Turkish literature is the collection of written and oral texts composed 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 heavily influenced by Persian and Arabic and used a variant of the Perso-Arabic script.
The history of Turkish 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 Dehhani—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 the mesnevi), or indirectly through Persian from the Arabic (the kasde). However, the decision to adopt these poetic forms wholesale led to two important further consequences.
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 edebiyati), divan 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.