Civilizations, religions, even continents have collided here; no other country is as central to human history as Turkey. While today’s Turks are largely Turkish-speaking Muslims, a glance at history shows that this is simply the most recent product of one of the world’s great crucibles.
Istanbul remains the country’s metropolis, with 13 million inhabitants. Turkey’s main seaport and chief cultural centre, Istanbul occupies an exceptional site astride the Golden Horn, a small inlet on the European side of the Bosphorus, where it enters the Sea of Marmara.
A glorious former basilica consecrated to Holy Wisdom, the Hagia Sophia is a feast for the eyes. The central dome, representing the vault of Heaven, is 31 metres in diameter and hangs 55 metres above the ground. Its entire weight is borne by four immense pillars, leaving a remarkable airiness and lightness in the central space.
Just a few hundred metres to the west stands one of the most beautiful mosques in the world, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Named for the sultan who commanded it in the early 17th century, it incarnates the zenith of the Ottoman Empire. Though smaller than the Hagia Sophia, it is much more elegant, with its volumes created by a succession of domes. The porcelain tiles on the walls have given it its most common name: the Blue Mosque.
The other great monument of the old city is Topkapı Palace, the famous seraglio from which the sultans ruled the empire. The palace, a grand complex of courts and buildings, can be visited, as can the numerous museums it houses and a part of the former harem.
The Palace of Dolmabahçe alone is worth leaving the old city for the other side of the Golden Horn. Built on the north shore of the Bosphorus in 1855, it was the home of Sultan Abdülmacid I, who intended it to play a role similar to the court of Versailles. A tour shows a good proportion of the 285 rooms of the palace.
Humans have cultivated the earth and raised animals in Anatolia for more than seven thousand years. To the east rise two rivers that have played as essential a role in civilization as the Nile: the Tigris and the Euphrates. Baghdad, in Iraq, still stands on the former, and the latter gave birth to ancient Babylon. To the northeast, the road to the Black Sea probably gave rise both to the city of Troy and to its destruction by the Greeks.
The Turkish capital, Ankara, is located in the centre of the country. This proud, bustling city plays its role of national capital to the hilt, with its four million inhabitants and its ceaseless activity.
Ankara’s chief attraction is unquestionably the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. This magnificent museum retraces the history of the multiple civilizations that have succeeded each other in Anatolia. The site alone is worth the visit, as the museum is housed in a 19th-century bedesten (covered market) and caravanserai.
The citadel at the heart of the old city is surrounded by walls erected by the Byzantines between the 7th and 9th centuries. The broad gates of the fortress now invite the visitor to stroll peacefully through a maze of narrow streets.
In the modern part of the city, the mausoleum of Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, powerfully evokes the reverence in which the Turks hold this historic figure.
South of the Sea of Marmara about 100km from Istanbul, Bursa was the capital of the first Ottomans. To this day it remains a charming city with everything the Western imagination expects in a Turkish town: narrow streets, mosques, hammams (the famous Turkish baths), mausoleums, bazaars, and houses in Eastern styles. The city’s parks and gardens, combined with its typical green tiles, have earned it the sobriquet of “Green Bursa.”
Among the main attractions are the Green Mosque, the citadel hill, the ancient baths of the Çekirge district, and the Ulu Cami or Great Mosque. The Tophane district, in the oldest part of the city, merits a long walking visit to enjoy the traditional wooden architecture of the old Ottoman houses.
Marmaris to Antalya
Southeast of Bodrum, a long peninsula extends into the Mediterranean. On its eastern side, at the end of a sheltered bay, Marmaris has grown into the main pleasure harbour of the area. This ancient fishing village, built around a medieval castle, has transformed itself to welcome its numerous guests.
From Marmaris, the peninsula continues southwestward, dividing into two arms. To the west, an enchanting route leads to Datça, then to the ancient city of Knidos (also spelled Cnidus). The other branch, the Bozburun Peninsula, is less well-travelled: the archeological sites there have not yet been properly excavated.
East of Marmaris, another ancient city, Kaunos or Caunus, is also worth the visit. Like Ephesus, this Lycian city was once prosperous, but faded away once its port silted up. Among the traces that remain are the characteristic tombs that the Lycians carved directly into the cliffs.
One of the prettiest towns along the coast, Antalya is located where the border between Lycia and Pamphylia once ran. It’s worth spending at least a few hours strolling in the old town to enjoy its mosques and minarets, its old port, and the fortifications that once protected it. Antalya also boasts one of the finest archeological museums in the country. Several beaches are nearby.
Troy to Bodrum
The site discovered by Schliemann in 1868 was already inhabited in the third millennium B.C.E., well before the destruction of Troy (c. 1250 B.C.E.). After its fall, the city was held successively by the Persians, the Greeks under Alexander the Great, and the Roman. Today, Troy is a must-see archeological site.
Nearby to the south, the little town of Assos is worth a detour. The old town walls date to Ancient Greek times. There is also a charming little port, and the site is enchanting and surrounded by beaches.
A little farther south and a short distance inland, Bergama, in ancient times Pergamon, has welcomed visitors for 2,000 years. There are numerous sites to visit in Pergamon, though most are little more than ruins in various states of preservation. The city’s acropolis contains temples to Zeus, Athene, and Dionysus.
İzmir (ancient Smyrna), 100 km south, is Turkey’s third largest city. The big-city attitude of the locals sets them apart from the social fabric of the surrounding area. Tradition’s hold is not as firm here, especially on the waterfront, lined with cafés, chic restaurants, and boutiques. The trendy bars are mostly concentrated in the Alsancak district.
Inland from İzmir, there seems to be nothing particularly special about the little town of Sart. But once, under the name of Sardis, it was the capital of the famous kingdom of Lydia. Its most famous monarch, Croesus, lived around 500 B.C.E. Colossally wealthy because of the gold in the nearby river Pactolus, he was said to have invented currency.
The main treasures of the Aegean coast, however, are back on the coast, 75 km south of İzmir. Between Selçuk and Efes lie the ruins of the ancient Ionian city of Ephesus. Its storied past included being the site of one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the temple of Artemis. Sadly, little remains.
Ephesus is ringed by several other ancient cities. Three of these, Nyssa, Aphrodisias, and Pamukkale, have the advantage of being slightly inland and therefore off the beaten path. The main attraction at Nyssa is an especially well preserved theatre.
As its name indicates, Aphrodisias was above all a sanctuary to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Her temple’s columns still stand today. Pamukkale was made famous under the name of Hierapolis by its hot springs, which gave rise to a unique landscape: a sort of staircase of salt, each of whose “steps” is a turquoise pool.
On the coast just south of Ephesus is the seaside resort town of Kusadasi. Each year its hotels welcome tens of thousands of tourists.
The Aegean coast concludes with the lovely seaside town of Bodrum. Once known as Halicarnassus, it was the site of the Mausoleum, another one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The city of Bodrum is surrounded with beaches and inlets, ideal for swimming, diving, and boat excursions.
One of Turkey’s most beautiful regions, Cappadocia seduces visitors with its majestic landscapes carved by an exceptionally complex geological history. Over time, erosion has sculpted a sumptuous array of canyons, hoodoos, and lush valleys. The region is still home to an impressive number of rock-hewn churches, many decorated with beautiful murals.
Since time immemorial, Avanos has been home to potters who collect the red silt from the river to make their earthenware. Ürgüp, centrally located and convenient as a base, is home to a cave city. Nearby Uçhisar is well worth a stop. Its isolated peak, strategically valuable and easy to defend, was once held by the Hittites. Over time, the mountain was carved into a Swiss cheese of cave dwellings. The sight is unbelievable.
The region teems with architecturally remarkable churches and monasteries, each more beautifully decorated with paintings and mosaics than the last.
Among the many worthy attractions, Göreme stands out both for its charm and its religious art; the open-air museum beside the town houses remarkably well-preserved murals. Zelve, a village whose inhabitants had to be relocated due to the risk of landslides, is now an ideal spot for explorers.
Where on earth
The Republic of Turkey straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. The European portion, called Thrace, is separated by the Bosphorus from Anatolia, the Asian part. From there, the country borders on the Black Sea to the Caucasus Mountains, where the border curves back to the Mediterranean.
The Near Eastern country covers more than 780,000 km2, much larger than any of its neighbours. The heavily urbanized population is some 75 million, nearly all of them Muslims. There is a large Kurdish minority.