Turkey: The Beginnings of History

Ancient sites and stories come to life in this varied locale.

By: By Kevin Moloney


Information on Turkey’s UNESCO sites, where to stay near each site and travel tips to navigate your way through Turkey.
By Judy Koutsky

Goreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia
Cappadocia is often viewed as one of the highlights of Turkey as it’s a region where nature and history combine to create beautiful scenery. It became a UNESCO Site in 1985 and UNESCO describes it as “a spectacular landscape, entirely sculpted by erosion, the Goreme valley and its surroundings contain rock-hewn sanctuaries that provide unique evidence of Byzantine art in the post-Iconoclastic period. Dwellings, troglodyte villages and underground towns — the remains of a traditional human habitat dating back to the 4th century — can also be seen there.”

Cappadocia was formed at the center of a volcanic region millions of years ago. Two large volcanoes erupted with such force that in some places the once molten lava is up to 330 feet thick. Over time, wind and weather have sculpted the Cappadocian landscape, forming the pinnacles and peaks known as “fairy chimneys.”

Neolithic man was first to carve the rock into inhabitable caves; early Christians followed by building and enlarging natural caves to create underground cities, monasteries and churches. The labyrinth of caves also features ventilation shafts and false tunnels built for defense and often used as places of refuge.

Historic Areas of Istanbul
Istanbul is the only city in the world located on two continents — Europe and Asia. During its 2,000-year history, it has been the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.

UNESCO added the Historic Areas of Istanbul to its list in 1985. The organization notes, “With its strategic location on the Bosphorus peninsula between the Balkans and Anatolia, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, Istanbul has been associated with major political, religious and artistic events for more than 2,000 years. Its masterpieces include the ancient Hippodrome of Constantine, the 6th-century Hagia Sophia and the 16th-century Suleymaniye Mosque.”

The impressive Hagia Sophia, built by Byzantine Emperor Constantine in the 4th century and reconstructed by Justinian in 537 A.D., boasts an immense dome rising nearly 200 feet above the ground and more than 100 feet in diameter. The Ottomans converted the basilica to a mosque in the 15th century, but today the Hagia Sophia serves as a public museum, known for its fine Byzantine mosaics.

Istanbul’s historic city walls stretch over four miles from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn. The walls were built in the 5th century by Emperor Theodosius II. The many towers and bastions of the structure, most of which have been recently restored, made it one of the mightiest fortifications in Europe.

Archaeological Site of Troy
In 1998, UNESCO added the Archaeological Site of Troy to its list, noting that “Troy, with its 4,000 years of history, is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. The first excavations at the site were undertaken by the famous archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in 1870. In scientific terms, its extensive remains are the most significant demonstration of the first contact between the civilizations of Anatolia and the Mediterranean world. Moreover, the siege of Troy by Spartan and Achaean warriors from Greece in the 13th or 12th century B.C., immortalized by Homer in the “Iliad,” has inspired great creative artists throughout the world ever since. The archaeological site of Troy is of immense significance in the understanding of the development of European civilization at a critical stage in its early development.”

Many people visit Troy because the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” have made this destination one of the most recognizable in Turkey. Nine different civilizations were based here and the history as well as the architectural remains continually attract tourists.

Goreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia:
Cappadocia Hotel: For a very unique experience stay at the Serinn House, a unique cave hotel that incorporates cutting-edge design with the natural caves. The hotel has amazing views of the town and surrounding mountains and it’s intimate, with only five guestrooms. The hotel blends beautifully with its surroundings as the caves have been restored without any structural additions. The natural feel of the caves combined with first-class amenities like wireless Internet access and custom-made toiletries make this hotel quite popular with travelers. 90-384-341-60-76 www.serinnhouse.com

Historic Areas of Istanbul:
The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul: The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul, is a favorite of many travelers because the Bosphorus Straight and the continent of Asia can be viewed from the panoramic windows. While a modern-looking hotel from the outside, cherry-wood floors, miles of marble, silk bed covers and Murano chandeliers recreate the grandeur of the Middle East of a bygone era.

For the ultimate pampering, stay in the Ritz-Carlton Suite on the 14th floor. The suite is decorated with beautiful handcrafted furniture and carpets that reflect the Ottoman period. The marble bathroom is surrounded by views of the Bosphorus from the luxury of the tub. A gold-plated bed adds to the royal atmosphere of the room. The suite has a bedroom, spacious living room, dining room with kitchenette and private butler service.

The hotel is near a variety of top sights including the Blue Mosque, one of the architectural masterpieces of the city; the Grand Bazaar with over 4,000 shops; and the Topkapi Palace, which served as the seat of the sultan into the 19th century. www.ritzcarlton.com

Goreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia: Visitors can explore this amazing area by foot, horseback, mountain bike or one of Cappadocia’s celebrated hot-air balloon tours. Urgup is approximately 45 miles (around a one-hour drive) from Kayseri (Erkilet Airport) in central Turkey. Turkish Airlines and Pegasus Airlines operate two to three flights a day from/to Istanbul to/from Kayseri. The flight schedule changes in winter and summer.
Pegasus Airlines
Turkish Airlines

Historic Areas of Istanbul: For those looking for a new way to explore Istanbul, boats tour along the Bosphorus in grand vessels fashioned after those of the Ottoman sultans. The Sultan Kayiklari (Sultan’s Boat) provides the most authentic way to tour the waters that separate Istanbul’s Asian and European shores. The Sultan’s Boat tours are themed around the three great water-side palaces of the city — the only tour boats permitted by the National Palace Board to shuttle between these monuments. Along the route architectural wonders, both ancient and contemporary, are to be found, including the Topkapi Palace.

Archaeological Site of Troy: Troy is quite popular on the weekends, so visit midweek for the best experience. Also, since the area is vast and filled with so much history, it’s best to book a guided tour. A visit to the Troy Open Air Museum is recommended. Tour operators in Istanbul can arrange for side trips to Troy.

Turkish Culture and Tourism Office

Pillars of Civilization

Pillars of Civilization CoverPlease visit our Guides & Brochures page to browse a full version of our Pillars of Civilization supplement.

Turkey, and more importantly, southern Turkey, is a living, interactive expression of the beginnings of history. Grand buildings and preserved cities in which humankind’s quest to forge a stable and honest system of administration still stand amid the dramatic and harsh landscape.

From Apollo and Artemis, the legendary gods and goddesses whose temples remain today, to Alexander the Great, whose reforms and influence shaped much of our civilized principles, the ancient legacies echo among the collection of ruins.

The Celsius Library of Ephesus is one of the most intact buildings left in the ancient city // (c) Djenan KozicWhile Turkey’s ancient sites dominate the landscape and offer a representation of Persian, Greek and Roman influences, the religious significance of the country’s history is as strong today as it was in the time of Christ.

For the adventurer and seeker of historical roots, Turkey can provide a foray into the ancient past.

The ferry ride from the Greek island of Samos to the Turkish town of Kusadasi leaves daily at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Two separate ferry companies operate the short crossing and clever negotiations can bring the price down from about $60 to $40, leaving a few euros for some questionable coffee onboard.

Ninety minutes later, jostling for position in the harbor, the ferry gently docks in the shadows of cruise ships. The new dockside terminal pushes passengers through at a great rate. The shoulder tourist season of late September is a busy time in Kusadasi. Within a month, the bitter Turkish winter will shut down the town as local traders and tour operators close shop and flee until March. From September to March there’s not much going on here at all.

Fifiteen years ago Kusadasi was a quiet little fishing village servicing the occasional cruise ship. Now, anywhere between 1,000 and 4,000 other passengers descend on the town from the ships daily. They disperse into the city in search of good shopping bargains and the more adventurous travel beyond its limits to visit ancient sites.

The city has since grown and the surrounding hills which were once carpeted with olive groves now form part of the metropolis with sky-scraping apartment blocks and nondescript commercial buildings. But the old part of town, which is still a vibrant residential quarter, has enough Turkish flavor to keep a tourist occupied in sightseeing pursuits.

“The Island” is an ancient, stone battlement which sits at the end of a short causeway at the mouth of the tiny harbor. Its original purpose was to defend the city from unwelcome invaders but now a collection of al fresco restaurants serve delectable seafood meals and fine wines.

The restaurants are busy in a lazy, Aegean and authentic style. The food is cheap and usually included in the price of a meal is a towel and sun-bed rental. After lunch, patrons happily sun themselves on the wide timber decking, occasionally dipping into the cool, clean water.

Overlooking the town, high on a hill, is a giant statue of Ataturk — the first president of Turkey and the pillar of a modern civilized Turkey. Ataturk embarked upon a major program of political, economic and cultural reforms and transformed the ruins of the Ottoman Empire into a democratic nation. Like a tourist guide, his outstretched arm points north toward Izmir and Ephesus and the other to ancient sites of the country.

A 20-minute drive from Kusadasi in a minivan called a dolmush (which literally means “to stuff’) is the preserved ancient city of Ephesus. Most of Ephesus’ visible treasure stands above ground, with substantial remnants of tall stone buildings lining the broad streets. But recent excavations have literally unearthed ancient history of habitation as far back as the bronze and Neolithic age of about 6000 B.C.

Further archaeological work hints toward the main city’s role as an established residential hub around the 10th century B.C. It was originally built two miles from the current site on Ayasuluk Hill in the rugged and testing Turkish countryside by the Greeks and its founder, Androklos, the Prince of Athens, was mythical. But mythology is the primary resident of Ephesus, and Androklos drew the 12 cities of Ionia together to form the Ionain League.

The stone streets of Ephesus today are patinated with a fine film of rubber left by the running shoes of a million visitors, but throughout history they have been awash with blood. Revolts under Persian rule were staged here in about 500 B.C. during the Greco-Persian wars where gladiatorial battles were the order of the day. It wasn’t until 150 years later, when Alexander the Great defeated foreign forces, that Asia Minor was liberated. Alexander was readily accepted and venerated in Ephesus, which makes the site even more historically significant.

Ownership of the city changed hands several times from the Greeks to Egyptians, and then to the Romans, who were not the most hospitable landlords. They smashed the city and killed most of its residents. Down Ephesus’ main street past the Roman Theater and the remnants of several Roman bath houses and aqueducts, is the opportunity to see history unfold before one’s eyes.

Under an elaborately constructed canopy which protects from the blistering sun, teams of archaeologists faithfully restore a Roman settlement known as the Terrace Houses. From the network of suspended boardwalks, the murals, mosaics and arches of grand residences come to life below. The works add a modern-day dimension to an otherwise ancient time.

It’s hot at Ephesus. In winter it freezes but in high summer temperatures soar to 120 degrees and there is precious little shade in the entire city. Sun protection for the visitor is as important as sturdy footwear.

Away from the massive crowds of Ephesus, but still in southern Turkey, other ancient and equally interesting sites are easily accessible.

Outside the modern-day town of Selcuk (pronounced Sell-chook) is the site of the Temple of Artemis, the Greek goddess. While little remains of the temple today, it was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and once the largest building in all of civilization.

Around the time of Christ, this region had an important position on the world stage. Mary reputedly lived on the hill overlooking the city, four miles from Selcuk. The ruins of her house remain today and a much-visited church still stands on the site. (Three popes have made the pilgrimage.) This is also the district from which Paul, a disciple of Christ, is said to have written his letters to the Corinthians.

Selcuk is rich in Christian history and home to the impressive Basilica of St. John, constructed by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It stands over the believed burial site of St. John — Christ’s apostle and author of the Fourth Gospel. The religious significance of St. John and St. Paul stand as pillars of current-day Christianity.

Seventy-five miles east of Kusadasi, in the Maender Valley, is the ancient city of Aphrodisias, one of Turkey’s most important sites. The sanctuary of goddess Aphrodite, the city’s patron, Aphrodisias enjoyed a long and prosperous existence from the 1st century B.C. through to the 6th century A.D. Many of the city’s ancient monuments remain standing, and excavations have unearthed a trove of fine marble statues and artifacts. The extraordinary preservation of this site reveals ruins of immense beauty, bringing the civic culture of the Greco-Roman world to life.

Aphrodisias is much less crowded than Ephesus due to its distance from Izmir, where the ships dock, which makes a visit appealing. By renting a car, the trip to Aphrodisias can be extended by venturing a little farther east to the white calcium baths in Pammukale, which translates in English to Cotton Castle. While there are further Roman ruins to explore here, the unique baths offer an alternative to ancient sites.

From Kusadasi, Didyma is an easy 30-minute drive. Religiously important as the home of the Temple of Apollo, Artemis’ twin, Didyma and the neighboring ancient city of Prienne offer spectacular insights into Turkey’s role in civilization’s history. Remnants of The Sacred Way, which linked the temple of Artemis and Apollo, can still be walked today.

Using the city of Kusadasi as a base allows access to dozens of important and ancient sites of southwest Turkey. Exploring is easy — deciding which sites to visit first is difficult.