Turkey: my cruise through Greek, Roman, Christian and Islamic civilizations and empires
Interestingly, my fascination with Turkey started with the nearly 500 episode Netflix series, “Resurrection: Ertugrul”. For someone who isn’t much into movies or TV, this series kept me glued to the screen for over four months. I was amazed how they were able to produce so much quality content in six years, that too outdoors. The story, loosely based on Ertugrul, father of Osman I who founded the Ottoman Empire, was gripping, but I was also impressed with present-day Turkey for producing such a series of masterpieces.
Turkey straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. The European part of Turkey called Thrace is only 3% of the country but has 10% of the Turkish population, and a good part of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, is in Thrace. The capital of Turkey, Ankara, is on the Asian side of Turkey, called Anatolia or Asia Minor. The popular tourist destinations Antalya, Pamukkale and Cappadocia are found in the Anatolian Peninsula. By the way, Turkey changed its name to Turkiye to avoid confusion with a certain Thanksgiving bird but excuse me if I alternate between the two names in this article.
The first thing that got me excited about this trip was the Covid lull we find ourselves in at the moment. I hope this is more than a lull and even though we have not been able to completely eliminate the virus from the planet, we are able to bring it under control. With the disappearance of mask, test and vaccine mandates and the hassle of related paperwork, it was much easier to travel. We’ve lost three years to this virus and it’s time for us to move on. Don’t complain at all!
As excited as I was for the world to go on, it also meant that I now had to share the planet with other adventuring travelers. This has become evident in the bustling city of Istanbul. It was once known as Constantinople after Emperor Constantine, and it was the capital of the Easter Roman Empire and the center of Orthodox Christian civilization under the Romans and later the Byzantines before falling to the Ottomans in the 15th century. You see layers of history in its monuments and churches which have since been converted into mosques.
With more than 15 million inhabitants, Istanbul is one of the most populated cities in the world. Traffic is a nightmare in some areas and we had to constantly change our plans to get to some of the stops on the route and abandon a few others. Thanks to our guide, we “enjoyed” a few non-touristy experiences like traveling on the local train and taking shortcuts through the tunnels that I never want to repeat again.
Strolling around the Hippodrome was nice and how we started our city tour. The hippodrome was once the center of public life, and games and chariot races were held here. Interestingly, there was a bike race going on when we visited. The obelisk with Egyptian hieroglyphs made me think about how global they were back then too, and I offered to share some of my knowledge of hieroglyphs with our guide.
The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace are all in the same complex and we spent a lot of time in the complex exploring them. The Blue Mosque takes its name from the blue Iznik tiles used to decorate it. Hagia Sophia (pronounced HAYA meaning pure), which the Ottomans converted into a mosque (it used to be a church) after conquering Constantinople, is breathtakingly beautiful inside and out. Topkapi Palace was the place from where the Ottoman sultans ruled. The vast complex includes several courtyards and a harem where the women of the palace lived. A stroll through the Spice Bazaar with heaps of spices, baklava and Turkish delights was how day 1 ended and I’m not complaining.
Day 2 began with our minds blown away by the opulence and splendor of Dolmabahce Palace. Built at the end of the 19th century, it became the official residence of the Ottoman sultans. What set it apart from other palaces in the world was the number and size of the chandeliers, the generous use of gold, and the ornate walls and ceilings; no wonder it cost over a billion dollars in today’s money. One can justify the abolition of the Ottoman sultanate and the transformation of Turkey into a republic after visiting this palace.
Right in front of the palace was the spectacular Çamlıca Mosque on the Asian side of Istanbul. One of Istanbul’s three mosques with six minarets, it is huge and can hold over 50,000 people. A Bosphorus ferry ride to the European side and a local train ride to the bustling Istiklal Caddesi area was an interesting experience. I would describe this neighborhood with dozens of shops, restaurants and baklavarias as Istanbul’s Times Square. It’s also interesting how the tram passes right in the middle of the street without clear markings, and it’s your responsibility to steer clear of its path. We ate lunch and sampled all sorts of freshly made baklava until we couldn’t due to limited real estate in the belly area.
In the 500 episode Netflix series I mentioned earlier, I picked up some Turkish words such as gardash (brother) and abla (older sister) which I tried to incorporate into conversations and show our guides and other locals we interacted with. But the Turkish language also has several words that have made their way into Urdu and Hindi like jannat (sky), adalat (courtyard) and hava (air), although sometimes pronounced slightly differently, I felt right at home.
I was wondering why Cappadocia, our next stop in Turkey, isn’t one of the wonders of the world. Although known for its hot air balloon experience, it has so much more to offer. The rock formations and natural caves that are even used today as restaurants, hotels and residences are interconnected underground cities, each of them home to thousands of people hiding from their enemies for weeks – together they should be one of the wonders of the world. Needless to say we did all the things recommended in this area including staying in a cave hotel. Although we were delighted that the hot air balloon flight which was to be canceled due to windy conditions finally took place, we were shocked to learn that two tourists died that day following an accident in wind-bound hot air balloon.
Antalya is a southern Mediterranean resort town that offers beautiful beaches, tons of activities and sightseeing opportunities in equal measure, and that’s exactly what we did. After a trip to the magnificent Duden Waterfall, the Antalya Museum and a stroll through the Old Town, it was time to relax and enjoy the luxury our all-inclusive resort had to offer.
Speaking of luxury, we were able to incorporate a shopping activity into the whole trip, Turkiye is famous for Turkish delight (they are also called Turkish delight in Turkey), baklava (you have no idea how many varieties) , towels (these are called Turkish towels because other types exist), Turkish coffee (called Turkish coffee or kahve because other types exist), Zultanite (a color-changing gemstone mined in Turkey only), and Turquoise ( named so because it was formerly marketed in Turkey). Turkey may claim intellectual and material rights to these unique products that it operates, produces and/or manufactures, and I must claim a subset of these products as my own.
The next day was long and started early and the only reason I’m not complaining is because we had to cover two big things on our itinerary – Pamukkale, a three hour drive from Antalya and Ephesus, a three-hour drive from Pamukkale. .
Pamukkale is known for its geothermal activity, that carbonate-rich water flowing over white terraces, a site that can only be experienced but not described. No wonder it often appears in lists of the best places to visit in the world. I went a little overboard with photos before reluctantly wandering off to spend some time in nearby Hierapolis, an archaeological site of an ancient Roman city.
I read somewhere that one good thing about having a bad memory is that you can enjoy the same good thing over and over like it’s the first time every time. I live by that statement and it happened once again with me on our next stop in Ephesus, an ancient Greek/Roman city that we visited on our Greek Island cruise a few years ago. without knowing at the time that it was part of Turkey. I felt a sense of deja vu (and was a bit scared) as I was able to remember some of the ruined buildings. I even told the guide that there was a town exactly like this in Greece and he even believed me (and must say the same to his other guests). After fooling my guide (and myself), I consider my job here done and ready to return to the United States. Needless to say we had a good laugh about it on the way back and I’m certainly not complaining.
There are things I want to complain about though (water retention tops the list) – things I didn’t experience in Turkey and deserve to go back for that reason. As curious as I was, I chickened out of a Turkish hammam experience after learning about the intense scrub/exfoliation massage that can leave you looking like a red (but super clean) potato. The Whirling Dervishes show, a Sufi religious/spiritual experience, is another experience that I couldn’t fit into my schedule and this song by Jodha Akbar should suffice for now. There are things I can complain about, but there are many other blessings that I can’t even count. Thank you for everything you have offered to Turkiye.
(Photos by Padma Nadella)
Padma Nadella is an IT professional who lives in Eagan, Minnesota with her husband and 15-year-old son. She runs a Facebook group for Minnesotans to collaborate on health and fitness related events and activities. The group now has more than two thousand members. A jack-of-all-trades, she likes to play volleyball, travel around the world and above all entertain, but touches everything else.