Monday, May 04, 2015

Turkey Tour - Part 2: Ten Reasons to Visit Turkey

"Why do you want to go to Turkey?" asked many of our friends.

"I'm a little worried about your trip," fretted my mom.

And, yes, I'll admit it...when the fighting in Syria got close to the Turkish border and the Syrian refugees began pouring over that border in the millions, I even got a little worried myself.  But here's the thing...every friend I knew who visited Turkey came back raving about how great it was.

Rob and I had looked forward to visiting Turkey for years and I knew that the Rick Steves Tour Company would not be taking us if they felt it was unsafe in any way, so we set aside our doubts and packed for what turned out to be one of the best trips of our lives.
The blue line maps out our route from Istanbul to Kusadasi.
Our pre-trip concerns are apparently shared by many Americans.  Last year,Turkey was visited by about 39 million visitors.  In fact, in 2011, it was ranked as the 6th most visited country on earth.  Yet only about 800,000 of those visitors came from the United States.  Compare that figure with these statistics on annual American visits to other countries:
United Kingdom - over 4 million U.S. visitors per year
France - 3 million
Germany and Italy - over 2 million
Japan, Spain, and the Netherlands - over 1 million

I suspect there are many reasons so many of us don't include Turkey on our travel wish list.  It is a more unfamiliar culture to us than most of those in western Europe, (although I must say that that was actually a big attraction for me.  I was eager to visit someplace "exotic.")  Most of us had the chance to study a language that we could use in our travels:  French, Spanish, German.  I don't know of any American high schools that teach Turkish, so language barriers could cause some to hesitate to visit.  Finally, I am sure that the fact that about 98% of the Turks are Muslim is another stumbling block for many Americans.  Too many of us have come to equate Islam with terrorism.  Happily, I did not share this particular fear as I went already knowing that Turkey is a moderate Muslim nation, proud of its secular government and tolerance for people of all faiths.

Rob and I found many reasons to love this beautiful country.   Here are my top ten reasons to visit Turkey.  I hope that, if you are one of the people with any doubts about adding Turkey to your own travel list, these will help you discover why it is one of the world's must-see destinations.  (Each of the items on this list will be explored in much more detail in the upcoming posts about our trip.)

1.  A Long, Rich, and Complex History
The more the archaeologists explore Turkey, the more they believe that Turkey, not Mesopotamia, is the cradle of civilization.  Çatalhöyük, near the Turkish city of Konya, is the largest and best preserved neolithic city - and the second oldest city - ever discovered.  The Anatolian Peninsula has the good fortune to sit between Europe and Asia, forming a natural trade route.  This region has seen the rise and fall of many civilizations over the years - the early Hittites, the Hellenistic Era, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire - and all left their mark on the culture and the landscape.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites
There are thirteen World Heritage sites in Turkey and we were lucky enough to visit three of them - The Old City of Istanbul, the Goreme Open Air Museum,  and Hieropolis.  Here is a link to a list of all thirteen:  UNESCO World Heritage sites in Turkey
One of the churches carved into the rocks of the Goreme Open Air Museum

Roman Theater at Hieropolis

2.  Ancient Ruins
Because of the history discussed above, Turkey is filled with site after site of ancient ruins from all of the civilizations that moved in and out of this region.  The best known and best preserved are the Greco-Roman cities like Aphrodisias, Hieropolis, and Ephesus.  Exploring these ancient streets, temples, and dwellings was one of the highlights of this trip.  Some of them are remarkably well-preserved and truly give you a glimpse into the life of these ancient people.  I was amazed to discover that new sites are still being discovered and that the already known cities still have many secrets still underground.  Think about the treasures we may still uncover in the future!


Newly excavated Roman homes in Ephesus

3.  World Class Museums
We visited several excellent museums during our travels through Turkey.  The most memorable was the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, a gorgeous museum housed in a restored caravanserai, one of the stops along the Silk Road.  The huge stone rooms were filled with artifacts all periods in Anatolian history, but with a strong focus on the earliest of those civilizations.  Amazingly well preserved items, from tiny figurines to huge stone sculptures, pottery, furniture, jewelry all gave us a glimpse into the past.  The Museum in Antalya was also impressive with a large collection of Roman statues and many other artifacts.
Artifacts in the Anatolian Civilizations Museum in Ankara
Roman statues in Antalya

4.  Amazing Art and Architecture 
The churches and mosques of Turkey held some of the most exquisite art we have ever seen.  The mosaics of the Chora Church, the faded frescoes of the Goreme cave churches, the intricate floral designs covering every inch of the walls in the Blue Mosque were all breath-taking.  And the buildings themselves were equally wonderful.  Haghia Sophia, built in the 6th century, was the largest building in the world until the arrival of St. Peter's 1,000 years later.
The Blue Mosque

Interior of the Blue Mosque

One of the many mosaics in the Chora Church

5.  Gorgeous Geography
This aspect of Turkey was unexpected.  I just had never given the geography of Turkey much thought and somehow saw it as being rather flat and desert-like.  Instead, we found a beautiful country filled with a great variety of landscapes, from the high snow-topped peaks of the Taurus Mountains to the flat steppes and plains of central Turkey to the rocky coast and beaches of the Mediterranean.  The land was green and fertile, with rich farmland filled with grape vineyards, olive groves, nut trees, and many other crops.
Driving through the Taurus Mountains

The Mediterranean coastline in Antalya

6.  Cappadocia
This is related to geography, but Cappadocia was wonderful enough to have a "Top Ten" spot all it's own!  It is a geological wonderland created by eons of ancient volcanoes laying down a thick layer of ash that eventually turned to a soft rock that has been eroded through the centuries, forming a landscape of canyons and towers of rock.  These soft mountains formed the perfect base for a civilization of troglodytes - people who, throughout the long history of this region, have carved their homes, stables, and even cities into the rock.  It is an utterly astounding site!
A few of the thousands of cave dwellings of Cappadocia

The "fairy chimneys" of Cappadocia

7.  Markets
Istanbul has two of the world's most famous marketplaces.  The Grand Bazaar, a huge covered maze of thousands of shops and stalls, is filled with every imaginable item, from gold to household goods to tacky tourist souvenirs.  The Spice Market fills the senses with the sight and smell of hundreds of vividly colored piles of ground spice, flavored teas, and candies.  But even more enjoyable were the village markets where the residents came to sell their produce and other goods.  This was the "real" Turkey, where we could try out our meager vocabulary with the amused locals and enjoy sampling the tasty fruits and vegetables.
A shop in the Grand Bazaar

One of the many hallways in the Grand Bazaar

The Spice Market

8.  Millions of Cats
Okay, I admit it - for some of you, this won't be a selling point, but my animal-loving husband was absolutely entranced to find a country filled with cats.  They were found everywhere, from the busy streets of Istanbul to the ruins of Ephesus, and they seemed to be well-cared for and thriving.  We learned that both Mohammed and Rumi, the Sufi mystic, had an affinity for cats and these modern cats benefit from that heritage and are loved and accepted.  (I will add that there were many stray dogs, as well, and most of them had tagged ears to indicate that they had been given their shots and were spayed or neutered.  A most enlightened way to handle the stray animal problem!)
Cats in Istanbul streets

This cat wants to hear Mert's lecture!

Istanbul dogs with ear tags

9.  Food and Drink
From the mezas (or appetizers) through the main course to the omnipresent baklava, the food in Turkey was colorful, flavorful, and delectable.  Amazingly, the truck stops on our long bus trips through the country included some of the best buffets...long counters filled with tasty stews, soups, vegetables, meats, and desserts.  Chai tea is part of the Turkish culture, and we were offered cups of the strong beverage everywhere we went.  The desserts were rich and gooey, often made with honey.  And, of course, there is real Turkish Delight, or Lokum, which came in a variety of flavors and nuts, and was sometimes rolled in flower petals.
Truck stop food!

Turkish Delight

10.  Friendly and Welcoming People
Finally, and most important, we were warmly welcomed by the lovely people of this remarkable country.  We had so many memorable encounters with a people from all walks of life.  We had a long conversation with an imam about his role in his community.  We had lunch in the home of a Muslim family, visiting with four generations of women and learning about their attitudes about women's role in Turkish society.  We danced and laughed with the villagers in the town of Mustafapasa.  We tried our bargaining skills with the shopkeepers in the Grand Bazaar.  Several of the men in our group got shaves from a village barber.  We never, in the entire trip, felt unsafe or unwelcome.  In fact, it was quite the opposite!

Our hostess and her mother provided lunch from their own farm.

Dancing with the citizens of Mustafapasa

Meeting with the Imam

Getting a close shave!

Come to Turkey!  You won't be disappointed!


Sarah said...

Joan, this is such a great read- so detailed, I'll have to come back to it more than once! My parents were in Turkey a few years ago and had an incredible time. Several places you mentioned were stops for them as well. Thank you!

Lori Wostl said...

So many places so little time! Thanks for sharing your journey with us. Turkey is on our list too particularly Capodocia. Thanks again.

The Artist's Life Experiment said...

Excellent post! You covered all the things we loved so well, including the cats! I wish we could go back.

Annis Cassells said...

Loved this post and the angle you took when writing it. Enough information about each one without over-taxing one's ability to take it all in or one's time constraints. And, nice photos to illustrate. One of my favs was at the big market. It'll be great to read more in-depth on some of your top ten. Thanks, Joan. xoA

James May said...

Great post! I was fortunate to be part of Rick Steves’ Istanbul tour during the Christmas season with Mert. I would love to visit other parts of the county (although I have been to Ephesus as part of a cruise.). My hesitation is the high COVID rates in Turkey right now.