PHOTOS: Mark Rothschild
History comes alive in sixth most-visited country
As our plane approached the runway in Istanbul, Turkey, a wave of ambivalence permeated my consciousness.
My wife and I planned this trip on and off for three years. We were enthralled with the prospect of seeing Istanbul, Cappadocia and Ephesus. Yet, two questions persisted: Would we be abducted by ISIS and then beheaded? Would we end up in a Turkish prison as happened to Brad Davis in the 1978 movie “Midnight Express?”
I’m happy to report the experience was entirely positive and this Middle Eastern destination should be on every traveler’s short list.
The first stop on our tour was Istanbul, which has prospered over the last decade after withstanding instability wrought by a major earthquake in 1999 followed by the collapse of the Turkish Lira. Walking the streets of Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques to the sounds of the call to prayer from the old city’s minarets is a sensory experience.
Our first stop was the famous Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmet Camii. This structure has beautiful domes, half domes and minarets. Ottoman ruler Ahmet I built it early in the 17th century to compete architecturally with the magnificent Christian church Aya Sofya, also known as Haghia Sofia.
The Aya Sofya was completed in A.D. 537 and became the central church of Christianity until St. Peter’s Basilica was built in the 17th century. Mehmet the Conqueror converted the church to a mosque in 1453. Its innovative architectural form is stunning against the Istanbul skyline.
We next encountered the Yerebatan Sarnici, or Sunken Palace, a massive underground reservoir completed by Emperor Justinian during the sixth century. This structure has 330 marble columns that arise from a fresh water cistern constructed to supply the city in the event of a siege. The Sunken Palace was showcased in the James Bond movie “From Russia with Love.”
The Topkapi Sarayi is a spectacular palace that was once considered the power center of the Ottoman Empire. Home to more than 20 sultans, this enormous complex spreads over the Bosphorus, a strait that forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia. The Topkapi Sarayi was home to 4,000 people (including royal wives, children, concubines and servants) between the 15th and 19th centuries
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is an enormous labyrinth with more than 20 entrances covering 65 streets and nearly 4,000 shops. The Egyptian Bazaar, or Spice Market, with its multiple colors and fragrances, is a short distance away.
Next, we flew to Cappadocia in the Anatolian plains. This area is considered a geological marvel with rock formations known as fairy chimneys and numerous cave houses, many with frescoed walls from the early days of Christianity.
Our next stop was Bodrum on the southwest coast on the Aegean Sea, where we enjoyed a view of the Castle of St. Peter that is very picturesque at sunrise or sunset.
Travelling up the coast, we came to Didyma with its magnificent ruins of the temple of Apollo. This temple rivals the Parthenon in size, measuring 623 feet by 167 feet. The temple was started in 300 B.C. and was continually expanded over the ensuing 500 years.
The highlight of this trip was Ephesus, a truly spectacular ancient city with one of the most complete ruins in the world. Many people think the best examples of Roman ruins are in Italy, but Ephesus represents the most important Greco-Roman city in the eastern Mediterranean. Seeing the remains of the stadium that accommodated more than 70,000 spectators during chariot races and gladiator fights was truly awe-inspiring.
Our last stop on the way to Izmir was Tire (pronounced tee-ray), where a farmer’s market takes place every Tuesday. It was interesting to see how the locals live selling vegetables and handicrafts once a week.
After touring Turkey and speaking with my guides, my advice would be plan a trip to Turkey, the sixth most-visited country in the world. Also, avoid Cobani on the southeast border where ISIS is fighting the Kurds. And to avoid Turkish prison, refrain from bringing contraband across the border as Smith did in “Midnight Express.”