Gaya Travel recently experienced the Turkey Winter Indulgence Tour, which left the whole team totally in awe.
Türkey (Turkiye) means the ‘land of the Turks’. It was formerly called Anatolia, which means ‘the country where the sun rises’ in Greek. It is home to 80 million people that inhabit the nation’s seven regions: Marmara, Aegean, Black Sea, Middle Anatolia, Southeast and East.
Though only 8% of Turkey is on the European side and the rest falls on the Asian continent, Turkey still feels like a modern and efficient European nation. Turkey as a tourism destination is a boon for Muslims from other parts of the world who want to experience being in a Western destination yet not having to worry about obtaining halal food and finding places of worship since Turkey is predominantly Muslim.
To Gaya Travel, Turkey represents a fine blend of East and West – it is defined by the heady mix of Classical (Greco-Roman, Mediterranean) and Oriental (Turkic, Persian, Islamic-Arabic) influences. It possesses the advancement and efficiencies expected of a modern country with Western outlook. However, Turkey is also Eastern in its heritage, culture, values and identity. Turkey is a country – with millions of years old natural landscapes inhabited by thousands of years old civilisations – that is now steered by a modern liberal society riding on world class infrastructure. Because of that, no one should ever give Turkey a miss.
Note: Entering Turkey is easy for Malaysians since no visa is required for the period of visit up to 90 days. There is no embarkation card that needs to be filled upon entry, thus very much reduce the hassle at immigration.
During the nine-day Turkey Winter Indulgence tour, we had the chance to admire the elegant Ottoman architectural splendour showcased in the forms of the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Grand Bazaar; fascinated by the jaw-dropping out-of-this-world landscape of Cappadocia and remnants of Byzantine Christianity; paid respect to a revered holy figure immortalised since the times of the Seljuks; encountered Greek vestiges at the legendary Hierapolis and Troy; soaked in the atmosphere of elegant ancient Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus and Asklepion; and mesmerised by the grandeur of the Byzantine’s jewel-in-the-crown, Hagia Sophia, from the outside.
Reminder: Turkey is a huge country, thus travelling from one place to another takes at least two hours on average. It would be good to bring along a neck pillow for better head support. Besides, Turkish climate is arid, so be sure to drink lots of plain water (at least two bottles of 1.5 litres of water) throughout the day to avoid dehydration.
Istanbul, with the population of around 15 million, is 2,230 years old. It was formerly known as Constantinopolis or Constantinople since the 6th Century A.D. and impressively marked by monumental landmarks such as the breathtaking Blue Mosque and the majestic Topkapi Palace, built by Fatih Sultan Mehmet from 1462 until 1478. The palace once served as the centre of Ottoman Imperial Administration and the residence of the Ottoman Sultans up until 1856, before moving to the European-inspired Dolmabahce Palace. However, the imperial treasury, library and mint were then still retained at Topkapi Palace.
The Ottoman Sultanate, which was established in 1299 from Anatolia, moved to the West, capturing Bursa and eventually Constantinople. The latter was an incredibly rich city made prosperous by trade due to its strategic location. Its name was then changed to Istanbul and served as the capital of the Ottoman Sultanate from 1453 until 1920.
Tips: For Muslims, don’t miss the experience of praying at the Blue Mosque, famed for its blue-tiled interior. Bear in mind that the mosque was built between 1609 and 1616, hence the place for ablution is a bit of a distance from the entrance. We suggest you visit this mosque early in the day to avoid larger crowds. There are restroom facilities, costing 1 Lira per entry that is clean and equipped with built-in bidets for convenient washing.
Today, Istanbul remains as the economic and cultural hub of Turkey, complementing Ankara’s functional role as the country’s administrative and political epicentre. The city is a remarkably popular destination that attracts large number of tourists throughout the year, even more so during spring until late autumn. If you were visiting Turkey in winter, you would save time queueing due to lesser tourists and more time for travellers to enjoy the attractions. Though summer is hot and humid, the surroundings’ aura, vegetation and festivals change to suit the climate.
When in Istanbul:
- Admire the city’s beauty by taking the cruise around the Bosphorus.
- Walk around the area where of Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, explore the atmospheric Fatih neighbourhood located behind the Blue Mosque with its quaint houses, shops, restaurants and cobblestoned streets.
- Shop at the beguiling Grand Bazaar that was built in 1455 and houses over 3,000 shops, believed to be the pre-cursor to the modern shopping malls.
- Check out the shops at Istiklal Caddesi leading up to the Taksim Square. If the stretch is too long, travellers could always take the quaint antiquated red tram the plies along the stretch, costing 2.50 Turkish Lira per person per ride.
Tip: For holders of Malaysian Ringgit, you may get better value if first exchanged into USD or Euros, and later exchange them to Turkish Lira in Turkey itself.
After savouring Istanbul, we proceeded to Ankara, Turkey’s capital located in Middle Anatolia with the population of four million. Throughout the journey, we noticed that the roads are excellent and the transport infrastructure is world class. Urbanisation throughout Turkey opened our eyes to the fact that Turkey is indeed a robustly developing – if not already developed – country. Along the way, the scenery gave way to more plains and pastoral hills, then back to coniferous forests set on mountainous terrain, followed by rocky outcrops and landscapes, signifying the diversity of Turkey’s landscapes.
At the well planned city of Ankara, we stopped by at the Ataturk Mausoleum, where the founder and the first President of the modern Turkey state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is laid to rest. When he died in 1938, his remains were placed in a tomb in Ankara’s Ethnographical Museum. Once the building was completed in 1953, his remains were then moved to its final resting place, located in the Hall of Honour and marked by a 44-ton solid granite. Interestingly, our visit to the mausoleum fell on 29 October 2014, which coincided with Turkey’s Republic Day. We had the opportunity to witness the Turkish citizens celebrating the day with patriotic fervour, making us realise that Turks are deeply nationalistic and possess intense love for their country.
On the way to Cappadocia from Ankara, we stopped by at glimmering Tuz Golu (Salt Lake) to admire the age-old salt collection process. It is surreal to actually walk on the hardened salt crystals. The lake is the second largest in Turkey and supplies 53% of the nation’s salt. This mineral is also known for its healing properties and travellers can purchase medicinal products derived from salt here.
Cappadocia, which means the ‘land of the beautiful horses’ in Persian, possesses among the most extraordinary geographical landscapes we have ever seen, with moon-like terrains that are inundated by fairy chimneys, all made from volcanic structures. Cappadocia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to hidden caves and over 30 underground cities. The fairy chimneys were also used for human habitation but these days most are used for storage. The people in the area traditionally cultivated dark roses and grapes for wine production, utilising pigeon droppings collected from the crevices of the surrounding fairy chimneys as fertilisers.
Cappadocia is the second most important place after Jerusalem when it comes to the history of the spread of Christianity – many early Christians resided in the area as it offered them places to hide from Roman persecution. Ancient people chose to live in Cappadocia because the soil and rock under the basalt surface are easy to shape and turn into places for living.
One of the first places we stopped in Cappadocia was the Kirkgoz underground city. Apparently underground cities were important back in the earliest times of Christianity since the tunnels and chambers provided protection to the early Christians from marauders and persecutors, besides offering them space to practice their faith in peace. An underground city is normally characterised by low, narrow and sloping passageways and chambers that serve different functions such as cellars, stables, wineries, kitchen and living areas. Travellers are able to walk through the tunnel and claustrophobic passages of this underground city to experience how it would have been like to live in such a place back then.
Another interesting place that travellers should visit is the Goreme Open Air Museum, where travellers can clearly witness many small churches that are carved within the fairy chimneys that bear various religious frescoes dating over a thousand years. The purpose of the frescoes was actually for the benefit of the illiterate to learn about Christian messages and Biblical stories. The frescoes are admired due to their historical value. At the same time, while taking in the museum’s serene atmosphere, try to imagine how it was like to live in these caves back then and having to endure such a Spartan lifestyle.
Reminder: To preserve the fragility of the frescoes, photography is not allowed and only a short amount of time are accorded to visitors to care for the small space of the church and to allow other visitors the chance to admire this antiquated churches as well.
We departed Cappadocia in the morning and headed to Konya, a city full of mosques and Seljuk vestiges that were built in the 11th Century. The main attraction of Konya is the Mevlana Museum, which was once a madrasah (Muslim religious school) that served as the base for the Mevlevī Sufi Order, famous for its Whirling Dervishes. The museum is also the location for the tomb of the famous poet cum jurist cum theologian cum Sufi mystic, Mevlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, who passed away in 1273 A.D. Hailed from the village of Wakhsh in Tajikistan, Rumi moved to Konya after performing hajj in 1250 to fulfil an invitation by the Anatolian Seljuk Sultan.
At the museum, travellers can learn how the dervishes (individuals who belong to the Sufi order) once led their lives through the lifelike dioramic displays and visit Rumi’s tomb. Since Rumi, also known as the Mevlana, is highly revered in Turkey, the place is swarmed by locals who come to pay homage. On 17 December every year, Konya commemorates the passing of the Maulana, thus the museum tends to get more visitors than usual.
What makes Rumi’s teachings appealing is the fact that the core of his belief is based on respecting and accepting all human beings irrespective of their backgrounds, colour or creed. He believed that love is the basis of life and the means to connect with God – to love God, you first must love other human beings and His creations. He also developed the spiritual guide book that touches on humanity and connection with God called Mesnavi or Mathnawi, which is six volumes long, originally written in Persian and contained over 25,000 couplets. Rumi also used poetry, music and dance extensively to connect to God. The order that he founded developed the whirling dance, which is normally performed by dervishes as a way to connect to the Creator.
Note: Be prepared for an amazing trip along the stretch from Konya to Pamukkale. Taking approximately 6-hours, the journey covers varied sceneries of Turkey’s hinterland, from plains to lush farmlands to craggy mountainous outcrops to forested hills. Enjoy stops along the way such as Agacli to savour smooth Mado ice cream and Akdeniz to enjoy local yoghurt mixed with honey and poppy seed.
Located in the province of Denizli, Pamukkale or Cotton Castle is characterised by cascaded terraces and travertine formed by mineral sediments like calcium carbonate that have been brought along by water that has been flowing from the hotsprings and settled along the way for thousands of years. The water from the hot springs is believed to have curative properties and been used as thermal bath since 2nd Century BC. Do be careful when walking on the Cotton Castle’s slippery slopes.
Besides the travertine, Pamukkale is also known for the ruins of the Hellenistic city of Hieropolis (which means ‘Holy City’), established in 200 BC by Eumenes II in dedication to the Amazon Queen Hiera, wife of Telephos, the founder of Pergamon. Adjacent to it is the site of the largest necropolis in Europe where Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was buried. Discovered by Carl Humann, a German archaeologist, in 1887, the city was hit by a large devastating earthquake in the 7th Centry AD, including attack from the Persian empire, that took a long time to recover.
House of Virgin Mary
Also known as Maryam Ana Evi in Turkish, the house is believed by Catholic devotees to be the abode of Mary, the mother of Jesus. According to the story, after the crucifixion, Mary and John escaped Roman persecution and eventually settled within the area while continuing to spread the message of Christ.
Anne Catherine Emmerich, a Catholic nun from Germany who died in 1824, described the vision she had about the location of the Virgin Mary’s house in her book. Then a French priest, Abbé Julien Gouyet, found the site based on the description by Emmerich in 1881. The discovery was further confirmed by Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey and two Lazarist missionaries, Father Poulin and Father Jung from Smyrna on 29 July 1891. The house is now managed by Capuchin friars and mass is held every day at 6:00 p.m., with one additional mass in English on every Sunday at 10:30 a.m.
When being there, devotees could light up candles as sign of respect towards Virgin Mary. We were told that when a big fire engulfed the area back in 13 October 2008, it mysteriously did not harm the Virgin Mary house.
Though the house has been reconstructed, travellers will still be able to see the original remains of the structure at the base of the house’s walls, which are darker in colour.
Reminder: To respect the privacy, It is forbidden to take picture inside the Virgin Mary House.
Founded and first built by one of Alexander the Great’s commanders, Ephesus used to be the capital of Asia Minor. The city has been built four times: the first two by the Greeks and Ionians, while the other two were by the Romans. It was said that the Greek philosopher Socrates once stayed here.
Part of the ancient city was destroyed by an earthquake in AD 614 while the other part remained fairly well preserved until today. What can be seen currently in Ephesus is only 10% of the ancient city proper – there are still more that needs to be excavated. The city used to be by the sea, but as it prospered and attracted more people, the city further expanded one kilometre inland.
Travellers are bound to be impressed by the ancient edifices of what used to be cobbled streets, huge villas for the wealthy, shops, amphitheatres (also known as the odeon), majestic columns and gateways, public baths and toilets including clay pipes used for ancient sewage system. One interesting point that we learned was that the Romans constructed the baths at the city entrances because during that time, to avoid the dissemination of diseases and plague, everyone who entered the city must first bathe before proceeding with their business. The ancient people spent three to four hours in the public baths everyday since the places were used not just for cleansing but also for socialising and discussing business, with live orchestral music being played in the background and multitudes of servants attending to them.
Immerse yourself in the era by walking amongst the ruins and let your imagination runs back to the times when the city was at its heyday or simply marvel the complex yet poignant architecture left.
Tip: With years of being treaded and visited, the marble pavements of Ephesus can be quite slippery. Make sure you put on comfortable walking shoes with good traction.
Asklepion, a health centre during the ancient world, had been in existence since 4th Century BC. It used to be part of ancient Hellenistic health and recovery centre (healing temple) that is similar to a hospital. People during the ancient times travelled to this city to be healed. No one was allowed to die within the walls of the Asklepion since the city – bearing the name derived from the Greek god of medicine called Asklepios – is dedicated only for healing; death was thought to hinder the ability of others in the city to heal.
Travellers who explore the site will be able to walk around a long tunnel that was once used by patients to heal, besides consuming medicine. Those patients would rest inside the tunnel listening to harmoniously soothing music together with the sound of flowing water at the background (which was carried by small water channels that flow into the tunnel) while taking in the warm sunlight and fresh air through the small windows – the sound of music and flowing water were thought to have curative virtues. As these patients went to sleep in the tunnel, the doctors and priests performed incantations that suggested to the patients that they will be healed from their ailments, making the patients think positively that they would definitely be healed. The healing methods used therefore were not only physical but also psychological, considered advance during ancient times.
Besides facilities for healing, since many people lived within the city, many other structures such as amphitheatres, marketplaces, temples and public baths are also present in the area. You will just have to take your time walking around this ruins to imagine and recreate the sceneries of how the ancients were able to create such remarkable architecture at such scale.
The ancient city of Troy was founded 5,000 years ago, inhabited since 2,000 BC. The area was home to various peoples like the Hittites, Greeks and Persians. Located in the place called Truva, it has now become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Turkey. Originally, Troy was not built by the Greeks but by the Hittites, the earliest settlers of the area and used to be an important religious centre.
The city of Troy had been built nine times (Troy I until Troy IX), each time on top of the previous one. Travellers to the site will be able to see the layers being built on top of another when they walk around the ruins of Troy. Throughout the ages, the city experienced many earthquakes.
During the times of the Trojan War, the city was sieged because its prince, Paris of Troy, took Helen away from her husband Menelaus, the king of pre-Dorian Sparta. Both him and his brother, Agamemnon, the King of Mycenea, launched the attack on Troy. Besides this story, there are also other other Greek myths associated with Troy.
Heinrich Schliemann, a German businessman and an ambitious and controversial archaeologist, began working on the site in 1871 since he confirmed that the place is the exact location of the legendary Troy of Trojan Horse legend, which took place during Troy VI. Some parts of the site are still being excavated.
In 1998, UNESCO conferred the site as a World Heritage status.
Tip: Be sure to be warmly clothed during winter since the site receives strong wind as it is not far from the sea and sits on high ground
In short, after traversing through Turkey, Gaya Travel team finds that it is indeed an awe-inspiring country that is blessed with varied landscapes that are millions of years old and vestiges of significant ancient civilisations, heritage and culture – its history is a heavily potent mix of Classical Greco-Roman, Byzantine and Oriental influences, infusing elements from the East and West. At the same, Gaya Travel also finds Turkey as a liberal, progressive and forward-thinking nation that harnesses efficient world class infrastructure and modern systems, strategically positioned in international trade and politics. Seems like Turkey does not only internalise the best of the East and West, but also the past, the present and the future. It is an unforgettable experience with thousands of memories traversing the different parts of beautiful and historical Turkey. This trip is highly recommended to truly savour the ancient era of poignant beauty, immense architecture and astounding histories.
What to shop in Turkey:
- Pottery and ceramic crafts at Vanessa Seramik in Avanos, Cappadocia, which are produced by master artisans and craftsmen
- High quality handmade kilims and carpets that are produced traditionally at Metis Carpets in Cappadocia – they are so priceless that they are worth to become heirlooms. Each item purchased here is provided with certificate of authenticity.
- Buy Turkish semi-precious stones like turquoise and treated zultanite, including handmade traditional jewellery, at Ozler Art Centre in Cappadocia. Each item purchased here is also provided with certificate of authenticity
- Various types of Turkish delights at Selcukhan in Seljuk
- Quality leather jackets and accessories at Kircilar Leatherium in Seljuk