Places To See
Hidden away in hill country, Safranbolu boasts a glorious collection of old Ottoman houses so beautifully preserved that it qualifies as a Unesco World Heritage site, on a par with Florence. It's a place to slow down and enjoy ambling along narrow cobbled lanes, observing traditional trades and crafts practised just as they were in Ottoman times.
During the 17th century, the main Ottoman trade route between Gerede and the Black Sea coast passed through Safranbolu, bringing commerce, prominence and money to the town. During the 18th and 19th centuries Safranbolu's wealthy inhabitants built mansions of sun-dried mud bricks, wood and stucco, while the larger population of prosperous artisans built less impressive but similarly sturdy homes. Safranbolu owes its fame to the large numbers of these dwellings that have survived.
The weather, too, can play a part in this unique experience: summer thunderstorms periodically close over the sunken valley like a heavy black lid, and you can watch the lightning-pierced darkness drawing on inch by inch until finally the light is gone and the rain bursts down onto the tiled roofs. Simply magic.
Ancient Ephesus was a great trading city and a centre for the cult of Cybele, the Anatolian fertility goddess. Under the influence of the Ionians, Cybele became Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt and the moon, and a fabulous temple was built in her honour. When the Romans took over, Artemis became Diana and Ephesus became the Roman provincial capital.
Of Turkey's hundreds of ancient cities and classical ruins, Ephesus is the grandest and best preserved. Indeed, it's the spunkiest classical city on the Mediterranean and the ideal place to get a feel for what life was like in Roman times.
In 356 BC the Temple of Cybele/Artemis was destroyed in a fire set by Herostratus, who claimed to have done it to get his 15 minutes of fame, proving that modern society has no monopoly on a perverted sense of celebrity. The Ephesians planned a grand new temple which, when finished, was recognised as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
To avoid the heat of the day, come early in the morning or in the late afternoon, when it's less crowded. If you can, avoid public holidays all together. Bring water with you as drinks at the site are expensive.
The ruins of ancient Troy may not be as breathtaking as those of Ephesus, but for anyone who has ever read Homer's Iliad or who has heard the tales of the Trojan Wars, they have a romance few places on earth can hope to match. Excavations have revealed nine ancient cities on the site, with Troy VI or VII believed to be the setting for the Iliad.
When amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann started excavating Troy in 1871, the pants of classical studies boffins around the world became decidedly damp. Up to this time, the Iliad was assumed to be based on legend, but post-digs, Troy was revealed as the Homeric city of Ilium, site of an epic battle between the Achaeans (Greeks) and the Trojans in the 13th century BC. Excavations by Schliemann and others have revealed nine ancient cities, one on top of another, dating back to 3000 BC. Troy VI (1800-1275 BC) is the city of Priam and the one that engaged in the Trojan War.
For aficionados this is all amazing, but unless you have a keen appreciation of archaeology, you may find little of interest in Troy. Apart from a hokey replica of the Trojan horse, there's little to catch the amateur eye. That said, this is the site of one of the world's grandest tales, so soaking up the atmosphere should be just about enough.
Recently, Troy has become a popular destination for weekending school parties. Do yourself a favour and visit midweek.
A highlight of any trip to eastern Turkey, the twin peaks of Mt Ararat have figured in legends since time began, most notably as the supposed resting place of Noah's Ark. For many years permission to climb Ararat was refused because of security concerns, but this fantastic summit is back on the trekking map, albeit with restrictions.
Permit and guide are mandatory and you'll need to apply at least 45 days in advance. Several guides and hotel staff in Doğbayazıt claim they can get the permit in a couple of days. Don't believe them. It's much safer to follow the official procedure, even if you have to endure the excruciatingly slow-turning wheels of bureaucracy.
Despite the difficulties and costs, climbing Ararat is a fantastic experience. You'll be rewarded with stupendous views and stunning landscapes. The best months for climbing are July, August and September.
You can also do daily treks around the mountain. Provided you stay lower than the village of Eliköyü (2500m/8200ft), you won't have to go through as much official hoohah, but you still need permission from the local jandarma (police) - it's best to go with a local agent.
Many Cappadocian valleys boast collections of strange volcanic cones, but the ones near Aktepe in northern Cappadocia, known as the Valley of the Fairy Chimneys, are the best-formed and most thickly clustered. While geologists might congregate to appreciate the effects of differential erosion, everyone else just likes their other-worldly appeal.
Most of the rosy rock cones are topped by flattish, darker stones of harder rock that sheltered the cones from the rain that eroded all the surrounding rock. This process is known to geologists as differential erosion but you can just call it kooky.
The dates for Muslim religious festivals are celebrated according to a lunar calendar. Only two religious holidays are public holidays: Şeker Bayramı, a three-day festival at the end of Ramazan (30 days when a good Muslim lets nothing pass the lips during daylight hours), and Kurban Bayramı, which commemorates İbrahim's near-sacrifice of İsmael on Mt Moriah. In commemoration of God permitting İbrahim to sacrifice a ram instead of his son, every Turkish household who can afford a sheep buys one, takes it home and slits its throat right after the early morning prayers on the actual day of the bayram. Family and friends immediately cook up a feast. You must plan for Kurban Bayramı: most banks close for a full week, transportation will be packed and hotel rooms will be scarce and expensive.
Secular festivities include camel-wrestling in late January, in the village of Selçuk, south of İzmir, and National Sovereignty & Children's Day, April 23, a big holiday to celebrate the first meeting of the republican parliament in 1920. Celebrations abound in summer: there's a sloppy oiled wrestling festival in June or July at Sarayiçi, near Edirne; the Kafkasör Festival near Artvin in northeastern Turkey over the last weekend in June (complete with bloodless bull-wrestling); Bursa's three-week music and dance festival in June and July; and Istanbul hosting festivals celebrating jazz (July) and electronic (August). The Istanbul Biennial fills the capital with culture in September of odd-numbered years. The whole country stops, just for a moment, at November 10, the time of Atatürk's death in 1938.
When to go?
Spring and autumn are the best times to visit, since the climate will be perfect in İstanbul and on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. It will be cool in central Anatolia, but not unpleasantly so. Visiting before mid-June or after August may also help you avoid mosquitoes. The Black Sea coast is best visited between April and September; there will still be rain but not so much of it. With the exception of İstanbul, Turkey doesn't really have a winter tourism season. Places catering to backpackers usually see Anzac Day as the official start of the season; those catering to package holiday-makers get going in early May. Peak season is from July to mid-September, when most Turks take their holidays. The best time to visit eastern Turkey is from late June to September. Don't plan to venture east before May or after mid-October unless you're prepared for snow. Try to avoid travelling during Kurban Bayramı, Turkey's most popular public holiday.
Travel Visa Overview
Nationals of the following countries (among others) don't need a visa to visit Turkey for up to three months: Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland. Although nationals of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway (one month only), Portugal, Spain, the UK and the USA do need a visa, this is just a sticker bought on arrival at the airport or border post rather than at an embassy in advance. Make sure to join the queue to buy your visa before the queuing for immigration. How much you pay for your visa (essentially a tourist tax) varies. You must pay in hard-currency cash. The customs officers expect to be paid in euro, US dollars or UK pounds and may not accept lira; they also don't give any change. No photos are required. The standard visa is valid for three months and, depending on your nationality, usually allows for multiple entries. See the Ministry of Foreign Affairs www.mfa.gov.tr for the latest information.
European plug with two circular metal pins
This serious and potentially fatal disease is spread by mosquito bites, although the risk is very small. If you are travelling in endemic areas it is extremely important to avoid mosquito bites and to take tablets to prevent this disease. Symptoms range from fever, chills and sweating, headache, diarrhoea and abdominal pains to a vague feeling of ill-health. Seek medical help immediately if malaria is suspected. Without treatment malaria can rapidly become more serious and can be fatal. If medical care is not available, malaria tablets can be used for treatment. There is a variety of medications such as mefloquine, Fansidar and Malarone. You should seek medical advice, before you travel, on the right medication and dosage for you. If you do contract malaria, be sure to be re-tested once you return home as you can harbour malaria parasites even if you are symptom free. Travellers are advised to prevent mosquito bites at all times by wearing light-coloured clothing, long trousers and long-sleeved shirts; use mosquito repellents containing the compound DEET on exposed areas, sleeping under a mosquito net impregnated with mosquito repellent (it may be worth taking your own) and refraining from using perfumes and aftershave.
The Aegean and Mediterranean coasts have mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers. In İstanbul, summer temperatures average around 28-30°C (82-86°F); the winters are chilly but usually above freezing, with moderate rain and perhaps a dusting of snow. The Anatolian plateau is hotter in summer and very cold in winter. The Black Sea coast is mild and rainy in summer, and chilly and rainy in winter. Mountainous eastern Turkey is very cold and snowy in winter and only pleasantly warm in high summer. The southeast is dry and mild in winter and very hot in summer, with temperatures above 45° C (113° F) not unusual.
History and Culture
Turkey is where Orient meets Occident, a crossroads for ideas, beliefs and cultures. This is expressed in the country's art, literature, music and architecture, from the ancient Hittite civilisation through Roman, Byzantine and Seljuk influences to the mighty Ottoman empire. The faces of its people reflect its diversity; modern-day Turkey is a cultural amalgam wrought by history and its unique position between two cultures.
Pre-20th Century History
Turkey's first known human inhabitants appeared in the Mediterranean region as early as 7500 BC, and the cycles of empire building, flexing, flailing and crumbling didn't take long to kick in. The first great civilisation was that of the Hittites, who worshipped a sun goddess and a storm god. The Hittites dominated Anatolia from the Middle Bronze Age (1900-1600 BC), clashing with Egypt under the great Ramses II and capturing Syria, but by the time Achaean Greeks attacked Troy in 1250 BC, the Hittite machine was creaking. A massive invasion of 'sea peoples' from Greek islands put untenable pressure on the Hittites and a jumble of smaller kingdoms played at border bending until Cyrus, emperor of Persia (550-530 BC) swept into Anatolia from the east. The Persians were booted out by Alexander the Great, who conquered the entire Middle East from Greece to India around 330 BC. After Alexander's death his generals squabbled over the spoils and civil war was the norm until the Galatians (Celts) established a capital at Ankara in 279 BC, bedding down comfortably with the Seleucid, Pontic, Pergamum and Armenian kingdoms.
Roman rule brought relative peace and prosperity for almost three centuries, providing perfect conditions for the spread of Christianity. The Roman Empire weakened from around 250 AD until Constantine reunited it in 324. He oversaw the building of a new capital, the great city which came to be called Constantinople. Justinian (527-65) brought the eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire to its greatest strength, reconquering Italy, the Balkans, Anatolia and North Africa, but five years after his death, Muhammed was born in Mecca and the scene was set for one of history's most astounding tales. Sixty years after Mohammed heard the voice of God, and 50 years after his ignominious flight from Mecca, the armies of Islam were threatening the walls of Constantinople (669-78), having conquered everything and everybody from there to Mecca, plus Persia and Egypt. The Islamic dynasties which emerged after Mohammed challenged the power and status of Byzantium from this time, but the Great Seljuk Turkish Empire of the 11th century was the first to rule what is now Turkey, Iran and Iraq. The Seljuks were shaken by the Crusades and overrun by Mongol hordes, but they hung onto power until the vigorous, ambitious Ottomans came along.
The Ottoman Empire began as the banding together of late 13th century Turkish warriors fleeing the Mongols. By 1453 the Ottomans under Mehmet the Conqueror were strong enough to take Constantinople. Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-66) oversaw the apogee of the empire: beautifying Constantinople, rebuilding Jerusalem and expanding the Ottomap to the gates of Vienna. But few of the sultans succeeding Süleyman were capable of great rule and the Ottoman Empire's long, celebrated decline had begun by 1585. By the 19th century, decay and misrule made ethnic nationalism very appealing. The subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire revolted, often with the direct encouragement and assistance of European powers. After bitter fighting in 1832, the Kingdom of Greece was formed; the Serbs, Bulgarians, Rumanians, Albanians, Armenians, Romanians and Arabs would all seek independence soon after.
The European powers hovered vulture-like over the disintegrating empire, while within Turkey various disastrous attempts to revivify the country were undone by the unfortunate decision to side with Germany in WWI. In 1918, the victorious Allies set to carving up Turkey.
At this point Ottoman general Mustafa Kemal began to organise resistance, sure that a new government must seize the fate of Turkey for the Turkish people. When Greece invaded Smyrna and began pushing east, the Turks were shocked into action. The War of Independence lasted 1920-22, ending in a bitterly won Turkish victory and the abolition of the sultanate. Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk or Father Turk) undertook the job of completely remaking Turkish society. By the time he died in 1938, a constitution had been adopted, polygamy abolished and the fez, mark of Ottoman backwardness, prohibited. Islam ceased to be the official state religion, Constantinople became Istanbul and women obtained the right to vote. Atatürk remains a true hero in Turkey: his statue is everywhere and there are laws against defaming or insulting him.
Atatürk's successor, İsmet İnönü, managed a precarious neutrality in WWII, then oversaw Turkey through the transition to a true democracy. The opposition Democratic Party won the election in 1950. In 1960, and again in 1970, an overreaching Democratic Party was brought back into line by watchful army officers, who deemed the government's autocratic ways a violation of the constitution. In 1980 political infighting and civil unrest brought the country to a halt. Fringe groups caused havoc, supported on the one hand by the Soviet bloc and on the other by fanatical Muslim groups. In the centre, the two major political parties were deadlocked so badly that for months they couldn't elect a parliamentary president. The military stepped in again, to general relief, but at the price of strict control and some human rights abuses.
The head of the military government, General Kenan Evren, resigned his military commission and became Turkey's new president. Free elections in 1983 saw Turgut Özal's centre-right party take power and oversee a business boom which lasted through the 80s. Özal's untimely death in 1993 removed a powerful force from Turkish politics and set the scene for uncertainty: the rest of the decade saw unstable coalitions formed between unlikely bedfellows and resurgent support for the religious right. In early 1998, Turkey's Constitutional Court banned the Islamic-oriented Welfare Party, and along with it, previous PM Necmettin Erbakan. The Welfare Party was found to be working to undermine Turkey's secular democratic basis, but, ironically, the ban opened up the question of just how democratic Turkey really was.
In the 1990s Turkey suffered from an unhappy human rights record, a shaky economy and a destructive struggle with the Kurds. Turkey's sparsely populated eastern and southeastern regions are home to 6 million Kurds; 4 million Kurds live elsewhere throughout the country, more or less integrated into Turkish society.
Kurdish separatism is still one of Turkey's hottest issues. Ankara pursued a policy of assimilation following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire: officially there were no 'Kurds', only 'mountain Turks' and the Kurdish language and other overt signs of Kurdish life were outlawed. Marxist Kurdish guerrillas based in Syria, Iraq and Iran made hundreds of raids during the 1980s into southeastern Turkey, killing thousands of civilians. The Turkish crackdown and the incursion of thousands of fleeing Iraqi Kurds after the Gulf War in 1991 put the Kurdish question on the national (and international) agenda.
In 2001 the Turkish economy collapsed in spectacular fashion. More than a million people lost their jobs, and the value of the Turkish lira slumped. In 2002 the newly formed AKP (Islamic Justice and Development Party), a religious party dominated by one-time İstanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, won an unprecedented victory, becoming the first noncoalition government in 15 years and ousting 90% of the existing members of parliament. Only one other party won any seats at all.
With concerns over Erdoğan's controversial past (he was once jailed for inciting religious hatred), many people feared the AKP would bring a rush of hardline Islam to national politics. So far, the new regime has proved reassuringly moderate, concentrating on stabilising the economy and strengthening the country's bid to join the EU, but many Turks remain uneasy about the government's pro-Islamic leanings.
Terrorism and the increasing polarisation of the Eastern and Western worlds have reinforced Turkey's position as a United States ally and NATO member, and joining Europe remains a key priority for the country. The death penalty has been abolished to meet EU criteria and the Kurdish minority have been granted greater rights and freedoms. Accession talks began in October 2005. The ongoing issue of Turkish-held North Cyprus, however, continues to drive a wedge between it and EU member states Greece and Cyprus, whose support it will need if Turkey's bid is to succeed.
In addition to this, the negative press generated when Turkey's best-known author Orhan Pamuk was tried for 'insulting Turkishness', has put the spotlight on the government's declared commitment to freedom of expression.
Following the AKP's re-election in mid-2007, the tussle between 'secularists' and 'Islamists' grew more heated. A legal case to close the AKP for pursuing an antisecular agenda brought tensions to boiling point. In mid-2008, police arrested scores of people associated with the ultranationalist Ergenekon movement, alleging they were fomenting a coup against the government, and a series of terrorist bombs exploded in İstanbul. Political meltdown was averted when the Constitutional Court voted not to close the AKP.
More positively, relations are improving with Armenia, which has long pressured its western neighbour to acknowledge that Ottoman troops carried out genocide against Armenians in 1915. In January 2009 the Turkish lira ditched the yeni (new) prefix introduced in 2005, signaling a stronger currency.