Many visitors come by cruise ship and visit only Istanbul and Ephesus. They miss most of Turkey. My husband and I choose wheels instead of water. Navigating the roads is a real trip. Highways are filled with everything from BMWs to Fiats, trucks to three-wheeled carts, plus bikes, motorcycles and creatures. Camels, cows, horses and sheep are common sights on the roadways.
Our trip begins in Ankara. This modern European city is not just a potpourri of historic buildings and palaces, but neighborhoods like Kavaklidere and Kizilay which have a thriving restaurant and shopping scene.
Close to the Kizilay neighborhood on Lions Road sits Anit Kabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938). In 1923, Atatürk brought Turkey into the 20th century by westernizing it and introducing economic reforms including the banning of fezzes and veils. The mausoleum complex includes a museum and ceremonial courtyard.
But Ankara’s “must see destination” is the Museum of Ancient Civilization. Housed in a 15th century covered market, it chronicles 10,000 years of history from Palaeolithic to Lydian (Turkey’s Middle Ages) periods. On the lower level are Greek and Roman artifacts.
Ankara’s Citadel (Hisar) towers above the city. Forty-two pentagonal towers - 46 to 52 feet high- surround it. At least 1,000 years old, it has been controlled by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuk Turks, Crusaders and the Ottomans.
Southwest of Ankara, Cappadocia’s landscape, with its weird combination of underground cities and mushroom shaped, pinnacled, capped and conic shaped formations, looks eerily lunar-like. The sun just doesn’t set here. It tumbles into volcanic rocks.
Cappadocia and Konya
Since 2,000 B.C. inhabitants have carved out bizarre homes from eroded volcanic shapes and underground. Believe it or not, within some of these weird formations are now 5-star hotels.
One eight-leveled underground city, Derinkuyu, resembles something from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Here, 10,000 Christians took refuge from the attacks of marauding Arabs. In caves, (now the Göreme Open Air Museum and a UNESCO World Heritage site) the Christians built 1,000 churches, each decorated with beautiful frescoes.
Contrasting Cappadocia is the traditional city of Konya with its red-tiled roofs and turquoise steeples. Gentlemen with bright green conical hats or scarf-clad women dressed in traditional black are a familiar sight. Konya was the home of the Mevlâna, the Sufi mystic who founded the “Whirling Dervish” sect. Actually, the twirling is a religious ceremony that begins with reading of a Koranic verse. Sema, the trancelike dance is intended to represent a union with God.
For Turks, the Mevlâna Museum is a pilgrimage. It houses Mevlâna’s tomb, dervish cells and a small mosque. It is a busy place, so come early.
Don’t miss the Alaeddin Tepesi (Alaeddin Mosque) built in 1556. Considered an architectural masterpiece, it has 41 columns from the Byzantine and Classic Era. Mosaics decorate its beautiful cupola and mihrab (niche that indicates the direction of Mecca).
Antalya and Ephesus
From Konya, the mountainous southwest route leads to the resort town of Antalya. The old city’s hilly cobblestone streets are lined with carpet, leather and jewelry shops. The crooked streets slither down to the picturesque Mediterranean shore. Seaside restaurants offer a dinner selection of fresh fish chosen from an outdoor display, cooked to order. After dinner, we encountered the jewelry and carpet conspiracy.
“You must be Americans. I love America. My father owns a rug store. He will make you a good deal.” Every Turk must have a close someone who owns a rug or jewelry shop. Show a glimmer of interest, and you will be there as quickly as you can say, “Open Sesame.” After accepting the complimentary drink, a carpet salesman displays an ability he must have inherited from Ali Baba. Carpets unroll so quickly they seem to take flight. It is difficult to escape without purchasing one.
Escape we do, and travel northwest toward the Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus. As we drive by the Denizli Province and Pamukkale, we see a big white blotch amid the hills. Actually, the giant smudge is the unique travertine terraces. Created by residuals of carbonate from the flowing hot waters of mineral springs, the terraces look like frosting on a cake. They are much like the ones you see in Yellowstone National Park.
Many visitors miss the travertine terraces, but few venture to Turkey without seeing Ephesus, the Aegean seaside city located near Kusadasi. Founded in the 10th century B.C., Ephesus was once the capital of Asia. Its ruins slink down the hillside. Take note: these fabulous ruins can only be done on foot. It is easier to enter from the top at the Magnesia gate - and work your way down. Bring a bottle of water as it can get quite warm.
The Cave of the Seven Sleepers is one of the first things you will encounter. Legend has it that, these Christians refused to sacrifice to Decius and slept for 200 years. When they awoke, Christianity was the accepted religion.
Beyond the House of the Virgin Mary, where it is said that the Mother of Jesus was taken by St. John, are the Harbor Baths, the Gymnasium, the huge Odeon and the agora. The amazing Library of Celsus (third largest in the ancient world) once housed 12,000 scrolls. It resembles the Treasury in Petra, Jordan. You can see ruins from the Temple of Artemis. It was once considered one of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Wandering the paved streets and viewing the marble structures gives a perspective of what its 400,000 residents experienced in their daily lives. The wealthy lived in Terrace Houses on Curetes Street. Loos with a view (outdoor toilets) are nearby. “The row of toilets was a meeting place for nobility,” explains our guide. “Slaves would warm the toilets so their masters would not have to sit on the cold marble.” That’s really pampering.
As incredible as Ephesus is, Istanbul is even more fascinating. Divided by the Bosphorus Strait, it sits between Europe and Asia. Dotted with mosques, palaces, museums and monuments, its undulating landscape is enveloped by the Bosphorus, the Marmara Sea and the Golden Horn.
To really see everything in this former hub of the Ottoman Empire, it would take more than a month. Even if you have only a little time, some “must sees,” are in Sultanahmet, the Old City.
Nearly 1,500 years old, Hagia Sophia was once a church. It became a mosque in 1453 and then in 1935, a museum. Visitors marvel at its gold mosaics and the apse depicting the Virgin Mary and Child. Most jaw dropping is the massive dome. It resembles a scalloped shell with 40 windows that reflect light into a giant nave.
Its neighbor, the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) with its five main domes, six minarets and eight secondary domes sits on a hilltop dominating the landscape. The interior blue tiles gave it its name. Over 200 stained glass windows bathe it in light. The finely carved, sculptured mihrab attracts much attention.
Nearby, the Topkapi Palace displays fabulous relics. Embedded in jewels, the magnificent Topkapi dagger is a bauble lover’s dream. The network of buildings that connect by courtyards could take a full day to explore.
But with all its interesting sights nothing is more fun than searching and shopping for souvenirs at the Grand Bazaar’s 5,000-plus shops. Find everything there including copper, inlaid mother-of-pearl mirrors, jewelry, textiles and of course, carpets. The Spice Bazaar incorporates the real ambience of Istanbul. Odors rise from spice-laden barrels, while sights and sounds of a hodgepodge of cultures gorge your senses. Be ready to bargain. That is part of the fun.
The bazaar has two hammams (Turkish baths) and after all that shopping what could be a more relaxing than visiting one. It’s an adventure. Sitting nude on a stoop in an enormous marble domed room, you might wonder, “What am I doing half-way around the world with only a towel?” But then a masseuse comes, lays you on a marble slab, gives you a bath and a good massage. Aaah! That feels so good.
Turkey has so much to offer that it will put your brain on circuit overload. Where else can you stay in a cave, see Greco-Roman ruins, lounge on a Mediterranean beach, visit enormous mosques and churches and relax in a 16th century Turkish bath? Plus, it is the bargain of Europe.
Unfortunately, with things being what they are in that part of the world, it is a good idea to register with the U.S. State Department before you go.(https://step.state.gov/step)