Turkish literature

By category
Epic tradition Orhon
Dede Korkut · Köroğlu
Folk tradition Folk literature
Ottoman era Poetry · Prose
Republican era Poetry · Prose

Turkish literature (Turkish: Türk edebiyatı or Türk yazını) comprises both oral compositions and written texts in the Turkish language, either in its Ottoman form or in less exclusively literary forms, such as that spoken in the Republic of Turkey today. The Ottoman Turkish language, which forms the basis of much of the written corpus, was influenced by Persian and Arabic and used a variant of the Perso-Arabic script.

The history of Turkic literature spans a period of nearly 1,500 years. The oldest extant records of written Turkic are the Orhon inscriptions, found in the Orhon River valley in central Mongolia and dating to the 8th century. Subsequent to this period, between the 9th and 11th centuries, there arose among the nomadic Turkic peoples of Central Asia a tradition of oral epics, such as the Book of Dede Korkut of the Oghuz Turks—the linguistic and cultural ancestors of the modern Turkish people—and the Manas epic of the Kyrgyz people.

Beginning with the victory of the Seljuks at the Battle of Manzikert in the late 11th century, the Oghuz Turks began to settle in Anatolia, and in addition to the earlier oral traditions there arose a written literary tradition issuing largely—in terms of themes, genres, and styles—from Arabic and Persian literature. For the next 900 years, until shortly before the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, the oral and written traditions would remain largely separate from one another. With the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the two traditions came together for the first time.

The two traditions of Turkish literature

Throughout most of its history, Turkish literature has been rather sharply divided into two rather different traditions, neither of which exercised much influence upon the other until the 19th century. The first of these two traditions is Turkish folk literature, and the second is Turkish written literature.

For most of the history of Turkish literature, the salient difference between the folk and the written traditions has been the variety of language employed. The folk tradition, by and large, was oral and remained free of the influence of Persian and Arabic literature, and consequently of those literatures' respective languages. In folk poetry—which is by far the tradition's dominant genre—this basic fact led to two major consequences in terms of poetic style:

  • the poetic meters employed in the folk poetic tradition were different, being quantitative (i.e., syllabic) verse, as opposed to the qualitative verse employed in the written poetic tradition;
  • the basic structural unit of folk poetry became the quatrain (Turkish: dörtlük) rather than the couplets (Turkish: beyit) more commonly employed in written poetry.

Furthermore, Turkish folk poetry has always had an intimate connection with song—most of the poetry was, in fact, expressly composed so as to be sung—and so became to a great extent inseparable from the tradition of Turkish folk music.

In contrast to the tradition of Turkish folk literature, Turkish written literature—prior to the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923—tended to embrace the influence of Persian and Arabic literature. To some extent, this can be seen as far back as the Seljuk period in the late 11th to early 14th centuries, where official business was conducted in the Persian language, rather than in Turkish, and where a court poet such as Dehhanî—who served under the 13th century sultan Ala ad-Din Kay Qubadh I—wrote in a language highly inflected with Persian.

When the Ottoman Empire arose early in the 14th century, in northwestern Anatolia, it continued this tradition. The standard poetic forms—for poetry was as much the dominant genre in the written tradition as in the folk tradition—were derived either directly from the Persian literary tradition (the gazel غزل; the mesnevî مسنوى), or indirectly through Persian from the Arabic (the kasîde قصيده). However, the decision to adopt these poetic forms wholesale led to two important further consequences:[1]

  • the poetic meters (Turkish: aruz) of Persian poetry were adopted;
  • Persian- and Arabic-based words were brought into the Turkish language in great numbers, as Turkish words rarely worked well within the system of Persian poetic meter.

Out of this confluence of choices, the Ottoman Turkish language—which was always highly distinct from standard Turkish—was effectively born. This style of writing under Persian and Arabic influence came to be known as "Divan literature" (Turkish: divan edebiyatı), dîvân (ديوان) being the Ottoman Turkish word referring to the collected works of a poet.

Just as Turkish folk poetry was intimately bound up with Turkish folk music, so did Ottoman Divan poetry develop a strong connection with Turkish classical music, with the poems of the Divan poets often being taken up to serve as song lyrics.

Folk literature

Turkish folk literature is an oral tradition deeply rooted, in its form, in Central Asian nomadic traditions. However, in its themes, Turkish folk literature reflects the problems peculiar to a settling (or settled) people who have abandoned the nomadic lifestyle. One example of this is the series of folktales surrounding the figure of Keloğlan, a young boy beset with the difficulties of finding a wife, helping his mother to keep the family house intact, and dealing with the problems caused by his neighbors. Another example is the rather mysterious figure of Nasreddin, a trickster who often plays jokes, of a sort, on his neighbors.

Nasreddin also reflects another significant change that had occurred between the days when the Turkish people were nomadic and the days when they had largely become settled in Anatolia; namely, Nasreddin is a Muslim imam. The Turkic peoples had first become an Islamic people sometime around the 9th or 10th century, as is evidenced from the clear Islamic influence on the 11th century Karakhanid work the Kutadgu Bilig ("Wisdom of Royal Glory"), written by Yusuf Has Hajib. The religion henceforth came to exercise an enormous influence on Turkish society and literature, particularly the heavily mystically oriented Sufi and Shi'a varieties of Islam. The Sufi influence, for instance, can be seen clearly not only in the tales concerning Nasreddin but also in the works of Yunus Emre, a towering figure in Turkish literature and a poet who lived at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th century, probably in the Karamanid state in south-central Anatolia. The Shi'a influence, on the other hand, can be seen extensively in the tradition of the aşıks, or ozans,[2] who are roughly akin to medieval European minstrels and who traditionally have had a strong connection with the Alevi faith, which can be seen as something of a homegrown Turkish variety of Shi'a Islam. It is, however, important to note that in Turkish culture, such a neat division into Sufi and Shi'a is scarcely possible: for instance, Yunus Emre is considered by some to have been an Alevi, while the entire Turkish aşık/ozan tradition is permeated with the thought of the Bektashi Sufi order, which is itself a blending of Shi'a and Sufi concepts. The word aşık (literally, "lover") is in fact the term used for first-level members of the Bektashi order.

Because the Turkish folk literature tradition extends in a more or less unbroken line from about the 10th or 11th century to today, it is perhaps best to consider the tradition from the perspective of genre. There are three basic genres in the tradition: epic; folk poetry; and folklore.

The epic tradition

The Turkish epic has its roots in the Central Asian epic tradition that gave rise to the Book of Dede Korkut; written in Azeri - and recognizably similar to modern Turkish - the form developed from the oral traditions of the Oghuz Turks (a branch of the Turkic peoples which migrated towards western Asia and eastern Europe through Transoxiana, beginning in the 9th century). The Book of Dede Korkut endured in the oral tradition of the Oghuz Turks after settling in Anatolia.

The Book of Dede Korkut was the primary element of the Azerbaijani-Turkish epic tradition in the Caucasus and Anatolia for several centuries[when?]. Concurrent to the Book of Dede Korkut was the so-called Epic of Köroğlu, which concerns the adventures of Rüşen Ali ("Köroğlu", or "son of the blind man") as he exacted revenge for the blinding of his father. The origins of this epic are somewhat more mysterious than those of the Book of Dede Korkut: many believe it to have arisen in Anatolia sometime between the 15th and 17th centuries; more reliable testimony,[3] though, seems to indicate that the story is nearly as old as that of the Book of Dede Korkut, dating from around the dawn of the 11th century. Complicating matters somewhat is the fact that Köroğlu is also the name of a poet of the aşık/ozan tradition.

The epic tradition in modern Turkish literature may be seen in the Epic of Shaykh Bedreddin (Şeyh Bedreddin Destanı), published in 1936 by the poet Nâzım Hikmet Ran (1901–1963). This long poem — which concerns an Anatolian shaykh's rebellion against the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed I — is a modern epic, yet draws upon the same independent-minded traditions of the Anatolian people as depicted in the Epic of Köroğlu. Many of the works of the 20th-century novelist Yaşar Kemal (1923– ), such as the 1955 novel Memed, My Hawk (İnce Memed), can be considered modern prose epics.