Exploring... Classical Turkey

| November 6, 2014

Turkey is a country steeped in history; clients Julia and Steve Smith travelled with Cox & Kings to discover the classic side of the destination.


Celsus library, Ephesus

Many of us heard the stories and history of Asia Minor through tales of Troy and learning about Byzantium, the Ottoman empire – and, more recently, the emphasis on the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the first world war. Again like many of us, we wanted to see these sites for ourselves and to experience the history and culture of a different place. A week-long tour that took in Troy, Ephesus, and other historic sites in Turkey gave us this opportunity.


What to say about Istanbul, where the tour began? It was lively and bustling, and more western looking than we’d thought. Here we were actually seeing places we’d only seen in documentaries – the Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace; walking across the Hippodrome in the old city; buying spices in the spice market (vacuum packed for transportation, though this doesn’t make them any lighter to carry!) and experiencing the cathedral-like atmosphere of the underground cistern.

We were intrigued by the room in the Topkapi Palace displaying reputed relics of biblical heroes – though we didn’t think it likely that King David had an iron sword. In the same part of the palace there are hairs from the beard of the Prophet, protected by the live reading of Qu’ranic verses. The grounds of the palace are beautifully looked after – everywhere we went, the gardens and grounds of sites were lovingly maintained.


Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Hagia Sofia is an incredible open space, with doors of one of the main entrances reputed to have been made from wood from the Ark. On the walls and ceiling are mosaics from the time it was a basilica mixed with later Islamic designs. The Blue Mosque was very different – a place of worship as well as a tourist attraction. It was, we felt, more dignified than Hagia Sofia, because it is an active place of worship, but just as crowded. The tiles decorating the interior from which the mosque gets its name are blue, and there are other colours, especially red and gold, within the domes of the prayer hall.


Interior of the Hagia Sophia

In the underground cistern, we wondered how the Gorgon Medusa would feel about being on her side at the base of one of the columns that support the roof, and admired the engineering feat that built such a structure.


The next day took us to Gallipoli, which was of course of interest to the Australians in our group. Today the area is forested, with monuments to both Allied and Turkish forces. It was poignant to see where Anzac troops landed at the base of hilly areas and to realise how vulnerable they would have been to the firepower of the Turkish troops above them. Some trenches remain and can be explored; the two sides were surprisingly close to each other.

We were particularly touched by a monument above Anzac Cove, which shows the text of a letter written by Ataturk in 1934 to the mothers of the dead soldiers: “You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."


War memorial, Gallipoli

Canakkale & Troy

Travelling from the Gallipoli peninsula to Canakkale by ferry took us from Europe to Asia and within 30km of Troy. It was disconcerting the following morning to see road signs saying ‘Troy’ when this was a place we’d only encountered before in stories about Achilles, Hector and the other mythical heroes of the 10-year-long siege.

There was more than one Troy – the first settlement dates to 3000BC and it’s likely that the Troy described by Homer is now known as Troy VII and dates from about 1300–1190BC. From the ruins it was an interesting exercise to imagine the Greek ships beached below us on what was once a bay, but is now silted up. Closing our eyes we could see the Greek camp below us, and as we walked through the excavated ruins it was possible to gently lay a hand on the stones that were once a city.  Children were scampering in and out of the replica wooden horse.

Hopefully the planned museum will add to the site, but in a way it may be more atmospheric now because it was relatively quiet – only a few small groups of visitors were wandering among the ruins with their guides.


The ruins of Troy. Image by Steve Smith.


At Pergamon, later in the day, the Asclepion gave us an insight into the medical practices of the ancient world. What was interesting was the holistic approach – rooms carved out underground with soothing sounds of running water where a patient could relax and have a listening ear from attendants. The sacred spring still runs and it was possible to cool our hands in the water.


Temple of Zeus, Pergamon

The site was busier than Troy had been, but with so much open space it was easy to find and enjoy the temples and streets of the town. Anyone with a fear of heights should be warned – the theatre is built into a hillside and is very steep, but worth the view across the valley to the Asclepion.

We were lucky to be invited by workmen to have a close-up view of a model being prepared for display – until the foreman returned and told them off!


Model of Pergamon (in progress!). Image by Steve Smith.

We were now about halfway through the tour, getting along well in our group, and very impressed by our guide, who seemed to be something of a foodie. His recommendations for lunches and what to buy at our roadside stops were always spot on. It was easier than we thought it would be to find vegetarian dishes – try spinach cooked with lemon and garlic, and served with plain yoghurt; or stuffed aubergines. The meat eaters among us recommended Turkish meatballs and, of course, shish kebabs.

While talking about our guide we should mention that he was able to tell us so much about the places we visited. We also enjoyed finding out more about modern Turkey and comparing and contrasting our lifestyles. The friendly rivalry between our guide and one of the group, who happened to be of Greek descent, made for some interesting comparisons and topics of conversation!


Pamukkale offered a change of scene in that we didn’t just explore the necropolis of Aphrodisias, but also the travertine pools and ‘frozen’ waterfalls made from calcium carbonate. Oh, and if you see people climbing on the travertine where they shouldn’t be, check with a security guard – they may be part of the workforce employed to keep the cliff side tidy and clean. Amazing to think that anything could grow on such a salty surface, but it does have to be weeded!


Pools of Pamukkale 


Aphrodisias is described as one of the most beautiful sites in Turkey, and there is no reason to disagree with this statement. Because it is grassy and surrounded by fields and woods it has a feel of what it may have been like in the distant past.  The stadium is impressive and helped us to imagine how the Hippodrome in Istanbul may have looked in its heyday.


The Tetrapylon, Aphrodisias. Image by Steve Smith.


The last stop for us was Kusadasi, where so many Mediterranean cruises stop in order to visit Ephesus – we had the sensation that ships were queueing out to sea in order to get to the cruise terminal berths!


Ephesus was amazing. The remains of the city are well preserved and it is possible to read Greek inscriptions by the side of the streets. The library of Celsus once held thousands of books in the form of scrolls; it’s interesting to note that the library was ‘sneaked in’ by Celsus’ son under the guise of being a monument to Celsus. This was the only site we visited that was crowded, but this did not detract from it, although the souvenir sellers at the exit were keen to sell us their ‘genuine fake’ watches.

Then on to a place that many of our group found very moving – the reputed house of the Virgin Mary. The house is lovingly maintained by nuns and contains both an altar and a qibla, showing the veneration in which Mary is held by both Christians and Muslims.


House of the Virgin Mary. Image by Steve Smith.

So, what now? After such a whistle-stop tour, we found that we wanted to go back to at least some of the places we’d seen. However, the travelling would not be so easy without our guide and our minibus… and would we be able to find those great restaurants and cafes again? If not, we can always use the recipe book we bought from our lunch stop near Ephesus – it would at least be a taste of Turkey.

Julia and Steve Smith travelled on the Classical Turkey group tour with Cox & Kings, a tour that can also be taken on a private basis. Call 020 7873 5000 to speak to a Europe specialist, or visit the website to find out more.

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