This post will cover sites outside of Istanbul, which has its own must-see list here.
Click to see the list of our first 5 Must-See Sites in Turkey.
In the 1st century BCE, in what is today the Adiyaman province of south-central Turkey, the grandiose king of a tiny but rich kingdom built this mortuary temple complex and shrine to the gods 7,000 feet up in the eastern Taurus mountains. Antiochus I was the king and Commagene was the kingdom.
Visit late May-mid October, July-August if you want to be sure to avoid snow (pretty sure). Whenever you go, dress warmly. Travel from Adiyaman (about 2 hours), Kahta (about 1.5 hours), or the village of Karadut (about 30 minutes). Adiyaman and Kahta have more tourist infrastructure but if you can find a spot in Karadut, the proximity to the site is a big plus. The walk from the parking lot to the summit is about 1/3rd of a mile and gets pretty steep towards the end. Donkeys are available if needed. Most people visit at sunrise or sunset for the added drama. I would recommend either (or both!) If you have to choose, pick sunrise. Words can’t begin to convey the sight of the mountains and valleys materializing below and out to the horizon with the rising light, like the world is being created before your eyes. If you’re sharing the sunrise mountain with a crowd, hang around, most people leave within the hour.
What you’ll see in the light of day is a manmade conical peak, which is assumed to be the tomb of Antiochus I, although his body has not been located. Around this, colossal statues of Greek/Persian gods, Antiochus I, and a few lions and eagles. Most of the statues are seated and headless and range from about 25 to 30 feet tall. Heads loll about below, as if to escape the winds up top. Most likely they were toppled by earthquakes. They look pretty content there, gazing out at the view.
Cappadocia above ground: fairy chimneys & rockcut churches
Cappadocia is a region in central Turkey known for surreal sights, rich history and laid-back hospitality. Heavy volcanic activity followed by millions of years of erosion of the soft volcanic ash deposits and the harder layers of basaltic lava which covered them left over a hundred square miles of constantly surprising landscapes, sometimes comical, sometimes stunningly beautiful, often plain weird.
Cappadocia contains many different areas of fantastical rock formations, rock-cut churches and magnificent scenery. Two days is enough time to see the highlights but you could easily spend a week or more, especially if you want to hike or cycle and explore a bit off the beaten path. Here below is a brief overview of the main attractions.
The Goreme Open Air Museum is #1 for quantity and quality of churches in combination with scenic wonders. If you’re short on time, go here first.
About 4 miles to the southwest is the highest point in Cappadocia, the Uchisar Citadel, which is fun to explore, and the Pigeon Valley between Goreme and Uchisar is a beautiful, moderate hike.
About 3.5 miles north of Goreme is Avanos, a pretty town on the Kızılırmak River. Go there to buy the local pottery, which has been the town’s main industry for thousands of years.
Head east about 3 miles off the road to Avanos to find the Zelve Open Air Museum. Zelve consists of three adjoining valleys, where you’ll find cone formations and fairy chimneys, similar to Goreme, but nowhere near as many churches. Zelve gets far fewer tourists and what it lacks in frescos it makes up for in tranquility and open space. Very good trails and signage run through the valleys. When you’re exploring Zelve, think about the people who lived in the rock-cut dwellings right up until 1952.
The Ihlara Valley is a beautiful valley with rock-cut churches and monasteries but none as dramatic or well-preserved as those of Goreme. However, the scenery alone is worth a visit. It’s about 75 miles southwest of Goreme.
There are 40 some underground cities in the Nesehir and Kayseri Provinces of Cappadocia in central Turkey. Some estimates put the number into the hundreds, while others count around 40. My guess is the discrepancy lies in how one defines “city.”
For our purposes, and those of the average tourist, 40 is more than enough. Most are not open to the public anyway, so we’ll focus on two that are: Derinkuyu and Kaymakli.
Extending down 200 feet with 8 levels, Derinkuyu is the deeper of the two cities but Kaymakli has more sprawl. They are connected to each other by tunnels, as are many of the other underground cities.
The cities possibly originated in Hittite times, around 1200 BCE, but were certainly, significantly expanded over the centuries, especially during Roman persecution of Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and again in the 7th century, with the Arab invasions. Really, this part of the world was a superhighway for invaders, and the inhabitants had reason to hide on a regular basis. They got very good at it.
The underground cities were set up to shelter as many as 20,000 for long-term living and include sleeping quarters, kitchens, storehouses, churches, stables and even a winery. Ventilation shafts doubled as wells. Passageways allowed single file movement only, so intruders could be easily picked off one at a time. Giant boulders served as rolling doors that could only be removed from the inside. The doors had small holes in the center, just the size and height to spear the unwelcome in the gut, or thereabouts. For quick and easy access, most above-ground homes had openings to the underground right inside or very near the houses.
For most visitors, it’s enough to see one of the two cities. Each takes about an hour to tour. There’s very little signage, so a guide is highly recommended. Passageways are narrow but allow people of average height to get through with minimal stooping. Lighting is good, but if you’re claustrophobic, you might want to stick to the plentiful and thoroughly satisfying above-ground attractions of Cappadocia.
To get to Cappadocia, there are daily flights from Istanbul to Kayseri, in the heart of the region. Ankara is about a 3-hour drive. Istanbul is about a 10-hour drive.
Sufism is a mystical form of Islam and a Dervish is an ascetic follower of Sufism.
A type of Sema, a Sufi ritual, whirling is most associated with the Mevlevi order of Sufis founded in Konya, Turkey. The Mevlevi Dervishes are followers of the 13th-century mystical poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi, better known in the West simply as Rumi. In Muslim countries, he’s more often referred to as Mevlana or Mevlevi, which means “our guide.”
Spinning is done to align mind, body and heart with the fundamental movement of the universe and all it contains. Everything is revolving, from subatomic particles to stars, planets and galaxies. Each element of the ceremony in some way symbolizes the submission of the ego to the oneness of God. The camelhair hat worn by the dervishes represents “the tombstone of the ego.” Dervishes remove their black cloak to begin the ritual, symbolizing spiritual rebirth. The white skirt worn while spinning is the ego’s shroud. Dervishes spin with arms wide, right hand open to heaven and left hand pointed down, forming a channel for God’s blessings to flow to the earth. There are four movements to the Sema, each involving submission of different aspects of self to God.
You can witness the Whirling Dervishes in Konya, where they originated, and in Istanbul. Konya is located in south-central Turkey and makes a good stop when traveling between Cappadocia and the coast. It’s perhaps the country’s most conservative city, very religious, and the site of the Mevlana Mausoleum. The Konya Cultural Center has weekly whirling ceremonies that are open to the public. The timing is changeable, so I won’t commit to anything specific here. In Istanbul, Dervishes are whirling daily at various locations. If you’re going, let us know and we’ll get details.
If you’re lucky enough to attend a whirling Sema, please remember that it is worship and should be treated with the proper respect.
The archaeological site of Troy is located in western Turkey near the convergence of the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles (ancient Hellespont), the strait that connects the Aegean to the Bosphorus and the Black Sea, a strategic location valuable to whomever controls it.
Excavations have revealed 9 main layers of settlement going back 5 thousand years. The Troy immortalized by Homer in the Iliad, which tells the story of the final months of a 10 year siege of Troy by a coalition of Greek states, has been placed in layer VIIa, dated to around 1250 BCE. Scholars generally agree that the Iliad is a fictionalized, mythologized account of an actual conflict, but that the war was most likely over control of the Hellespont and trade access to the Black Sea, rather than the abduction of Helen, the queen of Sparta, as Homer tells it.
Factual or not, the Iliad is full of very human characters and dramatic force that are embedded in the foundation of Western culture and still compelling 3000 years later. Troy is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world, not because of a 3000 year old dispute over territory, but because of the mythical proportions of the characters and events placed there by Homer.
To visit Troy, spend the night in Canakkale, about a 30 minute drive away. Many people find the site disappointing. It does take some imagination, and a good guide, to connect with the history of the place but I wouldn’t miss it, especially if you’re a nerd for the Classics.
Click to see Turkey tours on our web site.