Banner
E-mail Print PDF

 

Chan Cham Perou

Turkey: land of thousand seductions —   It is the world of Byzantium, of golden domes, hammams, carvings, arabesques, minarets and the tireless calls of Muslims to prayer. It is a world of uncommon landscapes offering wonderment at every turn. It is also an excursion into the heart of mythology.

And it is overall a rich cultural world thanks to the inheritance and intermingling between Mongols, Armenians, Kurds, Georgians, Arabs, Russians and Europeans who crossed into its territory or settled there over the centuries.

 

An overview of history

Beginning our trip at Ankara, the Capital and resting site of the most important hero in Turkey, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, allows for an overview of the cultural and political history of the country. A very ancient city, it has been inhabited since the Bronze Age and it was the headquarters of Ataturk’s revolutionary government in 1919.

The old town, with its small streets surrounded by typical wood houses – some renovated, others in a sad decrepit state – is worth exploring. A few of those houses have been transformed into restaurant/museums, where soup, meze, kebab and fish, sometimes accompanied by a Raki, are abundantly served.

The hero

Ataturk brought many Occidental reforms to the country such as replacing the Arab alphabet with the Latin one, introducing Turkish as the only official language, giving the right of vote to women and secularizing Turkey.

He is still considered a hero today by a huge portion of the population that appreciates the secularity and favors rapprochement with the European Union. Nonetheless, tensions with another part of the population, which wants to get closer to the Arab and Muslim world, can be felt.

Even though more than 90% of the population is Muslim, freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution. This explains the variety of religious buildings: synagogues, Orthodox and Catholic churches erected in the shadows of numerous mosques, competing with one another with their minarets and shining domes. In fact, every village has its own mosque and some even have more than one, depending on the goodwill of its residents. Some rich families even have their own private mosque.

The Anti Kabir mausoleum, built on the Maltepe – an artificial hill – in the middle of Ankara, is dedicated to the hero whose tomb is kept there. An imposing monument with modern architecture, it dominates the city and integrates elements of the Turkish tradition in its ceilings and sculpted doors, as well as historic frescoes that portray Ataturk’s achievements.

From the city to the country: Tuz Gölü Lake

Driving from Ankara to Cappadocia, it is impossible to miss this immense white surface reflecting the sun. It could have been a vast, snow-covered surface – if the thermometer was not at 200 Celsius. It’s indeed a surreal effect! Tuz Lake – the second largest lake in the country – is located halfway between Ankara and Konya. It is covered with several centimeters of salt deposits. It is at sea level and its high salinity waters almost evaporate during the summer, creating an amazing landscape. The salt crystals collected provide 70% of the salt used in the country and are also offered to private sale as table salt - pink or white - exfoliants for skin, etc.

Cappadocia 

This vast volcanic region, from which the Mediterranean Sea retired some 40 million years ago, is known for its “Fairy Chimneys,” phallic forms formations capped with flat stones.

This eccentric landscape is a result of volcanic eruptions that started over 10 million years ago and that left on the land, though the centuries, layers of lava and ashes where the rain, the snow, the sand and the wind have sculpted needles, rocky outcrops, cliffs and towers as high as 15 and 30 meters, and dug out valleys and canyons.

A land of contrast, Cappadocia forms a triangle between 3 main volcanoes: Erciyes, Hasan and Manteau. Its valleys, where grapevines and cereals are grown and sheep and goats breed, are extremely fertile.

Walking tirelessly for hours across the Ihlara and the Akvadi Valleys or on the paths of the Pasabaglari, we can’t avoid the oohs and aahs as we stand in front of the high chimneys in alternating shades of yellow, white and pink. We feel like dwarfs lost in an immense and unreal panorama, where hundreds of troglodytic houses are dug with chiseled front porches.

A bird’s eye view

Admiring strange formations from the land is one thing, but to look at them from the sky is really something else! Flying over Cappadocia in a hot air balloon is probably one of the most memorable moments that can be experienced by anyone who dares to take the adventure. The view of this surreal countryside, slowly emerging into the morning light of the rising sun, is just unforgettable. We all came back from those flights with eyes full of stars!

Don’t worry, the pilots are real artists and land their balloons, with their 20 passengers, slowly at the exact spot that was reserved for them. Yes, the traffic is dense up there with hundreds of balloons coloring the sky, but every balloon finds its way down smoothly and safely.

Back on earth: Göreme and its frescoes

The rocks of volcanic deposits, easy to carve, hide lovely carved-from-rock monasteries and churches whose walls and ceilings are filled with superb frescoes. Well-hidden in a dry environment where light is scarce, the colors of biblical scenes dating from around the 10th century are in a remarkable state of conservation. Many of those churches display Byzantine art since the Cappadocia region was an important centre of Christianity, welcoming Christians fleeing Roman persecution. Arab attacks that started in the 7th century didn’t reach those churches and monasteries, which were so well hidden among the high pillars, cliffs and fairy chimneys.

The Göreme Valley covers a vast territory of 32 square kilometers and houses many of those rock-cut churches. Some remarkable ones are accessible to visitors in what is called the Göreme Open Air Museum.

At home in Urgup

Urgup is a lovely touristic town carved in the rock near Göreme. We have lunch at Nazim’s place, on a terrace offering a stunning view, well protected from the frying sun. Nazim, the owner, also offers a few charming rooms for rent. It is a place to keep in mind for the warm welcome, the delicious cuisine made by Nazim’s wife and tasteful installations.

Make room for the artists!

Turkey is known for its rugs, its leather and pottery, among other things. Many craft shops advertise their products in the small town of Avanos. Let’s see what they have to offer!

Selim, an artist who chooses to find his inspiration from Hittite works of art, warmly welcomes us in his workshop. His pottery plates, bowls, jugs and vases are decorated with motives specific to those people who lived in Anatolia in the 11th century BC and whose works are on exhibit at the Ankara Museum of Anatolian Civilizations.

We also stop at Bazaar 54, a rug factory featuring the work of women from 54 villages that have chosen to work together in that shop to protect their dye, motives and traditions. The choice of wool, silk and even organic rugs is amazing… and beautiful! One is woven for every occasion: prayer, engagement, marriage, and maternity…

The underground life

Several underground cities were also dug in the soil of Cappadocia. We visit Derinkuyu, an underground fortress, 40 meters deep, whose tunnels and galleries date back 2,000 years BC and sometimes are superposed on eight levels.

The city could safely keep 10,000 people hidden from invaders for several weeks, thanks to its well-hidden and well-planned aeration chimneys. A network of tunnels even linked many cities and houses in the region. A tunnel on the 3rd level is believed to have been connected with the city of Kaymakli, 9 km from Derinkuyu.

Stables for the cattle, stone ovens, space to keep jars for foodstuffs, chapels and communal spaces have been carved along those tunnels. Claustrophobics should avoid it!

On the footsteps of the caravanners

On the road to Konya, we stop at the Sultan Han Caravanserai, one of the most interesting and best examples of Anatolian architecture. Built in the 8th century on the Silk Road by Sultan Aladdin Keykubab, this fortified structure offered a safe place to sleep and keep merchandise of merchant’s caravans crossing the country.

Such an “oasis” played a large role in the development of trade in Turkey, ensuring the Ottomans’ influence. The Sultan stayed on occasions at this impressive fortified structure, where geometric designs are sculpted on the walls of the stables, baths, sleeping rooms and immense storage halls built around an open courtyard, in the middle of which is erected a lovely square stone kiosk-mosque.

And the whirling dervishes…

Konya, the city of whirling dervishes and the cradle of Sufi, is a traditional town where religious fervor can be seen even in its public market: burkas and religious objects occupy most of the stalls. It is an immense public market where one has to lose oneself to feel the local color… without fear of being transformed into a dervish, contrary to Mevlana, the creator of the sect.

As a matter of fact, according to the legend, when visiting the bazaar Mevlana entered into a trance that was induced by the tempo of the goldsmiths hitting their gold and started to whirl faster and faster, reaching religious ecstasy.

The Mevlana Mausoleum and its adjacent museum are impressive and worth the visit. The Mevlana tomb is kept in the huge Mausoleum bathed in a soft light that also houses an immense semahane (dancing hall) used by the whirling dervishes.

Towards Lycia

Going from the central Anatolian Plateau to Lycia, the change in scenery is radical. We follow the Mediterranean coast through the Taurus Mountains, crossing the Alacabel Pass – 1,825 meters in altitude. Here, the dark green pine forest alternates with the soft green of the broad-leaved trees and yellow and pink walls of limestone rocks.

In those mountains, transhumance is still a way of life – a tradition inherited from the Mongols – which consists in moving a yurt or tent and cattle from pasture to pasture according to the seasons. We can in fact see some of those temporary installations not far from the road. As we get closer to the Mediterranean Sea, olive and date trees and citrus fruit orchards replace the pines.

A few Roman traces

A stop at the antique site of Aspendos is in order. Its remarkably well-preserved Roman theater is, according to our guide, the 3rd most beautiful in the world, after the ones in Orange and Damas. Ten kilometers further, we find an immense Roman aqueduct, signed by Tiberius, also in a remarkable state of conservation.

Antalya

One could almost say that there are two Antalyas. The modern resort town, holding little interest except for its beautiful location in an immense bay on the Mediterranean Sea bordered by the imposing Taurus Mountains. A true Turkish Riviera, its population triples during the tourist season, attracted to its sandy beaches and where it is possible to swim 8 months a year.

The old city is what is worth wandering about, with its nice narrow and steep streets bordered by restaurants and boutiques that wind down towards the sea and the marina, where old caciques mix their wooden masts with those of modern sailboats.

The Island of the Toms

In Üçagiz, a picturesque village and small harbor, we embark for a full day of navigation towards an ensemble of small islands in the Bay of Kekova.

Mehmet and Sebahat, his wife, warmly welcome us aboard. Mehmet will cook the BBQ chicken while Sebahat prepares vegetables, salads and other meze to accompany this delicious and copious meal eaten at sea.

After a swim in the warm and clear waters around the island of Kekova, we can see huge Lycian stone-dug tombs on the banks as well as in the water, together with the sunken ruins of an ancient city: jars, amphora…

The impressive Citadel of Simena, built in 1440, only accessible by sea, attracts our attention. Unfortunately, strong winds and big waves will not allow us to approach the coast and see it close-up.

Replete with sun, we continue on our road to Fetiye via the Lycian Road, following the Mediterranean Sea, along which we can catch sight from time to time of a few Greek islands sprinkling their green vegetation over the blue of the sea.

Fetiye 

This charming seaside town is located in a bay protected by dozens of small islands and is well-sheltered by the Taurus Mountains. A lovely modern boutique hotel is waiting for us with its splendid terrace, offering a stunning view of the thousands of masts nodding in the wind in the immense marina facing the hotel.

Il will be our starting point for a visit to the Saklikent Canyon the next morning. The deepest in Turkey, 300 meters deep, with pink walls where cedars and pine trees compete to find the light, the canyon’s cool waters tumble down 18 km.

We join the intrepid group of walkers who follow experienced guides, who know where to find a ford, sometimes even helped by ropes strategically tied to the cliff, on a few kilometers’ long walk in the cool and tumultuous water of the canyon. We come back proud to have defied the current. It takes a “sure foot” and appropriate shoes to brave that tumultuous water and avoid slipping on the clay.

On the wings of Pegasus

After this wet episode, we drive in our 4 x 4 towards Kayaköy and end up in a small village lost in the mountain. Nevertheless, Tios is one of the sixth most important Lycian cities in the region. We are surrounded by ruins, temples, basilicas, towers and portions of aqueduct, all of this dominated by an imposing fortress where, according to local belief, a dignitary known by the name of Ali Khan the Tyran lived in the 19th century.

Paths give access to tombs dug into the piton from which we have a stunning view of the Xanthos valley. One of the tombs is believed to be that of Bellerophon, the mythological hero, represented on his winged horse, Pegasus.

On our way back to Fetiye on winding roads, even narrow for our 4 x 4, we drive by the ghost town of Kayaköy, now a museum of a village with 3,000 abandoned houses. It is surrounded by small villages where the rich soil seem to allow for a great variety of produce, from tomatoes, cucumbers, figs to sesame drying in the fields.

The Cotton Castle and the Sacred City

The next day, Pamukkale – the cotton castle – and Hierapolis – the sacred city - offer us quite a different style. For the last 14,000 years, water saturated with carbon carbonate emerging from the springs literally sculpted petrified cascades and spectacular travertine terrace formations cascading down from a height of 360 meters to the Lycos Valley.

We walked barefoot – shoes are not allowed – on those terraces whose surface is a bit rough. But did not, as others, chose to slide in the hot water of the small pools created here and there by the flowing hot water springs, in which the temperature varies between 33 and 360 C under the blinding sun shining on that day.

On the same site stands Hierapolis, founded as a thermal spa city in the 2nd century BC. Many vestiges of the ancient Greco-Roman and Byzantine city can be seen: temples, religious buildings, baths and a large necropolis whose sarcophagi are aligned along the main street bordered on both sides by an arcade and closed at both ends by monumental gates. A large theater hollowed out of the slope of a hill that could accommodate up to 10,000 spectators is also worth the walk uphill.

Towards Istanbul

We leave Anatolia – the rising sun country – toward the direction of Istanbul, with a stop at Ephesus, an ancient city built in the 10th century BC. Greek, then Roman, it was known to be second in importance and size only to Rome during its Roman period.

On the coast of Ionia, the city was a major center of commerce and its prosperity was linked to its enclosed harbor and fertile soil. It was alternately a pagan city and a Christian one: the Virgin Mary would have spent the last years of her life here and St-John the Apostle would have written its apostle in Ephesus and be buried in the city.

The ruins that have so far been excavated are evocative of its former life: the monumental façade of the library of Celsus, the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Theater with a seating capacity of 24,000, believed to be the largest outdoor theater in the ancient world and the Gate of Augustus.

Istanbul

This will be the last step of our discovery of Turkey, and what a step it is!

Ancient capital of three empires, Istanbul was in turn named Byzantium and Constantinople, and it certainly testifies to the importance of this city in world history. Sitting on two continents, it is in fact unique, enchanting and spellbinding.

A cruise on the Bosphorus allows us to admire the European and Asian banks, mosques, pavilions, palaces and summer residences that have since been transformed into national museums, as well as small wood constructions, called yah, the Galata Tower, the famous Golden Horn and the beautiful Süleymaniye Mosque overlooking the strait.

One also has to stroll its streets, some of them small and quiet, other busy and cluttered, but always clean and full of trees and flowers. We were never harassed except in the Haghia Sophia and Blue Mosque area, where tour guides and tour sellers can be quite insistent. Even in the Grand Bazaar, merchants are rather discreet and will usually offer you traditional tea – with their products of course – only after a show of interest on your part for their merchandise.

A few musts the city is famed for:

The Egyptian or Spice Bazaar – We chose one shop among the 80 offering their products in this overcrowded covered market: number 20. Hicham proudly displays a huge variety of tea, caviar, candied fruits, spices, including real saffron, pastries dripping with honey and, of course, loukoums, candies made from sugar and starch and perfumed with rose water. We taste more than a dozen varieties: coffee, pistachio, strawberry, cinnamon, mint…

Haghia Sophia – The largest Byzantine basilica, transformed into a mosque, then into a museum by Ataturk, is one of the most remarkable and majestic monuments of the city with its very distinct pinky color. Built in 325, often damaged by earthquakes and destroyed by fire, it was always reconstructed.

During its transformation into a mosque, the beautiful Christian frescoes and mosaics of its walls were covered with white plaster. Even though this white plaster was removed when the Hagia Sophia became a museum, the damage was done and most of those mosaics are irremediably damaged.

The Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmed Mosque – This faces the Haghia Sophia. One of the most beautiful and famous mosque in the world and the largest one in Istanbul, it is the only Turkish mosque with six minarets. As remarkable inside as it is outside with 21,000 blue tiles adorning its walls and 260 windows, it is a real work of art.

The Basilica Cistern – A stunning Byzantine construction whose ceiling is supported by 336 marble columns, each 9 meters high and arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each.

This arrangement gives us the sensation of being in a real underground basilica. The water reflecting the dim artificial light emphasizes the impression of grandeur of this cistern, meant to provide water for the Great Palace of Constantinople and the Topkapi Palace and whose filtration system later benefited residents of the city.

The Grand Bazaar - One of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, with its 4,000 shops opening on more than 50 covered streets, it can be accessed through 18 doors. Better remember the one you walked in though!

Mostly built in wood, the bazaar was more than once hit by fires and earthquakes, however it was always reconstructed. A true “Ali Baba’s” cave, it is divided into sections: rugs, jewelry, leather, etc… through which it is relatively easy to navigate. Through the years, more and more luxury boutiques opened in the bazaar and we could say that it has been “gentrified” to a certain extent.

The Topkapi Palace - A series of pavilions scattered through vast courts and magnificent gardens housed sultans and their concubines for 400 years. The palace’s harem with its luxurious décor could house up to 1,000 women, all of them dreaming of becoming “the favorite”. 40 black eunuchs served them and shared the space in the harem. The Treasure Room displays a fabulous collection of works of art: precious stones, urns, richly decorated swords, porcelain, imperial clothing, clocks, silverware, etc.

And much more…

Of course there is much more to see and do in Istanbul.

Board the modern and efficient tramway, take one of its 2-deck buses for a city tour, relax in one of its many Turkish baths or just walk its streets according to your mood. The city is safe and there is almost always a small café where you can stop and enjoy a tea, coffee… and a pastry.

We leave Turkey with nostalgia, promising to be back soon to discover other treasures and to relive the many emotions we felt in this wonderful and mythical country.

Iyi yolculuklar! Have a nice trip!

Christiane Théberge

I travelled to Turkey with Voyages Traditours’ group and would like to thank them for this fabulous experience.

www.traditours.com

 

 Ataturk mausoleum, Ankara

Tuz Gölü Lake

Troglodytic houses in Ihlara Valley

Sunset over Cappadocia

Hot air balloon in Cappadocia

A walk in Pasabaglari

Woman weaving a silk rug

Sultan Han Caravanserai

Mevlana Mausoleum, Konya

Aspendos theater

Aspendos aqueduct

Antalya: old city

In the Bay of Kekova

Citadel of Simena 

Fetiye

Fetiye's marina

Tios

Pamukkale

One of the door at Hiérapolis

Facade of the library of Celsus, Ephesus

On the Bosphorus, Istanbul

Garbage-boat on the Bosphorus

Haghia Sophia 

Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

Grand Bazaar

Topkapi Palace

At the Topkapi Palace's harem

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Back