What do you get when you merge eastern and western culture, bustling metropolitan with serene hillside village, incredible historical ruins with baffling natural landscapes? Turkey, of course! I must admit that before going on this trip, I knew nothing of the county and was not sure what to expect. I can honestly say it was like no place I’ve ever been. I would like to thank our friend Ahmet for helping us plan this amazing journey! Here are some highlights. There are a few pics to help illustrate throughout, then a slideshow at the end!
Days 1-3: Istanbul
Pop quiz. What is the population of Istanbul, Turkey? A) 5,000,000 B) 10,000,000 C) 7,000,000 D) 12,000,000. Here’s a hint: It’s more than quadruple the size of the Twin Cities plus surrounding areas. With 12 million people, it is the 5th most populous city in the world. It is a fascinating mix of eastern and western cultures. It is almost 100% Muslim and the call to prayer drifts through the streets five times a day, and other than the numerous mosques, you might not guess it. Most of the women only wear the hijab, or head scarf, and some 40% choose not to wear it at all. As one 20-something we met told us, “Being Muslim is more of a status thing for us.” I’m assuming by “us” that he meant the younger generations. Please note that I am not saying they are anti-their religion. They have just embraced the more western culture in their appearance, leisure activities, and openness. Oh, and they might be the nicest people I have ever encountered (I will share three examples throughout our journey). Random Act of Kindness #1:When we arrived, we had to take the metro/tram line into the city center. An elderly man pointed out open seats to us as we entered. About halfway to our destination, the car stopped, everyone exited, and a new wave of people rushed in. We just sat there, not really knowing what to do. The same man noticed we weren’t coming, so he motioned to us to get off and kept the doors open. In very broken English, he tried to help us. There had been an accident and now we would have to take a bus. He would go with us if we wanted. We thanked him, but said we could figure it out ourselves. He left us with a smile and disappeared into the sea of people.
We spent part of our time in Taksim, the most modern part of the city. Popular retail shops line the street while bars and cafes shoot off like tributaries. Navigating the crowd requires adept skill as trolleys and police cars part the throngs of people. One night we went to a local concert, then dancing at a roof-top bar (yes, Al danced!). We ended the night with some street vendor goodies–kebabs and oysters 🙂
We passed the majority of our time in the old part of Istanbul. We went to the Grand Bazaar (one of the oldest and largest covered bazaars with over 4000 shops), St. Sophia/Hagia Sophia (which served as both a Catholic cathedral and Islamic mosque during its life), and the Sultan Ahmed/Blue Mosque (built to rival Sophia in the early 1600s, it is famous for its blue tiles). Sophia was perhaps the most interesting due to the presence of both Catholic and Islamic elements that were exposed side-by-side when it was opened as a museum in 1935. (See pics below.)
If you ask Al what the his favorite part of the Istanbul was, he will tell you it was a quiet evening in a little art store/cafe smoking apple shisha out of a hookah and drinking Turkish tea (my new favorite) with the locals. And NO, shisha is not a drug. Hookah has long been an important part of both political and social gatherings in Turkey and it was cool to experience it away from other tourists. I loved it all, but was blown away by the tulips…they were surreal!
Days 4-5: Ephesus (Selcuk and Sirince)
We took a short flight from Istanbul to Izmir, then hopped a train to Selcuk, a quaint little village outside the famous ruins of Ephesus. Random Act of Kindness #2: Another old man noticed we were struggling with communication while buying our train tickets (which, btw, only cost about 2.50 US Dollars). “Selcuk?” he asked us. We nodded. He pointed to a seat. “Wait here. Buy ticket on train.” When the train arrived, he summoned us and chose a seat close to us. Again, as we approached our stop, he motioned us toward the door. “Ephesus?” he asked. “No, Selcuk.” we told him. He asked us where we were staying and I showed him the name. “I know,” he said, his eyes lighting up. He pulled out his cellphone to show us he had the phone number stored. After we got off, his daughter was waiting for him and after a brief conversation she turned to us. “My father is very good friends with the owner, that’s why he would like to take you there.” Even though the city is tiny and the hotel was just around the corner, he took us there and got us settled in (his friend and his wife were also elderly and didn’t speak much English…their daughter was not around). The man and his daughter wished us well and continued on their way. We didn’t waste much time before starting the 3 km jaunt to Ephesus, and so our history lesson begins.
The path we took was once part of the Silk Road and used by chariots. Along the way, we passed the remains of the Temple of Artemis (one of the 7 wonders of the world). Rebuilt 3 times, this sanctuary is believed to date all the way back to the Bronze Age. All that remains today is one column and a few other pieces. Much of it is submerged under water, now inhabited by ducks and turtles. Most artifacts were snatched up by the British and are now on display in their museum.
As we continued our walk, we saw a sign that pointed the way to the “Seven Sleepers.” Even though we had no idea what it would lead us to, we decided to follow it. We rounded bend after bend, and when it began to rain and there still was no end in sight, we turned back. I was holding my jacket over my head when an empty tour bus pulled up beside us. The door opened and the driver motioned us in. (Want to know what the 7 Sleepers are? See ‘Things We Would/Could/Should Have Done’ below!) “Where are you going?” he queried. “Ephesus,” we replied. We pulled into the parking lot and asked him, “Koch para?” He shook his head no. “Nothing.” We gave him a few euro (we didn’t have any small lira on us) and disembarked. Random Act of Kindness #3. We paid our fee and entered the ancient city. All I can say is, well, I’ll let you decide…
- It was first established in 6000 BC by the Hittites
- At its peak during the Hellenistic and Roman Periods, its population was 225,000, the second largest city in the Roman empire behind Rome
- It is said to be home to the first library in the world
- Its theater was the greatest in the ancient world with a capacity of 24,000 people
- One of St. Paul’s famous letters was sent to the church in Ephesus
- It is home to one of the Seven Churches of Asia cited in the Book of Revelation
- The Virgin Mary is said to have visited Ephesus and settled down nearby in Mount Bulbul
After our afternoon of time-warping, we went back to Şelcuk where we had one of the best meals of our lives. Chicken shish, spicy meatballs, stuffed tomatoes and peppers, and my favorite: grape leaves filled with a spicy rice-tomato mix. Phenomenal. The following day we made a short trip to the near-by hilltop village of Şirince. It is said that Ottoman Greeks who lived there called it Çirkince, or “ugly” (to deter others), and that the displaced Turks from Greece renamed it Şirince, or “sweet,” after WWI. In any case, it is exquisite with its cobblestone roads, foliage with that it-just-rained look, wineries, and locally crafted goods. We had a relaxing day here, including our first horseback rides!
Days 6-7: Cappadocia
We caught another short flight from Izmir to Kayseri, then had a small adventure getting to Göreme (apparently we overlooked an e-mail from our hotel stating they would arrange shuttle pickup). When we arrived to our fairy chimney city, this is what we saw…
We slept in a cave hotel (actually quite luxurious) with a great view and used the city as a base for exploring the region. First we stopped at an overlook of Pigeon Valley, named so because of the pigeon homes. Up until about 1970, people would feed the pigeons, then collect the droppings from inside the homes to use and sell as fertilizer. Once the area started becoming a popular tourist destination, this practice died down.
By the way, the chimneys have been formed by erosion of the volcanic rock. The rock is composed of tuff (softer and lighter-colored) and basalt (harder and darker). I believe it was the Persians who named these structures “fairy chimneys” because, well, they thought fairies lived in them 😉
Our next stop was the 8-story underground city of Derinkuyu. There are approximately 200 underground cities that were originally carved out by the Hittites for protection from the Arabs in 1500 BC. Overtime, the cities were used by many peoples, but largely by Christians seeking refuge to practice and teach their religion. People stayed in these cities for up to 2 months, and thus they are quite developed. There are secret connections to people’s homes, tunnels to other cities, an 85 meter-deep well, doors that weigh 320 kg, plus bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms, stables, and wineries. The wineries, however, were not for pleasure. Their (I’m not sure who ‘they’ are) enemies found and poisoned their water source, so wine became necessary for their survival. It was difficult to take good pictures, but you can get an idea.
After the underground city, we went for a beautiful hike in Ihlara Valley. It is supposedly the first settlement of Christians trying to escape and hide from Roman soldiers during the Byzantine Period. At one time there were 80,000 inhabitants! They built some 100 churches into the rock where students practiced painting frescoes (which were illegal at the time) in order to pass the teachings of the bible along. Today there are only 12 or so remaining. We visited St. Daniel’s Church (also called the church under the tree), which was built in the 7th century and is known for its eastern influence of colors, patterns, and subjects.
At the other end of the valley, the Selime Monastery was carved out by monks in the 9th century. Some time around the 12th century it became used as a caravan stop for camels carrying goods. The frescoes in the cathedral-sized church have been ruined due to fires made by inhabitants.
This is more or less the end of our adventure. It was incredible, and honestly, we did not have enough time. Here are some things I would/could/should have done!
- Troya: Home to the Trojan War and written about in the Iliad
- Hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia (quite pricey, but I’ve heard breath-taking)
- House of the Virgin Mary: Near Ephesus. Recognized by both Christians and Muslims as the place where Mary spent her last days
- Seven Sleepers: The legend says that 7 Christains hid in the cave to escape persecution and slept for hundreds of years. What are thought to be their tombs can be visited near Ephesus. The story (with different adaptations) is found in both the Bible and the Qur’an.
- Have a Turkish bath (hammam)
- Take a boat cruise on the Bosphorus River or Agean Sea
I’ll leave you with one last can’t-be-missed attraction before the slideshow:
Here are more pictures. Please note that are many…I can’t delete the ones I already posted and there are many I would like to get rid of, but this site makes it take too long!