Since I started this blog, it has become evident to others and myself that history has become my main passion while exploring Turkey. Ask me to choose between visiting a nightclub or historical site and I will always choose the latter. Ask me to write a recipe for a Turkish food dish or pen an article about some ancient ruins and the ruins will always win. Perhaps my fevered enthusiasm is because the number of historical places to visit in Turkey runs into thousands, scattered from the east to the west, and that is only the ones that the archeologists, excavators, and university professors know about.
Every year, press releases about a new discovery or a planned excavation dig gains immense attention across the Internet. The huge amount of historical places to visit in Turkey can be credited to the fact that the country sits on the edge of ancient Mesopotamia, that is often referred to as the birthplace of civilization, so it is not a surprise that many empires have conquered, ruled, and lost their reign of the region.
Anyone who wanted to be notorious and control the pathway connecting the world would set their sights on conquering the land, and naturally, they left behind traces of their existence. The extensive list of rulers includes the Ottomans, Byzantine, and Hittites, Lycians, Alexander the Great and the Persians to name but a few.
Ancient Sites and Historical Places to Visit in Turkey
However, please do not think I am a number snob because more importantly, it is the extensive work that has gone into restoring much of them to their original appearance that should be admired. I haven’t visited many other countries but I’m willing to bet that Turkey has some of the best quality ancient sites of the modern world.
So this article is about my favourite historical places in Turkey but there is still so many that I am yet to visit so I have teamed up with my friend Yuksel Tasdemir, who lives in the neighbouring resort of Kusadasi. As a travel guide and Turkey tours agency owner, he has amassed a wealth of information regarding Turkish history and when he is not jetting off around the world, promoting the country in travel fairs, he is more than happy to indulge in my passion for this travel niche. So let’s get started.
Bygone Sites and Landmarks of Istanbul
First place undoubtedly has to go to Istanbul because it was the capital-ruling centre of both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires and many of their former buildings still stand today. The old part of the city that is the Sultanahmet district belonging to the UNESCO World Heritage collection includes prominent landmarks and buildings such as the former church, mosque, and now museum of the Hagia Sophia.
Across the square is the Royal Ottoman Blue Mosque dating from 1616 that is famous for its six minarets, only one of two mosques in Turkey to be built in this style. Around the corner is the Topkapi Palace, first home of the Ottoman dynasty when they invaded Constantinople in 1453. Nearby is the Basilica Cistern, Istanbul Archeological Museum and further afield is the Grand Bazaar, Galata Tower, and Suleymaniye Cami, the biggest mosque in Turkey. The list of goes on and on and a walk around this district is one of the most popular guided tours of Istanbul.
Ancient Ruins of Ephesus City and Surrounding Attractions
As one of Turkey’s most visited attractions receiving millions of visitors every year, Ephesus should be on everyone’s bucket list when they come to the country. I have been three times and will go back again and again because new excavations or restoration work is constantly taking place.
Most restored landmarks date from when Romans ruled the city and earlier Christianity was spreading through the region. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the Roman terraced houses that belonged to wealthy citizens, the Celsus library that was the third largest in the ancient world, and the Grand Theatre where the rioters of Artemis ganged up on Saint Paul. Anyone interested in Christian religious travel, will greatly enjoy an Ephesus tour because it was one of the Seven Churches of Revelation as mentioned in the New Testament of the Bible.
If you visit Ephesus, stay overnight trip, and also take a slight detour to see the…
- House of the Virgin Mary, believed to be the place of her assumption
- Isa Bey Selcuk Mosque dating from 1375
- Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world
- Saint Johns Basilica, where his tomb is
Gobeklitepe: The Man-Made Landmark that Rocked History
Anyone who knows their stuff might be surprised to see Gobeklitepe on the list, because not only it is in the southeast of Turkey where very few tourists venture but also because excavations are in the earlier stages and historians are still deciphering the artefacts and ancient structures.
Indeed, it is more the historical significance that makes Gobeklitepe a pre-historic gem, not only in Turkey but also in the world and in the expert fields of history and religion. If initial findings are correct, Gobeklitepe is the oldest manmade structure in the world, dating from the Neolithic era and beating Stonehenge by thousands of years. Should the initial findings also be correct, it presents many inaccuracies in religious studies and the beginning of humankind.
Goreme Open Air Museum of Age-Old Cave Churches
Sitting in the central Anatolian region of Cappadocia, my first visit to Goreme Open Air Museum was uneventful but I returned in 2015 and the full glory and significance suddenly hit home for me. The mass of ancient cave churches and monasteries containing 13th and 14th-century original frescoes is hard to ignore, even if you are a hardcore atheist. As another historical place sitting on the UNESCO World Heritage list, this open-air museum is part of the bigger Cappadocia region that played a significant role in the beginnings of Christianity.
The 14th Century Sumela Monastery
Sadly, Sumela monastery is closed for most of 2016 while restoration work takes place but head to the northeast district in 2017, and you will be presented with the excellent view of a 14th-century monastery clinging to the side of a steep cliff face.
The walk uphill to the main entrance is strenuous but once you arrive, the humble life of a monk in that era becomes glaringly apparent as you stroll through the bedrooms, communal areas and step inside the small church with its intricate and original ceiling frescoes. Built in that area, after a monk saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in a cave, the monastery faced rack and ruin at the turn of the 20th century but has bounced back to become one of Turkey’s most prized historical structures.
Magnificent Ruins of Miletus, Priene, and Didyma
The three ancient landmarks of Miletus, Priene and Didyma, often marketed in travel brochures as one-day trips are remarkably close to each other. The Temple of Apollo sits in the current holiday resort of Altinkum and as a former pagan worshipping Oracle structure, had construction been completed, historians say the temple would have rivaled Delphi.
Further inland, the ruins of Priene city, felt remarkably spooky, and I don’t believe in ghosts. Then nearby is Miletus that much the same as Ephesus, was a successful sea-trading port until the tide started to edge away. The prize landmark here is the ancient Hellenistic theater, with original passageways, leading to the small rooms used by gladiators and performers.
Acik Saray : The Open Palace of Gulsehir, Cappadocia
Again, this is one that you don’t often read about on travel lists but I personally found the Acik Saray to be a marvellous example of man’s imagination when making a home to be proud of. The name means Open Palace and the collection of wineries, chapels, schools, and cave houses carved into the tufa style rock is the typical architectural style of the Cappadocia region in history.
Unaware of its exact historical storyline, historians are still baffled but suspected previous uses for the mini town is a caravansary for travelling salesmen and Army barracks. Despite its name as a palace, they cannot find any proof or evidence that royal families or dynasties used it.
Ghost Village of Kayakoy in Fethiye
If you find yourself on the Mediterranean coast, venture to the Ghost Village of Kayakoy situated near the bustling city of Fethiye. The deserted houses, chapels, and schools are eerie relics of the time when Greeks and Turks lived side by side in this region.
As the central place setting of the book by Louis de Bernieres called Birds without Wings, houses in the village, previously called Levissi, cover the green hills and small cobbled paths invite visitors to retrace the footsteps of previous residents. With a little bit of imagination, you can dreamingly transport yourself to roughly 100 years ago, just before the village started its demise into a ghost town.
Aphrodisias: The City of Creativity
Due to its close location near the UNESCO World Heritage site of Pamukkale and Hierapolis, it baffles me why Aphrodisias is not featured in the mainstream travel brochures as well. It receives little admiration and visitors, which is a shame because the excavation work that has gone into this historical place is amazing.
Formerly known as the “City of Sculptures” famous Roman philosophers and artists gathered in Aphrodisias to create timeless masterpieces. Visitors can tour the excavated ruins and the museum that is considered one of the best in Turkey.
Statue Heads of Mount Nemrut
I haven’t been here, but Yuksel says the statue heads of Mount Nemrut should appear on every history list about Turkey. The giant statue heads feature on most holiday postcards of the country. The UNESCO World Heritage site, suspected to date from the 1st century BC, was built in honour of Greek, Armenian, and Persian gods but at some point, the heads fell from the main body structure.
Due to the height of Mount Nemrut, yearly snowfall is guaranteed and this is slowly wearing down the stone structures. The best time to visit is at sunset or sunrise when the orange glow projects a dramatic scene to the bodiless statue heads.
Ancient Myra and the Church of Saint Nicholas
Venturing slightly off the main D400 coastal road of Turkey to visit the ruins of Myra and the church of Saint Nicholas is totally worth it. Sitting in the small, unknown district of Demre, Myra dating from the 5th century BC features a large semi-circle theatre and the dramatic hillside holding unusual Lycian tombs.
Demre is also famously the home of Saint Nicholas, otherwise known as Santa Claus. As a former bishop of the town, citizens deeply appreciated his honourable deeds and his church with a spiritual atmosphere holds his sarcophagus, although Italian soldiers stole the bones in the 11th century.
The Grand Theatre of Aspendos
Another recommendation by Yuksel, the impressively intact Roman theatre of Aspendos, built in AD 162 boasts of 40 stone seats holding up to 15,000 people, which is useful because concerts and festivals held here are highlighted yearly features of the Antalya region.
Quite unlike other old theatres in Turkey that are of the Hellenistic, fully emerged into the hillside style, the exterior is partly freestanding and the bonus is that the gallery and stage section is mostly intact. The massive Roman aqueduct built in AD 100, is another prominent and highly treasured feature of the ancient city.
Bodrum Castle and the Underwater Archaeology Museum
Anyone would think that having been home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, that the Halicarnassus Mausoleum would be the pinnacle historical tour of Bodrum, yet the star of the show is Bodrum Castle. Also known as the Castle of Saint Peter, and built in 1406 by the Knights of Saint John, it was a defence port and jail, before becoming a storeroom in the 1960s for sponge divers. These days it is more of an iconic landmark, a testament to the history of the region and home to the underwater museum displaying old shipwrecks such as the Bronze Age, Uluburun.
The Lycian Way
Lastly, it is worth mentioning the Lycian way of the Mediterranean south-west coast that is home to many ruined cities dating from the Lycian era. The official trekking route outlines a path between all of them and trekkers generally camp out or stay in small pensions along the way.
Given that the estimated time for completion is 3 months, I only know of a few people who have completed it fully. Instead, it is possible to visit places one by one or indeed make a road trip of it by using the D400 coastal road to access the scattered ruins.
Highlighted places to visit include Patara, Xanthos, Letoon, Olympos, Phaseslis, Tlos, Simena Castle, the amphitheatre of Kas and much more. Read more about Turkish history here or browse Yuksel’s website, if you would like to tailor-make or customise a tour to Turkey that makes the most of all historical places and ancient sites to visit.