By Christine Potter
“We’ll meet in front of the brothel,” said Rashid, causing a few raised eyebrows among our small group. We were in the ruins of ancient Ephesus, a once-prosperous harbour city on Turkey’s Aegean coast.
It’s easy to imagine Ephesus at its peak: a population of 250,000 enjoying broad, columned streets lined with shops and imposing, marble-faced public buildings. The magnificent theatre (where Roman emperor Domitian fed Christians to the lions or where St. Paul preached to thousands of Ephesians) held 24,000. Today you might catch a performance of jazz or opera.
Turkish Culture & Tourism Office
Ephesus is among some 3,000 ancient sites in Turkey, a must-visit country for lovers of history, archaeology, and culture. Fun lovers flock here, too, for adventure, water-sports, and nightlife.
I arrived with a wish list: to see Cappadocia, Pamukkale, Ephesus, and Istanbul – a city at once exotic, eclectic, sophisticated, sprawling, historical, and modern. It links Europe and Asia – both physically and philosophically – and boasts a history spanning more than 26 centuries. Legacies from its Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman heritage are countless.
Three full days seemed barely enough to view Istanbul’s highlights.
Fine Byzantine mosaics adorn the walls of Ayasofya Mosque, also known as Hagia Sophia, its original Christian name. (It was Christendom’s largest church for 700 years before it was converted to a mosque in the 15th century.) It awes today’s visitors as it awed travellers 1,400 years ago, despite destruction by rampaging Crusaders in 1204.
CFB PotterTopkapi deserves a full day to explore, but if time is limited, at least see the Treasury (with the fabled 86-caratTopkapi emerald), and the Harem, home to the sultan’s wives, children, female servants, and the Black , who ran the place.
Modern Istanbul awaits in the Beyoglu district. You’ll see women garbed in everything from the minniest of miniskirts to a range of hijab – colourful silky headscarves to full black robes. Take an old-style tram to the top of Istiklal Caddesi, the main street of Beyoglu, and walk leisurely back down, past the mansions, modern stores, and unique covered markets.
Even non-shoppers love the legendary Grand Bazaar and lose themselves in its maze of 60 tiny streets and 4,000 shops. Traders congregate by the type of goods – here is gold jewelry, there are pashminas, then exotic costumes, now it’s oil lamps, antiques, and so on. The oldest sections date to the mid-1400s, testimony to Istanbul’s importance as a trading centre on the Royal and Spice roads. Equally exciting is the Egyptian, or Spice, Bazaar with its overwhelming sights, sounds, and smells. Bargains abound: saffron from Spain, caviar from Iran, and jars of the aphrodisiac said to have been used by the sultan. (He of many wives, concubines, and children.) Bargaining in bazaars is obligatory. In my experience, if the price doesn’t fall as far as the vendor thinks is fair, he’ll load you up with extra gifts.
Could Cappadocia match the excitement of Istanbul, I wondered, as we boarded our Turkish Airlines flight to Kayseri? Yes, it could. And did. So would the other areas we visited. Turkey’s amazing diversity is what makes this country such a joy for curious travellers.
Fantasy Valley was our first Cappadocia stop, with its surreal volcanic landscape created by eruptions some five million years ago. The rock faces are pocked with caves.
“People still live in them, as they have for centuries,” guide Selim told us. “They’re handed down through the generations, but sometimes they’re sold to Germans, who turn them into hotels.”
Surrealism continued with Goreme Valley’s mushroom-shaped “fairy chimneys.” Beneath the basalt top sit conical towers of tuff, a soft stone prized for carving. Entire settlements were carved from it.
All tours seem to include an obligatory visit to a carpet factory. The first visit is fascinating. By the third, carpets can pall, despite their beauty. But Turkey is the carpet industry’s third-largest producer, so the emphasis is understandable. And everybody you meet will know, or be, a carpet sales person.
I was dubious about taking a night-bus to Pamukkale – an 11-hour journey. I needn’t have worried. The vehicle was spotless (cleaned inside and out at each bus station stop), seats were comfortable, and smoking is banned on board. An attendant brings complimentary cookies, coffee, tea, and water every hour.
A sparkling white hill of scalloped, azure pools formed by centuries of cascading, lime-rich hot springs dominates Pamukkale, whose waters are reputed to cure many ills. In the second century, the claim brought thousands to stay in nearby Hierapolis, whose ruins are magnificent. But, if you can only visit one ancient site in Turkey (very difficult), it should be Ephesus.
About that brothel: an ancient stone-carved ad in Ephesus’ original public toilet reads “…a beautiful face like Diana…sings like a nightingale…” Distanced by so many centuries, it seems far more attractive than today’s escort ads.
Don’t Miss These
Turkey blends Europe and Asia, and you’ll find everything here that you’d find elsewhere on the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts (both of which Turkey shares).
As well as the sights mentioned, don’t miss these:
• In Istanbul, The Blue Mosque; the underground Byzantine cistern; and a cruise on the Bosphorus – the waterway linking Europe and Asia.
• On the Aegean: fine beaches, the ruins of Pergamum, and Kusadasi – a resort surrounded by sandy bays. (Devote your days to sightseeing, and nights to hedonistic pleasures!) It’s a great base for day-trips.
• The resort-filled Turquoise Coast, where the Aegean meets the Med.
• Inland for hikers: Olympos National Park and Saklikent with miles of unspoiled trails.
Tips on Turkey
• A visa fee of US $20 must be paid in cash on entering Turkey by air. (Not applicable to cruise ship passengers.)
• Carry tissues everywhere! Muslim countries customarily use water rather than toilet tissue and the latter is rarely provided outside major centres. Pack a “universal sink plug” (when provided, hotel plugs rarely fit), a flashlight for underground cities and cave churches, and a light sweater.
• If you ship a carpet home, sign it on the label to make sure – when it arrives – that it’s the same one you picked out in the factory.
For more information on Turkey, visit www.goturkey.com.