Visitors will enjoy their time in Turkey because the locals are so warm and welcoming. You may even make friends through the most mundane of exchanges. This may just be a ploy to get you to buy something at the major tourist destinations, but in places where foreigners haven’t caused problems in the past, the locals will go out of their way to make you feel welcome.
Modern Turkey’s political system was a bold experiment, largely the brainchild of one man, Kemal Atatürk. He rescued the Turkish state from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and reshaped it into a secular, modern nation with an incredible amount of energy. Some secular Turks are worried about an Islamic theocracy after the AKP (Justice and Development Party) won a record-setting third consecutive election in 2011. The AKP is largely supported by conservative Muslims. But this is highly unlikely in a country that has successfully combined Islam with secularism, parliamentary democracy, and global capitalism for over sixty years and has a multi-party democracy.
Despite government efforts to foster a unified Turkish identity, the country’s people are surprisingly diverse. Muslim Slavs, Greeks, Albanians, Crimean Tatars, Daghestanis, Abkhazians, and Circassians were just some of the many groups that fled to Anatolia as the Ottoman Empire collapsed. There, they became part of a diverse population that already included a sizable Kurdish subset. Recent immigrants from countries once part of the Soviet Union or the Eastern Bloc have ensured that this variety will remain. More than half of Turkey’s population is under the age of 30, with hordes of young people working in coastal resorts and waves of schoolchildren pounding the city streets.
Ancient ruins from the many different civilizations that ruled Turkey before the 12th century (Hittite, Urartian, Phrygian, Greek, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Armeno-Georgian) are a major draw for tourists. Some of these sites, which range from imposing classical cities to hilltop fortresses and out-of-the-way churches, continue to yield fascinating discoveries. Turkey also has many beautiful Islamic monuments and interesting city bazaars that have managed to survive in the face of competition from malls and chain stores. Most coastal resorts are ruined by ugly modern architecture, and it can be challenging to locate a beach that lives up to the tourism board’s claims. The ruined kervansarays, mosques, and castles that dot the Asian landscape of inland Turkey are likely to leave a more lasting impression.
The western region of Turkey is the most prosperous and popular tourist destination. It would take weeks to even begin to explore Istanbul, Turkey’s cultural and economic capital that spans the Bosphorus Strait between the Black and Marmara Seas and was once the seat of an empire. The two former Ottoman capitals, Bursa and Edirne, flank it on either side of the Sea of Marmara, and both are replete with grand architecture and stately air. Gökçeada and Bozcaada, two of Turkey’s Aegean islands, can be found beyond the Dardanelles and their World War I battlefields. These islands are well-known for their beautiful beaches, a strong sense of Greek ethnic identity, and relative quiet (outside of the height of summer).
More to the south, the olive groves and rocky outcrops near Bergama and Ayvalk are quintessential examples of the Classical North Aegean. Izmir is merely a functional introduction to the central and southern Aegean, but ancient Sardis and the old Ottoman princely training ground of Manisa make a fine pair. The ancient Ionian cities of Priene and Didyma, as well as the intriguing ruins of Aphrodisias and Labranda, are frequently overlooked in favor of Ephesus, but the evocative hill towns of Şirince and Birgi should not be overlooked either. Bafa Gölü, a tranquil island dotted with houses; Muğla, a showcase of Ottoman architecture, and Pamukkale, a compelling geological oddity where travertine formations adjoin Roman Hierapolis, are all located inland. While the coastline itself is densely populated, popular resorts like Datça and Bodrum provide peaceful and interesting retreats.
Outside of the enormous Marmaris natural harbor, the Aegean gradually changes into the Mediterranean. In bold Marmaris or more manageable Fethiye, the principal town of the Turquoise Coast, cruises along the coast are popular pastimes, and in Dalyan and Patara, fine beaches stretch out near eerie ancient Lycian tombs. Kaş and Kalkan, further east, are lively resorts where visitors can rest and refuel before continuing to the mountainous interior. Fast-growing Antalya sprawls beyond the relatively untouched Ral beach at ancient Olympos, marking the start of the genuine Mediterranean Coast.
Even though it gets flooded in the summer, its western parts have a lot of sand and archeological sites. Termessos, Perge, Side, and Aspendos are some of the most famous ones. As one travels further from Alanya’s castle, one finds fewer tourists; however, between Silifke and Adana, one can visit the Roman ruins of Uzuncaburç and the romantic offshore fortress of Kzkalesi. The city of Antakya is in the eastern part of Turkey. It is the cultural center of the Arab-influenced Hatay region, which shares a language and style with Syria.
Cappadocia is in the south-central part of Anatolia. It has rock-cut churches, underground cities, and landscapes with tuff pinnacles. Ten days in Kayseri, with its dry, healthful climate, excellent wine, artistic and architectural treasures, and horseback riding or hot-air ballooning, would be plenty of time. Stop in Konya, known for its Selçuk architecture and ties to the Mevlevi dervishes, or the historic lakeside towns of Eirdir and Beyşehir.
The capital city of Turkey, Ankara, is a planned metropolis with a fake Western vibe that reflects the government’s priorities. It is also home to the excellent Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. The odd Aezani Temple, located close by in Kütahya, the Ottoman museum town of Safranbolu, the beautifully decorated early Turkish monuments in Divrii, and the remarkable Hittite sites at Hattuşaş and Alacahöyük are just some of the attractions in the surrounding North Central Anatolia region. Stop in Sivas, Tokat, and Amasya in the Yeşilrmak valley as you make your way north. The oldest and most interesting cities in Anatolia are Sinop, at the country’s northernmost point, and Amasra, on the coast of the Black Sea. After the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, the monasteries of Aya Sofya and Sumela relocated to the legendary city of Trabzon, located east of Sinop.
The drive from Ankara to Sivas will put you on the Euphrates River, which will lead you to the “back half” of Turkey. Erzurum, Turkey’s highest and bleakest major city, is likely the first stop for those traveling through northeastern Anatolia. From here, travelers can access the mild, church-dotted valleys of southern medieval Georgia and the rugged Kaçkar Mountains. Guests flock to Kars primarily to see Ani, the ruins of the medieval Armenian capital, which is located not far away.
The area around the rivers Euphrates and Tigris feel very Middle Eastern. The thriving city of Gaziantep is home to some of the world’s best Roman mosaics, a charming historic district, and some of Turkey’s hottest food. On the other side of the country, biblical Urfa is known for its colorful bazaar and sacred pool, while modern Mardin looks out over the vast Mesopotamian Plain.
Visits to the ancient statues of Nemrut Dağı at sunrise or sunset are the main draw, however. Situated between Mardin and Nemrut Dağı, the bustling, ethnically Kurdish city of Diyarbakir is encircled by walls made of medieval basalt. As one approaches the Iranian border, the landscape becomes more mountainous, and the strangely blue and alkaline Lake Van takes center stage. Near the water, there are many Urartian, Selcuk, and Armenian landmarks. On the Akdamar islet, there is a beautifully restored Armenian church.
The massive, camel-shaped rock dotted with ancient tombs is a landmark of the city of Van on the eastern shore. The fairytale Kurdish castle Hoşap looms beyond Van, and the Ishak Paşa Saray, located just outside Doubeyazit in the shadow of Mount Ararat, is the last remaining structure in Turkey.
Camel rides and photo ops in Pamukkale and Side are two of the many ways that Turkey’s camel population serves as a tourist attraction. In contrast, things weren’t always this way. Camel caravans used to travel all over Anatolia, carrying precious stones, spices, and woven textiles. Before the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, they reached as far north as Bosnia, but the damp central European climate made the animals sick beyond that point.
According to a Muslim legend, animals act proud because they know all one hundred of Allah’s mysterious names, while people only know the usual ninety-nine.
Camel wrestling is a traditional Turkish spectator sport. Large crowds gather all over the western Aegean region to witness the bizarre sight of rutting male camels butting and leaning on each other (their mouths are bound to prevent biting).
The total area of Turkey is a massive 814,578 square kilometers (97 percent in Asia, 3 percent in Europe). The Mediterranean, the Aegean, the Sea of Marmara, and the Black Sea all touch its 8333-kilometer coastline. Many mountains are over 3,000 feet in elevation, with Ararat (Ararat Dag; 5,165 feet) being the tallest. Turkey’s largest lake is Lake Van, and its three longest rivers are the Kzlrmak, Yeşilrmak, and Sakarya, all of which empty into the Black Sea (3713 sq km).
Over ninety-eight percent of the population is Muslim (Sunni or Alevi), with smaller but still present Christian, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and Jewish communities. Commonly spoken languages include standard Turkish, two varieties of Kurdish, Arabic, Laz, Circassian, Albanian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Romany, and Greek. More than half of the country’s people live in its four biggest cities: Istanbul, Ankara (the capital), Izmir, and Adana.
In 2011, Turkey had the world’s sixteenth-largest economy, and it has continued to grow steadily in recent years. The Turkish lira has more than held its own against the major currencies, and inflation has dropped to single digits. Foreign investment has skyrocketed, and major infrastructure projects have been realized at an astonishing rate.
As of 1922, Turkey has been a republic. The president of Turkey is selected by the 550 members of the Grand National Assembly (Büyük Meclis) in Ankara.
The Turkish peninsula serves as a staging area between the storks’ winter home in Africa and their summer home in the Balkans and central Europe, so between April and September, storks are a common sight across the country. Their beaks frequently clatter against each other, making a common noise. It is estimated that 30,000 breeding pairs of storks visit Turkey each year, with many of them using the same nest to raise new generations of the species.
They are rarely killed because they are seen as lucky in Christian and Islamic beliefs and are called “pilgrim birds” in Turkish. Nesting spots for storks include anything from chimneys and minarets to utility poles, and some communities go so far as to construct specialized platforms for the birds.
Modern Turks trace their ancestry back to Turkic pastoralist nomads who hailed from Siberia, China, and Central Asia. These people eventually conquered the Anatolian peninsula and mingled extensively with the region’s already diverse population. Documents from the sixth century BC show that they were a separate group of people. However, it wasn’t until the sixth century AD that the Chinese officially called them “Tu-Keh,” which means “Turks to the West.”
The Turks began moving south and west sometime after the year 1000. Nearly all of them were Muslims by the time they reached Anatolia, the future center of the powerful Ottoman Turkish empire. Connectivity between Turks and other Turkic peoples in Central Asia, the Caucasus, northwest Iran, northern Iraq, southern Russia, and Xinjiang in western China is still strong in terms of ethnicity, language, and culture.
The modern Republic of Turkey uses Turkish as its official language; however, Turkish is not of Indo-European or Semitic origin; rather, it is a member of the Altaic language family, which also includes Japanese, Korean, and Mongolian in addition to the Turkic languages. While the language reforms enacted by Atatürk in the early years of the Turkish Republic and centuries of isolation from ethnic and linguistic cousins in places like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have made it difficult for Turkish Turks to communicate with them, it is still possible. Turks today still identify with their Turkic kin, and the Turkish government is quick to raise a stink when others don’t, like when the Uigur Turk minority in China is treated poorly.