DNA-based tests shake Turks’ beliefs in their “Turkishness”

Popular DNA tests are troubling Turks and shaking belief in their “Turkishness” as they find that, instead of being direct descendants of the Seljuk and Ottoman hordes who surged into Anatolia from Central Asia a millennium ago, they are instead part of the kaleidoscope of peoples who have lived in what is now modern Turkey and migrated there since time began.

Identity has been a major issue in Turkey since the republic was established in 1923 from the ashes of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-lingual Ottoman Empire as the new nationalist rulers attempted to stamp a single Turkish identity on the country. Until 2008, denigrating Turkishness was punishable by up to two years in prison. The law has now been changed to replace the word Turkishness with “the Turkish nation”.

Issues such as what had happened to the survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide and the presence of thousands of Greeks and Jews, but also millions of Kurdish citizens of the new republic were swept aside in often heavy-handed attempts to assimilate minorities or pressure them to leave the country altogether.

Home DNA based testing kits are banned in Turkey, but many Turks abroad have used them, sending a small sample to a lab and receiving a report on their ethnic roots and sometimes matches with distant relatives around the world who have also taken the test. 

Gül Çelik, a designer, said she had taken the test 10 years ago, but the company she used had been continuously updated information on her genetic links as more people had taken the test. Çelik said the tests showed she had Mongolian, Italian, Jewish, Greek, and Armenian ancestors. 

She said her family, from the northeastern province of Bayburt, had refused to believe that they had had Armenian, Italian and Greek links. “I told them the test was scientific, but they did not even want to listen,” she said. 

But before the genocide, in which more than a million Armenians were killed or died of starvation in forced marches into the Syrian desert, there was a relatively large Armenian population around Bayburt, in what was then the Ottoman province of Erzurum. 

Historians say that as the mass killings and deportations gathered pace, many young Armenian women were taken by local Turks and Kurds, or handed over by their families in order to save their lives, and that they then changed their religion and hid their roots.

“Before this test, we believed that Bayburt had only Turks. But people get married, they change religions voluntarily, or by force, they mix. Maybe my grandmother knew about it, but did not want to say because of social pressure,” Çelik said. 

The reaction of Çelik’s family is similar to many. A 2012 book by Fethiye Çetin, a lawyer, tells the story of how she discovered her grandmother’s hidden identity and sparked a big debate about the Islamisation of non-Muslims. Another book named “The Grandchildren”, which Çetin wrote with academic Ayşe Gül Altınay, provides a collection of intimate, harrowing testimonies by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of what are known as the forgotten Armenians.

But unlike her relatives, Çelik welcomed her DNA results. “In foreign countries I saw that Jews, Armenians and Assyrians who were born and raised in Turkey culturally are not much different from the Turks. In fact they are similar. Therefore I was happy with my DNA results as I am not a discriminative person,” she said. 

Çelik also got in touch with one of her distant Italian cousins thanks to the test. 

“He told the story of our Italian ancestors from the 1600s. According to him, some 100 people were brought to the Ottoman territories as slaves and so one of those 100 people was our ancestor,” she said.

Çelik said her husband’s test results were equally surprising. “Test results showed that my husband is Jewish and from the Cohen lineage. He had never heard such a thing from his family before. He has no Jewish relatives. He was raised as a Muslim,” she said. 

The history of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey are reflected in the complex ancestry shared by present-day Turks. As the empire collapsed, there were huge flows of Muslim refugees from the Balkans and the Caucasus, then after the republic was founded in 1923, Greece and Turkey carried out a population exchange, swapping the around a million Orthodox Christians of Anatolia for hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Turks living in Greece.

One woman working as a mathematics professor in the United States said her family was from Turkey’s Black Sea region. The woman, who declined to be named, said her DNA test turned up a distant cousin in Ecuador. “I later checked and learned his father was from Moscow. I knew that my father’s cousin had migrated to Moscow. There he got married to a Russian and with their children they later moved to Ecuador,” she said. 

The mathematician said the test said she was 20-percent Greek and 20-percent Armenian. “We are society of descendants of a large empire,” she said. 

A report in the journal Annals of Human Genetics in 2012 indicated the paternal ancestry of those living in Turkey was 38 percent European, 35 percent Middle Eastern, 18 percent South Asian and only 9 percent Central Asian. But DNA tests sometimes throw up even more surprising results. 

Aslı Muzde took the test in an attempt to learn whether she was genetically predisposed to getting cancer. 

“But about ethnicity, I learned that I was 73 percent Central Asian. But the other distributions surprised me. Because I learned I had Italian and Greek blood, but what struck me most was learning that I have between 1 to 2 percent Native American blood,” she said. 

Muzde’s family also reacted negatively to the test results, but her mother showed some interest after she learned the test followed the maternal line. 

“I became acquainted to my third-degree cousin,” Muzde said about the sudden discovery of a relative living in Germany. “My guess is when my great grandfather came from Greece, they came as three siblings, but lost one. This cousin is the grandchild of this lost sibling,” she said. 

“I became more interested about the problems of Native Americans,” Muzde said. “You see that you are only arm’s length away from all the races. The blood running in our veins is connected to each other, therefore there is no such thing as us and them.”