Turkey is so rich in history that you are spoilt for choice in deciding what to see and do.
Take your pick of the 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites. If that is not enough, there are 71 more on the waiting list.
Many of the interesting destinations were created during the three great civilizations — the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire.
Of course, you can go further back, right up to the early Sumerian civilization. Remember the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers? Well, the source of the rivers is here.
The reason for its rich culture and history is its location. This is where East meets West. One minute you are in Europe, and the next you have crossed the Bosphorus Strait over to Asia.
With all the interesting places to visit, having a good guide is so important. It is definitely a big bonus if he is entertaining too. We had such a guide in the person of Isa Levent Gurcavdt who could rattle off verses from the Quran and the Bible with absolute ease.
“You can tell folks back home that you met Jesus in Turkey,” he said as he introduced himself to our SA Tours group of 24 from Malaysia. (Isa is the Arabic name for Jesus).
In terms of splendour, very few buildings can rival the Hagia Sophia, our first stop during the 9-day tour. The finest example of great Byzantine architecture, this place of worship was originally a church, became a mosque and was finally turned into a museum.
It started with Emperor Justinian who believed that Constantinople, as Istanbul was known then, was the second Jerusalem and as such, needed a new House of God. He spared no expenses. Over 10,000 workers and 100 masons and architects worked day and night for 5 years, completing this masterpiece in the year 537. The Emperor was ecstatic when he first entered the building. “Solomon, I have beaten you,” he was quoted as saying.
Never mind he had spent 140 million gold Sestertius (which is equivalent to US$2 billion in today’s money) to rival King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, making it the second most expensive building in history after the Taj Mahal.
The Hagia Sophia (which means holy wisdom) was turned into a mosque in 1453 during the Ottoman Empire until 1934 when the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk converted it into a museum because he believed it is an international heritage and should not belong to one religion.
This place of worship is unique in that you can see Christian images alongside Islamic verses.
When I stepped into this building, I understood how the emperor must have felt. The dome, measuring about 30 metres in diameter and 55 metres in height, simply takes your breath away.
As on similar occasions whenever I visit other great cathedrals, I am thoroughly amazed at how builders then could construct such magnificent domes without the assistance of any of our modern equipment.
On a balcony located about 6 storeys high is where the Empress and her entourage used to worship. Women then were not allowed to worship alongside men. There are no stairs leading to this balcony. Instead, you have a long path winding its way slowly up. Wow, they have handicapped-friendly facilities in those days?
Not so, said our guide. Empresses do not walk. “They are carried on sedan chairs,” said Isa.
The hike up is a bit gruelling but it is worth it. You can have a close-up view of the mosaic paintings found all around this level.
They have been well preserved throughout the years because the Sultan had these Christian images covered with plaster.
“He did not destroy these paintings as a sign of respect for his mother who was still a Christian,” said Isa.
A short walk away is the pride of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or what is popularly known as the Blue Mosque.
Just my luck, the mosque is under renovation until May, so we were not allowed to go in. I missed seeing the glorious glow from the hand-painted blue tiles which adorn the interior walls. Even from the outside, it is a sight to behold with its 6 minarets.
“Why 6 minarets when most mosques have only 4?” I asked our guide.
“Oh, that was a miscommunication,” said Isa. The Sultan told the architect he wanted gold minarets but in the Turkish language, gold sounds similar to the number 6.
So, the Blue Mosque ended up having 6 minarets. The guide laughed after saying that, so I am not sure whether he was joking or not.
Another Ottoman Empire legacy is the Topkapi Palace which served as the home and administrative headquarters of the Sultans. The harem of the Sultan and the Tower of Justice are located in this palace complex.
The Grand Vizier and the top officials would meet in the Imperial Council building, and apparently the Sultan could hear everything which was discussed in the next room. However, none of them could ever be sure whether he was there or not.
As the harem is nearby, the Queen Mother also gets to hear what is going on. That explains why she is frequently involved in palace politics.
Oh yes, we were told by our guide that there is no such word as Ottoman in the Turkish language. “It should be the Osman Empire.” said our guide, explaining that it was named after the Sultan who founded the empire.
“Europeans could not pronounce his name, and ended up calling it Ottoman.”
Between these two great monuments is the site of the ancient Hippodrome, one of the first big projects Emperor Constantine undertook when he made this city the capital of the Byzantine Empire. He renamed the city Constantinople (or Constantine’s City). What else?
The Hippodrome, which could seat 40,000 spectators, was popular for chariot races. Imagine 12 chariots side by side racing around the track. That was how big it was. Now all that remains of the Hippodrome are an obelisk brought back from Egypt and a serpent column which was made locally. The obelisk was 30 metres high and covered with bronze. On top were silver and gold decorations.
What happened to gold and silver?
According to our guide, the Italians looted everything when they conquered the city in the 13th century. “They took the gold, silver and the bronze,” said Isa. “They left the stones behind.” Not all the ancient historical sites will leave you speechless. Many are in ruins and you will have to love history to enjoy these visits.
Take Troy for example. If not for the replica of the Trojan Horse, not many visitors would be tempted to visit this place. In the past, you could climb up and hide inside the horse like the Greeks. But a few years ago, a storm damaged this wooden structure, and now it not safe to go up.
It is now just flat dry land due to silting and the changing flow of rivers.
You are only allowed to pose for photos next to it. If you want, you can rent a soldier’s uniform from a nearby stall. Remember the 1,000 ships which came looking for Helen? If you look out from the ruins of the once-mighty walls of Troy, you cannot see the sea anymore.
But was there even a Trojan Horse to begin with? Probably not, but why let facts spoil a good story.
Another interesting destination is the Greek city of Ephesus, one of the largest excavated cities in the ancient world.
Now, this was a great city, surpassed only by Rome and Constantinople at that time. The city was so rich that they used marble for all their houses and even their roads. It played host to Marc Anthony and Cleopatra and the cost of entertaining these two celebrities over two years brought the city to bankruptcy.
A very famous monument is the Library of Celsus, one of the largest libraries in the ancient world. It used to house 12,000 to 15,000 scrolls.
There are four female statues in front of the library, Sopia (wisdom), Episteme (knowledge), Ennoia (intelligence) and Arete (virtue). I am sure they are virtues held in esteem by the people of the city.
Across from the library is the city brothel. If you are not sure how to get there, look for a stone pavement with an impression of a foot. The toe points the way.
How much will it cost? There is a hole in the ground for you to slot your coins. Fill it up, and that is how much it will cost you to visit the brothel.
Early advertising, right?
Just as impressive is the Grand Theatre which could accommodate 25,000 spectators for plays, music, religious and political events. The acoustic is so good that modern-day concerts were held here. Stars such as Elton John and Sting performed in this arena, too. Now only classical music concert is allowed as the arena had bad experiences with rock concerts.
Perhaps the most famous “guest” of Ephesus was St Paul who used the city as his base for his missionary work in the region. I will leave it to my Christian friends to relate the work, the hardships and adventures of St Paul in this region.
The hardships faced by the early Christians can also be seen at the Goreme Open Air Museum in Cappadocia. This is a unique museum as it groups together over 10 churches and chapels built inside caves spread over this hilly region.
I was in no shape to climb up to those churches on the hilly slopes. I went into only two of them on the lower level and missed seeing the beautiful paintings found in other churches.
There are basically two different styles of paintings. The first was from the early Byzantine period and they were basically simple decorations such as the Maltese Cross and floral designs.
In the later period, more elaborate paintings were commissioned, and they were about scenes from the Bible.
One cave structure which stands out is the monastery of St Basil, the most famous saint of Cappadocia. He brought together monks who used to live in isolation and advocated a new monastic lifestyle of community living. Opposite is the nunnery, an impressive 6 to 7 storey structure. No way I was going to climb up this cave structure.
Another destination which showed the suffering of the people is the underground city of Yeralti Sehri. The guide did warn us that you should not go in if you have a fear of dark and confined places, or suffering from asthma and other medical problems. These underground cities were built to hide the civilians from invading armies who sometimes stayed for as long as two years.
I hear from my fellow travellers that the underground tunnels built by the Vietcong in Vietnam are much smaller but this underground city is just as scary for me.
In some places the tunnels are dark, very low and you don’t know how long you have to go before you can stand up straight again. Worse, some places lead to dead ends to deceive the invaders, and you have to walk backwards to get out of there.
Caves are popular in this region, so we ended up staying two nights at a cave hotel. However, this is not as bad as it sounds. The Yunak Evleri Hotel has added modern facilities to the rooms and made the necessary renovations after it acquired these lodgings from the former tenants. The only hardship we encounter is the hike up to our room. Once up there, the view of the surrounding countryside is magnificent. Overall, it was a wonderful experience.
Knowing that we were from Malaysia, I guess the tour organisers wanted us to have a feel of snow. So one of the places we stopped at was at the Ferko Ilgaz mountain resort. It was snowing when we checked into our hotel at night, and continued to snow the next day. The view of the mountains and the valley from our hotel was glorious. If only the temperature was not 1 degree Celsius.
If you are conscious of your health, there are four places you can visit.
Temple of healing Pergamon
The first is the ancient Temple of Healing in Pergamon.
This was the place where the Greek god Zeus wandered around in disguise as a poor man. He was turned away everywhere he went until finally an old couple took pity on him and fed him.
As a reward, Zeus brought the couple to this spring. “Drink from here and you will have eternal life,” he told them. They did and became young again.
Many in our group drank from this spring. So far, nothing. We are still waiting. I should have filled a small bottle with this magic water to bring back for friends to try.
One of the methods used in this temple to treat patients is music. Or to be more precise, music from the mey or reed flute. Apparently, half an hour of listening to this flute music can soothe a troubled mind. I bought a CD of this flute music and anyone who has a mental problem can get a copy from me. Tell me whether it works.
If you are interested in Iranian music, there is a shop which stocks a good collection. It is located just opposite the Sultanhani Caravanserai, one of the rest stops for Silk Road travellers, on the way to Pamukkale.
The second place is in Pamukkale, famous for its hot springs. Its sulphur content is apparently good for your skin. We stayed at a hotel which was built next to one of the hot springs and we tried this treatment, too. You are advised to soak for only 20 minutes at this outdoor pool. I am not sure what happens if you stay longer. You can also enjoy this treatment from the comfort of your room. Water from this hot spring has been piped to all the bathrooms.
We are waiting to see the result of this treatment, too, but my friend Kesavan tells me that coconut oil will do just as well.
Cotton Castle in Pamukkale
You can also try the thermal spring spa of the “Cotton Castle” in Pamukkale. Ancient Greeks and Romans swore by it. They have been coming here over the centuries to the city of Hierapolis as they discovered the curative properties of the calcium springs. For me, the greater miracle is the geological wonder of a whole mountainside enveloped by a white sheet of calcium deposits. Truly a magnificent sight.
House of Virgin Mary
The fourth place is the house where the Virgin Mary lived in the last years of her life with St John. Located in Mt Koressos, 7km from Selcuk, it draws in huge crowds of Christian as well as Muslim visitors. It is especially significant to Catholics as they believe this is where Mother Mary was taken straight to heaven.
The house gained greater international exposure with the visits by two popes, the first by Pope Paul VI in July 1967 and followed by Pope John Paul II in November 1979. A stream flows near this holy ground and believers line up to drink from this source. I drank this holy water, too, but again I did not think of bringing back any for my Catholic relatives and friends. Mea Culpa.
I am an admirer of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, so I was looking forward to the visit of his monument. I had read about him in history books but I did not realise how great he is until I visited Turkey. I could feel the affection the Turks still have for him by the way our guide talked about his achievements. It is not only the modern reforms which he carried out. He was able to change the thinking of the people. This is reflected in the actions of the Turks even today.
Turkey has opened its doors to 3 million Syrian refugees even though it means an added burden to its own citizens. “It is the right thing to do,” says our guide.
I am simply impressed by the way this leader was able to persuade a country with 99 per cent Muslims to make Turkey a secular state. How did he do it? “He empowered women to bring education to the villagers,” said our guide.
Unfortunately, not enough time was given for us to find out more about Ataturk. This is one of the places I would like to visit if I ever decide to come to Turkey again. Enough of the serious stuff. There are a lot of fun things to do in Turkey. Top of the list would be going on a hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia.
Our guide was honest enough to say this is the second best ride in the world. “The most spectacular experience is seeing the migration of wild animals in Kenya from the air,” said Isa. For most of us anyway, Kenya was too far away. We were looking forward to this experience, and it was to be the highlight of our Turkey trip. For once, the heavens smiled on us.
We had to wait until the last minute before we were told that we were cleared to fly. The air balloon rides were cancelled on the previous four days because the wind conditions were not ideal. And as we were to find out later, the weather for the next four days was bad too.
On that Monday, the weather was perfect.
I braced myself for a bumpy liftoff but I was pleasantly surprised that it was very smooth. We were up, up and soaring away before we realized it.
Suddenly we were surrounded by hot air balloons of different designs and colours.
The best was yet to come, as our balloon turned towards the direction of the rising sun.
“What a sight!”
But that is just me. I love sunrises and sunsets.
Escorted by seagulls in our ferry ride over the Dardanelles
Just as enjoyable was the 2-hour cruise along the Bosphorus where we could see all the major landmarks of Istanbul on both sides of the waterway. Equally fascinating was the ferry ride from Canakkale where you are escorted all the way by seagulls.
Of course, no visit to Turkey would be complete without seeing the famous belly dancing. It was a 2-hour show but the actual belly dancing was only about 30 minutes.
The rest of the show was about other local music and dances. Now here’s Turkish hospitality at its best. You can drink as much as you want, and they are free.
You are encouraged to try the local liquor but there were very few takers among us old folks.
Oh yes, you can shop till you drop at the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar.
Grand bazaar and spice bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is so big that it is more likely that you will shop till you get lost. There are over 4,000 shops, covering 60 streets. Before entering the bazaar, our guide advised us to follow the main corridor and come back to it if we decide to enter any of side streets. “The shops all look alike. You will get lost,” he said.
What can you find in the bazaar? Everything. Well almost. Jewelry, carpets, pottery, antiques, handicrafts, souvenirs, lamps, textiles, T-shirts, hats, and even belly dancing costumes.
The Spice Bazaar is not as big as the Grand Bazaar but it is just as colourful. This was the centre for the spice trade in Istanbul since the early days of the Ottoman Empire.
There are 85 shops selling all types of spices, Turkish delight and sweets, herbal remedies, Turkish coffee, dried fruits and nuts. We were a bit cautious about buying stuff at these two places because we had bought two expensive items a few days earlier. The first item was a small hand woven carpet which we had bought during a visit to a carpet weaving centre. The carpet, measuring 82cm by 58cm, cost us US$300.
The next day, we decided to spoil ourselves during the visit to a leather jacket factory. My sheepskin jacket cost US$600 while my wife paid US$650 for her suede/leather jacket. If it is modern shopping you want, head towards Taksim Square, a popular gathering place of locals and tourists. Shops, restaurants and hotels flanked both sides of a long pedestrian shopping street which is also served by a old fashioned tram.
Parades and other celebrations are held here as the Monument of the Republic is also located here.
On the way to the airport, we drove past Pera Palace Hotel. Here in Room 411, Agatha Christie wrote the very popular murder mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express. If I do come back here, I would love to visit this hotel and as a James Bond fan, I would like to retrace the location shots from the three Bond movies, From Russia With Love, The World Is Not Enough and Skyfall.
Yes folks, I enjoyed this Turkey trip very much and I look forward to my next visit because this country has so much more delights to offer.
Siks Mikah travels frequently & believes that humility opens doors inward and outward.