Around the Middle East
in 80 days

February 25th to May 14th, 2004

Part 13:

Turkey again

    << Part 12: Egypt    -    Back to Index                                   


May 4th-7th (days 70-72): Istanbul

I flew from Cairo to Istanbul to add one last leg to my journey and see the major sights of Turkey that I'd not visited yet two and a half months earlier. I first spent three full days in Istanbul.

History

Byzantium was a small Greek city founded in the 6th century BC. In the 2nd century AD, it was conquered by the Romans, and in 324 emperor Constantine made it the new capital of the empire and immodestly renamed it to Constantinopel. In 395 the Roman empire was divided in two and Constantinopel became the capital of the eastern or Byzantine empire, which would survive until the conquest by the Turks in 1453. In 1203 it had already been plundered by the Crusaders, after which the Counts of Flanders ruled it for a while.

The Turks renamed the city once again to Istanbul and made it the capital of the fast-growing Ottoman empire. During the 16th century this was the most powerful empire on the planet, but after that it faded fast due to corruption and decadence. After the empire's collapse during WWI, Atatürk decided Istanbul was too stained by the past and built a new city, Ankara, to be the political capital of the new Turkish republic, but Istanbul remained the cultural and economic capital of the country.

Aya Sofia

First thing's first: on the morning of the first day I headed straight to the Aya Sofia (from Greek Hagia Sophia or Divine Wisdom). This church was built in the 6th century by the Byzantines and was the biggest church in the world for almost a 1000 years (until the St. Peter's in Rome was built). In 1453 the Turks converted it into a mosque, but Atatürk decided to change it into a museum.

I'd only seen pictures of the outside of the Aya Sofia, which is unappealing, so I wasn't really expecting much. But I was completely stunned when I saw the interior; I never knew something like this could, such a huge dome, could already be built in the 6th century, and I loved both the architecture with its juxtaposition of smaller half-domes around the central dome and its exquisite arches, and the combination of black stone and gold decoration. The Aya Sofia is now my #1 favourite monument.

Unfortunately the dome was being restaurated, so I couldn`t make good pictures, also because there was no furniture to put my tripod on.

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque stands near the Aya Sofia. Like all big Turkish mosques its structure mirrors that of the Aya Sofia. This is the most impressive one they've built, but though it was built over a 1000 years after the Aya Sofia (1609-1619) it is still not as impressive. It's kind of ironic that the Turks modeled all their monumental mosques after a church and never managed to match it let alone surpass it; they should have developed a style of their own instead imo.

Galata

Across the Golden Horn (a side arm of the Bosporus that cuts through the center of Istanbul) lies the area called Galata (now Beyoglu) in the 5th century because many Galatians were living there.

Mosque tour

I spent my whole second day walking all through Istanbul, from one monumental mosque to another. I hadn't prepared an Istanbul visit, so I just decided to go to all the mosques indicated on the map so I wouldn't miss a good one. That way I also got a fun tour of Istanbul.

I visited 12 monumental mosques plus several small ones, many in parts of Istanbul that few tourists go to. I was wearing my mountain shoes and taking these off at each mosque's doorway was a major pain in the ass :) The big mosques all looked very nice and impressive, but also very similar, so I'm just showing a few. Camii is Turkish for Mosque btw.

Topkapi Palace

The palace of the Ottoman sultans, now a museum, stands at the point where the Golden Horn splits from the Bosphorus. The Lonely Planet made it seem like the most magnificent thing on earth and literally says that you need two days to visit it, but I was done in just three hours and found it very mediocre. There are a few rooms in the harem that are really beautiful, but the rest of the palace is just nice, nothing more.
The Harem is the only must-see part of the palace. It is a series of buildings reserved for the sultan's women, who were guarded by 200 black eunuchs. Tourists have to pay extra to visit it and are rushed through in just half an hour.
The Topkapi palace also exhibits a few islamic treasures that the Turks stole from the Arabic lands they conquered. One of them is a hair that is claimed to come from the beard of the prophet Muhammed. A museum exhibiting a hair; that was a really funny sight.

Theodosian Walls

I'd expected to spend the whole day in the palace but was already out at noon, leaving me with a whole afternoon to fill. I decided to make a walk along the Theodosian walls, the city walls of Constantinopel that were built in 420AD by the emperor Theodosius. They stretch across 7km of land between the Golden Horn in the north east and the Sea of Marmara in the south, which shows what a huge city ancient Constantinopel already was.

I'd already seen a section of the wall during my mosque tour the day before and had really liked it, so I took a train to the starting point at the Sea of Marmara and now walked the whole distance.


May 8th (day 74): Ankara

The capital of Turkey is a little visited modern town, but I figured it was worth a stop on my way to Cappadocia, and it was because it has one of the best museums I've ever seen.

Museum of Anatolian Civilisations

This museum has exhibits from a series of prehistoric sites and ancient civilisations that existed in central Turkey (Anatolia). Anatolia has remains of many prehistoric settlements, including the world's oldest known human settlement (Çatal Höyük). It was also home to several important civilisations, the most famous of which were the Hittites who were the main opponents and later allies of the Egyptians in the days of Ramses II (around 1300 BC).

In 1997 this museum won a prize for best European museum, and I'm sure that was totally deserved because the collection is superb and the layout of the museum excellent. The periods and civilisations covered range from the Neolithic Age (7000-5500 BC) to the the Greek and Roman periods. In between the most notable civilisation was that of the Hittites (1750-1200 BC), who were the main opponents and later allies of the Egyptians in the days of Ramesses II.

Here's a small selection of exhibits.

The Mausoleum of Atatürk

Atatürk is Turkey's national hero; every city has a big statue of him. After his death a huge memorial site was built on a hill in Ankara, and is visited by thousands of Turks every day. The central building of the site is Atatürk's mausoleum, which is sober yet impressive.


May 9th-10h (days 75-76): Cappadocia

Cappadocia is a region of roughly 100x100km that is famous for its surreal rock formations. Through the millenia people have carved dwellings and even entire cities in the soft volcanic stone, especially during times of unrest. Early christians for example hid from persecution in underground cities, and christians did so again to hide from Arab raiders and during the church schism known as the Iconoclastic Controversy (726-843).

Nowadays Cappadocia is Turkey's biggest tourist attraction. Many hotels offer caves for rooms. I foolishly took one without heating and - for about the 10th but fortunately also the last time this trip - spent a sleepless night in the freezing cold.

I spent two full days here, doing an organised tour by van the first day - the only way to see the remoter sights - and renting a mountain bike the second.

Fairy Chimneys

Cappadocia's most famous attraction are the so-called fairy chimneys - pointy rocks that each have a black boulder on top (here's the geological explanation). Naturally, many of them have been carved out and turned into houses with several floors.

Selime

Selime is a village that consists mostly of caves. Some scenes of the first Star Wars movie were shot here.

Kaymakli

This underground city is an underground labyrinth carved 4 levels deep into the rock. Its only entrance is a little cave. 40 underground cities have already been discovered in Cappadocia, the biggest one of which (Derinkuyu) is 8 levels deep.

Uçhisar

Uçhisar is a village built in and around Cappadocia's highest rock. It's one of the places I visited by bike.

Around Cappadocia

By biking around I found some very beautiful spots that are not visited by the tourist busses. How about this place for example? In the movie I turn around 360 degrees while standing between some big rocks full of caves and a gorgeous landscape. Ignore the silly commentary please :)



These pictures were taken in the same spot.
On the evening of my second day in Cappadocia I decided on impulse to take a bus to Konya already so I could visit that city next day on my way to Antalya.


May 11th (day 77): Konya

Konya, a town at least 4000 years old, was the capital of the Seljuk Turks and the birth place of the mystical order of the Whirling Dervishes in the 13th century. The LP described it as "a very pious Muslim city" where "women should dress appropriately - a head scarf is advisabele", but Konya turned out to be a perfectly ordinary Turkish town with plenty of local girls dressed in western clothes without any scarf.


May 12-13th (days 78-79): Antalya

From Konay I went to Antalya, the place where this trip started 11 weeks earlier and now my final destination. I stayed three nights, making two day-trips from here and wandering around the city in the late afternoons.


May 12th (day 78): Perge

My first day trip was to Perge, an ancient town with ruins from Hellenistic and Roman times. I mainly went to see the big Roman theatre which turned out to be closed for restauration. Entrance to the other sights was so expensive that I first ploughed through the bushes to get a sight of them for free. A local farmer thought I couldn't find the entrance gate and kept yelling to me in Turkish, funny. I then climbed over a couple of fences and up the hill behind the theatre to get a look inside from above. It all wasn't that fancy but I had fun anyway.


May 13th (day 79): Termessos

Termessos is an ancient city up in the mountains that resisted Alexander the Great and was about the only city he passed on his way from Macedonia to Persia that he didn't conquer. Termessos has some nice ruins, but also provides a nice nature walk as it's overgrown with thick forest.
I made a long walk through the forest to see a grave at the foot of a cliff. The grave wasn't that interesting, but I noticed that the first part of the cliff seemed climbable so I hid my backpack and went up. I got higher and higher and an ever better view on Termessos below.

The first major obstacle was at only some 20m from the top. I wasn't gonna turn back now, so I lifted myself up and was soon on top of the cliff, yay! This made up for not making it to the top in Maalula back in Syria.
After climbing down I headed to the Necropolis at the far end of Termessos. This was an incredible place. It's a huge graveyard spread out over several hills now overgrown with thick forest. Everywhere you look are ancient stone sarcophagi lying around broken and disordered, as if some giant has been throwing them around (but I guess it was a combination of robbers and earthquakes).
In the evening I noticed that the soles of my mountain shoes which I'd been wearing most of the past 80 days had both been torn in two during this last day in Termessos - excellent timing!

On my way home at night I wanted to walk into a night shop and banged against a glass door. Compassionately, the shop owner started cursing me. As I walked home with my face bleeding hard people looked at me like I was a criminal or something, very unpleasant. Anyway, obviously it was really time I head home :)


May 14th (day 80): Going home

All good things come to an end. I'd seen everything there is to see in the region (except Iraq :/) so I didn't feel sorry to go home. I woke up early and saved myself an expensive taxi by taking a bus east and having it drop me off at the junction to the airport, walking the last 2km.

Antalya airport had seemed like a ghost town when I arrived in February, so it was surprising to see it filled with masses of package tourists arriving and leaving now. Lining up for the plane to Brussels I was among fellow countrymen again and was irritated by their superficial chatter, but then I heard them switch to French and English fluently and was reminded that all peoples have their qualities.


Conclusion

Some closing remarks:
  • Often when I tell people about this trip they wonder what's to see there. This always astounds me because this part of the world is without a doubt the most interesting in the world. There's the heritage of most of the great ancient civilisations. The incomparable monuments of ancient Egypt. All the oldest cities in the world. Historic metropoles like Istanbul, Jerusalem, Damascus and Cairo. A multitude of well-preserved Hellenistic and Roman cities like Ephesus, Palmyra and Baalbek. The earliest christian and islamic monuments. The mightiest medieval castles. Where else in the world can you find so many treasures dating from the entire stretch of human history so close together?

    And then there are the world's most dramatic desert landscapes, and the chance to experience first-hand the circumstances that make this region the focal point of international politics. In a way I regret I've already been there, because I can never again see so many wonders on one journey.

  • If you're a guy, the Middle East is perfectly safe to travel in. In fact, it's probably safer than staying at home, because people are much more honest and crime here is much lower than it is in Europe or America - where mugging travelers is very common. If you're a girl in a guy's company, you'll be just as safe. But if you're a girl(s) alone, don't go outside the busy touristic areas. A combination of repressed sexuality, ignorant stereotypes about single western women, and discrimination of women in general, make unpleasant encounters very likely.

  • I'd never traveled alone before and was a bit worried about it in advance, but it turned out to be great. When traveling alone you meet new and interesting people all the time. In the Middle East which is a somewhat different destination and invites to long journeys, there are probably more solo-travellers than in most places.

  • I learned that traveling for a long time is nothing difficult. That is, once you travel long enough to have to wash your clothes and occasionally buy new supplies and clothes, it doesn't matter how much longer you keep traveling, you can go on forever or at least as long as your money lasts.



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Godsmurf Tue 24 Feb 2009 @ 11:55
About equally funny I'd say. And I have no problem with anyone calling my clothes funny. Still, it's hard to beat men who wear women's shoes and put plastic bags over their big black hats when it rains. But there can never be too much funny-ness in the world so bless 'em.

Marvin Tue 17 Feb 2009 @ 15:02
You keep mentioning the "funny" clothes that religious Jews wear throughout your writings of the Israeli portion of your trip. Are they as funny as the strange copies of middle eastern attire that Catholic priests; nuns; and the Pope wear?
You look strange as well wearing funny European clothes.

My suggestion look in a mirror before you comment on others.

Flylice Tue 10 Jul 2007 @ 09:17
Alright, thanks for helping me waste 3 hrs at work...but anyway great travelog! I'm going to Syria & Jordan in august, but only have 3 weeks :(

Silvia Thu 29 Jun 2006 @ 04:13
I just love your website. It's excellent. Didn't read everything, but great pics.

Godsmurf Mon 10 Apr 2006 @ 13:41
I wouldn't recommend it, based on what a German girl who lived in Damascus told me (cfr the last paragraph of part 5), but on the LP forums I often see female solo-travelers who say they had no problems.

Ira Sun 09 Apr 2006 @ 20:58
Nice pics...very interesting.
Is it safe for a single woman to travel to Syria? Do we have to wear head scarf too?

Zoltan Fri 07 Apr 2006 @ 17:15
Hi Godsmurf!

Excellent site;I spent hours to read Your comments and check out the photos.
Good Job!

zeituni Sun 02 Apr 2006 @ 12:29
Hi again!

According to my sister(who until recently lived in East Jerusalem), there are quite a few Christians living in the old quarter and other parts of Jerusalem. However, they might not use the churches most commonly visited by tourists. When I was there there was also a grand celebration taking place at the convent of St Mary Magdalene and the neighbouring Greek Orthodox convent. There were hardly anyone but Palestinians there, admitedly, some of them were from areas like Bethlehem or Beit'Jallah.

I know I'm not bringing firm statistics to back up this, but that was her notion and my impression as well.

Anyway, just a comment!

Still a very great travelogue! And on point on the Israeli border personnel!

Godsmurf Thu 30 Mar 2006 @ 22:05
Thank you! If you have any questions feel free to ask, my mail is linked at the bottom of each page.

Vedica Thu 30 Mar 2006 @ 09:17
i love your travelogue!!....it is amazingly interesting!
Am planning a trip to middle east myself (around July - yes i know itll be hot) and your site has been an EXCELLENT guide and resource! thanks for sharing!

cathleen Tue 28 Mar 2006 @ 08:36
great writeing and photos you really have a talent at breaking things down e.i. the formation of the isreali state etc. very objective

Godsmurf Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 23:04
Thanx for the compliments, glad to have readers :)

Well I'm not sure (I said they're *probably* not christians) but firstly I don't think I ever saw a Palestinian in any of Jerusalem's churches, and secondly I sensed humour instead of devotion in the way they were selling christian souvenirs. But I could be wrong of course. Am I?

zeituni Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 08:25
Fantastic travelogue! Are you writing a book?

One question however; why do you assume the Palestinians in the Christian quarter are not actually Christians?

hasof_TT Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 00:11
Great trip report. Was going to just scan, but got intrigued and am reading it word for word. Thanks for sharing!


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