A recent trip to Turkey was a reminder to those of us who live in the youthful ‘western world’, just how inspirational a trip to the ‘old world’ can be.
Our 15-day ‘Insight Vacation’ tour to Turkey combined beautiful and diverse scenery, history and archeology dating back to the Stone Age, religion and culture, with daily briefings from a tour guide that could have substituted for a university credit course in history.
Our remarkably compatible group of Australians, Canadians and Americans came together at the five star Conrad Hotel where the dignitaries of the world meet when they come to Istanbul- a legendary city of 15 million people and part of two continents, Europe and Asia.
After a meeting with guide Atakan Acar who would provide exemplary service for the next 13 days, we fought through the jet lag of an 8 hour time change, and started the next day with a boat ride on the Bosphorus Canal and our first look at Istanbul.
On the European side of the canal at its narrowest point, the formidable Fortress of Europe has dominated the landscape since 1452 when Istanbul(Constantinople) was invaded by the Ottomans, whose empire survived until WW1. Along the shore are many beautiful mansions and palaces of the Ottoman sultans and glimpses of a few of the 2,000 mosques of Istanbul.
The Blue Mosque is one of the most famous religious buildings in the world, and was considered sacrilegious by Muslims in the 17th century because of its attempt to rival Mecca. Turkey’s population of 70 million is about 97% Muslim, with pockets of Christian denominations in the larger cities. It is estimated that only a minority of Turks, about 25%, practice their religion by attending the mosque.
One should not leave Istanbul without seeing the Topkapi Palace, today a legacy of the opulent sultans from the Ottoman empire. The palace includes a Harem, which at its peak contained over 1,000 concubines- young women and wives who served the sultans’ pleasure.
Turkey is about the size of Quebec and is located midway between the North Pole and the equator; its coastal borders are the Black Sea to the north, the Aegan Sea to the west and the Mediterranean to the south. Our bus tour focused on the western and south/central part of Turkey, stopping in 9 cities while logging 3,000 km.
Bursa, a city of 3,000 thermal baths and more tombs and mosques than any other city in Turkey, was the first capital of the Ottoman empire in 1326. Further afield, in the rural Anatolia region, we visited the open air, monumental tomb of King Midas discovered only in 1953 and dating back to the 5th century BC. According to legend, Midas became miserable after being awarded the ‘golden touch’ by the Greek God Dionysus, and was granted a second wish that cancelled the first, thereby rejecting materialism.
Mountain ranges are Turkey’s most distinctive geological feature, with snow caps in the higher elevations until late spring. Much of Turkey lies in an active tectonic zone, and the country has a long history of earthquakes. South of the Taurus mountains, balmy temperatures prevail along the Mediterranean and Aegean coastlines.
Perhaps the most bewitching scenery in Turkey is the Cappadocia region of Central Anatolia, its surface comprised of hardened volcanic ash which blankets the region. The solidified ash, called ‘tuff,’ has eroded over thousands of centuries and has created distinctive formations called ‘fairy chimneys,’ reminiscent of a Walt Disney movie.
Adding more intrigue to the landscape, entire underground cities were carved out of tuff, complete with living quarters, wells, ventilation systems and churches. The Goreme Open Air Museum has been declared a world heritage site, featuring 30 or more rock-cut churches dating back to the 9th century. It is a truly remarkable site.
Outside of Ankara, the capital, we passed a military base. Owing to its strategic location in the middle east, and the instability of neighbouring countries, Turkey has invested heavily in the military. Since the country became independent in 1923, and the revered Mustafa Ataturk became its first president, the country has had a policy of conscription for all young men. Ataturk was best known for his integrity and style, and of enacting sweeping reforms to modernize the country.
One of Islam’s greatest mystics was Mevlana, a 13th century liberal mystic who believed in universal love and spiritual union. The order he founded, known as the “Whirling Dervishes,” incorporated music and dance to create a trance-like state and thereby liberate the consciousness of the individual. A museum near Konya documents the history of this offshoot of Islam.
Getting closer to the Mediterranean, we came across what looked like small, 13th century fortresses. These early hostels known as ‘caravanserais’, were used by travelling merchants, and contained accommodations, stables, Turkish baths and a small mosque. The social welfare system of the day encouraged trade in this way to expand the Ottoman empire.
The great acropolis of Pergammon settled by the Greeks in the 8th century BC is one of the most dramatic sights in Turkey. The theatre of the ancient city was constructed on a hill and has seating for 10,000 people. The walls of the city extend about 4 km. enclosing the entire hilltop, and making it easily defendable.
After spending two nights at the superb Sheraton Hotel in Antalya, we made our way towards Pumukkale, which means “cotton castle” in the Turkish language. From a distance the white terraced landforms look surreal, resembling an abandoned ski hill. The limestone terraces are formed by nearby hot springs.
The next few days became the historical pinnacle of our trip. The site of Aphrodisias dates back to 5800 BC when Neolothic farmers worshipped at the site. The stadium at Aphrodisias is one of the best preserved structures of its kind from the classical era.
Another site, Ephesus, is one of the greatest ruins in the world. First a Greek city in 1000 BC, it was developed later by the Romans as a port on the Aegean and then became an important Christian centre. St. Paul spread the gospel in this part of Turkey, and the Virgin Mary is said to have spent her last days in the area.
As our tour moved north back to Istanbul, we crossed the famed Dardanelles Strait, and climbed the Gallipoli Peninsula, the site of one of the bloodiest campaigns of WW1. Thwarting the Allied campaign to seize the strategic Dardanelles, Turkish soldiers successfully defended their territory for 9 months despite huge casualties on both sides.
However, after 14 days in Turkey, we acquired a wealth of historical and cultural information that in many ways was overwhelming. This spectacular country and its friendly people had made a lasting impression on us.
In the end we need to remind ourselves that the present is a mere blip on the radar screen of existence, and that an infinite amount of knowledge about our ancestors is just waiting to be discovered.
Insight Vacations tour package was arranged for Kevin and Adele Parkinson, William and Judy Studnicki of Cornwall, Ontario by CAA Travel, CAA North & East Ontario.