The Country You Think You Know...But You'll Be Surprised To Learn
Situated at the point where the continents of Europe and Asia come together, Turkey has served as the stomping ground for sundry migrations of mankind. Hittites, Persians, the armies of Alexander the Great, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans all have their place in the intriguing history of this land, whose early inhabitants, living on the vast Anatolian plain, created many of civilization's most enduring myths. Ancient Troy, immortalized in Homer's Iliad is located on Turkey's Aegean coast, while in Phrygia, it is said, Alexander the Great split the Gordian knot with this sword, fulfilling the prophecy that this feat would make him king of Asia. These colorful legends are no match for the plain facts of history, but together they make Turkey one of the most fascinating places on earth.
Nearly twice the size of California, Turkey has mountains and deserts, forests and farmland, and traditional rural villages and the vibrant mega-city of Istanbul. Istanbul is the only city in the world based on two continents. The largest part is in Asia but there is a small part in Europe. The two parts are divided by the Bosporus straight.
Justifiably famous for its ancient ruins, scenic coastlines, and the fantastical landscapes of Cappadocia, Turkey still holds plenty of surprises. Outdoor lovers take on the challenge of hiking in the rugged Kaçkar range or on the Lycian Way above the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, while those who love trying foods can enjoy fine dining in Istanbul or delicious regional home cooking and a warm welcome in Turkey’s no-frills lokantas (restaurants).
Fun Fact: Mt. Arat is Turkey's highest peak (5137m) is typical of northeastern Anatolia's rugged scenery.
Many who have not visited Turkey assume it is a third world country. However major cities like Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara are thriving hubs for local and international businesses as well as tourism. Turkey is also one of the few countries in the world that is self-sufficient. If all trade with other countries was to suddenly be cut, the Turkish people would still be able to drink and eat most varieties of food as well as have access to fuel and energy.
Istanbul is the megacity formerly known as Constantinople and Byzantium and was the capital of a series of empires. Antalya is a classically beautiful city and stylishly modern gateway to the Turkish Riviera. Izmir is Turkey's third-largest city and located on the Aegean.
Antakya (Hatay) is the site of the biblical Antioch and has a distinctively Arabic feel. Konya is the Anatolian boomtown and it is historical and mystical with its Seljuk architecture and whirling dervish heritage.
Turkish culture and traditions are diverse reflections of the different heritages across the country, influenced by the Greek, Armenian, Georgian, and Arabic influences that have been woven in the country’s history.
The northeast coast near the border is a combination of Turkish and Georgian culture as seen in the Laz and Hemsin communities and the southeast typically reflects Kurdish and Arabic culture, while the western coast, for nearly a century, has been widely influenced by European traditions.
Fun Fact: St Nicolas (or Santa Claus) originated from Turkey. At the time he was around, the area on the Southern Coast of Turkey was actually Greek. The patron Saint of England, otherwise known as St George, also originated from Turkey. He was born in an area known as Cappadocia and later lived in Palestine. He was a Roman solider but objected to the persecution of Christians by the Romans.
Within Turkey, the class system is alive and well. The most important determinants of social status are wealth and education. The basic categories include the wealthy urban educated class, the urban middle class, the urban lower class, the large rural landowner class, and the general rural population. Nearly a third of the population are rural farmers. Improved communications and transportation have brought them into closer contact with towns and cities, which has expanded their opportunities for education and upward mobility by entering the trades. The women tend to wear traditional conservative clothing, including head scarves and long coats, throughout the entire year.
Muslim is the primary religion in Turkey, with about 70% Sunni, 25% Alevis and a small Christian group. Turkey is a secular state that guarantees complete freedom of worship to non-Muslims. No matter what religion is practiced, religion plays a very important role for Turks. Especially Islam provides basic ideas about the nature of morality, charity, transgression, reward and punishment, and relations between men and women, as well as about cleanliness and impurity of the people.
Fun Fact: In direct disbelief of Islamic traditions, the Nazar Boncugu, also known as the evil eye, is in offices, homes, in transport and businesses. The “evil eye” is meant to protect. Rather than casting a nasty spell, Turks believe this talisman wards off evil. Tiny versions are customarily pinned to the clothing of an infant, while larger ones are displayed inside a house and it is one of the top recommended souvenirs to buy.
Stemming from the days of the nomadic tribes, Turkish homes prominently use carpets and rugs that are proudly on the floors. With elaborate decoration, handmade carpets have also become popular holiday souvenirs.
The Turks are quite lenient about tourists visiting mosques and most are open to the public during the day, but there are some rules of etiquette. It's best not to enter a mosque during the five daily prayer sessions, especially at midday on Friday, when attendances are higher. These prayer times are published in local newspapers for all to see and observe, and it's also considered offensive for a non-Muslim to sit down in a mosque.
Immodest clothing is not allowed in the mosque, but an attendant by the door will lend you a robe if he feels you aren't dressed appropriately. For women, bare arms and legs aren't acceptable, and men should avoid wearing shorts. Women should cover their heads before entering a mosque.
Shoes must be removed before entering a mosque; there's usually an attendant who watches over them, or you can put them in your backpack or handbag, or use the plastic bags often provided near the entrance. Photography is not allowed inside the mosque, particularly of people praying, and it's advisable to show respect by talking only in whispers. A small donation is usually requested for the upkeep of the mosque.
Must Do Things In Turkey
The Masterful Sülemaniye Mosque: Mimar Sinan was the greatest Ottoman architect, and the Sülemaniye Camii in Istanbul's Fatih district is one of the masterpieces. It offers architectural harmoniousness and scope, with a massive, light filled central dome. The peaceful gardens have a spectacular and much-photographed view of the Golden Horn.
Trekking the Lycian Way: The 540- mile Lycian Way, which winds along and above the Mediterraneans coast from Fetiye to Antalya, is still Turkey's most popular hiking route, including dozens of easy day hikes if you aren't a hardcore trekker. Acclaimed as one of the world's top 10 long distance walks. This is the Teke Peninsula, once the stamping ground of the ancient and mysterious Lycian civilisation. The route leads through pine and cedar forests in the shadow of mountains rising almost 3000 m, passing villages, stunning coastal views and ruins at ancient cities such as Pinara, Xanthos, Letoön and Olympos.
A Feast of Meze and Fish: A night at a meyane is an unmissable part of any trip to Turkey. Start with a table full of meze before moving on to a perfectly grilled fish and glasses of anise-flavored raki mixed with water and ice.
Exploring Ancient Ani: Once the capital of a 10th century Armenian empire and an important crossroads of trade before invasions and a devastating earthquake provoked its decline. Ani is hauntingly beautiful. Historically intriguing, culturally compelling and scenically magical, this ghost city floating in a sea of grass looks like a movie set. Lying in blissful isolation right at the Armenian border, the sites exudes an eerie ambiance. Before it's decline following a Mongol sacking in 1236, Ani was a thriving city, a Silk Road entrepôt and capital of the Armenian kingdom from 961 to 1046. The ruins include several notable churches as well as a cathedral built between 987 and 1010.
Exploring Topkapi Palace: The Topkapi Palace was once accessible only to the privileged few, but today everyone can experience the grandeur of one of the world's most powerful empires, including the sultan's private harem. This vast place on Sarayburnu ("Seraglio Point") was the residence of sultans and their harems, in addition to being the seat of Ottoman rule from the 1460s until the mid-19th century, when Sultan Abdülmecid I moved his court to Domabahçe Palace. Sultan Mehmet II built the original Topkapi Palace between 1459 and 1465, shortly after his conquest of Constantinople. Over the centuries it grew to include four courtyards and quarters for some 5,000 full-time residents.
The Magnificiant Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia): Known as the Church of the Divine Wisdom. Byzantine church, Ottoman mosque, and now world-famous museum, the Hagia Sophia is topped by a towering golden dome- built in the 6th century- that appears to float high above the building's marble floor.
This soaring edifice is perhaps the greatest work of Byzantine architecture and for almost a thousand years, starting from its completion in 537, it was the world's largest and most important religious monument. As Emperor Justinian may well have intended, the impression that will stay with you longest, years after a visit, is the sight of the dome. As you enter, the half domes trick you before the great space opens up with the immense dome, almost 18 stories high and more than 100 feet across, towering above- look up into it and you'll see the spectacle of thousands of gold tiles glittering in the light of 40 windows. Only Saint Peter's in Rome, not completed until the 17th century, surpasses Hagia Sophia in size and grandeur. It was the cathedral of Constantinople, the heart of the city's spiritual life, and the scene of imperial coronations. It was later converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 and declared a museum by Atatürk in 1935. On July 24 2020, it was declared a working mosque again by current Turkish president Recep Erdoğan.
Seeing Sacred Sights in Antakya: Antakya (Antioch) was an important center of early Christianity where St. Peter preached in a cave (now a church). Don't miss the majestic Roman-era mosaics on display at the Hatay Müzesi.
Beautiful Aphrodias: The 1 BC city was built to honor Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty of love. It's surely one of the beautiful archaeological sites in Turkey and includes a fascinating museum.
Visiting an Underground City: A visit to ancient Derinkuyu or Kaymakli, underground cities believed to have each sheltered thousands of people, has been a highlight of a visit to Cappadocia since the 5th century BC.
Lake Van: Turkey's largest lake and its highlight is a visit to the uninhabited islet of Akdamar and its 10th century Armenian monastery, which is reached by ferry.
Dramatic Rock Tombs: More than 2,000 years ago, the kings of the Pontic Empire carved tombs in their capital, Amasya. The ancient Lycians created tombs of their own in Fethiye and Myra, near Demre.
Shipping in Markets: Despite the increasing prominence of malls, for many Turks there's still no better place to shop than the weekly local pazar, which sells everything from olives to clothing, plus great street foods.
Ancient Troy: Troy is best known through Homer's The Iliad, but archaeologists have uncovered nine layers of civilization dated back 5,000 years; a brand-new museum at the site brings it all to life.
Walking through Ephesus: The heavy hitter among Turkey's wealth of archaeological sites, Ephesus offers the Library of Celsus, a giant outdoor theater; and the lavish terrace houses, with their vivid frescoes and sophisticated mosaics give insight into the daily lives of the city's elite. Undoubtedly the most famous of Turkey's countless ancient sites, and considered the best-preserved ruins in the Mediterranean, it is a powerful tribute to Greek artistry and Roman architectural prowess.
Sailing on a Blue Cruise: Whether you swim, snorkel, curl up with a book, or lay in the sun to catch a nap, a chartered sailing trip along Turkey's Mediterranean Coast, stopping in pristine, uninhabited coves is a quintessential Turkish experience. Known locally as a blue voyage (mavi yolculuk), a cruise lasting four days and three nights on a gület (traditional wooden sailing boat).
Touring Vineyards: Viniculture in Turkey dates back some 7,000 years. Increasingly, enterprising vintners, particularly in Urla and Thrace, offer wine routes and Napa Valley-like views without the crowds.
The Turquoise Riviera: Whether you base yourself in sleepy Patara or Dalyan or in busier Kas, you'll be within easy striking distance of two of the best beaches (Patara and Ïztuzu) both on Turkey's popular Turquoise Coast.
Getting Lost in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar: Often described as the world's oldest mall, Istanbul's Grand Bazaar offers thousands of vendors.
Flying High Above Cappadocia: The sight of dozens of colorful hot-air balloons floating above the fantastical volcanic-rock formations (known as "fairy chimneys" are actually effects of erosion on rock formed of ash from megalithic volcanic eruptions) of Cappadocia has become an iconic image of Turkey. Cappadocia was a refuge for Byzantine Christians, who carved monastic settlements into the rock, left frescoes on the cave walls and hid from Islamic armies in underground cities.
Sumela Monastery: The improbable cliff-face location of Sumela Monastery is more than matched by the Black Sea hinterland's verdant scenery. The gently winding road to the Byzantine monastery twists past riverside fish restaurants. The last few kilometres afford tantalising glimpses across pine-covered valleys of Sumela's honey-coloured walls, and the final approach on foot leads up a forest path to the rock-cut retreat.
Pamukkale: Famed for its intricate series of travertines (calcite shelves), and crowned by the ruined Roman and Byzantine spa city of Hierapolis, the 'Cotton Castle' - a bleach- white mirage by day and alien ski slop by night- is one of Turkey's most unusual treasures. Explore ruins such as the Roman theatre and soak your feet in the thermal water filling the crystal travertines, then tiptoe down to Pamukkale village past a line of the saucer-shaped formations.
Blue Mosque: Istanbul's most photogenic building was the grand project of Sultan Ahmet I whose tomb is located on the north side of the site facing Sultanahmet Park. The mosque's wonderfully curvaceous exterior features a cascade of domes and six slender minarets. Blue Iznik tiles and give the building its unofficial but commonly used name.
Fun Fact: Contrary to popular belief, Turks only drink coffee on a few days during the week. Instead, the national drink is tea, served black in tulip-shaped glasses and sweetened with sugar based on the drinker’s preference. A common feature in most communities, large and small, are the men only teahouses where they gather to drink tea and play games. Tea gardens are popular for families and females, especially on the weekends.
Food is an integral part of Turkish society. The best thing about sampling Turkey's delicious food, ranging from meze on a Mediterranean harbor to a pension breakfast featuring ingredients fresh from the garden, is that they take you to the heart of the Turkish culture.
Food preferences and preparations vary by region and ethnicity. For example, the Black Sea is noted for fish, especially anchovy dishes, while the eastern region is noted for spicy foods. Circassians are famous for preparing chicken in a walnut sauce, while Georgian cuisine is typified by thick corn bread and corn soup. Lahmacun, or Armenian pizza, originated in the southeastern provinces once occupied by Armenians. The following are examples of the wide variety of food known throughout the country.
Meze: Small dishes that emphasize fresh vegetables usually in oil. Sample palitcan salatasi (a smokey eggplant puree); giritezmesi (mix of crumbly cheese), pistachios, and herbs; or atom (thick yogurt laced with blazing hot dried red peppers). Restaurants often rotate their meze offerings.
Manti: Every culture has their take on dumplings, and the Turkish version is particularly satisfying. Small pockets of minced meat are doused in garlicky yogurt and topped with melted butter or oil and a dusting of mint and red pepper flakes. Various regions offer different varieties; most famous are the tiny manti from the city of Kayseri and the larger delicate manti from the Black Sea city of Sinop.
Sahlep: Only available during the colder winter months, sahlep is a sweet, creamy drink made from the root of an orchid. Topped with cinnamon, it's an excellent non-caffeinated beverage to warm your hands and soul during the grayer months.
Kahvalti: There's breakfast, and then there's Turkish breakfast, a spread that splays out across the table. It often includes oily olives, cucumber and tomatoes, thick white cheese, homemade jams, sizzling sunny-side-up eggs, tahin pekmez (a sweet mix of tahini and grape molasses), and crunchy bread, served with tea.
Raki: Turkey's national drink isn't just a beverage- it's an experience. Like Greek ouzo and French pastis, raki is a clear anis liquor that turns milky white when diluted with water (it is something referred to as "lions milk"). It is served chilled and meant to be sipped slowly over a large feast, generally of meze and fish. The raki table is where people come together, tell stories, and break bread.
Simit: Sold on every Istanbul street corner, simit is the ideal snack on the go. A bready circle encrusted with sesame seed, it's crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside and delivered fresh to vendors throughout the day. For a real treat, track down a simit bakery and get a hot fresh one.
Most Turks love a mid-afternoon sugar hit and will often pop into a mulhallebici (milk-pudding shop), pastane (cake shop) or baklavaci (baklava shop) for a piece of syrup-drenched baklava, a plant of chocolate-crowned profiteroles or a firm sütlaç (rice pudding) tasting of milk, sugar and just a hint of exotic spices. Other Turkish sweet specialties worth sampling are kadayif, dough soaked in syrup and topped with a layer of kaymak (clotted cream); künefe, layers of kadayif cemented together with sweet cheese, doused in syrup and served hot with a sprinkling of pistachio; and katmer, thin layers of pastry filled with kaymak and pistachio and served hot.
Fun Fact: Turkih belief is that each meal is a gift from Allah to enjoy, and not waste, so Turkish women often spend hours in the kitchen, with painstaking and intense recipes. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and typically includes eggs, cucumbers, tomatoes, and olives. Bread is the must-have at either breakfast or other mealtimes. It is a staple part of diets and sold in masses throughout the country. Some even refuse to sit down to a meal without it.
To learn more about the fascinating country of Turkey, consider turning to these resources:
Turkey: A Short History - Written by the historian Norman Stone, this book is a great introduction to Turkey’s history from a very insightful perspective. BUY NOW
Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire - If interested in the history of Istanbul, then this book by Philip Mansel offers a definitive history of the city. BUY NOW
Classical Turkish Cooking - If you’re a fan of Turkish cooking (or from reading this blog you think you want to be), then this cookbook, written by Ayla Algar, brings the basics of Turkish cuisine into your own kitchen. BUY NOW
A Short History of Byzantium - What became Constantinople and then Istanbul was once known as Byzantium, and this book travels back to the roots of an ancient empire that stood strong for more than 1,000 years. BUY NOW
Strolling Through Istanbul – A guide to Istanbul, this book written by Hilary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely, takes readers on a stroll through Istanbul and all of its most exceptional sights. BUY NOW