Turkey

Visiting the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque – Two of Istanbul’s Greatest Treasures

Two not-to-be missed spots in Istanbul are the Hagia Sophia (also spelled Aya Sofya) and the Blue Mosque. They are conveniently located near each other in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul, which was the heart of ancient Constantinople.

The Hagia Sophia. Without a doubt, this nearly 1,500 year old building is one of the greatest structures ever built. The great Byzantine Emperor Justinian consecrated the Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) in 537 AD. It was originally a Christian church (the center of the Byzantine or Greek Orthodox church), and became a mosque in the 15th century after the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople.

An exterior view of the Hagia Sophia. In the center right of the picture is the mausoleum of Murat III (died 1599) who had 103 children!

An exterior view of the Hagia Sophia. In the center right of the picture is the mausoleum of Murat III (died 1599) who had 103 children!

The huge bronze doors through which the emperor would enter the church.

The huge bronze doors through which the emperor would enter the church.

Byzantine Emperors were crowned here for centuries.

The spot where Byzantine Emperors were crowned for almost 1,000 years.

The spot where Byzantine Emperors were crowned for almost 1,000 years.

The Hagia Sophia became a museum in the 1930’s. Having read some of the history of the Byzantine Empire it was a thrill for me to stand in a place that has witnessed so much history and to take in the massive open space under the dome. It has undergone some modifications over the centuries to help fortify and stabilize the walls due to the weight of the dome over the nave. The main dome is 185 ft high and 104 ft in diameter. Imagine building something like this in the 6th century…

The incredible nave of the Hagia Sophia.

The incredible nave of the Hagia Sophia.

A building that is 1,500 years old has some pillars that are no longer vertical!

A building that is 1,500 years old has some pillars that are no longer vertical!

A detailed view of several of the 67 columns in the 2nd floor gallery.

A detailed view of several of the 67 columns in the 2nd floor gallery.

The Venetians pillaged the Hagia Sophia in 1204 as part of the very strange 4th crusade, which ended up attacking Constantinople (center of the Eastern Roman Empire) rather than defending the Holy Land. If you’ve read Dan Brown’s latest novel, Inferno, you will recognize that the Hagia Sophia plays a role in the story.

The Hagia Sophia contains the tomb of the Venetian Doge, Dandolo. He was 90 years old, blind and was the first to breach the defenses of Constantinople in 1204.

The Hagia Sophia contains the tomb of the Venetian Doge, Dandolo. He was 90 years old, blind and was the first to breach the defenses of Constantinople in 1204.

There are a number of beautiful mosaics, a few from the 6th century and many from the 10th century onwards, many of which are on the 2nd floor. I was surprised at how the crowds visiting the Hagia Sophia thinned out when we ventured upstairs into the surrounding gallery.

An 11th century mosaic of Christ with Emperor Constantine IX and his wife, Empress Zoe.

An 11th century mosaic of Christ with Emperor Constantine IX and his wife, Empress Zoe.

A 10th century mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Child with the Emperor Constantine on the right presenting the model of the new city of Constantinople and on the left the Emperor Justinian presenting a model of the new church, Hagia Sophia.

A 10th century mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Child with the Emperor Constantine on the right presenting the model of the new city of Constantinople and on the left the Emperor Justinian presenting a model of the new church, Hagia Sophia.

Since this is THE sight in Istanbul, the lines can be long. To avoid the lines, get the Museum Pass, which is sold in the plaza near the Hagia Sophia. As of September 2012, it cost 72 TL (Turkish Lira, about 2 TL to 1 USD) and is good for 72 hours. It allows you to bypass the crowds in line for individual tickets, saves money over the individual entry fees and gives you priority entrance into the Hagia Sophia and many other attractions.

The buttresses helping to reinforce the walls of the Hagia Sophia. The visitor's entrance is on this (western) side.

The buttresses helping to reinforce the walls of the Hagia Sophia. The visitor’s entrance is on this (western) side.

The Blue Mosque. This mosque is another common image of Istanbul and is located just to the south of the Hagia Sophia.

A view of the Blue Mosque from Sultanahmet Square, between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

A view of the Blue Mosque from Sultanahmet Square, between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

It is called the Blue Mosque due to the stunning blue tile work in the interior.

The beautiful tiled dome of the Blue Mosque, looking up from the floor.

The beautiful tiled dome of the Blue Mosque, looking up from the floor.

Men washing before worshiping in the Blue Mosque.

Men washing before worshiping in the Blue Mosque.

This is a “working” mosque, and therefore visitors are only allowed at certain times of the day around the Muslim worship services.

An interior view of the Blue Mosque.

An interior view of the Blue Mosque.

The Blue Mosque was built in 1609 – 1616. If you visit, wear appropriate clothing and be respectful of the Islamic faith by following the guidance/rules (taking off of shoes, women wearing a head covering, etc.). There is no cost for visiting the mosque. Take time to appreciate the artwork and architecture of this huge building.

The courtyard of the Blue Mosque. The courtyard is about the same size as the Mosque itself. Note the cascade of domes above the courtyard.

The courtyard of the Blue Mosque. The courtyard is about the same size as the Mosque itself. Note the cascade of domes above the courtyard.

Topkapi Palace – One of Istanbul’s Must-Do’s

One of the major highlights of Istanbul, the Topkapi Palace was built between 1459 and 1465 by the Ottomans just after their final conquest of Constantinople. This palace was the seat of power of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years. The palace is laid out around four courtyards, the first courtyard being outside the main gate.

The Gate of Salutations, the main entrance into the Topkapi Palace and Second Courtyard.

The Gate of Salutations, the main entrance into the Topkapi Palace and Second Courtyard.

The palace is located just to the northeast of the Haghia Sophia, and commands wonderful views of the Bosphorus Strait from the innermost (Fourth) courtyard.

The Baghdad Pavilion (center-right) was built in 1639 to commemorate the capture of Baghdad by the Sultan Murat IV. The small golden dome to the left is where the sultan would break his fast after the month of Ramadan.

A view of the Fourth Courtyard. The Baghdad Pavilion (center-right) was built in 1639 to commemorate the capture of Baghdad by the Sultan Murat IV. The small golden dome to the left is where the sultan would break his fast after the month of Ramadan.

The Fourth Courtyard and pool at the palace.

Another view of the Fourth Courtyard and pool at the palace.

Allow at least 3 hours to visit the palace, which offers (in addition to a number of palace rooms) several museums displaying the amassed wealth of the sultans over the centuries, including a treasury with stunning precious jewels, another containing weapons, and separate museums with manuscripts and a very interesting collection of clocks. No pictures are allowed in the museums.

Our friends in the Third Courtyard at the palace, the Library of Ahmet III (built in 1719) is behind them.

Our friends in the Third Courtyard at the palace, the Library of Ahmet III (built in 1719) is behind them.

Numerous items which belonged to the Prophet Mohammed are found in the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle, which makes the Topkapi Palace one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites of the Islamic faith.

The Pavililon of the Holy Mantle, which contains sacred relics of the Prophet Mohammed.

The Pavililon of the Holy Mantle, which contains sacred relics of the Prophet Mohammed.

The Harem rooms provide some insight into life in the palace. The Harem contained about 1,000 women (essentially slaves) brought from all over the Ottoman Empire. Their dream was to become a favorite of the sultan and to bare him a son which might lead to marriage and higher status. The Harem was ruled by the sultan’s mother, who was the most powerful woman at the palace.

Dormitory of the Harem Eunichs. Dates from the 16th century.  The eunichs worked in service of the Harem. The more senior eunichs lived in the lower floor. They were recruited from all over the Ottoman Empire to serve in the palace. They supervised the quarters of the female population, and became more influential in state affairs in the 17th and 18th century.

Dormitory of the Harem Eunichs. Dates from the 16th century. The eunichs worked in service of the Harem. The more senior eunichs lived in the lower floor. They were recruited from all over the Ottoman Empire to serve in the palace. They supervised the quarters of the female population, and became more influential in state affairs in the 17th and 18th century.

This is where the Harem favorites lived, hoping to bear the sultan a son.

This is where the Harem favorites lived, hoping to bear the sultan a son.

Another view of the Courtyard of the Faviorites in the Harem.

Another view of the Courtyard of the Faviorites in the Harem.

The Apartment of the Queen Mother, the most powerful woman in the Harem.

The Apartment of the Queen Mother, the most powerful woman in the Harem, and an extremely powerful member of the Ottoman Empire. She influenced political life in the empire, and regulated the relations between the sultan, his wives and children.

Summer Pavilion (Circumcision Room) Room built in 1640, circumcision ceremonies of the crown princes were held here. Some of the most beautiful tile work in the palace is in this room.

Summer Pavilion (Circumcision Room)
Room built in 1640, circumcision ceremonies of the crown princes were held here. Some of the most beautiful tile work in the palace is in this room.

The Hall with a Fountain. This beautiful vestibule is where the princes and consorts of the Sultan would wait before entering the Imperial Hall.

The Hall with a Fountain.
This beautiful vestibule is where the princes and consorts of the Sultan would wait before entering the Imperial Hall.

Another view of the Hall with a Fountain room.

Another view of the Hall with a Fountain room.

A visit to the palace requires two separate fees and tickets, unless you get the Museum Pass in Istanbul which is good for 72 hours and allows entry to multiple sites and immediate access to the sites without waiting in line. The cost of the pass is about $36 USD. There is a kiosk right outside the Haghia Sophia. The Topkapi Palace gets very crowded with tour groups, so I highly suggest arriving before the palace opens.  We were the first ones into the Harem and had the rooms to ourselves.

The beautiful tile work in the palace.

A close-up of the beautiful tile work in the palace.

References: Plaques throughout the Topkapi Palace and DK Eyewitness Travel Turkey.

Istanbul – One of the World’s Great Cities and the Center of the Byzantine Empire

Istanbul sits astride two continents, Europe and Asia, divided by the Bosphorus strait, which links the Black Sea with the Mediterranean.

A view of the Bosphorus from the Topkapi Palace. Europe is on the left, and Asia is on the right.

A view of the Bosphorus from the Topkapi Palace. Europe is on the left, and Asia is on the right.

It would be easy to spend a week in this city, we spent the last 3 days of our visit to Turkey here, and were able to get a good feel for the wonders it has to offer. Known as Constantinople in Byzantine times, the city became known as Istanbul after the Ottomans finally conquered the city in 1453. I have read a fair amount about the 1,000 year history of the Byzantine Empire and really looked forward to seeing the location where so many historical events had taken place. For a map of places we visited in Turkey, click here.

A view of Seraglio Point (part of the old city) in Istanbul from our Bosphorus cruise.

A view of Seraglio Point (part of the old city) in Istanbul from our Bosphorus cruise.

The Golden Horn. The Galata Tower is on the hill. Underneath the bridge in the distance are many seafood restaurants.

The Golden Horn. The Galata Tower is on the hill. Underneath the bridge in the distance are many seafood restaurants.

There are remnants of the Byzantine Empire along with many structures from the early days of the Ottoman era.

The Byzantine Empire was an extension of the Roman Empire, with Constantinople becoming a second Roman capital in AD 324 when it was founded by the Emperor Constantine. As the Western Roman Empire (Rome) declined, the Byzantine Empire (and specifically Constantinople) flourished due to its strategic location and excellent defensive geographical position, until the Ottomans finally breached the great walls in 1453.

There are lots of things to see, here are the main places we visited:

The Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya). One of the largest and greatest structures ever built–over 1,400 years old–its size still boggles the mind. This was the place of coronations of Byzantine Emperors and it was converted into a mosque in Ottoman times. It’s now a museum, with the building itself being the main attraction. I will cover more about the amazing Haghia Sophia in a separate post.

The 1,400 year-old Haghia Sophia Church.
The 1,400 year-old Haghia Sophia Church.

The Blue Mosque. One of Istanbul’s most famous mosques (built 1609 – 1616), located near the Haghia Sophia. Its name comes from the beautiful blue tile work inside. More about the Blue Mosque in a separate post.

The famous Blue Mosque.
The famous Blue Mosque.

The Basilica Cisterns. This underground structure dates back to the time of Justinian (6th century) and was an underground water storage facility for Constantinople, supplying the needs for the huge city and insuring water supplies in times of siege. There are 336 marble columns and the water source was 19 km away. Going down into this dark cavernous structure with water still flowing was fun–look for the two Medusa head bases–the Byzantines must have decided they would make great building blocks!

A view in the cisterns. The lighting is quite dark, giving the place an eerie feel.
A view in the cisterns. The lighting is quite dark, giving the place an eerie feel.
A view in the cisterns.
A view in the cisterns.
One of the two Medusa heads in the Cisterns - the other is upside down.

One of the two Medusa heads in the Cisterns – the other is upside down.

Bosphorus Cruise. Taking a cruise up the Bosphorus to get a better view of the European and Asian side of Istanbul is a traditional must-do, our cruise went up as far as the Fortress of Europe (about 1/3 the way to the Black Sea). There are cruises which last all day and go up to the Black Sea and back. I don’t think this long of a cruise would be worth the time investment.

The Fortress of Europe--staging area for the final assult on Constantinople.
The Fortress of Europe–staging area for the final assult on Constantinople.

Walls of Constantinople (Theodosian Walls).  Built from 412-422 AD by Theodosius II, these walls protected the landward side of Constantinople for a 1,000 years.  The Hop On/Hop Off bus goes past much of the old walls if you want a view.

The Theodosian Walls of Constantinople.
The Theodosian Walls of Constantinople.

Church of St. Saviour in Chora.  This beautiful church is a little further out from the main old city attractions. Located near the Theodosian Walls, the interior of this church has many beautiful mosaics from the Byzantine era. We took the “Hop On/Hop Off” bus to reach the walls and church.

14th century mosaics in the Chora Church.
14th century mosaics in the Chora Church.
The Chora Church. 11th century, remodeled in the 14th century.
The Chora Church. 11th century, remodeled in the 14th century.

The Grand Bazaar. With over 3,000 shops, you can get lost in this maze.  The Bazaar is organized into sections (jewelry, gold and silver, leather goods, etc .). With so many shops, I’m not sure how they all stay in business. The stalls begin to look the same after a while, and we only spent about 45 minutes jostling among the crowds.

One of the many passageways in the Grand Bazaar.
One of the many passageways in the Grand Bazaar.

The Topkapi Palace. In my opinion, along with the Haghia Sophia, this is a “must do” in Istanbul. Built between 1456-1465, shortly after the conquering of Constantinople by Mehmet II. This huge palace complex with its incredible treasures and stunning architecture gives you an idea of the splendor of the Ottoman sultans. I will cover the Topkapi Palace in a separate post.

The Fourth Courtyard Pool at the Topkapi Palace.
The Fourth Courtyard Pool at the Topkapi Palace.

Practicalities

First, stay in the old city (specifically Sultanahmet) if possible. We stayed in a little hotel (Hotel Tulip House) that was no more than 10 minutes’ walk to the Hippodrome area (near the Haghia Sophia, Blue Mosque, etc.) making it very convenient to many of the major sights and to the Golden Horn for boat rides and restaurants. I do not recommend renting a car in the city—parking and navigating the extremely narrow streets would be a nightmare.

The Tulip House Hotel in Sultanahmet, Istanbul.
The Tulip House Hotel in Sultanahmet, Istanbul.

Second, get the Museum Pass. As of September 2012, it cost 72 TL (Turkish Lira, about 2 TL to 1 USD) and is good for 72 hours after your first entry. It allows you to bypass the crowds in line for individual tickets, saves money over the individual entry fees and gives you priority entrance into the sights such as the Haghia Sophia, Topkapi Palace (including Harem Apartments and museums), Chora Church, and several other museums. There was a kiosk right outside the Haghia Sophia to buy the Pass.

Third, there are trams and buses for getting to other locations around town and they are pretty cheap and easy to navigate. The old city is hilly.

Fourth, find some time to just wander around. After leaving the Grand Bazaar, we wandered the nearby streets and enjoyed viewing daily Turkish life.

Street scene near the Grand Bazaar.
Street scene near the Grand Bazaar.

Ancient Pergamum – One of Turkey’s Most Dramatic Sites (and the seat of Satan)

How I love going to a new location and seeing another great ancient ruin! As we drove into the modern city of Bergama, we looked up high on a hill behind the city and the first thing we saw is ancient Pergamum’s theater, dramatically situated on a very steep slope. For a map of sites visited in Turkey click here.

The theater at Pergamum. It could seat 10,000 people.

The theater at Pergamum. It could seat 10,000 people.

Exploring the theater at Pergamum.

Exploring the theater at Pergamum.

As usual, the Greeks picked an excellent natural setting for a theater, with a view that extends for miles. The acropolis of Pergamum covers a steep hilltop, and a lot of Greek and Roman civil engineering work went into creating a level building area.

These archways are part of the hillside infrastructure to support the Temple of Trajan and other buildings at Pergamum.

These archways are part of the hillside infrastructure to support the Temple of Trajan and other buildings at Pergamum.

Ruins of the Temple of Trajan, started during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan, 98 - 117 AD.

Ruins of the Temple of Trajan, started during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan, 98 – 117 AD.

Another view of the Temple of Trajan.

Another view of the Temple of Trajan.

Pergamum was settled by the Greeks in the 8th century BC, and ruled by one of Alexander the Great’s generals around 320 BC. It became part of the Roman Empire in 133 BC. Pergamum was a great center of learning, and had a huge library of 200,000 scrolls that were (probably unfortunately) given to Cleopatra by Marc Antony as a wedding gift in 41 BC.

Although it doesn't look like much now, these are the ruins of the magnificent library of Pergamum that once held 200,000 scrolls -rivaling Alexandria as one of the great ancient libraries.

Although it doesn’t look like much now, these are the ruins of the magnificent library of Pergamum that once held 200,000 scrolls – rivaling Alexandria as one of the great ancient libraries.

Pergamum (Pergamos) is mentioned in The New Testament, in Revelation 1:11 as one of the seven churches in Asia and as the “seat of Satan” in Revelation 2:13.  Let’s just say he picked one heck of a spot. The reason for the label is probably due to the horrific martyr of Antipas, the bishop of Pergamum in 92 AD (he was roasted to death inside a bronze bull or ox at the Altar of Zeus).

The Altar of Zeus was located where the big tree is. The amazing friezes and other parts of the Altar structure are now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany.

The Altar of Zeus was located where the big tree is. The amazing friezes and other parts of the Altar structure are now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany.

The ancient city walls of Pergamum, dating at least to 159 BC.

The ancient city walls of Pergamum, dating at least to 159 BC.

Another of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation, Smyrna, is located in modern Izmir. We did not have time to explore Smyrna opting for Pergamum instead. Izmir is more of a “working” city and does not receive a lot of tourists. We found a good restaurant along the harbor front and enjoyed the feeling of being in a “real” Turkish city.

A view along the seafront in Izmir.

A view along the seafront in Izmir.

Practicalities: Pergamum is a pretty easy day trip by car from Izmir, about 2 hours (100 km) north.  Since Pergamum is at the top of a very steep hill, there is a tram that will take you close to the top, or you can drive through the town and up the hill on a narrow road to find a small parking lot near the top. The entry fee is 20 TL per person and parking was 3.5 TL (about 2 TL to the USD as of July 2013).

Red Basilica

In addition to Pergamum, in the town of Bergama is the Red Basilica (Temple of the Egyptian Gods), which dates to the 2nd century AD and was once covered in marble – it must have been quite a sight then and it still is now.  It is huge, and pictures cannot do its immense size justice.

A view of the Red Basilica.

A view of the Red Basilica.

The Red Basilica ruins, still standing from the 2nd century AD.

The Red Basilica ruins, still standing from the 2nd century AD.

Later on, the Byzantines built a church inside the basilica. This was a place where the Romans worshiped the Egyptian Gods. The entry fee was 5 TL.  It’s worth a quick stop here. In addition to these sites, the Asclepieum (or Asklepion, dedicated to the serpent-god Asklepios) an ancient medical center ruin is about 8 km from the acropolis. Time didn’t allow us to stop here either.

References: Signage at Pergamum, DK Eyewitness Travel Turkey and Lonely Planet Turkey.

Ephesus and Kusadasi –Avoiding the Crowds

Temple of Hadrian (123 AD) in Ephesus, built to commemorate the Emperor's visit.

Temple of Hadrian (123 AD) in Ephesus, built to commemorate the Emperor’s visit.

A swastika at the Temple of Hadrian, a common symbol in classical Mediterranean times.

A swastika at the Temple of Hadrian, a common symbol in classical Mediterranean times.

The most popular tourist destination in Turkey (along with Istanbul) has to be Ephesus, located near the western Aegean coast port of Kusadasi. Due to Ephesus’ proximity to the coast, it is a popular cruise ship day-excursion. Be prepared for hordes of tourists. (For a map of major sites we visited in Turkey, click here).

Kurets (or Curetes) Street, a major thoroughfare anciently and today in Ephesus.

Kurets (or Curetes) Street, a major thoroughfare anciently and today in Ephesus.

If you’re lucky enough to have your own transportation you can have the site nearly to yourself by visiting in the late afternoon.  In September of 2012, we had the most famous sight of Ephesus, the Library of Celsus, practically to ourselves around 4:30 pm, what a pleasure!

Robyn and I at the almost deserted Library of Celsus.

Robyn and I at the almost deserted Library of Celsus.

A different view of the Library of Celsus.

A different view of the Library of Celsus.

Detail of the stone work at the Library of Celsus.

Detail of the stone work at the Library of Celsus.

Harbor Street.  At the far end of this street was the seaport, which long ago silted up. This view is from the theater.

Harbor Street. At the far end of this street was the seaport, which long ago silted up. This view is from the theater.

The huge theater at Ephesus, which dates from the 2nd century BC, but most of what we see is from the Roman era.  It could seat 20,000-25,000 people.

The huge theater at Ephesus, which dates from the 2nd century BC, but most of what we see is from the Roman era. It could seat 20,000-25,000 people.

Ephesus in its prime (about 100 AD) was a major seaport (population of about 250,000) and the capital of Roman Asia Minor.  This was an important city of the early Christian Church—the Apostle Paul lived here for about 3 years. He also wrote his famous letter to the Ephesians, as documented in the New Testament. It’s very likely that the Apostle John lived here (the isle of Patmos is about 105 km or 60 miles away) and he may have brought Mary (Jesus’ mother) here. About 18% of the city has been excavated, and the main accessible ruins run along two main streets. For a reasonable visit, plan on at least 2-3 hours.

Another way to avoid the crowds is to visit the Terrace Houses (enclosed to protect the fragile frescoes), right near the Library of Celsus. The Terrace Houses require a separate entry fee (a barrier for many visitors). These ruins were homes of the very wealthy and they reminded me a bit of the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy.

View of the frescoes and mosaics in the Terrace Houses.

View of the frescoes and mosaics in the Terrace Houses.

Another view in the Terrace Houses - note the mosaic floors.

Another view in the Terrace Houses – note the mosaic floors.

The houses had hot and cold running water (amazing), numerous frescoes and mosaics.  They are still doing excavation work on these houses. This separate area was a fascinating part of Ephesus and we were practically the only people visiting these ruins.

Part of Ephesus' plumbing system - must have taken some engineering to get hot and cold water to those wealthy people!

Part of Ephesus’ plumbing system – must have taken some engineering to get hot and cold water to those wealthy people!

The Government Agora, near the "top" of Kurets (or Curetes) street, where many of the sights are located.

The Government Agora, near the “top” of Kurets (or Curetes) street, where many of the sights are located.

Cost:  Car parking at Ephesus was 7.50 TL, the main entry fee was 25 TL, and the Terrace Houses cost another 15 TL. (1.9 TL per USD as of July 2013). Keep in mind there are other places to visit near Ephesus – the reconstructed House of Mary (mother of Jesus), as well as other tombs and ruins.

Since we were on our own driving tour, we spent a couple nights in Kusadasi at a pretty good hotel (Mr. Happy’s Liman Hotel) next to the port and then drove out to Ephesus (only about 19 km).  The area around the port of Kusadasi is quite nice, and we enjoyed wandering around and visiting the local shops, restaurants and a little island fortress just off the shore.

This little island fortress is near Kusadasi's harbor. Nice views from the island, and it can be reached by foot from the shore.

This little island fortress is near Kusadasi’s harbor. Nice views from the island, and it can be reached by foot from the shore.

The port of Kusadasi from our hotel terrace.

The port of Kusadasi from our hotel terrace.

One of our favorite restaurants in Turkey was in Kusadasi.

One of our favorite restaurants in Turkey was in Kusadasi.

There is pretty good beach south of the harbor a couple of kilometers. Don’t rush your visit to this part of Turkey!

References: Lonely Planet Turkey, DK Eyewitness Travel, Turkey.

Herakleia and Lake Bafa

The village of Kapikiri where ruins intermingle with the village homes and farm animals.

The village of Kapikiri where ruins intermingle with the village homes and farm animals.

I just love coming across “undiscovered” historical spots. On our way from Bodrum to Kusadasi, Turkey we decided on a whim to visit the ruins of Herakleia on Lake Bafa, located in the village of Kapikiri. At the southern end of the lake, off the main road (the 525) there is a sign pointing to Herakleia, about 10 km from the turn off. Lake Bafa anciently was an arm of the Aegean Sea, but eventually was closed off and is now brackish water (50/50 salt water and fresh water).

Temple of Athena, still standing after 2,000 years with finely cut stones and no mortar.

Temple of Athena, still standing after 2,000 years with finely cut stones and no mortar.

Byzantine castle ruins on the shore of Lake Bafa.

Byzantine castle ruins on the shore of Lake Bafa.

There are ancient (around 300 BC) and Byzantine-era (8th century AD) ruins to be found here. This location features prominently in Greek mythology as the home of Endymion – a comely shepherd boy who resisted temptation. The Byzantine monks considered Endymion a saint.

Temple of Endymion, who resisted the moon goddess Selene.

Temple of Endymion, who resisted the moon goddess Selene.

Byzantine monastery ruins on a rock island just offshore in Lake Bafa.

Byzantine monastery ruins on a rock island just offshore in Lake Bafa.

Part of the ancient necropolis of Herakleia - tombs cut right into the rock.

Part of the ancient necropolis of Herakleia – tombs cut right into the rock.

There were no other tourists at the time of our visit and not much in the way of signs— you have to just trust your instincts to find some of the ruins, although the local villagers were very friendly and willing to point things out. In return, we bought a few homemade trinkets.

My mother-in-law modeling a head scarf with a local woman who spoke just a tiny bit of English and pointed out some of the sights for us.

My mother-in-law modeling a head scarf with a local woman who spoke just a tiny bit of English and pointed out some of the sights for us.

There is a lot more to see than we had time for – more monasteries in the hills and amphitheaters for example. If you love getting out and seeing things almost no other tourists see, go to Herakleia and Lake Bafa.

Gümüslük , Turkey – Ancient Myndos

In addition to the town of Bodrum, the Bodrum peninsula is beautiful and full of surprising finds. We were going take a day trip around the peninsula and ended up only getting about halfway, spending the day in the village of Gümüslük, on the very western end. For a map of the key places we visited in Turkey, click here.

Enjoying a mid-day meal overlooking the beautiful harbor.

Enjoying a mid-day meal overlooking the beautiful harbor.

It was a great spot—a quaint village with good seafood restaurants along the waterfront and beautiful views as a reward for hiking a nearby hill overlooking some of the ruins of ancient Myndos (founded by King Mausolus in about 350 BC).

The beautiful harbor and setting of Gümüslük, with some of the ruins of Myndos visible on what is now called "Rabbit Island" in center right of picture.

The beautiful harbor and setting of Gümüslük, with some of the ruins of Myndos visible on what is now called “Rabbit Island” in center right of picture.

Myndos was a large port city with a good harbor, but today the ruins are spread out over a large area and for the most part not easily accessible—some are under water, so bring your diving or snorkeling gear.

The ancient breakwater built by King Mausolus is visible just below the surface of the water. It originally was about 3 meters high.

The ancient breakwater built by King Mausolus is visible just below the surface of the water. It originally was about 3 meters high.

The primary draw for many tourists and locals is the natural setting. Since we were only about 25 km from Bodrum, I was surprised how quiet Gümüslük felt—seemingly unaffected by tourism, and yet our travel books said it is definitely growing.

Life on the beach - not a bad setting if you're a cow. There are some ruins of a temple nearby, but I doubt the cows appreciate the historic significance :)

Life on the beach – not a bad setting if you’re a cow. There are some ruins of a temple nearby, but I doubt the cows appreciate the historic significance 🙂

There are lots of good day trips from Bodrum, and I highly recommend a leisurely drive out on the peninsula as one of them.

Bodrum— Where the Wealthy Turks Play

As I watched the sun set over the Castle of St. Peter, I thought “this is my kind of place” – with the history, natural beauty and great weather all coming together perfectly. For a map of places visited in Turkey, click here.

The sun sets over St. Peter's castle in Bodrum.

The sun sets over St. Peter’s castle in Bodrum.

The city of Bodrum and the Bodrum peninsula are on the southwest coast of Turkey, with many beautiful coves, beaches and historic sites. No wonder this is a hot spot with well-heeled Turks.

A view of the beach at Bodrum.

A view of the beach at Bodrum.

As with many locations we visited, it would be easy to make Bodrum your base for a week or more to take advantage of all the things to see and do—water sports, day long cruises to nearby islands and beaches, start (or end) a 3-4 day gulet (wooden sailboat) cruise along the southern coast, visit ancient ruins in the town of Bodrum, or hike around the intriguing brackish Lake Bafa with its ancient and Byzantine ruins nearby, and take (long) day trips to the Roman ruins of Ephesus and Hierapolis if desired.

A street scene in Bodrum.

A street scene in Bodrum.

The history of Bodrum dates back to ancient times, and it lays claim to one of the ancient world wonders, the Mausoleum (355 BC, named for King Mausolus) which stood nearly intact for 1,900 years until the crusaders decided (very unfortunately) that the ancient stone would make great building blocks for things like St. Peter’s Castle.

The view of the harbor and Castle of St. Peter from our hotel.

The view of the harbor and Castle of St. Peter from our hotel.

Our hotel (Angora) had a rooftop pool with a great view of the harbor and Castle of St. Peter. The only downside of the hotel was the Halikarnas disco next door, with music blaring until the wee hours of the morning.  This is a hot spot with many locals coming here to party.  There are beaches right in and near the town and the pedestrian walkway along the shore makes an enjoyable stroll with many restaurants and shops.

The beaches of Bodrum, right next to many restaurants and shops.

The beaches of Bodrum, right next to many restaurants and shops.

The main sight in Bodrum is the Castle of St. Peter, which sits on an isthmus dividing the two main bays of Bodrum.

A view of the Castle of St. Peter--in the late 1800's the castle became a prison and held up to 700 prisoners.

A view of the Castle of St. Peter–in the late 1800’s the castle became a prison and held up to 700 prisoners

From the shipwreck, scientists have reconstructed what this 14th century BC ship must have looked like.

From the shipwreck, scientists have reconstructed what this 14th century BC ship must have looked like.

One of the many displays of artifacts from ancient shipwrecks in the Castle museum.

One of the many displays of artifacts from ancient shipwrecks in the Castle museum.

The castle was built by the Knights of St. John in 1406, and now houses a very good maritime museum, with all kinds of treasures (coins, glassware, gold, weapons, etc.) found in area shipwrecks including the oldest shipwreck ever discovered (14th century BC).  Some rooms (such as the English Tower) are decorated from the medieval period.  The castle entry fee was 20 TL per person (about 1.8 TL per USD).

The dungeon of the castle, way down a dark set of steps - note the poor fellow with his arms out of the grate in the floor--not a fun place to be.

The dungeon of the castle, way down a dark set of steps – note the poor fellow with his arms out of the grate in the floor–not a fun place to be.

The interior of the English Tower at the Castle of St. Peter.

The interior of the English Tower at the Castle of St. Peter.

Add Bodrum to your must do list of places to visit in Turkey.

Aphrodisias (or Afrodisias) – Another historic “hidden” jewel in Turkey

The tetrapylon, a gateway to the Temple of Aphrodite, 85% of the blocks are original.

The tetrapylon, a gateway to the Temple of Aphrodite, 85% of the blocks are original.

A close-up of the  tetrapylon.

A close-up of the tetrapylon.

The ancient site of Aphrodisias isn’t really hidden, and even though it’s only about 90 minutes (100 km) by car from Pamukkale and Hierapolis (see my post here) it gets far fewer tourists. There were a few small buses that arrived after us, but nothing like the full parking lot of huge buses at Hierapolis. For a map of the major sites we visited in Turkey click here.

Paul and Brad at the Temple of Aphrodite doing their best Roman Emperor imitation.

Paul and Brad at the Temple of Aphrodite doing their best Roman Emperor imitation.

The site started as a shrine and was named after the Greek goddess of love (Aphrodite) in the 2nd century BC. The city had a population of 15,000 at its peak in the 3rd century AD. In Byzantine times the Temple of Aphrodite was turned into a Christian Church. The town was abandoned in the 12th century.

A view of the Temple of Aphrodite, converted into a Christian church in 500 AD by the Byzantines.

A view of the Temple of Aphrodite, converted into a Christian church in 500 AD by the Byzantines.

A view of the easern end of the stadium, this end was used for gladiatorial contests. The stadium could hold 30,000 people.

A view of the easern end of the stadium, this end was used for gladiatorial contests. The stadium could hold 30,000 people.

The Sebasteion, a temple to the deified Roman Emperors. Seventy of the original 190 reliefs have been recovered.

The Sebasteion, a temple to the deified Roman Emperors. Seventy of the original 190 reliefs have been recovered.

The Bouleuterion (or Council House). Preserved almost perfectly intact due to a mudslide.

The Bouleuterion (or Council House). Preserved almost perfectly intact due to a mudslide.

Some of the many elaborate sarcophagi around Aphrodisias.

Some of the many elaborate sarcophagi around Aphrodisias.

There are a number of well-preserved ruins here. The site requires a fair amount of walking, and the ruins are pretty well marked in English and Turkish, but allow enough time to wander – we found the huge stadium just by wandering a bit. To get to the site, park on the eastern side of the main road and a tractor/train takes you to the entrance across the road on the western side. In 2012, the entrance fee was 10 TL per person (1.8 TL to 1 USD) and parking and the train was an additional 7 TL. (References: Lonely Planet, Turkey 2010; DK Eyewitness Travel, Turkey 2008).

The theater, it held 7,000, and the seats were individually labled.

The theater, it held 7,000, and the seats were individually labled.

The Gate to Hell: The Ancient City of Hierapolis and Travertine Terrace Pools of Pamukkale

The theater at Hierapolis could seat 20,000.

The theater at Hierapolis could seat 20,000.

Put these sights on your “don’t miss” list in Turkey. The combination of the ruins of Hierapolis and the terraces of Pamukkale, famous for the brilliant white travertine pools make this an unforgettable destination. Hierapolis was founded in 190 BC and became part of the Roman Empire in 133 BC. Later on it was part of the Byzantine Empire and eventually faded into obscurity in the 6th century. Among other things, it was a spa town known for its thermal baths, and the warm water still runs here.

The northern gate to Hierapolis.

The northern gate to Hierapolis.

An elevated tomb at the extensive necropolis of Hierapolis.

An elevated tomb at the extensive necropolis of Hierapolis.

The Nymphaeum - in ancient times there would have been fountains everywhere on this structure. This is near Pluto's Gate.

The Nymphaeum – in ancient times there would have been fountains everywhere on this structure. This is near Pluto’s Gate.

The “Gate to Hell” reference applies to a spot on the site known as Pluto’s Gate (Pluto was a deity of the underworld), and the lethal vapors bubbling up from the waters running underneath the city were used to sacrifice animals as part of sacred pagan rites, with hallucinating priests performing the ceremonies (not unlike Delphi in Greece). This spot was undergoing excavation during our visit in 2012, and a recent article confirms this historical reference. Also, it’s believed that the apostle Philip met his death here (by stoning and crucifixion) in AD 80.

Frontinus Street - the main thoroughfare in Hierapolis.

Frontinus Street – a main thoroughfare in Hierapolis.

Swim in the warm waters among the ruins.

Swim in the warm waters among the ruins.

You can swim among the ruins, and this water is the basis for the white travertine terraces, which are just at the edge of the ancient city on a ridge overlooking the town. Pamukkale means “cotton castle” which is an apt description as you gaze at the terraces from below. The travertine terraces are formed from white limestone residue as the carbon dioxide escapes the water.

Where the ruins and travertine meet - this tomb is half-buried by the travertine residue.

Where the ruins and travertine meet – this tomb is half-buried by the travertine residue.

Some of the travertine terraces at Pamukkale.

Some of the travertine terraces at Pamukkale.

The setting sun reflecting on the travertine pools.

The setting sun reflecting on the travertine pools.

A few practical tips:

  • Visit the site in the afternoon (there is a parking fee of 5 TL and an entry fee of 20 TL per person (1.8 TL per USD) for both the ruins and travertine pools). By late afternoon the mobs and tour buses are leaving. We arrived about 3:30 pm (in September) and this was perfect timing to see everything and to watch the setting sun reflecting in the travertine pools.
  • Keep in mind the ruins of Hierapolis are significant and spread out. Depending on your interest in ruins, you can easily spend 2-3 hours exploring.
  • An ‘artificial’ section of the travertine pools are open for visitors to walk on.  Plan to take your shoes off and roll up your pants. The water is warm and the surface is a bit slippery.

    Walking and wading in the pools.

    Walking and wading in the pools.

  • The thermal pool with the marble column ruins is expensive and requires a separate entry fee which is about $30 US per person. We skipped the swimming but enjoyed the ambience. There is a snack shop right there and you can enjoy the picturesque setting for the price of a soft drink.
  • We stayed at the Hotel Venus in Pamukkale. It was an excellent small hotel, with a pool, nice large rooms, a very good restaurant and great breakfast buffet. It is just 5 minutes or so by car to the ruins. The room was €35 per night.

    Another excellent Turkish meal at the Hotel Venus, where we stayed.

    Another excellent Turkish meal at the Hotel Venus, where we stayed.

  • Pamukkale (which is about 15 km from the large city of Denizli), is a quiet little village and a great place to stay. The drive from Fethiye (on the south coast) took approximately 4 hours (about 200 km, on country roads).

Also fairly close to these sights are the ruins of Aphrodisias, which I will cover in a separate post.

References: DK Eyewitness Travel Turkey, 2008. Lonely Planet – Turkey, 2010.