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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Turkey.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Turkey.
A sailing odyssey along the “Turkish Riviera,” where the Aegean and Mediterranean meet, unveils the glories of Turkey’s ancient cultures. Whether chartered by a group or family, or individually rented by the cabin, a fully crewed wooden gulet, the two-masted diesel-propelled boat of traditional design, is the perfect way to explore the 230-mile serpentine Lycian coast, much of which is inaccessible by car.
Here the waters take on a luminous blue that can be found nowhere else in Europe (hence the names Turquoise Coast and mavi yolculuk, or Blue Voyage) and provide the perfect backdrop to Greco-Roman ruins, sun-drenched beaches, simple lunches of fresh fish at cheerful dockside cafés, and even a small island given to Cleopatra as a gift by Marc Anthony.
Cruises usually cast off from the ancient port cities of Marmaris, Antalya, and Bodrum, the latter a former fishing village and charming seaside resort whose harbor is dominated by the striking Petronion, or Castle of St. Peter, built by the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem in 1402.
Surrounded on three sides by water, it is one of the last and finest examples of Crusader architecture in the East, and was built from the remains of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the marble 4th century B.C. tomb built for King Mausolus by his sister and wife, Artemesia. As grand a tomb as has ever been built, it gave the English language the word “mausoleum” and stood for 1,500 years before being felled by an earthquake.
Bodrum has changed considerably in the last decade and is best known today as the yachting center of the Aegean. These are supreme cruising waters, with no fewer than eighty anchorages listed between Bodrum and Antalya.
Most gulet cruises are booked for a week, but even a day trip south to the gorgeous mountain-rimmed Gökova Körfezi (Gökova Gulf) is worth it for the pleasures of a secluded cove and a simple fish lunch prepared by your crew. Generally speaking, cruises east of Marmaris take in classical sites, mixed in with some spectacular scenery, while the Aegean voyage west of Marmaris has a less ancient bent.
Konya is Turkey’s most important center of Sufism, a mystical sect of Islam, and for nearly 700 years has been home to the Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi order. Their Mevlana Tekke (Mevlana Monastery) was founded by the 13th-century poet and philosopher Mevlana (master) Jalaluddin Rumi, who believed that an ecstatic, trancelike state of universal love could be induced by the practice of whirling around and around, in the manner of all things in the universe.
Each year in mid-December his followers celebrate his shebi Arus (“day of union” – the day he died) by performing the sema, the whirling dance, one of the world’s most mesmerizing spectacles. With their right palms up to the sky as if to receive God’s grace, their left palms down as if to distribute it to the earth, the dervishes whirl around the room, directed by a dance master and accompanied by an orchestra of traditional instruments, and eventually assume a whirling position around the sheik, a senior dervish who represents the sun. In whirling away their earthly ties, the dervishes effect their union with God.
Following Mustapha Kemal Ataturk’s overthrow of the Ottoman Empire in 1924, the Mevlevi order was banned as an obstacle to Turkey’s modernization. After an interruption of twenty-five years, a group of dervishes convinced the local Konya government to once again allow the performance of “the Turn” as a cultural performance. It has continued annually to this day. The Mevlana Monastery – now a museum – is visited by more than a million Turks each year.
Over nearly four centuries, twenty-five sultans ruled the vast Ottoman Empire from the sprawling 175-acre Topkapi Palace complex, built on a promontory overlooking the Bosporus. Today many of the rooms and exhibits are dazzling and the legends so exotic that it is easy to imagine the time when the palace accommodated a community of 40,000 people and was like a city in itself.
Most of the treasures of the sultanate have long since disappeared, but the pieces that remain on display in the Treasury are enough to jolt your imagination into envisioning what other baubles and trinkets were used by the likes of Suleiman the Magnificent. The famous Topkapi dagger is encrusted with enormous emeralds, as is the throne of Selim I, made with more than 25,000 precious stones. The Spoonmaker’s Diamond, the fifth largest in the world, made its first public appearance on the coronation turban of Mehmet IV in 1648.
The other source of fascination in the palace is the harem (meaning “forbidden” in Arabic). The number of odalisques increased steadily with the decline of the Ottoman Empire, numbering more than 800 in the mid-19th century, when Sultan Abdulmecid I traded in Topkapi for the Versailles-like Dolmabahçe Palace up the Bosporus, equally ostentatious, though in a French, not Turkish, style.
If you want to try on the pasha lifestyle for yourself, consider the Sultan’s Suite at the Çirağan Palace Hotel, which for a short time in the 19th century was the home of Sultan Abdulaziz. Majestically situated on the banks of the Bosporus, about 1 ½ miles north of Topkapi, the palace has been meticulously restored to its former state of unbridled opulence, with lush gardens, outdoor terrace restaurants, and a waterfront café.
Guests not occupying the largest suite in Europe must content themselves with the standard rooms of the newer building next door, which are nothing short of regal. The hotel’s much-respected Tuğra restaurant, on a terrace overlooking the Bosporus, treats everyone like royalty, serving classic Ottoman dishes while Turkish musicians perform.
Stop by for tea in this century-old hotel, which drips with history and nostalgia. The Pera Palas was built in 1892 to accommodate predominantly European guests arriving in Constantinople on the Orient Express (and carried to the hotel in sedan chairs).
Its guest book reads like a fantasy Who’s Who, where the ghost of Mata Hari keeps company with that of Agatha Christie, who wrote much of Murder on the Orient Express in Room 411 in the 1930s. Turkey’s national hero, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk (who would become the country’s first president when it became a republic in 1923), preferred Room 101, which has been left just as he used it and is now a small museum. In fact, there is a movement afoot to convert the entire hotel into a museum, explaining why a much-needed renovation is being held off until its future is determined. Guests from the hotel’s early days would still recognize the original elevator, which looks like a gilded birdcage, and the lobby’s 20-foot walls of coral marble.
The slightly faded atmosphere of the wonderfully Art Deco interior makes it a favorite with the British, and of film crews trying to capture an aura that only reality can exude. But guests pay a premium for nostalgia here, so many stay elsewhere and content themselves with a coffee in the grand salon or a drink at the bar.
Known for its graceful minarets, stained-glass windows, and excellent acoustics, the Mosque of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (Süleymaniye Camii) is the largest and considered the most beautiful in all of mosque-filled Istanbul.
Crowning a hill with its looming, unmistakable silhouette, it is Istanbul’s most identifiable landmark, which is just what the builder had in mind. Suleiman I, the greatest, richest, and most powerful of the Ottoman sultans, created this monument to himself between 1550 and 1557, and was buried here (together with his favorite wife, known in the West as Roxelana, “the Russian”) just nine years after its completion. Near their elaborately tile-embellished octagonal tombs (ask for the türbeler) is the modest tomb of Mimar Sinan, Turkey’s greatest architect, who was responsible for this extraordinary structure.
Although the Süleymaniye is the most sumptuous (and, as it turned out, most famous) of the many tributes he designed for his patron, Sinan considered his masterpiece to be the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, northwest of Istanbul, near the borders of Bulgaria and Greece.
A visit to this little-known mosque-turned-museum leaves visitors floored. It occupies what was originally the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora (“the country”), an out-of-the-way location on Istanbul’s western edge. It was first erected in the 5th century, then rebuilt numerous times.
Much of the present-day structure and magnificent interior decoration was completed in 1321 by Theodore Metochites, the prime minister and leader of the artistic and intellectual renaissance that transformed late Byzantium. The Kariye Museum houses dazzling 14th-century mosaics and frescoes depicting biblical scenes from Adam to the life of Christ, as well as some of the most important and extensive Byzantine paintings in the world.
Nevertheless, visitors often have the place to themselves, adding to the atmosphere of awe. Collect your thoughts afterward at the garden terrace, where tea is offered. A number of historic Ottoman houses nearby form an evocative pocket of Old Stamboul in the shadow of the city’s 5th-century walls (built less than 100 years after Constantine), which are several stories high, with walls up to 20 feet thick in spots.
The massive dome and four elegant minarets of the Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom) rise above the chaos and hubbub of downtown Istanbul, for more than a millennium forming the most impressive silhouette on Asia’s skyline.
But step out of the relentless sun and find its essence in the haunting beauty of its dimly lit interior, one of the largest enclosed spaces in the world. The Byzantine capital of Constantinople was fast approaching its zenith as religious, commercial, and artistic center of the Roman Empire when, in the 6th century A.D., Justinian began work on this site on the Bosporus, which over time rose to become the greatest church in all of ancient Byzantium, symbolizing the power and wealth of its emperors.
Sadly, much of the church’s original gold and marble, and its 4 acres of intricate mosaics, were plundered during the Crusades in 1204 and carried off as booty. In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, and the church was converted to a mosque. In 1934 it was stripped of all religious significance and function, but it will always be a spiritual oasis, remaining as the single finest structure to have survived late antiquity.
Nearby, the rooms and restaurants of the Four Seasons Hotel offer views of the site as well as of the elegant Blue Mosque and its six minarets, built by Sultan Ahmet I beginning in 1609. Ironically, the Four Seasons building served for years as a prison where, beginning in 1917, dissident Turkish writers and politicians were incarcerated in far less sumptuous quarters than you’ll find today. They might appreciate the irony, though they’d never recognize the spacious rooms, elegant appointments, and certainly not the seductively sybaritic baths.
The courtyard, now filled with plants and birdsong, is a cool greenhouse-like oasis where a restaurant offers meals that bear no resemblance whatsoever to prison fare. A Turkish coffee or a sunset cocktail on the rooftop terrace overlooking the spires of Istanbul creates a captivating moment … and then the lights come on, illuminating Istanbul’s treasures against the inky night sky, and you find yourself a prisoner of pleasure, this time detained by the lure of romance and a staff the sultans would have envied.
In the market for a flying carpet? Rugs galore, and everything else imaginable, can be had in Istanbul’s great Kapali Çarsi (Covered Bazaar), a mini-city that sprawls across sixty-five streets and 50 acres and includes some 4,000 shops, tiny cafés, and restaurants – all surrounded by a wall, and entered through any of eleven gates.
Originally built by Mehmet the Conqueror in the 1450s, it’s been substantially rebuilt over the years due to fires, though its original style of arched passageways and tiled fountains has been maintained. One of the largest (and oldest) shopping malls in the world, it offers a sea of choices for local curios and souvenirs: carpets, jewelry, icons, leather, water ewers, meerschaum pipes, ceramics, bronze, and copperware.
Take a deep breath and plunge into the maze of twisting byways, where merchants offer small glasses of tea to discombobulated tourists in search of the elusive bargain. The occasional Istanbullu still comes here to buy a few meters of fabric or a gold bracelet for a special occasion, and, as is often the case, the side streets are the most authentic and evocative of the old days.
Once you’re shopped out, a traditional Turkish bath is just the thing to help you decompress. There are still more than a hundred to choose from, but the best place to take the plunge after a long and dusty day of bargaining is the Cagaloglu on Yerebatan Caddesi. The Cagaloglu was a gift to the city in 1741 from Sultan Mahmud I, and it is believed that King Edward VIII, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Franz Liszt, and Florence Nightingale have all visited its magnificent white-marble domed steam room – Tony Curtis unquestionably did.
Public baths were originally founded by the Romans, who passed the tradition on to the Byzantines and from them to the Turks. Baths were a public utility because of water shortages, and provided a perfect marriage between the Koran’s demand for cleanliness and the pleasure of corporal indulgence in a beautiful setting. Although most Turkish homes (especially in the cities) have adequate plumbing today, the baths remain a social institution.
Incidentally, the penalty for a man discovered in the women’s baths used to be death; these days, you can escape with your life, but expect to find the men’s and women’s baths separately housed in interiors that have not changed much since Ottoman days.
One of the best-preserved ancient cities on the Mediterranean, Ephesus is Turkey’s showpiece of Aegean archaeology.
Although it is 3 miles away from the sea today, Ephesus was once one of the wealthiest trading port cities of the Greco-Roman era, ideally situated between the Near East and the Mediterranean ports of the West. Settled as early as 1000 B.C. by the Ionians, its extensive and impressive ruins testify to its ancient role as capital of the Roman province of Asia – in the time of Augustus Caesar, it was the second-largest city in the eastern Mediterranean, after Alexandria.
Today, a mile-long marble-paved street grooved by chariot wheels leads past partially reconstructed buildings, such as the Great Theater (which held 25,000 spectators) and the beautiful two-story Celsus Library (built in A.D. 135), one of the largest libraries and most graceful surviving buildings of antiquity. The Temple of Artemis (known by the Romans as Diana, twin sister of Apollo) was considered one of the wonders of the ancient world.
Only the foundation remains, but during Ephesus’s heyday in 356 B.C., it was four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens, with a forest of 127 marble columns supporting a 60-foot roof. Ephesus continued to flourish until the 3rd century A.D., when it was razed by Goth invaders from Northern Europe. Hundreds of columns and statues disappeared from the site over the ensuing centuries; some showed up in Constantinople and were used to build and embellish its Byzantine cathedrals. Nevertheless, the Ephesus Museum has one of the best collections of Roman and Greek artifacts to be found in Turkey.
Kusadasi (Bird Island), a major Aegean resort, is the jumping-off place for Ephesus and a variety of other wonders, including the nearby Greek island of Samos. But while such proximity partially explains this formerly sleepy fishing town’s metamorphosis into a coastal playground, its inherent pleasures stand on their own.
At the end of the wide bay, now linked by a causeway, an august Byzantine fortress still stands guard. The area is a popular destination for cruise ships and pleasure craft, and first-rate seafood restaurants around the harbor and a lively bazaar still offer the occasional find. On a small promontory in the bay, the eighty- four-room Kismet Hotel could get by on charm alone. Its personable owner, Hümeyra Ozbas, is a descendant of the last Ottoman sultan, Muhammed VI.
Together with her husband, Halil, and their children, she runs the Kismet on a grand scale. Surrounded on three sides by the sea, with gardens of palms, pines, and night-blooming jasmine, the hotel manages to suggest a private Mediterranean villa complex and is the perfect place for a sundowner made with raki, the local anise-flavored liquor.