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THE 10 BEST Things to Do in Turkey

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Cappadocia



Aksaray, Turkey


In this historic region, homes and churches are carved into ancient volcanic rock formations.

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LOCATED IN THE NEVŞEHIR PROVINCE in the Central Anatolian region of Turkey, Cappadocia is an area where entire cities have been carved into the rock.

An area with history so abundant and far-reaching as to render entire centuries as footnotes at first glance, the landscape appears as an abandoned alien desert with fields that look like waves frozen in time, and rocky spikes and spires protruding from the landscape like some sort of meringue set in stone.

The rock formations that makeup Cappadocia were created by volcanic eruptions, erosion, and wind. Over three million years ago a volcanic eruption deposited a blanket of ash across the 1,500 square mile landscape which formed into a soft rock. This rock, slowly eaten away by wind and time, has created some spectacular forms. But the human history of the area is as compelling as the geological one.

With rock soft enough that you can easily dig right into it, part of what adds to Cappadocia’s strange appearance is that carved into every hillside, spire, and boulder is a home complete with windows, bedrooms, kitchens, and multiple stories connected by ladders or steps.

The pathways and structures carved from the rock hold a long history of struggle and resistance. As early as the 3rd century, the caves and tunnels within the rock formations were being used as a hiding place by Christians escaping persecution by the Romans. By the 10th and 11th centuries, Byzantine Christian monks were building hundreds of small churches—each beautifully painted and decorated—into the hillsides as monasteries and training grounds for early Christian missionaries.

Nowhere else is the soft pliability of the landscape, and the ingeniousness of the ancient architecture more visible than in the nearby subterranean cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymakli.

Derinkuyu is 11 stories deep, has dozens of miles of tunnels connecting it to other underground cities, and can accommodate many thousands of people. It is truly an underground city, with areas for sleeping, stables for livestock, pits for cooking, bathrooms, praying, even for being buried. Today, the tops of the tombs have eroded, exposing the narrow, empty graves.

Some 200 underground structures have been discovered in Cappadocia, many of them connecting to each other via tunnels. Most people didn’t live in the underground cities full time. Underneath the cities was a vast network of tunnels, connecting each home in the area to the city. When the area came under attack, families would flee to their basements, rush through the dark tunnels, and gather in the underground city.

The boundaries of historical Cappadocia are vague, particularly towards the west. To the west, Cappadocia is bounded by historical regions of Galatia and Lycaonia. To the south, the Taurus Mountains separate Cappadocia from Cilicia and the Mediterranean Sea. Roughly, the area is about 250 miles from east to west and 160 miles from north to south.

The name Cappadocia has been co-opted by the tourism industry to refer to any place where natural wonders and geology provide the main forms of entertainment and attraction. Those wishing to enjoy an overnight in the region should visit Gamirasu Cave Hotel and check out the Byzantine King Suite.
 
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Pamukkale Water Terraces



Denizli, Turkey


Roman ruins top white travertine terraces formed by ancient hot springs.


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ONCE A KIND OF ROMAN-ERA health spa, the spectacular rock formations below the ancient city of Hierapolis form a blindingly white natural cascading fountain. Waters from ancient hot springs spilling down the hillside for a millennia have formed terraces of oyster-shell shaped pools, the white travertine constantly refreshed by the flow of the calcium rich waters.
Named the “Cotton Castle” in Turkish, the site has been celebrated as a natural wonder since the second century BC when the city of Hierapolis was formed around the healing waters. A thriving metropolis during the Roman era, the city survived and rebuilt several times following earthquakes, and it was not completely abandoned until 1300 AD. The ruins are extensive, including a Nymphaeum fountain which distributed water throughout the city, a large amphitheater, as well as the remains of the largest ancient necropolis in Turkey.
Together with the ruins of Hierapolis, Pamukkale is now a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. Before the designation, the terraces were in danger of being destroyed through a combination of neglect and commercial development. Hotels were built at the top of the site, partly obscuring ruins of Hierapolis , and wear and tear from the feet and shoes of visitors had scarred and turned many of the pools brown. Efforts to protect the delicate natural phenomenon have dramatically changed the area. Hotels have been demolished, and in an effort to allow the pools natural white appearance to be maintained, access to the pools is tightly restricted, and water released from the spring is controlled and only distributed to a few pools at a time. Artificial pools for bathing tourists have been added.
Although natural phenomenon like this is exceedingly rare, a similar but smaller set of travertine pools exist in Huanglong, China. Sadly, another site beloved by Victorian settlers in New Zealand was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1886.
Visitors should bring a backpack to comfortably carry their shoes, as you can explore the main drift of the mountain, but only barefoot.




Know Before You Go
The nearest town is Denizli, approximately 20km away. Local buses ("dolmush") and taxi's are available in Denizli to Pamukkale.
 

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Basilica Cisterns of Istanbul



Istanbul, Turkey


A marvel of Byzantine engineering under the streets of Istanbul.



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A FRENCHMAN VISITING CONSTANTINOPLE IN the 1500s heard strange stories of locals drawing up fresh water and even fishing from holes in their cellars. Intrigued by these stories and the legends of great underground temples, he decided to explore.
Upon further investigation, he rediscovered a subterranean marvel, the largest of the long-forgotten palatial cisterns of the Byzantine Empire. Fish swam in an artificial freshwater lake the size of two football fields and the vaulted brick ceilings were held up by 336 thirty-foot pillars scavenged from nearby Roman ruins.
Amazingly preserved despite centuries of conflict and siege, the cistern was built in 532 AD by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I to store fresh water for the palace and nearby buildings. Nicknamed Yearbatan Sarayi, or “The Sunken Palace” in Turkish, it is known in English as the “Basilica Cistern” because of its location on the site of an ancient basilica.
When Justinian undertook the building of the cistern, Constantinople was still in the shadow of the devastating Nika Revolt which took place in January of that year. The Byzantine equivalent of soccer riots gone massively out of control, the revolt took place in the wake of a hotly contested chariot race and culminated in the burning of much of the imperial city, and the killing of 30,000 rioters by Justinian’s troops. The cisterns were built as part of the rebuilding efforts in the aftermath.
In the past, visitors could rent a rowboat to float past the columns in the dripping gloom. Restorations in the late 1980s dredged the silted-in floor and added lighting, elevated walkways, and a cafe for visitors. There are still fish in the now-shallow water, helping to keep the water clear.
The two giant Gorgon-head pillar bases at the far end of the cistern are an intriguing mystery. It is suspected that they may have been pulled out of an older pagan temple, where motifs of the famous Gorgon Medusa were used as a protective emblem. It is possible that the placement of these two faces — upside down and sideways, at the base of pillars — may have been a deliberate display of the power of the new Christian Empire. Or it’s possible that the stones were just the right size.




Know Before You Go
Entrance is across from St. Sophia. Subway stop: Sultanahmet
 

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Lycian Rock Tombs



Fethiye, Turkey


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CARVED INTO THE SIDE OF a Turkish mountain are what look to be the entrances to countless temples, but are in fact the ornate facade of ancient Lycian tombs.

The Lycians believed that their dead were carried to the afterlife by magic winged creatures and thus they placed their honored dead in geographically high places such as the cliffside. Dating back to the 4th century, many of the numerous entryways are adorned with tall Romanesque columns and intricate reliefs, a bit duller from centuries of weathering. The older tombs are often no more than unremarked holes dug into the rock.

Despite the external grandeur, the interior of the tombs are spare chambers cut into the rock with a simple monolith inside to display the body and the rooms, are otherwise empty from hundreds of years worth of looting.
 

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Gobekli Tepe



Turkey


Hunter-gatherer architecture believed to be the oldest religious complex known.



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SUMMARIZING THE IMPORTANCE OF THE the archaeological site at Gobekli Tepe (Turkish for “Hill with a Belly”) is a formidable task. In 1994, German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt and his team unearthed a handful of findings that continue to revolutionize the way archeologists think about Stone Age man.

The site dates back 11,500 years, to the tail end of the Stone Age. The predominant understanding was that during this time, hunter-gatherers roamed the Earth, never settling, living as each day came. The huge Gobekli Tepe complex, however, brings this view into question. It consists of large, T-shaped pillars with animal carvings, huge stone rings, and a vast amount of rectangular rooms, many believed to have religious importance. One theory is that this site was not used for domestic purposes, but for rituals and sacrifices and the site at Gobekli Tepe is believed by some to be the oldest religious complex known to modern man. For this reason, the site has often invited breathless comparisons to the Garden of Eden, or the “origin of religion,” which has long been associated with the Fertile Crescent and the ancient Sumerians, who invented written language.

Equally curious is the fact that before this discovery, there was no evidence of hunter-gatherers ever erecting large monuments and buildings, making this perhaps the world’s oldest known architecture.

Nearby the site is Mount Karaca Dag, a mountain that geneticists believe to be the birth place of many of today’s cultivated grains. It’s theorized that Gobleki Tepe could be showing us a transition period, depicting nomadic cultures’ first attempt to farm (which would later bring about permanent settlement). The one acre excavation site has raised more questions than it has answered, and astoundingly enough, the site is believed to extend some 22 additional acres.

Around 8,000 B.C., the site was filled with soil and mysteriously abandoned.
 

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Myra Necropolis



Demre, Turkey


A Lycian city of the dead carved into the hillside of Southern Turkey, complete with startlingly human touches.



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THOUGH ARCHAEOLOGISTS RANK THE EXQUISITE necropolises at Myra as classics of Lycian culture, the site’s most beautiful elements are some of its touching, humanizing details.

Dating back to the 4th century BCE, the rock-cut tombs line the hills above Myra’s famed theater and the Church of St. Nicholas. These houses of the dead are divided into two main necropolises comprised of a mixture of house- and temple-style tombs: the ocean necropolis and the river necropolis. Colorful as they seem now, most have faded greatly over the years after having been painted brilliant shades of red, yellow, blue, and purple in their prime.

The most famous example of this was documented by early explorer Charles Fellows during his visit in 1840. Named after the lion and bull adorning its facade, the “Lion Tomb” also contains 11 life-sized stone figures thought to represent the grave owner’s family. A number of inscriptions in ancient Greek and Lycian appear carved throughout, including one that sounds as if it could’ve been written just yesterday: Moschos loves Philiste, the daughter of Demetrios.

Once exclusively the provenance of the upper and middle classes, the presence of Myra’s remarkable necropolises signal the residents’ former prosperity in addition to an ongoing sense of security that translated from this world into the next.
 

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Troy



Çanakkale, Turkey


This famous city eluded concrete detection until the early 2000's.



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FAMOUS FOR BEING THE FOCAL point of the legendary Trojan war, the city that was duped by a wooden horse was long theorized to exist around the region of modern Turkey, but it took decades of literary comparison to actually find the city of Troy.

In 1868 German businessman and archeologist Heinrich Schliemann had a chance meeting with English archeologist Frank Calvert who had begun digging in Hisarlik, Turkey and the first step in finding Troy was underway. The two were able to uncover a number of overlapping classical ruins in the area pointing to a series of cities that were essentially built on top of one another over the early centuries. Excavations on the area continued unabated throughout the years after its groundbreaking, with each new team finding more and more artifacts and ruins in a seemingly endless series of discoveries. The Troy site would come to be one of the most complex archeological digs in history, revealing nine distinct ages of urban construction. Over the years researchers dug up coins, jewelry, defensive walls, theaters, and a number of other buildings.

While all of the work at the Troy site was done under the general acceptance that the site was the actual location of the historical city, it was not confirmed (as much as such a thing can be) until 2001 when a team of researchers used a mix of geology, literary reference, and topography to identify the site. Troy now welcomes tourists, and you don’t even need to trick your way past the gates.
 

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Pluto's Gate



Denizli Merkez, Turkey


A deadly ancient portal to the underworld.



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THE DEADLY VAPORS THAT STILL waft out of this “gate to hell” were once used in ancient rituals to the gods of the underworld, and still claim the lives of unfortunate birds who get too close.

Known as Pluto’s Gate, or Ploutonion in Greek, the archeological site in southwestern Turkey was discovered in 2013 after following the route of a thermal spring. The site matches closely the description of the temple to the underworld that disappeared in the 6th century.

Tourists to the portal to the underworld were able to buy small birds or other animals (the sale of which supported the temple) and test out the toxic air that blew out of the mysterious cavern, which was connected to a temple with a pool. Only the priests, high and hallucinating on the fumes, could stand on the steps by the opening to hell, and would sometimes lead sacrificial bulls inside, only to pull out their dead bodies dramatically.

As the Greek geographer, philosopher, and prolific traveler Strabo, who lived from 64/63 BC to 24 AD), so enticingly described it: “This space is full of a vapor so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground. Any animal that passes inside meets instant death. I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell.”
 

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Ani Ghost City



Ocaklı Köyü, Turkey


An abused and forgotten metropolis, abandoned for centuries.



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“THE ARMY ENTERED THE CITY, MASSACRED ITS INHABITANTS, PILLAGED AND BURNED IT, LEAVING IT IN RUINS AND TAKING PRISONER ALL THOSE WHO REMAINED ALIVE…THE DEAD BODIES WERE SO MANY THAT THEY BLOCKED THE STREETS; ONE COULD NOT GO ANYWHERE WITHOUT STEPPING OVER THEM.”

-Arab historian Sibt ibn al-Jawzi, c. 1064

Sacked, abandoned and forgotten, the magnificent medieval city of Ani was once home to as many as 200,000 people, but has stood empty and in ruins for centuries.

Called by some the “City of 1001 Churches,” and by others the “City of Forty Gates,” Ani is situated in disputed territory within the Turkish province of Kars, near the border with Armenia. The city was originally Armenian, but the territory on which it stands is still argued over between modern day Turkey and Armenia.

Once a contemporary rival of Constantinople, Baghdad and Cairo, Ani fell to a succession of invaders . Both contributing to the ruin’s slow demise and as a result of its deterioration, earthquakes, war, and vandalism have all take their toll. However, sentiment is emerging that the city needs to be protected no matter whose jurisdiction it falls under.

The city’s many remaining churches are extraordinarily beautiful, even in their ruined state. The minaret Menüçehr Mosque, newer than many of the churches but still nearly a thousand years old, still stands as a testament to the city’s long history and diverse cultural influences.

International heritage organizations have long been concerned with Ani’s fate. In 1996, 1998 and 2000 ,Ani was included in the World Monument Fund’s Watch Lists of 100 Most Endangered Sites.

Official permission was needed to visit or photograph the site until 2004, but as notions of conservation and historical intrigue have sparked more of an interest in the area, regulations like these are no longer needed and it has become much easier to visit Ani today.

Despite recent improvements, in 2010 Ani was identified by the Global Monument Fund as part of their report on endangered world heritage sites. In 2011 the World Monument Fund announced the beginning of official restoration work in partnership with the Turkish Ministry of Culture.
 

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Kekova Island Sunken Ruins



Kaleüçağız Köyü, Turkey


Hidden just under the waters around this Turkish island are the ruins of a once great city.



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