Turkey has long been a crossroads between East and West. Today, it straddles the boundary between Asia and Europe. Its major city, Istanbul, formerly Constantinople and capital of Byzantium, is actually partly in Europe and partly in Asia. The Bosporus, the traditional boundary between the two continents, splits the city in half. As one would expect, the cultural and architectural elements also suggest its duality. There are, of course, other amazing sights in this large and mountainous country. Join me on a tour of the "best" that Turkey has to offer the traveler. Then, later, check out my photo album.
Istanbul sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. As a matter of fact, the city straddles the boundary between the two continents, with its western end part of Europe and its eastern side in Asia. Formerly known as Constantinople, this city was also the capital of the Roman Empire from 306 AD until the fall of the Empire.
Istanbul occupies a strategic location at the mouth of the Bosporus strait where it joins the Sea of Marmara, an entry into the Aegean Sea and further into the Mediterranean. To the north the Bosporus empties into the Black Sea.
It is a huge city, with a population of around 13,000,000. Because of its location, it is also a cultural crossroads and the population is extremely diverse. The major tourist attractions are located on the European side of the Bosporus.
They include the Hagia Sophia, built by the Roman Emperor, Justinian, in 532-537 AD. Hagia (or Aya) Sophia, is located west of the Bosporus, the strait which divides Asia from Europe. It began as a church, became a mosque after the fall of the Roman Empire, and is now a museum. It was one of the most important and largest churches in the world. It sported the largest dome in the world until St Peter’s Basilica in Rome was completed. The inside is positively huge, covering an area of about 4 acres, and contains fabulous mosaics, dating from the 10th century. The current building dates from the time of Justinian and was completed in 537 AD. The minarets were much more recent additions, recalling the Turkish conquest of what was then Constantinople. There is still debate today about whether the Aya Sophia is a church or a mosque.
The Blue Mosque, reputed by many to be the most beautiful mosque in the world, is located next to the Hippodrome, part of the old Roman section of Istanbul. It is called the Blue Mosque because its interior is covered in blue tiles and mosaics. It is truly spectacular. The visitor must remove his/her shoes and females must cover their heads during their visit. Also, shorts are not allowed. The floors are carpeted and lights hang from the high ceilings by wires. The Mihrab, the most sacred part of the mosque, the area which points the worshipper in the direction of Mecca, is gold and intricately decorated. The interior is huge and is sometimes host to 25,000 devotees for prayer service. The Blue Mosque is one of only two mosques in the world with six minarets (the other is in Mecca).
Topkapi Palace, another of the major sights of Istanbul, was the residence of the Ottoman sultans from the 1400’s to the 19th century. During their heyday, they ruled an empire which stretched from the gates of Vienna to the Indian Ocean, from North Africa to the Crimean Peninsula. The palace complex is basically a city within a city, with interconnected courtyards and kiosks along with other buildings. Within its walls were typically between 4000 and 7000 people who resided here and/or served the household. The complex stands at the confluence of the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus, and the Golden Horn and offers spectacular views over the water.
Entry is through the Imperial Gate which accesses the First Court, now a public park lined with flowers and trees. At the end of this court are the ticket booths and the Executioner’s Fountain, where important enemies were beheaded.
Entry into the Second Court is through the Gate of Salutations. Its two towers were used as dungeons to imprison those awaiting execution. The Palace Kitchens, to the right, upon entering this court, are a series of rooms which now house a collection of Chinese, Japanese, and European porcelain. The kitchens once prepared food for upwards of 10,000 people. On the opposite side of this court are the Armoury, which displays weapons from Islamic empires, and the Council Chamber, where policy meetings were held (the sultan’s cubicle is directly above and he could listen in on the meetings to keep tabs on his officials). Also in this court is the Harem, where the palace women were sequestered. Harem tours require separate tickets and should be booked immediately upon arrival to insure a place.
The Gate of Felicity marks the entrance into the Third Court. The most impressive attraction in this court is the Treasury, which contains unbelievable wealth in gold and jewels, including an 86-carat diamond (the “Spoonmaker”), the “throne of Ahmet III” which is inlaid with tortoiseshell and mother of pearl, set with rubies and emeralds, and the Topkapi Dagger which is set with huge emeralds (this item recalls the film, “Topkapi” which starred Melina Mercouri). Also in the Third Court is the Pavilion of the Sacred Relics, one room of which contains the Door of Repentance, taken from the holy Kaaba of Mecca. The second room houses objects associated with Mohammed, such as his footprint, hair, mantle and sword.
The Fourth Court contains the kiosks, or summer houses, in its gardens and leads to balconies overlooking the waterways mentioned earlier.
The Grand (Covered) Bazaar is the ultimate shopping experience, the largest mall in the world with over 3,000 shops selling just about everything imaginable. There are “streets” of jewelry shops, rug shops, ceramics, etc. Haggling is expected and required in order to get a bargain. Just strolling through the tunnel-like lanes is an eye-popping experience.
Other sights worthy of attention are the Spice Market, where an incredible variety of spices can be purchased in any quantity, the Hippodrome, a relic of the city’s Roman chariot-racing days, which today contains several Egyptian obelisks (one dating to 1500 BC) as well as a relic from the Delphic Oracle/Temple of Apollo.
Stroll down Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrian-only street in the Beyoglu section of the city for shopping and dining opportunities. It runs roughly north to south from Taksim Square, a huge gathering place where frequent demonstrations and other events occur, almost to the Golden Horn, the waterway which separates the ancient city from the more modern areas.
Take a cruise of the Bosporus (boats leave frequently from a dock at the entrance to the Golden Horn, across from the Spice Market) for a look at the Asian side of the city and a peek at the Black Sea.
An interesting excursion is a stop at Beylerbeyi Palace, the summer palace of the Sultans of the 19th century, with its exquisite chandeliers and woodwork. It is on the Asian side of the Bosporus, north of the city.
Cappadocia, Turkey, is certainly one of the most unusual examples of human habitation on the planet. Resourceful people, first the Hittites, in about 2000 B.C. and later, Christians, hiding from Arab raiders, have hollowed out apartments from the volcanic mud-ash rock. These rocks are known as Fairy Chimneys, because they are conical in shape and because the hard top of the cone prevents the erosion of the softer tuff underneath, which is what allows the rock to be excavated. They have chiseled furniture, such as benches and storage bins, as well. There is even evidence of cave-churches with sculpted altars and frescoed walls. The area is in the Goreme Valley, in central Turkey, a fertile farmland, with a twist. These days, most of the caves are uninhabited, although some are used for storage by the locals.
Specific areas of interest in the region include Derinkuyu, an underground city complex, the pretty little town of Avanos, with its cobbled streets and views overlooking the Red River, Turkey’s longest, and the Ihiara Valley, with more cave-dwellings and cave-churches from the Byzantine era.
Ephesus, an ancient Roman city in the Anatolian region of Turkey, was an extremely large and important port city during the time of the Roman Empire. Its origins actually date to the time of Alexander the Great, about 400 B.C., and its influence continued unabated until about 600 A.D. Due to the receding of the Mediterranean Sea, Ephesus is now almost 7 miles from the coast, so access is normally via the coastal city of Kusadasi. Ephesus is remarkably well preserved, considering that it has been abandoned for so long. The city streets are made of marble. Tours usually begin at the highest point, the Government Center, which includes the Town Hall, Agora, etc, and then visitors walk downhill toward what used to be the port. Some of the notable and best preserved structures include the Celsius Library, one of the three major libraries of the ancient world, (along with Alexandria and Pergamum), the Fountain of Trajan, a two-story structure which reminds visitors of the Trevi Fountain in Rome, and the Amphitheater, one of the largest remaining from ancient times, and which is still in use today for summer concerts. Recent archaeological excavations have revealed human bones near the Amphitheater, so historians believe that gladiatorial combat was conducted here as well as theater.
Ephesus also has some religious significance as well. The disciple, John, came here as did St Paul, who preached in the Amphitheater (remember his Letters to the Ephesians). Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a house just outside the city. The city is also famous as the location of one of the original “seven wonders of the world”. The Temple of Artemis was nearby.
Pamukkale is a site in southwestern Turkey which is the result of tectonic forces acting on the land here. Vents allow heat from beneath the crust to reach the surface, heating the water, creating natural springs, and producing a mountain of terraces, over 100 meters (300 feet) high. As heated water flows from the springs, the minerals, especially limestone, precipitates out forming terraces (white in color) and pools. Layers and layers are laid down over time forming the “cotton fortress” which visitors can see today.
Initially, the water is extremely hot, but as it trickles down the slope, over the terraces, it cools to around 33o C (just under 100o F), making it comfortable for humans to sit in and soak. The waters are known for their curative powers.
Nearby is the spa complex of Hieropolis, founded in 190 B.C., with its Necropolis of over 1000 tombs and its Roman Theater.
Depending on the season, wait until later in the day to soak in the waters of Pamukkale, because, when the air is cold, people tend not to be able to last very long in the pools.