Dönme, descendents of Sabbatai Zevi's followers who had to convert en masse following Zevi's example.

People walking in a Turkish street or watching a Turkish movie can see Turks of about all physical types prevalent in the world, from the blond haired and-blue-eyed to the slant-eyed mongoloid individuals or the black-haired Mediterranean-looking ones, and even people with some Black African roots, from the times when the Ottoman Empire stretched till Somalia, including Sudan.

Throughout its history, the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish republic welcomed altogether hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of

  • Spanish and Portuguese Jews after 1492;
  • political and confessional refugees from Central Europe: Russian schismatics in XVII-XVIIIth centuries, Polish and Hungarian revolutionaries after 1848, Jews escaping the pogroms and later the Shoah, White Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Russian and other socialist or communist revolutionaries, Trotskyists fleeing the USSR in the 1930's;
  • Muslim refugees (Muhajir) from formerly Muslim-dominated regions invaded by Christian States, like Tatars, Circassians and Chechens from the Russian Empire, Algerian followers of Abd-el-Kader, Mahdists from Sudan, Turkmens, Kazakhs, Kirghizs and other Central Asian Turkic-speaking peoples fleeing the USSR and later the war-torn Afghanistan, Balkan Muslims, either Turkish-speaking or Bosniaks, Pomaks, Albanians, Greek Muslims etc., fleeing either the new Christian states or later the Communist regimes, in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria for instance.

Proving the difficulty of classifying ethnicities living in Turkey, there are as many classifications as the number of scientific attempts to make these classifications. Turkey is not a unique example for that and many European countries (e.g. France, Germany) bear a great ethnic diversity. So, the immense diversity observed in the published figures for the percentages of Turkish people living in Turkey (ranging from 75 to 97%) totally depends on the method used to classify the ethnicities. Complicating the matter even more is the fact that the last official and country-wide classification of spoken languages (which do not exactly coincide with ethnic groups) in Turkey was performed in 1965 and many of the figures published after that time are very loose estimates.

It is necessary to take into account all these difficulties and be cautious while evaluating the ethnic groups. A possible list of ethnic groups living in Turkey could be as follows (based on the classification of P.A. Andrews (1), however this book is more like a review and depends on other people's publications):

  1. Turkic-speaking peoples: Kirghizs, Karakalpaks, Turkmens, Kazakhs, Kumyks, Yürüks, Uzbeks, Tatars, Azeris, Balkars, Uighurs, Karachays.
  2. Kurds and Zazas
  3. Arabs and Assyrians
  4. Georgians and Laz
  5. Armenians and Hamshenis
  6. Greeks, Pontic Greeks and Greek-speaking Muslims
  7. Other Muslim groups originally from the Balkans (Bulgarians, Albanians, Serbians, Croatians, Romanians and Bosniaks): These people migrated to Anatolia during the Ottoman Era and have been assumed to accept Turkish-Muslim identity.
  8. Circassians and Chechens
  9. Others: There are small groups and individuals from all over the world living in Turkey, either remnants of past migrations (there is for instance a village near the Bosphorus named Adampol in Polish, Polonezköy, "the Polish village", in Turkish) or witnesses of contemporary mass migrations towards the European Union and its periphery (there are also illegal migrants camps with thousands of Africans and others intercepted while trying to embark, or swimming from the wreckage of overpopulated small boats, for the Greek or Italian shores).

Current trends in situation of minorities

Modern Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal as secular (Laiklik, Turkish adaptation of French Laïcité), i.e. without a state religion, nor discrimination of minorities.

The concept of "minorities" has only been accepted by the Republic of Turkey as defined by the Treaty of Lausanne of 1924 and thence strictly limited to Greeks, Jews and Armenians, only on religious matters, excluding from the scope of the concept the ethnic identities of these minorities as of others, including Christian Assyrians of various denominations, Alevis and all the others. In this matter, Turkish governments of all political creeds acted just like their Greek counterparts who have always refused to recognize any other minority than the Muslims, as defined by the same treaty of 1924, thus not allowing any manifestation of Turkish or Pomak identity, nor for Macedonians, Albanians or Vlachs.

There are many reports from sources like (Human Rights Watch, European Parliament, European Commission, national parliaments in EU member states, Amnesty International etc.) on persistent yet declining discriminations.

Certain current trends are:

  • The religious affiliation is compulsory on the ID cards (as in Greece till few years ago), the Muslim religion is a compulsory item in state-owned schools (as in Greece for the Greek Orthodox religion);
  • Turkish imams get salaries from the state (like Greek Orthodox clerics in Greece), whereas Turkish Alevi as well as non-Orthodox and non-Armenian clerics are not paid at all;
  • Imams can be trained freely at the numerous religious schools and theology departments of universities throughout the country; minority religions can not re-open schools for training of their local clerics due to legislation and international treaties dating back to the end of Turkish War of Independence;
  • The Turkish state sends out paid imams, working under authority from the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı) to various European or Asian countries with Turkish- or Turkic-speaking populations, with as local heads officials from the Turkish consulates;
  • The genocide or genocides of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians during the 1892, 1909 and 1915-1923 periods and after is still a highly sensitive matter in Turkey whereas the rest of the world recognizes at least the genocidal characterisation of the Armenian "deportations".
  • Turkey has recently recognised, under the pressure of the European Union, a series of languages such as Kurdish (Kurmanji), Arabic and Zaza (a Kurdish-related language) as a minority languages together with several other smaller ethnic group languages. A few private schools teaching Kurdish have recently been allowed to open whereas ten years ago, merely talking in Kurdish in the street, and even more recently playing Kurdish music in a bus could lead someone to the court, and even to jail; Kurdish language TV broadcasts a few hours a week on government-owned stations while the private national channels show no interest as there is already a satellite Kurdish TV operating from Western Europe and broadcasting in Kurdish, Turkish and Assyrian (Western Neo-Aramaic) languages, Med TV;
  • Non-Muslim minority numbers are said to be falling rapidly, mainly as a result of aging, migration (to Israel, Greece, the United States and Western Europe) and an overall Islamic influence on society fueled by bordering countries such as Iran.
  • Many Assyrian Christians fled the Eastern (predominantly Kurdish-populated) provinces int he 1970s and 1980s and became refugees in Sweden (where on of them became minister in 2005), the Netherlands, Belgium and France because they were taken between two fires, Kurdish insurgents of the PKK and the Turkish army, backed by "village militias", all of whom committed atrocities. Some Assyrians have recently tried to come back to their ancient villages, undergoing resistance from "village militiamen" who had been rewarded for their deeds by being allowed to occupy houses and acquire goods from the absentee populations.

See also


  1. UE Commission, 'Issues arising from Turkey's EU membership', 2004,, 2004.
  2. UE Commission, 'Recommendation of the European Commission on Turkey's progress towards ascession', 2004,
  3. AI report on Turkey, 2003,
  4. Human Rights Watch overview, 2003,
  5. Human Rights Watch Bachgrounder,
  6. Andrews, Peter A. Ethnic groups in the Republic of Turkey., Beiheft Nr. B 60, Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients, Wiesbaden: Reichert Publications, 1989, ISBN 3895002976 ; + 2nd enlarged edition in 2 vols., 2002, ISBN 3895002291

es:Demografía de Turquía fr:Démographie de la Turquie