Everything happened all of a sudden.
All of a sudden daylight beat down on the earth…
And there was love all of a sudden,
Happiness all of a sudden.
– Orhan Veli Kanik, All Of A Sudden
After a thousand and one nights on the road, passing through vast tracts of Africa and Europe, culminating in an idyllic sojourn in Greece, all of a sudden I find myself in my final destination: Turkey. From Samos island, I hop on a hydrofoil and follow the Aegean coast from Kusadasi to Canakkale, passing through magnificent ruins in Ephesus, Pergamon, and Troy, and the beautiful coastal cities of Izmir and Ayvalik. I make a pit stop in Bursa, the first Ottoman capital in the 14th century, before heading to Istanbul for a break in the journey. Then the road takes me through an Ultimate Turkey itinerary covering Ottoman towns and the Black Sea, Kurdish cities, and the Mediterranean coast. Safranbolu, Ankara, Cappadocia, Trabzon, Kars, Van, Diyarbakir, Mardin, Adiyaman, Sanliurfa, Gaziantep, Mersin, Konya, Antalya, Fethiye, Marmaris, Bodrum, and back to Izmir and the capital city. A wild six-week adventure, a grand bouquet final to my three-year odyssey. As I stand on the iconic Galata Bridge in Istanbul, the words of Turkish poet, Orhan Veli Kanik, come to mind: I am listening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed. What a rich collage of sounds, colours, and images in my long journey home…
Cotton Castle Pamukkale
One of the early images I had of Turkey was Pamukkale, a mesmerizing snow-white landscape of cascading terrace pools with a dramatic mountain backdrop. Meaning “cotton castle” in Turkish, Pamukkale has been famous for therapeutic mineral-rich waters since Antiquity. From the southern gate, I stroll up the travertine barefoot, dipping my toes here and there, relaxing in the spring water, before reaching the castle where the sprawling ruins of the ancient healing holy city of Hierapolis spread in front of you. A cathedral basilica here, a Roman gate there, the Cleopatra’s pool not far from the agora, and an impressive theatre and the famous Martyrion where Philip the Apostle was believed to be martyred. One can hardly find a better introduction to the magnificent nature and history of Turkey!
Wonder of the World: Ephesus
Three hours from Pamukkale lies the tranquil town of Selcuk famous for the ancient Greek city of Ephesus with some of the most monumental buildings in Asia Minor. In the 3000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site, one finds a grand theatre (with a capacity for 24,000 spectators!), a magnificent Temple of Hadrian, an impressive Library of Celsus, and a timeless Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. What splendour!
Izmir by the Sea
From Selcuk, it is an easy hour-long train ride to reach Izmir by the sea where I find everything that I like about Turkey: a bustling old bazaar and heaps of delicious treats, ultra-friendly folks and vibrant neighbourhoods. A seafront promenade is always a bonus! I love getting lost in the meandering lanes of the Kizlaragasi caravansary before somehow finding my way to Alsancak to enjoy thick Turkish coffee in a hip cafe housed in an old, elegant Ottoman villa.
Pergamon and the Missing Altar
From Izmir, it is easy to reach Pergamon, the rich and powerful Attalid dynasty capital from the 3rd century BC. I hitch a short ride from the imposing Red Basilica to the sprawling Acropolis, with gymnasium and Roman baths, temples and stoas, one of the best preserved theatres overlooking the modern city of Bergama and the second largest library in ancient Greece with over 200,000 volumes. But the crown jewel – the Pergamon Altar – is missing. In 1864, a German civil engineer, Carl Humann, arrived in Pergamon to explore road building possibilities and tumbled upon the archaeological treasure. Fifteen years later, “with agreement by the Ottoman Sultan,” German archaeologists started moving the Altar, including a massive 100m-long and 2m high frieze depicting the mythological battle between the Gods of Mount Olympus and the Giants, to Berlin. Despite calls by the Turkish government to prove the legality of the acquisition and mass signature campaigns to have it returned to Turkey, it remains in Germany today as one of the most priced item in the Collection of Antiquities. What’s in a freize? you may ask. Nothing but battles!
Battle of Troy and the Children of Canakkale
From Bergama, I return to the Aegean coast and stop in Ayvalik, an Ottoman trading centre famous for her Greek heritage, neoclassical mansions, seaside taverns, and resort islands. I continue along the coast to reach the 4000-year-old city of Troy, immortalized by Homer’s poem, Iliad. If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy/my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies. In the nearby port city of Canakkale, a no less epic battle unfolded in the bloody Gallipoli Campaign in 1915 where Britain, France and Russia tried but failed to weaken the Ottoman Empire, giving birth to the Republic of Turkey under Ataturk and the “children of Canakkale”.
God’s Gift: Bursa
From Canakkale, it is a long straight highway to Bursa, the former Ottoman capital in the 14th century. Known as “God’s Gift” in Turkish, the city is known for her Grand Mosque and historic caravanserai, bustling bazaar and relaxing hot springs, green parks and dramatic mountain setting. I arrive in Bursa on the last day of Ramadan to find the old bazaar packed with shoppers preparing for Eid. I move from Fidan Han to Koza Han, weaving through the crowd, reaching Gevve Han and Balibey Han before walking atop Tophane Park with a panoramic view of the old city. On my descent, I join a long queue at Gulluoglu patisserie to buy a kilo of pistachio baklava for my friend in Istanbul to celebrate a well deserved sweet holiday.
Stranded in Istanbul
Arriving in Istanbul on the auspicious occasion of Eid, I am giddy with excitement to revisit the city since my last month-long stay in 2007. The memory is still so fresh, from Hagia Sophia to the Blue Mosque, Tokapi Palace and excursions along the Bosphorus, modern art museums and film fest, endless rounds of ultra-sweet Turkish tea and exotic pastries…
In my excitement to capture a sunrise photo over the Marmaris the first morning, I step onto a piece of broken glass in my friend’s balcony, cutting a tendon (ouch!) that grounds me for two full weeks. Life can’t be all that bad,’ i’d think from time to time. ‘Whatever happens, I can always take a long walk along the Bosphorus, Orhan Pamuk rightfully says. Even absent the walks, I can hardly complain finding myself unexpectedly stranded in the magical, timeless city. Over delicious extended Turkish breakfast, washed down with endless cups of cay and the latest updates on electoral politics – every bit as bitter as Turkish coffee – my friend nurses me back to robust health, helping me stand on steady ground again. No time is lost: I am introduced to the soulful music of Mercan Dede, the witty lyrics of Murat Akay, and the alphabet soup of Turkish politics: AKP, CHP, HEP, PKK, IYI! Quickly, I forget about my tiny tendon!
Finally, I half limp to town, testing my foot, through an improvised DIY walking tour that takes me from the posh neighbourhood of Bakirkoy to the Grand Bazaar, trying to capture this magnificent city – and country – at a crossroad…
Dr. Abdulrahman examines my stitches one last time and gives me green light to tour the rest of Turkey as planned. With a half steady foot, I head out to Safranbolu, an exquisite Ottoman town with a colourful Roman, Byzantine, and Seljuk legacy dating back to 3000 BC. The saffron-rich city was once a wealthy trading centre in the caravan route in the 13th century with a gorgeous old town filled with hundreds of well preserved red-roofed Ottoman houses lining cobblestone streets. Climb a flight of stairs from the 17th-century caravansary – no small feat in my case – and one is rewarded with a handsome view of the entire valley. Every step – and breath – is worth the effort!
Sweet Reunion in Ankara
Most visitors skip or pass through Ankara, the flat capital city, en route to central or east Turkey. I am here to meet up with a former student, now a professor in the US whom I have not seen for over a decade. A quintessential Turkish host, she shows me Anitkabir, the mausoleum complex of Ataturk, and the beautiful castle and old town area. Over ice-cream, coffee, and a big, fat Turkish gastronomic dinner at the Atakule Tower, we catch up on our academic life that thankfully, in my case, belongs to the past!
It is not everyday that one steps out to find a daybreaking sky filled with rising balloons over spellbinding rock formations. At five thirty in the morning, the orange glow lights up Goreme and the adjacent valley while waves of hot-air balloons drift in front of your eyes like in a dream or a Super 8 film…
Most visitors join tours to hike in the valleys, getting up close to the fairy chimneys, not really an option in view of my healing tendon. I take a bus to Uchisar and wander around the castle instead before venturing further to the incredible underground city in Derinkuyu, a sprawling maze of passages and caves designed to shelter over 20,000 people to protect inhabitants during the Arab-Byzantine wars (780 and 1180 CE). Then, legendary Turkish hospitality comes to my rescue. Pinar, a young university student whom I met on the night bus, and her photographer father take me to the Goreme Open Air Museum with medieval rock churches set in a surrealistic landscape and then drive to Urgup and Avanos, passing through spectacular landscapes of iconic rock formations that once sheltered persecuted Christians. Despite the hype, it is impossible not to succumb to the magic of Cappadocia!
A Detour to Divrigi
En route to the Black Sea in Northern Turkey, I take a detour through Sivas to visit the world heritage site of Divrigi, known for exquisite stone carvings and the medieval architecture of the Grand Mosque and Hospital. Though I only get to see the doors (closed for renovation) and the imposing castle nearby, the beautiful drive through the bucolic heartland of Turkey and the picturesque train ride to Erzincan flanked by snow-capped mountains are worth the diversion.
Trabzon in the Rain
In Rhodes island in Greece, I met Ozgur who raved about his home city of Trabzon on the Black Sea. The picturesque Sumela Monastery (386CE) nestled in a steep cliff deep in a national park and Uzungol, a popular lakeside destination en route to Rize famous for tea plantations, are both attractive for sure. But Trabzon under the rain is not my kind of thing and I am only too happy to board yet another night bus bound for Kars.
The Siege of Kars
Set on a high plateau in northeast Turkey, near the Armenian border, Kars was the capital of the Bagratid Kingdom between 929 and 961 and the site of many battles between Armenian, Turkish, and Russian empires. In addition to the hilltop castle overlooking the meandering Kars River offering an expansive view as far as Armenia, the city has a laid-back frontier town feel and a vibrant bazaar filled with delicious local treats. Most travellers come here to visit the remote ruins in Ani, a magnificent 11th-century Armenian ghost city.
Magical Van Life
For those who do make it to Eastern Turkey, 1,500km away from Istanbul, Van is a popular destination famous for many things. Known for her breakfast tradition to nourish travellers along the Silk Road, morning banquets are elaborate fares with a dizzying spread of grilled sausage and eggs, cheeses and olives, salads and pastries, and cup after cup of strong tea and coffee. Then it is time to head to the scenic lake for a leisurely BBQ – and a nap – or an excursion to picturesque Akdamar Island frequented by Iranian tourists who enjoy impromptu ferry dance parties at a healthy distance from the authoritarian regime. The impressive 3000-year-young Van castle is an hour away back in the city centre and no bus is forthcoming. Kaan, a motorcyclist, gives me a thrilling ride the whole way, letting me taste what magical Van life must be like!
Morning After in Diyarbakir
I arrive in Diyarbakir at five in the morning, not knowing the election results. Second round! a local exclaims. The morning after in the Kurdish-majority city with an opposition stronghold takes on a subdued – if not dejected – tone. I walk along the impressive 6km long Roman city walls, second only to the Great Wall of China, in its full morning splendour, trying to capture delicate shadows along its various gates and towers before taking a stroll in old town, passing through the Grand Mosque and the caravanserai. Locals tell me about a thousand-year-old Ten-Eyed bridge nearby where I see the gentle-flowing Tigris River for the first time and imagine the Kurdish cities on the Iraqi side. Next time!
Mardin and Her Architecture
Only an hour away from Diyarbakir is the gem of a historical city of Mardin filled with exquisite Artuqid architecture, old churches and mosques, and local snacks. This is a soulful place set in a hill with an expansive view worthy of slow explorations in an extended stay. Once again, I am mesmerized by the interplay between light and shadow in Mardin’s narrow lanes and exquisite old buildings.
Sanliurfa and the World’s First Temple
Nicknamed the “City of Prophets” and the “Jerusalem of Anatolia”, Sanliurfa is considered as a holy site by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. The birthplace of Abraham, the city was also the place where God supposedly tested Job and where King Nimrod threw Abraham into a fire in Balikligol. I awake early to wander through photogenic old town where locals sit down to enjoy a hearty breakfast Urfa style with grilled eggplants and cheese and all. Pilgrims gather in the birth cave of Abraham and linger in the mosque and the nearby holy pool. A short bus ride away is Gobekli Tepe, arguably the world’s first temple dating back to 9000BCE with some of the most intricate stone carvings of fox and ducks, reptiles and boars, vultures and wolverines.
From Adiyaman to Nemrut
I had not planned to visit earthquake affected areas in southeast Turkey but the route to Nemrut takes me through the devastated city of Adiyaman. It is heartbreaking to see so many homes destroyed but amazing to witness locals’ resilience to rebuild their lives.
An hour away from the city on top of one of the highest peaks of the Eastern Taurus mountain lies an impressive temple-tomb and house of the gods built by the Hellenistic King Antiochos I of Commagene (69 BCE) in a kingdom founded north of Syria and the Euphrates after the breakup of Alexander’s empire. Giant limestone statues flanked by guardian animals mounted on altar platforms in various terraces make such an impression. I arrive at six in the evening when the setting sun casts a golden glow on the 2000-year-old tomb and the surrounding landscape. Another magical moment!
The center of pistachio cultivation with extensive olive groves and vineyards, Gaziantep is an epicurean city on the silk route famous for food and tradition. From the castle, I roam from one caravanserai to another, passing through the famous copper market before arriving in the spice and ceramic sections and ending with a piping hot spicy lahmacun/thin pizza in hand…
Mersin and Konya
With the vast northeastern part now behind me, I make a pit stop in the port city of Mersin on the Mediterranean coast before turning inland towards the holy city of Konya, a pilgrimage destination for Sufis and fans of Rumi. In addition to the magnificent mosques and medressas, the main draw here is the Mevlana Museum, originally a lodge for whirling dervishes and now home to the mausoleum of the Persian Sufi mystic, Rumi. This place is a dream… Then death comes like dawn, and you wake up laughing at what you thought was your grief...
From Antalya to Bodrum
I spend one last week exploring the turquoise coast from Antalya to Kas, Fethiye, Marmaris, and Bodrum. This is the heart of the ancient Lycian civilization (15th century BCE), a treasure trove of some of the best archaeological ruins in Turkey. From Antalya, I make day trips to Termessos, Side, Perge, and Olympos, all impressive sprawling sites filled with ancient city walls and agoras, temples and basilicas, bridges and colonnaded streets, monumental tombs and theatres…
Arriving in the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts during a long weekend is barely advisable. The capital of tourism in Turkey, with shopping malls and hotel chains, expat villas and mega yachts, has also become the destination of choice for Russians who flee military draft sine the Ukraine War. I find little reason to linger and hurry to return to my beloved city of Izmir…
What an adventurous whirlwind tour of colourful Turkey that takes me from the Aegean coast to the capital city, along the Black Sea, before reaching the rugged, mountainous east and Kurdish southeast, and escaping from the overdeveloped Turkish Rivera. Above all, I feel blessed to be in Turkey during a pivotal time when locals head to the ballots to decide on their future. Alas, the incumbent president gets re-elected, bringing great uncertainty in the times ahead. My unexpected foot injury, time off, and new pace only made the whole trip more intense. Everything feels legendary in Turkey from the history to the landscapes, gastronomy to people’s hospitality. What a befitting place to end my grand three-year journey. Teşekkürler!
I looked at the world from a shore
Salt on my hands, psoriasis on my palm, psoriasis on my palm
A clear blue
Longing for freedom hits my heart
A person who will save the world with beauty
Everything starts with love.
– Zulfu Livaneli, Ada/Island
Next: Hong Kong!
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