Page last updated at 13:21 GMT, Monday, 29 September 2008 14:21 UK

Turkey's widening diplomatic horizons

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC diplomatic correspondent, Istanbul

Hydrapasha station
Hydarpasha station opened in 1908
Long before Turkey sought to join the European Union, the European powers were eager to penetrate deep into Turkey's hinterland.

On the eastern side of the Bosphorus, maybe just 20 steps into Asia, stands one of the finest relics of this failed imperial ambition.

Hydarpasha railway station was designed by two German architects Otto Ritter and Helmut Conu in the neo-renaissance style. That at least is what the guidebooks tell you.

The building sits astride the end of the platforms with a tower at each of its front corners looking for all the world like some provincial German town hall.

The stone is dirty. The whole edifice slightly decaying. But once inside the vaulted ticket office, there is no doubting the grandeur of the enterprise of which this was the westernmost gateway.

The station was opened in August 1908 by a German consortium, the Anatolia-Baghdad Corporation.

The name explains its purpose.

Germany, a latecomer to the imperial game, intended to realise its ambitions to dominate the Middle East by means of this railway running to Damascus, Baghdad, and beyond into what today is Saudi Arabia.

But Germany's imperial ambitions foundered during the World War I. Its railway tracks were attacked by Lawrence of Arabia and his Arab irregulars.

The relative isolation from its surrounding region, engendered by the frozen boundaries of the Cold War, has gone
British and dominion forces advanced out of Egypt and pushed the Turks and their German allies out of Palestine and Syria.

And there was bad news for Hyderpasha station too. In 1917 an ammunition train blew up destroying its elaborate roof. Turkish sources say it was sabotage.

Since then it has slowly mouldered away, largely bypassed by history.

Political engagement

But today, this railway gateway to Anatolia and all points east, serves - symbolically at least - to highlight Turkey's widening diplomatic horizons.

The governing Justice and Development party - the AKP - has crafted a whole new foreign policy for the country.

The relative isolation from its surrounding region, engendered by the frozen boundaries of the Cold War, has gone.

Now there is a new policy of engagement.

Remarkably the Turkish government has good relations with Israel and Syria, with the Palestinian factions of Hamas and Fatah, with Iraq and Iran and of course with the European Union and the United States.

Paradigm shift

To gauge the parameters of this new foreign policy, I boarded the night sleeper to the Turkish capital Ankara, to visit one of the AKP's leading foreign policy experts, Turkish MP Suat Kiniklioglu.

The next morning - some ten and a half hours later - after a jolting ride along tracks that produced the old world cadences of the famous documentary The Night Mail, I arrived in the Turkish capital - proposed as a new city for a new secular state intent on turning its back on the Ottoman past.

But the AKP with its well-known Islamist roots represents a paradigm shift in the Turkish consensus. It has prompted some suspicion in the West, most notably in Washington.

AKP headquarters
Turkey's President Abdullah Gul helped found the AKP in 2001
A taxi took me to the AKP's headquarters, an ultra-modern stone and steel structure - purpose-built - in a developing suburb, surrounded by half-constructed shopping centres and power-patisseries where middle managers in business suits - both men and women - met to make early morning deals.

Suat Kiniklioglu could have been a centre-right politician from almost any other political party in Europe. Suit, tie, I am sure he was even packing a Blackberry.

"The aim of the party's foreign policy is now to re-integrate Turkey into its immediate neighbourhood. The Cold War was an anomaly," he told me.

Turkey had been cut off from its hinterland. Today it had to look eastwards and westwards at the same time. It was not a case of one or the other. It had to do both.

"But surely at some point," I asked, "Turkey might be forced to choose?"

"Turkey," he said, "did not want to have to face that choice."

He then stressed a point that almost everyone I have spoken to here has recited almost by rote: Turkey's ties not just to the Middle East, but to the Caucasus, and around the Black Sea, are as much to the benefit of Europe and the United States as they are to Turkey.

With Turkey on board, the message seems to be, Europe as a whole can metaphorically ride those rail lines eastwards towards Asia and the Middle East.

European ambitions

Back at Hydarpasha station, after another largely sleepless night, I thought of those two German gentlemen Herr Ritter and Herr Conu who had watched this edifice being built 100 years ago.

A map of Turkey showing the capital Ankara and Istanbul
How surprised they would have been to find that Europe's Middle Eastern ambitions may now, to a large part, be in Turkey's hands.

And as I waited at the terminal for the ferry to take me back across the Bosphorus, I recalled that in those days Turkey had always been called "the sick man of Europe."

Then at least there did not seem to be much doubt as to which continent should lay claim to this fascinating country.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 27 September, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Turkey
19 Jul 08 |  Country profiles

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific