Turkey is a land that is so varied and in constant contrast with itself that it can be hard to ever truly understand, but to get a start there are many sites that can give a flavor of the country’s unique mix of history, culture and natural wonders. In traversing this country from west to east the traveler will see astonishing differences in cultures and ways of life. From the modern, cosmopolitan capital to the eastern outposts of Sanliurfa and Van there is a world of difference. Even the otherworldly natural sites are still filled with remnants of human history and are so diverse it is hard to believe they all fit in one country.
The ancient treasures of Istanbul
As the sun begins to sink below the horizon and the sky turns a deep blue, loud speakers attached to the minarets of mosques all around the city come to life to the blaring wails of the call to prayer. If you are standing in the right part of town you can hear these songs floating on the night air seemingly calling back and forth to each other from three or four mosques at once.
To stand in Sultanahmet Park between two of the world’s most impressive ancient mosques, the Aya Sofia and the Sultanahmet, and experience the call to prayer is an experience that will stay with you forever. These two massive buildings are at the core of Istanbul’s ancient city and are two of its most impressive places to visit. Although the Aya Sofia (also known as the Hagia Sophia) no longer does a call to prayer as it is now a museum, it is still an incredible monument. Inside you will find uncovered frescoes and converted religious symbols from its past. The monument started life as a Christian Cathedral and was then converted to a mosque before becoming a museum.
Across the plaza is the equally impressive and still operating Sultanahmet mosque, which is better known as the Blue Mosque for the blue hued tiles that cover the inside of the enormous structure. As a still active religious site, there are more rules to be followed when entering the Blue Mosque. You will be required to remove your shoes (bags are provided) and women will be asked to cover their heads (scarves are also provided). It is also recommended that you dress modestly and cover up as much as you can.
After these two religious shrines, there are several other must-see sites of Istanbul, all of which come with their own extensive history. Close behind the Aya Sofia is Topkapi Palace. Its sprawling grounds are an incredible proof of the lavish lives of Ottoman emperors, especially in the immaculately preserved harem, where the sultan’s concubines lived. Here you will also find many ornate artifacts and great examples of Ottoman architecture. These three sites all sit within a short walk of one another and are just the very beginning of the wonders of Istanbul.
Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Festival in Edirne
The sun beats down heavily on the backs of fifty men who take high leaps, skipping across a field of long grass, slapping their knees in the air. A thumping drum beats and shrill horns play constantly. The men, covered in a slick coating of oil and wearing only shin-length leather pants pair off and at once engage in fierce combat. The crowded stadium erupts with cheers when some of the most popular wrestlers win their bouts and slowly the field is paired down to just one match of exhausted hulking men. With its end comes the end of the first round of the heavyweight class of an ancient festival.
This is how the main event of the 648th Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling tournament kicks off. The event, the world’s longest running sporting competition, is held annually in Edirne, a small city on the European side of the country, and attracts thousands of visitors from around Turkey and Europe. This odd and historical tournament is surrounded by a festival that consumes the city for a week. On the final three days, the wrestling tournament takes place and after the final bout a head wrestler is crowned.
Seeing greased up men in leather shorts try and pin each other in a field may not be everyone’s ideal vacation, but even still, the Kirkpinar festival and tournament is a truly authentic and unique event. In addition to the wrestling tournament, which all takes place at a stadium on the edge of town, the downtown area offers music concerts, fireworks, a parade and many other activities.
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The Travertine pools of Pamukkale
On arrival into the small town of Pamukkale, it is almost impossible to miss the town’s main attraction. Overlooking the town is the strikingly beautiful white ‘cotton castle,’ as the name means in Turkish. The attraction is made from calcium deposits that seem to flow like melting glue down a large hill towards the town. As you approach the hill and begin to climb, you see that it is in fact covered in a thick layer of white limestone that has been slowly added to over centuries as flowing water from the hot pools above deposited more and more bits of calcium.
Since becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, people are no longer allowed to walk over or sit in the naturally formed pools, but there are still wooden boardwalks that take you around and over some of the pools, which gives a great view without damaging the fragile site.
What adds an extra level to this already spectacular natural site is the cultural interest it also holds. Perched on top of the hill are the ruins of the ancient city of Hierapolis. Here are the impressively intact remains of many stone structures, including a huge necropolis (city of the dead) filled with carved stone sarcophagi. There is also, of course, the quintessential roman amphitheatre, and some intact streets and gates. This city drew people to it even in ancient times for the supposed healing powers in the hot baths which people can still enjoy today.
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The ancient city of Ephesus
If you have ever wondered what your life would have been like if you had lived around the time of Jesus Christ and you don’t currently own a time machine, then your best bet is the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus. It is one of the world’s best-preserved examples of an ancient city and boasts some incredible structures. The most iconic is the facade of the Roman Library of Celsus.
Whether or not you get a tour of the grounds, be sure to stick around close to closing time. At this point you can explore the city in the low light of the late afternoon virtually by yourself, at least by comparison to the hoards of tourists that can be there during the day. At this time of day, walking down the large stones that make up the ancient main road toward the dusty brown two-storey library, you feel like it could be any period in time. It would be easy to believe you were walking down the main thoroughfare of Ephesus when it was flourishing city during the height of the Roman Empire.
Between the modern town of Selçuk and Ephesus are the remains of what was once one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Now only a few pieces of foundation and a single reconstructed pillar are all that is left of the once great Temple of Artemis, which was built and destroyed and rebuilt many times between 550 BC and 391 AD. Unfortunately, most of the best artifacts from this temple now lie in the British Museum. Around Selçuk there are several other impressive things to see, especially for people of Christian faith. The ruins of what was once the massive St. John Basilica are all that surround the remains of what is believed to be Saint John the Apostle, and the House of the Virgin, a modest stone chapel, sits on the site of the house where the Virgin Mary died.
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The Mediterranean Coast
Turkey has 1577km of Mediterranean coastline, yet still isn’t always recognized as a coastal beach destination. While not on the same level as Italy or Greece when it comes to tourist infrastructure, Turkey offers the same pristine coastline and turquoise waters as more popular destinations.
A fantastic way to experience and enjoy the gorgeous Turkish Mediterranean is aboard a Turkish Gület, a wide, heavy, flat bottomed, wooden sail boat that can navigate the shallow channels along the coast because of its lack of a keel. There are dozens of options for starting and ending points for these cruises, but most will begin or end in either Bodrum, Marmaris, Fethiye or Demre.
Along the way there are many interesting and picturesque sights to see, which will be different with every boat’s itinerary. One town not to miss is Kaleköy, a tiny town clinging to the side of a rocky hill that comes right down to the water’s edge, is accessible only by boat and some small walking paths, and is crowned by the well-preserved ruins of a Byzantine stone fortress built on the top of the hill and overlooks the blue green waters of the bay.
For people looking for just a sandy beach and clear water, Ölüdeniz would be the spot. With a gorgeous white sand peninsula jutting into a secluded bay of calm blue water, this is the perfect Turkish Mediterranean beach. For those looking for beaches with a little more excitement, the tourist hotspot of Bodrum is the place to go, with packed pubs and clubs lining the beach-front streets in the summer months; this is the spot for Turks and foreign tourists to party by night and enjoy the sun and sand during the day.
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At the peak of the 2150 meter Mount Nemrut is one of the most spectacular monuments of the ancient world. On the top of the mountain sits the massive burial mound of King Antiochos I of Commagene and on this sits five seated statues on both the eastern and western faces. The eight-none meter high bodies are intact while the heads have all succumbed to the years and now lie on the ground in front, still displaying remarkable detail and craftsmanship. These statues, which are of Apollo, Tyche the Commagene god of fertility, Zeus, Antiochos I and Heracles, are joined by several smaller lion and eagle statues. This burial mound and the statue-covered terraces are considered by some to be the eighth ancient wonder of the world.
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Perhaps Turkey’s most impressive and famous site outside of Istanbul is the otherworldly landscape of the region of Cappadocia.
In Cappadocia, wherever you look, even underground, there is history and creative uses of the land. Some of the best places to find this is in the underground cities, which were built to protect the locals from both the elements and persecution from the Roman Empire. Some of these extend down to eight levels underground. Only a few of the largest underground cities are available to visitors who can see the conditions up to 10,000 people would endure for up to four months. Extending high above ground are similar defenses in the form of fortresses dug into tall steep sided hills.
The easiest place to see the curious buildings dug into the landscape is at the Open Air Museum where, for a fee, you can explore a small, partially restored village filled with modest homes, and small churches covered in gorgeous frescoes. However, if you have a bit more time you can explore the trails around the town of Goreme, where you can find abandoned homes and churches scattered through the countryside.
For a monastery built into the vertical rock face of a mountain hanging hundreds of meters above the valley floor, Sümela Monastery near the northeastern Black Sea coast, is surprisingly easy to access. Inside the monastery the main attraction is the high cavernous main chamber of the rock church, which has been dug directly into the mountain and is covered in colorful frescoes which date from the 18th century.
The monastery was founded in 386 AD and has undergone dozens of additions and reconstructions over the years, but took its current form during the 13th century. Outside the main monastery is a spring that is considered sacred by Orthodox Greeks and large stone arches that form an aqua-duct which supplied water to the monastery. The monastery is very accessible, as an hour long minibus ride takes you from nearby Trabzon to the mountain, followed by a short path hike to get to the building itself. Some of the most impressive views of the monastery come on some of the stops the bus makes on the way up, as this affords you an opportunity to see the monastery from a distance in its lush valley surroundings.
The Ottoman town of Safranbolu
The small tourist town of Safranbolu is almost like a large working historic park. In the 1970s the town was falling into a state of disrepair and decay, but luckily for visitors, the Turkish government recognized it for the architectural and cultural gem that it is and began an extensive repair and recovery effort which culminated in the town being added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1994. The town has been expertly refurbished back to its former Ottoman era glory, and walking down the narrow cobblestone streets between red roofed buildings gives visitors a glimpse into Turkey’s history.
Artisans who still practice Ottoman era trades are encouraged to move into the small shops, and Ottoman food is available all over town. The town isn’t just for show though; the shops and outdoor market are also for the locals, who are very proud of the town’s history and architecture. The town provides visitors with the unique opportunity to stay in style and live like a wealthy Ottoman as many of the era’s mansions have been converted into hotels and guesthouses, some of which are very affordable.
The ghost town of Kayaköy
This town of 2000 to 3000 people was abandoned in 1923 after the Greco-Turkish war because of mandatory population exchanges between Greece and Turkey. There are many opinions as to why people never moved into the vacated homes, one of the more interesting being the rumours about the outgoing Greeks poisoning the town’s wells. A more practical reason is that the town’s location on the side of a hill was well suited for the craftsmen Greeks who had lived there, but was useless for the Turkish farmers of the area.
Beneath a layer of dust in the abandoned chapels of Kayaköy you will still find colourful frescoes and delicate tile work. There are very few visitors to the town to disturb the dust, so much of the time you will find yourself alone wandering through crumbling and roofless stone cottages and cracked empty churches for hours. Even by the road at the bottom of the hillside town there are only a few vendors and restaurants to take away from the ambiance of the eerie ghost town.
The true wonder of the ghost town is just in walking its dirt paths and overgrown stone staircases to see a frozen tableaux of a different time, just left to be reclaimed by nature. There are still many visible artifacts left of the Greek culture which once thrived in the town. The bits of colorful paint, intricate stone work and crumbling frescoes are in constant danger from the elements and local looters who remove and sell the town’s artifacts.
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