Highlights West Turkey
Everywhere are traces of
the Greeks and Romans
Highlights on paper, like Troy and Pamukkale are disappointing in reality, but there is much to make up for that: Greek and Roman archeological sites in Ephesus, Pergamon and Hierapolis, the famous mosques and Topkapi palace in Istanbul, Ottoman buildings in Bursa and the crusaders castle in beach resort Bodrum, from where it's only one hour by boat to the Greek island of Kos.
Travelogue & photos: Hans van der Ham
Our group tour of West Turkey starts in Bodrum, where we meet our guide (a professional archeologist) and our Kurdish driver. The destination for today is Izmir, 250 km farther north, on the Aegean Sea.
At lunchtime we have our first experience with the varied Turkish cuisine. The specialty of this region is "women's bottoms," a kind of deep-fried meatball with cheese, milk and vegetables.
The temple of Artemis was one of the 7 wonders of the world
In the afternoon we arrive in Ephesus, one of the largest and most beautiful cities of the ancient world. The city had two heydays, first as a Greek and later as a Roman city.
In 550 BC the Greeks began the construction of the first temple dedicated to Artemis. It was finished only in 436 BC and already destroyed, by the Persians, in 356 BC. A new Artemis temple was built and finished in 323 BC, which then was considered one of the seven wonders of the world. The huge temple measured 105 by 105 meters and had 127 eighteen meters tall Ionic columns.
During the Roman Empire Ephesus thrived as well. In this period, it still was the center of Artemis worship. The apostle Paul preached here to convince the population to turn away from Artemis. It is said that the apostle John wrote his Gospel here.
All that is left of the Artemis temple now, is one single column; in 262 the sanctuary was looted and destroyed by te Goths. Only after the Turks captured the city in 1420, its final decline began. The harbor silted up, leaving the city removed from the shore. Eventually the city was completely abandoned.
Nowadays Ephesus, or Efese, is an important archeological site with many remains of both Greek and Roman cultures. The most famous is the Roman Celsius Library. Unfortunately many treasures of art "disappeared" during the excavations to the British Museum in London.
Next to the Celsius Library are the remains of a theatre which once seated 24,000 people; Roman baths and many columns that once belonged to temples.
We continue on to Izmir, a not very interesting town of 1.1 million inhabitants, for dinner and a night in a hotel. In the past, the city was known as Smyrna, of the carpets and the legend of Saint Nicholas. The Greek island of Lesbos is only 12 km off the coast here.
Parchment owes its name to this city
We travel farther north from Izmir, via Bergama, to Çanakkale, a 350 km drive. Bergama was called Pergamon in ancient times, when it was part of Greece. In many ways it is like Ephesus. In the Roman period Ephesus had a population of 300,000 and Pergamon of over 200,000.
Pergamon was famous for its library - founded by Eumenes II - which was the second largest in the world, after the one in Alexandria, and it owned 200,000 parchment scrolls. The Alexandria library had between 400,000 and 900,000 scrolls.
Pergamon was the first place in the ancient world that had a large-scale production of parchment, which was made of animal hides and before long displaced papyrus, which was used until then. Even the word "parchment" derives from Pergamon.
In the second century, many people visited Pergamon for its medicinal source, next to which an Asklepeion - a sanctuary for the god of medicine, Asclepius. This "hospital" was conserved reasonably well.
Pergamon also had a big Zeus altar, but unfortunately it was moved (with approval of the then sultan) to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, which has lots of artifacts from West Anatolia.
We see the temples of Pallas Athena and Trajanus, the Acropolis and a large amphi-theatre. Pergamon sits on the top of a mountain and has great views of the surroundings.
After this impressive visit we travel on to Canakkale. From our hotel we have a great view of the estuary of the Dardanelles. We sit in the dark on a rocking bench between the pine trees and stare at the other side. It's completely quiet and dark, also because there are frequent power outages.
The next morning we visit Troy before we drive the 320 km to Istanbul. Troy was discovered in 1871 by the German archeologist Schliemann who, during excavations both in Troy and Mycene, not only stole many artifacts, but also left a trail of destruction.
Because of Turkey's chronic financial stringency the excavations have to be stopped often. About 85 per cent is still underground. There isn't much to be seen. Except for the name, which apparently is a draw, there is no reason to visit Troy.
The Topkapi palace is the highlight of the trip
From Troy we drive to the ferry that takes us to the European side of the Dardanelles, a trip that takes over half and hour. We drive through the Turkish part of Thracia to Istanbul, the highlight of the tour.
When we get closer to Istanbul, it becomes apparent that this is a very big city. An endless sea of buildings, mostly apartment buildings with five or six floors, scattered over several hills, rises before our eyes. Istanbul has a population of over 15 million.
After lunch we visit the Aya Sophia, which was built as a Byzantine church in 537 and used to be Constantinopel's cathedral. In the fifteenth century it was converted into a mosque. In the twentieth century, Kemal Ataturk closed the mosque and since then it has been a museum.
The outside is somewhat disappointing. It's mainly heavy, with peeling red paint and red bricks. The last is a characteristic of Byzantine architecture. It shows how old it is.
Entering, the beauty of the inside is remarkable. The Byzantine mosaics and frescoes which were covered with layers of plaster have been uncovered and restored.
The Blue Mosque is next to Aya Sophia; both look on the Hippodrome. This Roman construction was an arena for horse races and seated no less than 150,000 people. Hardly anything remains of it and it has been converted into a park. At its center are three obelisks. I just have time to take a picture of the oldest, from Egypt and 3,500 years old.
Lack of time is a recurrent theme during our two days in Istanbul. It is the main downside of this tour. It allows you to just get a quick look at some highlights and often not even that.
At the entrance of the Blue Mosque we find a group of men dressed in traditional Ottoman garb. The Blue (or Sultan Ahmet) Mosque is still in use as a mosque. Inside you could use an extra pair of eyes to see all the hand-painted tiles, the domes and the marble Mihrab.
After the Blue Mosque we visit Topkapi Palace. Most Istanbul highlights are in the European part, between the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. On the farthest edge of this triangle lies Topkapi Palace, which has a view both of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.
The Topkapi Palace, built between 1459 and 1465, is a large compound that was the center of Ottoman rule from 1464 to 1853. Not only the sultan lived there, but it was also the seat of government. Inside its walls, no less than 40,000 people lived.
Through a gate we arrive in a big park. At the center of the park is another gate, flanked by two towers, through which the palace itself is entered. The palace itself consists of several buildings, most with their own courtyards or gardens.
There are several buildings in the big park also, each of which houses an important museum, like the Archeological Museum. We only visit the palace itself. The Topkai Palace is the hightlight of the tour, but of all places here we don't have enough time.
The treasury is a little disappointing because of the austere presentation in simple display cases. The rest of the room is almost empty, except for a round couch at the center. There are lots of sparkling precious stones. One of them is the 86 karat Lepelmaker diamond, one of the biggest in the world. There are also thrones of sultans, richly sprinkled with all kinds of precious stones.
Another building houses all kinds of Muslim relics, like a box with beard hairs of the prophet Mohammed, a footprint of the prophet and a flag, a cape and a tooth that belonged to him.
There's a box in this room, a kind of phone booth, in which a man with a microphone reads from the Quran. Some older men around the booth are completely absorbed in their prayers.
Next we visit the former kitchens of the palace and the caravanserai. The kitchens are huge, because in them food was prepared for the sultan's family, all of their staff and the many daily visitors. Currently the building houses a collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelain. It also has a room with gorgeous silver objects.
Very worthwhile, too, are the Gate of the White Eunuchs and the sultan's reception room. There is so much to see and the experience is quite overwhelming. I really want to come back here sometime.
The bus takes us from Topkapi Palace along the Bosphorus to the Black Sea. Just before the end of the trip, with a view of the estuary of the Black Sea (hierover met Piet bellen), it's time for lunch. A boat takes us back to the Golden Horn, a trip of a little less than two hours.
Both shores are a display of palaces and mansions of the wealthy in the past and nowadays. There are some mosques, too, among which the Dolmabahce Mosque, adjacent to the Dolmabahce Palace. This palace became the new residence of the sultans, who moved there from Topkapi Palace by the end of the nineteenth century. In that period, it was considered "chique" to own a Renaissance palace like the ones in Western Europe. Unfortunately, it made the Ottoman Empire spend above its means. The Empire was already in decline. It never recovered.
We pass under two of the longest bridges in Europe: the Bosphorus Bridge (1,590 m) and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge (1,510 m). They connect the continents of Europe and Asia.
After we have deboarded, we visit the Egyptian, or Spice Bazaar which is more authentic than the Big Bazaar, which has lots of jewelry stores and caters - overall - more to tourists.
The group meets at the New Mosque to go out for dinner, after which we get a tour of the city by night, which is concluded with a cozy hookah party. For tourists a weak kind of tobacco is used: apple tobacco. It's nickname is "Chernobyl tobacco".
Many buildings date from the era of the Ottoman Empire
We leave Istanbul and are on our way to Bursa, on the other side of the Sea of Marmara. Another crossing by ferry, this time it lasts about an hour.
Before we reach Bursa we stop at a workshop for leather clothes, of course with a store. It's probably part of the deal, but I'd preferred to spend this time to visit the village of Cumalikizik, only 10 km for here, which - according to the guidebooks - has authentic Turkish houses and is often used as a backdrop for film shoots.
Bursa (population 1,1 million) was the capital of the Ottoman Empire from 1326 to the conquest of Constantinopel in 1453. It still has many buildings dating from that period. We visit the Ulu Camii (Great Mosque, 1399) and the Yeşil Cami (Green Mosque, 1420)
On our city walk we pass the Sultan Mehmet I (1389-1421) mausoleum. This sultan commissioned the construction of the Green Mosque. The mausoleum itself is a gorgeous blue building with a big staircase to its entrance. The sultan and his family are no longer here, they were reburied elsewhere.
It's a long drive through the barren plateaus of Anatolia to Afyon, where we spend the night after a 350 km trip.
Adjacent Hierapolis is worthwhile
The next day brings another 350 km drive: via Pamukkale to Bodrum, the final destination of this tour. On the way we visit a coöperative carpet workshop.
It's very interesting, but of course they also want to sell carpets; the way they go about it is extremely suffocating: after the tour of the workshop, every couple gets their personal salesman. If you so much as look at a carpet, it's already rolled out. We quickly flee outside.
We drive through the beautiful landscape of the Taurus mountains to Pamukkale, which is known for its calcium-rich hot water sources. I expect something extraordinary, but the guide warns me beforehand that I will be disappointed.
Pamukkale has many hotels, each with its own swimming pool(s), which all draw water from subterranean sources. Add the irrigation of lands by local farmers and the result is that the groundwater level has decreased to a point where most of the terraces with natural hot-water baths are dry.
All that is left are a few drops of water, which you even aren't allowed to enter. The limestone bottom is dull because of the many feet that have touched it. Just like with Troy, travel agents are aware of this, but the name sells.
What remains, is a wonderful view (Pamukkale lies at a high altitude) and adjacent Hierapolis, a Roman Spa from the second century BC with thermal baths, a theatre, parts of ancient city walls, ruins of temples and a large necropolis ("city of the dead" = cemetary).
On a hill sits a large crusaders castle
After visiting Pamukkale we drive to Bodrum on the Aegean coast. The next morning we say goodbye to our travel companions. We will stay in Bodrum for another week.
Bodrum is a well-known beach resort, but it is also an ancient town, which was known as Halicarnassus in Antiquity. It was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Halicarnassus Mausoleum. It was destroyed by an earthquake and only its foundations remain.
On a hill in Bodrum sits a large crusaders castle, which houses a museum for marine archeology. It has jugs dating from 3,000 BC which were found on the bottom off the sea. The museum also has a great view.
It's only an hour by boat to Greece
We buy a return ticket for the ferry to Kos, which is only 8 km off the Turkish coast. The trip takes only an hour. Checking in and out is strict and chaotic. Of course, our passports and visa are checked, but when we board, they are checked again.
On our arrival in Kos there is a little more leniency, but the formalities are still quite strict. It is after all a border of the European Union. On Kos I feel I'm in Europe: there are sidewalks, everything is neat and reasonably well organized and the euro is the currency.
Kos City has a nice town center. On our walk in the city we arrive at a little square with an ancient sycamore tree, under which - according to legend - Hippocrates shared his wisdom with his students. The tree needs a lot of support, but is still thriving, despite the cracks in its trunk.
Kos also has a large castle from the crusaders era. It houses a museum with great views and lots of archeological finds. Both in Turkey and on Kos it's remarkable how many objects from those times were found and how carelessly they are treated. You find ancient objects everywhere, along roads and in fields.