A mesmerizing mix of the exotic and the familiar, Turkey is much more than its clichéd image of a “bridge between East and West”. Invaded and settled from every direction since the start of recorded history, it combines influences from the Middle East and the Mediterranean, the Balkans and Central Asia. Mosques coexist with churches, Roman theatres and temples crumble near ancient Hittite cities, and dervish ceremonies and gypsy festivals are as much a part of the social landscape as classical music concerts or football matches.
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The friendliness of the Turkish people makes visiting a pleasure; indeed you risk causing offence by declining invitations, and find yourself making friends through the simplest of transactions. At the big resorts and tourist spots, of course, this can merely be an excuse to sell you something, but elsewhere, despite a history in which outsiders have so often brought trouble, the warmth and generosity are genuine.
Politically, modern Turkey was a grand experiment, largely the creation of one man – Kemal Atatürk. With superhuman energy, he salvaged the Turkish state from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire and defined it as a modern, secular nation. Following 2011’s record-breaking third successive election victory by the AKP (Justice and Development Party), largely supported by conservative Muslims, some secular Turks fear an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy. This seems most unlikely, however, in a country that has been a multi-party democracy for over sixty years, and successfully blended secularism, parliamentary democracy and global capitalism with Islam.
Despite official efforts to enforce a uniform Turkish identity, the population is remarkably heterogeneous. When the Ottoman Empire imploded, refugees streamed into Anatolia, including Muslim Slavs, Greeks, Albanians, Crimean Tatars, Daghestanlis, Abkhazians and Circassians. There they joined an already mixed population that included a very sizeable minority of Kurds. Thanks to recent arrivals from former Soviet or Eastern Bloc territories, that diversity endures. Another surprise may be Turkey’s sheer youthfulness: more than half the population is under thirty, with legions of young people working in coastal resorts, and shoals of schoolkids surging through the city streets.
A huge part of Turkey’s appeal lies in its archeological sites, a legacy of the bewildering succession of states – Hittite, Urartian, Phrygian, Greek, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Armeno-Georgian – that held sway here before the twelfth century. From grand Classical cities to hilltop fortresses and remote churches, some still produce exciting new finds today. In addition, Turkey holds a vast number of graceful Islamic monuments, as well as intriguing city bazaars, still hanging on amid the chain stores and shopping malls. Sadly, ugly modern architecture spoils most coastal resorts, where it’s often hard to find a beach that matches the tourist-board hype. Inland Turkey, with its Asiatic expanses of mountain, steppe, lake, and even cloud-forest, may leave a more vivid memory, especially when accented by some crumbling kervansaray, mosque or castle.
Where to go in Turkey
Western Turkey is the most economically developed, and most visited, part of the country. It would take weeks even to scratch the surface of the old imperial capital, İstanbul, straddling the straits linking the Black and Marmara seas, and still Turkey’s cultural and commercial hub. Flanking it on opposite sides of the Sea of Marmara, the two prior seats of the Ottoman Empire, Bursa and Edirne, abound in monumental attractions and regal atmosphere. Beyond the Dardanelles and its World War I battlefields lie Turkey’s two Aegean islands, Gökçeada and Bozcaada, popular for their excellent beaches, lingering Greek-ethnic identity and (except in midsummer) tranquillity.
Further south, the olive-swathed landscapes around Bergama and Ayvalık epitomize the Classical character of the North Aegean. Ancient Sardis, and the old Ottoman princely training-ground of Manisa, also make a fine pair, although İzmir serves merely as a functional introduction to the central and southern Aegean. Celebrated Ephesus tends to overshadow the equally deserving ancient Ionian sites of Priene and Didyma, or the intriguing ruins of Aphrodisias and Labranda – and don’t overlook evocative hill towns like Şirince or Birgi. Also inland are tranquil, islet-dotted Bafa Gölü, the architectural showcase town of Muğla, and the compelling geological oddity of Pamukkale, where travertine formations abut Roman Hierapolis. While the coast itself is heavily developed, its star resorts – Datça is the quietest, Bodrum the most characterful – make comfortable bases.
Beyond the huge natural harbour at Marmaris, the Aegean gradually becomes the Mediterranean. Coastal cruises make popular pastimes in brazen Marmaris or more manageable Fethiye, the principal town of the Turquoise Coast, while fine beaches stretch at Dalyan and Patara, near eerie ancient Lycian tombs. Further east, Kaş and Kalkan are busy resorts, good for resting up between explorations of the mountainous hinterland. Beyond relatively untouched Çıralı beach, at ancient Olympos, fast-growing Antalya sprawls at the start of the Mediterranean Coast proper. This is graced by extensive sands and archeological sites – most notably Termessos, Perge, Side and Aspendos – though its western parts get swamped in season. Beyond castle-topped Alanya, however, tourist numbers diminish; points of interest between Silifke and Adana include Roman Uzuncaburç and the romantic offshore fortress at Kızkalesi. Further east, Arab-influenced Antakya is the heart of the Hatay, culturally part of Syria.
Inland in South Central Anatolia, the rock-hewn churches, subterranean cities and tuff-pinnacle landscapes of Cappadocia await you. The dry, salubrious climate, excellent wine, artistic and architectural treasures, plus horseriding or hot-air ballooning could occupy you for ten days, including a stop in Kayseri on the way north. You might also pause at the historic lakefront towns of Eğirdir or Beyşehir, or in Konya, renowned for its Selçuk architecture and associations with the Mevlevi dervishes.
Ankara, Turkey’s capital, is a planned city whose contrived Western feel indicates the priorities of the Turkish Republic; it also features the outstanding Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. Highlights of surrounding North Central Anatolia include the bizarre temple of Aezani, near Kütahya; the Ottoman museum-town of Safranbolu; exquisitely decorated early Turkish monuments in Divriği; and remarkable Hittite sites at Hattuşaş and Alacahöyük. As you travel north, pause in the Yeşilırmak valley towns of Sivas, Tokat and Amasya. The lush shoreline of the Black Sea beyond holds little more than a chain of Byzantine-Genoese castles; the oldest, most interesting towns are Sinop, Anatolia’s northernmost point, and Amasra. Fabled Trabzon, east of Sinop and once the seat of a Byzantine sub-empire, is now convenient for Aya Sofya and Sumela monasteries.
The Ankara–Sivas route positions you to head along the Euphrates River into the “back half” of Turkey. First stop in Northeastern Anatolia is likely to be Erzurum, Turkey’s highest and bleakest major city, a base for visits to the temperate, church-studded valleys of southern medieval Georgia, or treks in the Kaçkar mountains. Kars is mainly visited for the sake of nearby Ani, the ruined medieval Armenian capital.
The Euphrates and Tigris basin have a real Middle Eastern flavour. Booming Gaziantep, offers world-class Roman mosaics, an atmospheric old quarter and Turkey’s spiciest cuisine. Further east, biblical Urfa is distinguished by its colourful bazaar and sacred pool, while cosmopolitan Mardin overlooks the vast Mesopotamian Plain. The major attraction, however, is a dawn or sunset trip to Nemrut Dağı’s colossal ancient statues. Between Mardin and Nemrut Dağı, teeming, ethnically Kurdish Diyarbakır nestles inside medieval basalt walls. The terrain becomes increasingly mountainous towards the Iranian frontier, an area dominated by the unearthly blue, alkaline expanse of Lake Van. Urartian, Selçuk and Armenian monuments abound within sight of the water, in particular the exquisite, restored Armenian church on Akdamar islet. The east-shore city of Van is notable for its massive camel-shaped rock punctured with ancient tombs. Beyond Van looms the fairy-tale Kurdish castle of Hoşap, while just outside Doğubeyazit, another isolated folly, the İshak Paşa Sarayı, stands in the shadow of Mount Ararat at the very end of Turkey.
Top image: Aerial view of Bodrum on Turkish Riviera © monticello/Shutterstock