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Must-See Sights of Antiquity in a Modern Land

From the perfect beaches and tranquil lagoons of the Mediterranean coastline dotted with ancient ruins or the magnificent mountains and virgin forests of the Anatolia peninsula, with their astounding variety of wildlife, flora and fauna to the pulse of cosmopolitan cities, Turkey is a captivating study in contrasts.   There are countless things to see and do in Turkey.

In Istanbul:

Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet Camii

With its massive central dome flanked by six slender minarets, the Blue Mosque stands as the single most recognizable monument on the Istanbul skyline.  Built between 1609-1616 during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Ahmet I, the enormous complex also included a hospital, caravansary, public kitchen, marketplace, schools and the Mausoleum of Sultan Ahmet I.  The mosque’s immense interior, flooded with sunlight streaming through 260 windows, is decorated with more than 20,000 precious Iznik tiles detailing traditional flowers of Ottoman design.  In fact, it is the deep blue glow of the tiles in sunlight that gives the building its name. 

Hagia Sophia, Ayasofya

Built by Byzantine Emperor Constantine in the fourth century and reconstructed by Justinian in 537 A.D., this was the greatest church in Christendom for a thousand years, and remains an architectural masterpiece to this day.  Its immense dome rises nearly 200 feet above the ground and is more than 100 feet in diameter.  The Ottomans converted the basilica to a mosque in the 15th century, but today the Hagia Sophia serves as a public museum, known for its majestic serenity and fine Byzantine mosaics. 

Topkapi Palace

Covering 172 acres, Topkapi Palace is a vast assemblage of garden-filled courtyards, richly decorated chambers, kiosks, pools and passageways.  For hundreds of years, the palace was home to the Ottoman imperial family and the administrative headquarters of the Ottoman empire, including: the Imperial Treasury teeming with incredible treasures such as an 86-carat diamond and a 7-pound emerald; the pleasure kiosks; the gilded Council Chamber; the Imperial Harem; and kitchens boasting exhibits of fine Chinese porcelain. 

Dolmabahçe Palace

Built in the mid-19th century by Sultan Abdülmecit, the Dolmabahçe Palace occupies an impressive 2,000-foot waterfront site on the Bosphorus, its most important feature being the vast reception salon with 56 towering columns and a huge 750-bulb crystal chandelier weighing well over four tons.  The Bird Pavilion, where birds from all over the world were once kept, is another attraction.  Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, died here in 1938.

Galata Tower

A circa 1340 Genoese edifice, the Galata Tower rises nearly 200 feet above the Golden Horn, the estuary dividing the European side of Istanbul.  From the top of the tower, there is a marvelous panorama of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.  When the sun goes down, the landmark becomes a popular restaurant, nightclub and bar. 

The Tower of Leander, Kiz Kulesi

Long regarded as one of the most romantic symbols of Istanbul, the tower was first constructed in the 12th century on a tiny islet at the entrance to the city; the present building dates from the 1700’s.

Istanbul’s City Walls

Stretching over four miles from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, the walls were built in the fifth century by Emperor Theodosius II.  The many towers and bastions of the structure, most of which has been recently restored, made it the mightiest fortifications in Europe.  UNESCO has declared the walls and the area they enclose to be a World Heritage Site. 

The Princes’ Islands, Istanbul Adalari

An archipelago of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara, the Princes’ Islands are famous for their beautiful woods and beaches.  On the largest, Büyükada, horse-drawn phaetons (carriages) meander through the pine groves overlooking the numerous coves of the island’s coast.  Today, during the summer months, wealthy Istanbulites escape to the cool sea breezes and elegant 19th century houses that dot four of the islands. 

The Grand Bazaar, Kapali Çarşi

Situated along the road that once led to Rome, the Grand Bazaar is a maze of some 4,000 shops, selling treasures of every type.  Still the commercial center of the old city, its 80 streets constitute the original shopping mall, with something for every taste and budget – Turkish crafts, world-renowned carpets, brilliant hand-painted ceramics, copper and brassware, meerschaum pipes and excellent quality leather products.  In the heart of the bazaar, the Old Bedesten offers an intriguing assortment of antiques.

Elsewhere in Turkey: 

Ephesus, Efes

As the capital of Roman Asia Minor, Ephesus is still richly endowed with marble temples, mosaics and a 25,000-seat Great Theater.  The city, whose wealth and patronage supported its splendid architectural program, was dedicated to the goddess Artemis, and her enormous temple was once considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  St. Paul spoke here, and later wrote his famous Epistle to the Ephesians.  Even the Virgin Mary spent her last days here, and ascended to heaven from a neighboring hilltop.  Today, the ruins are less than 40 miles south of Izmir, and a short trip from one of the best harbors in all of Turkey, Kusadasi.   


The biblical realm of Cappadocia, south of Ankara, is a wonderland of unusual geographic formations sprinkled with green vineyards, fruit orchards and frescoed churches.  Wind and rain have eroded the brittle volcanic rock and formed rock cones, capped pinnacles and fretted ravines in colors that range from warm reds and golds to cool greens and grays.  In the Valley of the Fairy Chimneys huge boulders balance precariously atop spindly cones of volcanic tuff.  The most famous sight in the region, Göreme National Park, is one of those rare places where the works of humans blend unobtrusively into natural surroundings; labyrinthine underground cities like Derinkuyu and Kaymakli were carved into soft volcanic stone over 1,000 years ago.  The otherworldly beauty of the Cappadocian landscape makes it an excellent place for walks and horseback rides. 


Water is the sole architect of the gleaming white travertine cliffs of Pamukkale, the watery “Cotton Castle” long famous for its curative powers.  Warm calcium-laden mineral waters rise from the ground at a temperature of nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit, cascading over cliffs to build up fairy billows of snow-white stone.  The cream-colored stalactites formed during this ancient process have created a breathtaking sight unequalled in the world.  Roman ruins of the thermal baths in the ancient city of Hierapolis are another highlight of this area located just north of Denizli.

South Aegean Coastline

Today, the Turkish Riviera on the Mediterranean coast, from Marmaris to Antakya, draws vacationers from Europe, Asia, Africa and America, just as it once drew the Phoenicians, Romans, and Seljuks.  The capital of the Turquoise coast, Antalya is a bustling resort and commercial city, with a large new airport and an outstanding archeological museum.  Pensions and posh inns fill the historic district of Kaleiçi, while fine restaurants ring the Roman harbor, making Antalya the perfect base for visiting sights of the region.  Closer to the Aegean, is the yachting port of Bodrum, arguably Turkey’s most charming coastal town.  Set on twin palm-lined bays and dominated by the medieval Castle of St. Peter, Bodrum is famous for its world-class Museum of Underwater Archeology, and for the grand Tomb of King Mausolus, the original mausoleum.  As a favorite resort for Turkey’s artists, writers and the yachting set, the cafes are fashionable and the nightlife vibrant. 


Located south of Ankara, Konya is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Turkey.  Known as Iconium during ancient times, it served as the capital of the Seljuk Empire during the 12th and 13th centuries and remains a significant cultural center today, studded with the remains of Seljuk grandeur.  Every December, the city plays host to a week-long festival marking the death of Mevlâna Celaleddin Rumi, the great philosopher, poet and writer who founded the Mevlevi Order in the 13th century. Today, the Mevlâna Commemoration Ceremony is one of Mevlevi’s Whirling Dervishes, called semâ.   Directed by the chelebi, or sheik, the ceremony starts just as it has for over seven hundred years, with a reading from the Koran accompanied by the haunting sounds of the ney, or reed flute.  After further readings from a poem of praise for Mevlâna, the dance begins.  The barefooted dervishes remove their black cloaks to reveal white robes, take position, and whirl across the floor to music. Though the semâ was held on all holy feast days during the Ottoman Empire, the ritual takes place now only during this celebration in this city.  

Antioch, Antakya

Under Roman rule, the ancient city of Antioch, at the eastern end of Turkey’s Mediterranean region, was a splendid city.  With a population of nearly half a million, Antioch ranked with Rome, Alexandria and Constantinople (Istanbul) as one of the four great cities of the Roman Empire, famous for its sophistication, quality of life and cultural diversity.  The early Christian community gathered in Antioch, and many believe  the Book of Matthew was written in the city between 80 and 90 A.D. St. Paul embarked upon his three missionary journeys from Antioch, and followers of Jesus were first called Christians here. In fact, a nearby cave known as St. Peter’s Grotto is believed to be where Peter preached when he visited Antioch.  In 1963, the papacy designated the site as a place of pilgrimage and also recognized it as the world’s first cathedral.  Antioch is also  home to some of the best collections of Roman antiques, especially mosaics (one of two world-famous mosaic museums is located here).

Mount Nemrut

Located in southeastern Turkey, the Mount Nemrut region is home to architectural and sculptural pieces commemorating the first century B.C. kingdom of Antiochos I, son of Mithradates I Kallinikos, founder of the independent Commagene kingdom.  At Mount Nemrut’s peak, more than 6,000 feet high, a 164-foot tumulus and three terraces hewn from the rock dominate the landscape. On the terraces are eight- to ten-meter statues representing Antiochos I, the goddess Commagene, and gods Apollo, Zeus and Heracles, as well as guardian statues of eagles and lions. Stone reliefs depicting the ancestors of Antiochos I are also on the east and west terraces, and a large ceremonial altar rises above the east terrace. The beauty of the monumental sculptures and the splendor of the scenery are unrivalled, and the site is considered by many to be the eighth wonder of the world. The region was listed on the World Heritage list in 1987, and the Turkish government has taken drastic steps to preserve Mount Nemrut for future generations of scholars and visitors.  The site is set to be fully restored and conserved, starting in 2002. 



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