Tour of West Anatolia
Ancient highlights of West Turkey
Tour of West Turkey: Istanbul, the trenches of Çanakkale, ancient Troy, the Acropolis and Asklepieion of Pergamon, Selçuk and the Artemis temple of Ephesus, the stadium of Aphrodisias, the white limestone terraces of Pamukkale, Egirdir and the swirling derwishes of Konya, the fantastic tuff formations of Cappadocia and the capital Ankara.
Travelogue and photos: Ronald Wilfred Jansen
East and west meet in a modern city
Istanbul, Turkey's historically most important city, lies between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara. That already sounds like a fairy tale from 1001 Nights. Upon my arrival in Istanbul, though, I find myself in a modern city.
Istanbul displays both western and eastern cultural influences. Enterprises, modern office towers and roads in good condition show its western face. I also see Turkish women with sunglasses and cell phones look at windows of jewelry stores.
But the sound of prayers from the mosques and women in black gowns show its eastern aspect. When they're outdoors, they are often accompanied by a man. Don't take pictures of these very religious people without asking first, it will be considered an insult. The prayers from the mosques aren't said on the spot, but are received by phone.
Religion still plays and important part in society. Friday is the Muslim day of rest, people visit mosques and bath houses. It is not a problem to visit a mosque as a non-Muslim, provided one is dressed modestly. Women should cover their hair. Before entering a mosque, one is required to take off one's shoes.
I visit Istanbul during Ramadan and experience the half-heartedness of its inhabitants. Near mosques one can't drink alcohol. But a waiter who notices we want a drink, brings us raki in a plastic cup.
Some restaurants don't serve beer during Ramadan; others do, but only after 9 PM. Western businesses like McDonald's serve their complete menus, also during the daytime.
As a pedestrian in Istanbul's busy traffic, one has to pay attention at all times: it's the survival of the fittest. In the south-western part of the city beats the heart of Istanbul's civilization: the neighborhood of Sultanahmet in the borough of Eminönü, the oldest part of the city.
In Sultanahmet one finds the wonderful historical landmarks of Istanbul. At the head of the peninsula sits Topkapi palace, with an incomparable view of the Bosporus and the Golden Horn. From 1465 to 1853 this was the residence of the Ottoman sultans.
Nowadays Topkapi houses a museum with artefacts from the sultans' daily lives. The religious highlight is a collection of relics of the prophet Mohammed. The legendary harem can only be visited on a guided tour.
Among the other landmarks are Yerebatan Sarayi ("sunken palace"), Sultan Ahmet Camii (Blue Mosque) and Aya Sofya Camii Müzesi. From the outside, these are all impressive buildings.
Inside, they're beautiful and richly decorated: large domed spaces, mosaics, tapestries and minarets. Wandering around, I imagine the people who walked here through the ages. Inside, I experience something of the eastern atmosphere and history of Istanbul.
After a visit to the Galata Bridge, it's nice to get a breath of fresh air during a boat tour of the Bosporus. From the boat one has a wonderful view of the wide river. On and around the bridge there is a lot to see: fishermen, fishing boats, stalls. During the boat trip, we pass the Europe Bridge and some old fortresses and buildings.
Just as with everything else, one has to be aware of how much to pay for a boat tour. We are offered a one-hour tour voor four people for 100 lira. After negotiating it becomes 60 lira. On the other side of the bridge it turns out it's possible to have a one-and-a-half-hours boat tour in a larger boat for 6 lira per person.
On boarding, a welcome drink is offered. Later the waiter wants us to pay for it, an annoying phenomenon. Some tourists refuse to pay for the 2 lira drinks and the ship's muscle man is called in. It's a matter of not allowing oneself to be intimidated, explain what happened and still not pay.
I spend a lot of time in the huge, partly indoor bazar, a maze of specialized shopping streets. There is so much to see: fabric, jewelry, carpets and books. Also interesting for the photographer, because of all the people, colors and patterns.
After negotiating, merchandise from these stores is acceptably priced. A visit to a so-called workshop where hand-woven carpets are made can be misleading. In the front one sees women hand weave carpets, but the question is whether the expensive carpets that are eventually offered for sale, are handwoven at all.
If you show interest, sales people in those workshops tend to get annoyingly pushy. Keep your head cool and don't let the drinks tempt you to buy anything.
Çanakkale and Troy
Modern trenches and ancient sacrificial sites
Our group of travellers takes a ferry from Istanbul to the Asian part of Turkey. A coach takes us westward to Çanakkale, a quiet port town on the narrow passage of the Dardanelles. It's pleasant here and people are friendly.
From Çanakkale one can take a ferry to Gallipoli National Park, which houses memorials and trenches from World War I. It's a nationalistic display. The French and the British fought against the Turks and Germans here, in a botched attempt to control the Dardanelles, which should have connected them with the Russian fleet in the Black Sea. Some of the tombs on the coast are beautifully located. It's a vast area, so it takes time to see everything.
From Çanakkale we travel along the Aegean coast. On the way to Bergama we visit the excavations of the legendary Troy. All that remains are a few recognizable ruins: parts of the old city walls, a gate, roads and a sacrificial site.
It's a good idea to hire a good guide in Troy. Our guide, Mustafa Akin, was born in Troy, where he also grew up. He studied Economy and English; archeology is his hobby. He is knowledgable and enthousiastically tells us everything about his Troy.
On the archeological site of Troy roam many feral cats and dogs. Take their pictures, but don't pet them: they have flees and a bite can cause a bacterial infection.
Pergamon was the center of art and science
From Troy our company leaves for Bergama. In this lively, rural town are the remains of the Greek city of Pergamon. In the second century B.C. this city was the center of art and science in Asia Minor. Its Acropolis is extraordinarilly beautiful.
The wishing trees are remarkable: people write a wish on a piece of paper and hang it in the tree. They expect their wishes to come true.
Speaking of wishes: don't miss a visit to the Asklepion, the sanatorium. In this sanctuary people hoped to be healed by the god Asklepios.
It's remarkable how much of these very old buildings in Turkey have been preserved: streets, columns, even the old well.
What makes it even more wonderful is the setting of these ruins in the usually dry and mountainous landscape. We are here early in the morning, when the light has a warm hue, which makes for better photos.
Selçuk and Ephesus
The temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the world
Next, we travel to Selçuk and Ephesus, which was a large Ionian port in antiquity. Contrary to what some guide books say, it's nice here. In the atmospheric marketplace are stalls and there are concerts. We are treated to a performance of the local music group Elym.
Worth visiting in Selçuk are the 6th century St. John basilica and the archeological museum. And in Ephesus the huge Artemis temple, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Nearby beach resorts like Kusadasi have a vapid atmosphere, with all their commerciality.
In commercial centers like these, waiters and inhabitants are more forward. There are lots of British with bare, fat bellies.
Apparently tourists are mainly considered a source of income here. Waiters like to look in your bags to see what you bought; people also seem to like to ridicule us a little.
For every excursion in the surroundings of Selçuk several guides offer their services. It's important to find out how knowledgeable they are and also to make a clear agreement about the price. Don't be tempted by drinks that are apparently offered for free in bars and nightclubs. You'll end up paying for them in any case.
I am very impressed when we visit the old trade center of Ephesus. I feel as if I'm walking around in a Roman city.
The landmarks are well preserved and many. Most of the streets are still in good condition. Every now and then I see feral cats walk around or sit underneath a rock.
The unique, vast excavations give a good impression of daily life in antiquity. Highlights are the theater and the Celsus library.
With a wide angle lens one can record great panoramic views. A macro lens offers the option to record details of columns, mosaics and other details.
A "Cotton Castle" of shiny white limestone terraces
On our way to Pamukkale, inland, we stop at the famous Aphrodite temple in Aphrodisias. The well-preserved stadium in Aphrodisias is also impressive, with its 22 rows of seats that accommodated 30.000 spectators. It feels nice to witness this alone with my camera. It's not just seeing the ruins; I also feel the wind and try to imagine the games that were held here.
Pamukkale, Cotton Castle, is a pretty attraction because of its shiny white limestone terraces.
Nearby are the remains of the Roman tourist resort Hierapolis, which was built at the thermal springs of Pamukkale, which were considered medicinal. Cleopatra had a pool built here, in which one still can take a swim.
The terraces are formed by lime deposits during the cooling of the hot, calcium-rich water that flows from the springs. Because the terraces were damaged by the enormous amount of visitors, one can only visit them barefoot. The limestone is mostly smooth and easily accessible. There are a few spots with grit, where it's harder.
It's nice to visit here at sunrise or sunset, because the light is so beautiful then. The best view is sunrise over the hill top with its reflection in the water.
Egirdir and Konya
Apple groves, rose gardens and a blue lake
From Pamukkale we travel farther inland to Egirdir. This town sits on a pretty blue lake of the same name. There are apple groves and rose gardens. The atmosphere is pleasant. There is time to rest and enjoy the surroundings and views of the lake.
For dinner, on the banks of the lake, we have fresh fish, caught here. There are many hiking opportunities here and it's also possible to take a tour in a little boat.
The still deeper in West Anatolia located town of Konya has the Konya Mevlana Museum. It's housed in a 16th century dervish monastery and it has a large collection of islamic arts and crafts. The atmosphere is religious. Some relics are worshipped.
As usual in mosques, the ritual washing of hands and feet takes place here.
It's worth while to see a (serious) performance of extatic twirling dervishes. But the snickering of some of the musicians makes me feel that the dances here are staged to rip off tourists.
Valleys, canyons and bizarre rock formations
I expected it to be hotter this deep in the inland. But it turns out to be the other way around: on the coast the temperatures are between 28 and 35 degrees centigrade, with a nice, refreshing northern wind, but here in the inland, it's only 25 degrees. I guess this is because of the increasing cloudiness. It's also less humid in the inland.
The drive to Cappadocia leads along bare and vast Anatolian steppes. I go back in time, when camel caravans traveled along the camp sites of nomadic tribes. While I am taking pictures, I see someone on a donkey, herding sheep, wave at me.
Around Ürgüp the landscape look bizarre. Erosion of the volcanic tuff layer shaped a landscape with valleys, canyons and bizarre rock formations. This region was a haven for persecuted groups, like Christians.
Many rock churches and subterranean cities in Cappadocia have been preserved and can be visited. In the open-air museum of Göreme one can see beautiful frescoes in very old rock churches.
It's a good idea to bring a flashlight when visiting the dark caves. Even small, hidden churches along the road house treasures, like the frescoes in St. John's basilica.
Even though it's expensive (120 euros), a balloon flight over this area is worth it. Choose professional balloonists, however. The view of the area is great. It's nice to see the sun rise from a balloon.
The capital has nothing on cosmopolitan Istanbul
Our visit to Ankara is disappointing. I feel empty. Even though Ankara is Turkey's capital, there isn't a good restaurant to be found near the train station.
It's interesting to visit the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, the Kocatepe Camii (mosque) and the mausoleum of Atatürk, Turkey's national hero. But Ankara has nothing on the historical charisma and liveliness of the cosmopolitan city Istanbul.
In retrospect I was surprised how many historical landmarks Turkey has. I didn't expect Turkey to be such a modern country either. The Turks are in general very hospitable and honest, also with money. But in commercial tourist centers one has to be careful not to be cheated and the atmosphere isn't pleasant.