Like in any country, you have to get outside the big city to really see it. Istanbul has a huge concentration of Turkey’s history within it, but the strata of cultural influences in the whole Asia Minor region are almost easier to see when they’re not smushed together in one place.
Along the Mediterranean coast, the Greek and Roman piece of Turkey’s history is most clearly visible, in both the archeological ruins and just the general vibe. Central Turkey couldn’t be more different. It’s arid and mountainous and it definitely bears the marks of its medieval Byzantine history, rather than the Hellenistic romance of the Mediterranean. I’ll start with the latter.
Bodrum and the Mediterranean
Istanbul was in many ways exactly what I expected, an interesting mash-up of European culture and Islamic and Asia Minor influences. Bodrum was exactly what I expected too—if I had gone to Greece.
The similarities are not particularly surprising. Bodrum sits on the southwestern coast of Turkey along the Mediterranean, 200 miles from Athens and within visual range of several Greek islands in the area. Until the 1920s, there was a large population of Greeks in Turkey and vice versa, until the government imposed a population exchange in 1923, a forced migration based on religious identity that was supposed to help resettle the two groups in the different countries for a variety of reasons. Not surprisingly, it didn’t go well and is still causing problems today.
Anyway, you won’t find that idyllic Santorini coastline with cobalt blue roofs and pearly white stucco walls; Bodrum is more a place than a postcard. There are an unusual number of Domino’s Pizza restaurants in town and the buildings are an eclectic mix of ultra-contemporary beach resorts, modest cottage-style homes, and centuries-old limestone townhouses that have stood the test of time.
Strategically perched on a tiny peninsula overlooking the harbor is the Bodrum Castle, built by the Knights of St. John (Crusaders) in the 15th century and eventually taken over by the Ottomans. The castle is worth a visit for its location more than anything, as it offers the best views in the city. What’s left of the structure is about what you’d expect—a stone castle—but inside they have the recovered cargo from a shipwreck in the area that sunk in the 16th century B.C., which is almost unimaginably old. I’m impressed by anything that’s still around from the 16th century A.D., let alone something that’s 3,500 years old and has been at the bottom of the ocean for most of that time.
While the Ottomans later controlled this area, their legacy is much less visible, and Greek, Roman, and Byzantine ruins are far more indicative of the area’s cultural history. Even those civilizations are relatively new for the area.
The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were built between 2584 and 280 B.C. The Pyramids are the only one of the seven still standing today (and amazingly, the oldest of the original seven), but the ruins for two of the seven are in this area; the Tomb of Mausolus (where the term “mausoleum” comes from) and the temple of Artemis, a few hours north of Bodrum, in the ancient world known as Halicarnassus. However, a lot of the building materials from the Temple of Artemis are in Bodrum proper today. When the Crusaders were constructing Bodrum Castle, they obviously needed a lot of materials and how convenient, there was an enormous stone temple north of the city that was completely abandoned. So if you visit Bodrum Castle today, you’ll be walking on the remains of one of the seven ancient wonders of the world on your way up to the parapets.
The most notable ruins in this region are the remains of the ancient city of Ephesus, once a thriving economic city in the Roman Empire and the site of the former Temple of Artemis.
Like half the archeological sites in Turkey, the line between reality and myth in their history can be fuzzy. One of Ephesus’s most famous guests is said to be Cleopatra in 41 B.C., though lots of other scholars claim she never even left Egypt. Paul, as in the apostle, lived here for a few years in the first century A.D. (hence the Epistle to the Ephesians in the New Testament), but what exactly he did there is not well documented, though missionary work seems to be the most likely. He was eventually quite literally chased out of the city when his preaching angered a group of merchants who made money selling statutettes of Artemis outside the Temple of Artemis, so they were not receptive to this Jesus character and his economically damaging message. Still, Ephesus has a strong connection to the history of Christianity, as it was the site of the fourth Ecumenical Council in 431.
Ephesus is not a place to rush through because at first glance, it doesn’t look like there’s a lot going on; a whole mess of broken columns and partially reconstructed facades and headless statutes. But there is an astonishing amount still be to seen here, 2,000 years after its heyday.
When the city was first built, the southern entrance was a harbor, but the sea has since moved four miles away, rendering Ephesus a landlocked area, which contributed to the city’s decline, accelerated by a Goth invasion in the third century A.D. Under Augustus, Ephesus became the second most important city in the Roman Empire with a population in the hundreds of thousands, a rarity during the Roman era.
Beginning at the north end of the complex is the Odeon, where public debates were held and where lobbyists would stand outside and harass the voting public entering the theater. Just outside the theater is a long colonnaded walkway, no longer covered today, that used to house judicial proceedings. The Romans believed that one was able to think more clearly when moving, so trials were mobile procedures, in which everyone involved would walk up and down the corridor arguing the case. Imagine the Supreme Court having to do this.
Continuing south toward where the harbor once was is a long paved road, Curetes Street, that stretches the entire length of the city and acted as its commercial thoroughfare. Ephesus saw many pilgrims during the Roman period and there are several fountains along the road for visitors to cleanse themselves before visiting the various temples, the most noteworthy at the time being the Temple of Artemis. Most of the temples along Curetes Street are dedicated to various emperors, rather than Greek or Roman gods. The Ephesians were constantly being taken over by one group or another so whenever they heard a new conqueror was going to be rolling into town, they would build a new temple to appease him.
Next you come to the baths, known as the Scholastica Baths that were sponsored by the woman who ran the largest brothel in the city, and there is a statute of her at the entrance. Adjacent are the latrines, a communal affair with several dozen holes cut into a long marble bench. During the height of the city’s prosperity, a visitor noted in his log Ephesus was so wealthy that they changed the sponges at the latrine (i.e. the toilet paper stand-in) every day. What luxuries.
The Library of Celsus is Ephesus’ most recognizable feature, reconstructed in the 20th century by some Austrians and what do you know, all the original statutes from the exterior are now in a museum in Vienna. Replicas now sit in the niches today and the original Corinthian columns have been carefully rebuilt to form the façade of what is actually a tomb, though manuscripts were also kept here and there was a large auditorium inside.
Finally, the city’s crown jewel was its 25,000-capacity theater, perhaps the largest in the world at the time and home to the usual array of theater, gladiatorial brutality, and whatever else Romans liked to entertain themselves with.
Aside from the history of this area, Bodrum and the Turkish Mediterranean coast are a pleasant surprise in a country that can feel oversaturated with history at times in a heavy way. This is a region with two of the seven wonders of the world, but it doesn’t have this weighty feeling like you’re at the axis point of Western human civilization, even though you basically are. Clearly the Romans chose this area for a reason and while all their stuff has amazingly stood the test of time, it hasn’t distracted from the natural beauty of the region. Turkey as a country could use a few places of peace and quiet.
Cappadocia is what would happen if a Dr. Seuss illustration was brought to life. There’s a lot in terms of human history that’s happened in this area, but the bizarre, kooky rock formations—known as fairy chimneys or hoodoos— are what make the region famous.
The phenomenon occurs because of the area’s ancient volcanic activity. The rock formations are solidified volcanic ash from thousands of years ago, and the weird shapes are the result of wind and water erosion.
Cappadocia is part of the Central Anatolia region in Turkey, and fell under Persian, Roman, and Byzantine control as the various empires moved in and out of the region over hundreds of years. However, they did no go quietly and were very shrewd about manipulating their conquerors. Wikipedia hilariously describes one incident: “After ending the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great tried to rule the area through one of his military commanders. But Ariarathes, a Persian aristocrat, somehow became king of the Cappadocians. As Ariarathes I (332–322 BC), he was a successful ruler, and he extended the borders of the Cappadocian Kingdom as far as to the Black Sea.” So that didn’t go according to plan, and the Cappadocians similarly neutralized the Romans.
When they weren’t trying to turn foreign conquerors native, they were hiding from them in an enormous network of underground cities that stretches for miles under the landscape in Cappadocia. Some of them, Kaymaki being the most famous, are still around today. An underground city is about as dismal, dark, and clammy as you’d expect, though they weren’t as bad as the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam. The same people who lived in the underground cities built cave dwellings above the ground where they lived when someone wasn’t pillaging the area.
Geographically, Cappadocia is both totally whimsical and oddly Gothic. The fairy chimneys look like a monochromatic version of the cover of Oh, The Places You’ll Go! but the cave dwellings and the Byzantine paintings also make it feel very austere. So it’s like Dr. Seuss meets Kafka, but it works. I didn’t get to do a hot air balloon ride because of the weather, but that is without a doubt the best way to see the area.
Looking at Turkey in its entirety, it’s a place with a long list of issues and a set of paradoxical cultural norms that are all deeply embedded. The Roman and Byzantine legacy is as visible as that of the Ottomans, and Turkey has been dealing with what it means to be the center of so much cultural diffusion for millennia.
Istanbul is almost a world unto itself, and when you venture out into the rest of the country, you get a more fragmented, but also more complete view of Turkey. The Bodrum and coastal areas bear much stronger ties to the Greek and Roman legacies in Turkey, while Cappadocia and the central regions have been shaped more by the Byzantines and the Eastern influences of Asia Minor.
Lots of countries are very diverse, and Turkey is a big country so this mishmash of cultures is hardly shocking, but they seem to have to deal with the fallout from this more than other places, and they keep finding themselves in hot water for various reasons; just yesterday, according to some mildly trustworthy sources, the King of Jordan told a bunch of U.S. officials that Turkey condones terrorists and sends them to the EU, hence all the terrorist attacks recently. So accusations like that aren’t exactly helping their bid to be a part of the EU, which is enough of a mess as it is.
But it just doesn’t seem that way. It’s not like you can really see government corruption in the Grand Bazaar or in Ephesus, and what government isn’t corrupt, but there is a total disconnect for me from the Turkey I experienced and the Turkey that exists as a global player in the pages of The New York Times. Turkey the country is shady and duplicitous and doesn’t admit to past wrongs and manufactures trouble—at least according to Western media and the King of Jordan apparently—but Turkey the place is historically and culturally rich; full of welcoming, interesting and open-minded people; and just generally a nice place to be.
So, none of the bad stuff should be a deterrent against visiting Turkey; if anything, it’s uniquely difficult position in the world makes it particularly interesting. Between the refugee crisis, ISIS activity, and the omnipresent Kurdish problem, Turkey doesn’t exactly seem like the place to put at the top of your list for the immediate future, but I have trouble seeing how Turkey is any more or less safe than anywhere else right now. I said this at the end of my last post and the attacks in Brussels happened less than 24 hours later. If you want to see it, the world is unfathomably enormous, and there’s just not enough time in life to tiptoe around areas that could be dangerous. Because that’s literally everywhere, which at the same time means effectively nowhere.
Unrelated to anything, I have an update on a previous post. In case you missed it, I hated Dubai, like, a lot. But I did find a silver lining. When you visit Ski Dubai, they give you a pair of gloves as a souvenir to commemorate your visit—I was trying to forget it, but whatever—and these gloves are terrible from a skiing perspective, just these thin fleece gloves with an elastic band at the wrist. However, it was freezing last week in Turkey and as much as it pains me to admit this, those gloves really came in handy. So thanks, Ski Dubai.
Next stop: Morocco