Turkey 2017 Text and Photos: Tony Steurer Istanbul – Eskisehir – Kütahya – Izmir – Selcuk – Ephesus – Bergama – Dardanelles – Gelibulu /Gallipoli – Edirne – Safranbolu
Summertime and hardly anyone travels here although the Turkish Lira is cheap as never before. The country is friendly and safe but anti-Erdogan media reports in Western Europe kept the crowds away. On this tour I crossed a few check points, and once had to show my passport twice on the bus during police controls. When entering metro stations or bigger hotels metal detectors are standard, but no military presence. Istanbul continues to grow, lots of new high rise construction, the metro system is constantly being expanded. The tourism boom of recent years has over-commercialised large parts of the the old town and consequently has killed the magical historic atmosphere. Hence, despite the current absence of any tourists I decided to spend hardly any time there. I am travelling along the new eight-lane highway in the far north of the city, near the Black Sea, which opened a year ago. Built in just three years with three dozen bridges with spans of up to 1,000 metres, and some tunnels through a mountainous area with dense forests.
This engineering feat includes the third bridge across the Bosporus, Yavuz Sultan Selim, a hanging cable-stayed bridge with two pylons each 320 metres high (a world record), the length being 2,164 metres. The carriage width is another world record with 59 metres; the cost of the bridge alone 3,5 bn EUR. More than 6,500 construction workers were employed. Toll for the bus is 14 EUR, mostly trucks on the new highway. The time gain seems to outweigh the extra cost. However, shortly after leaving the highway the bus is stuck again in endless suburbs of this megacity of 15 million people.
Germyan Street, Kütahya Old Town
In Atasehir, a booming business and residential district, I visit the water gardens; basically an innovative shopping mall with a large pool, trick fountains, several open terraced floors with shops and restaurants intertwined, surrounded by ultramodern residential towers, mostly around 200 metres high. Tried the new high speed train east, departing from Pendik. To get there I travel for an hour on the sparkling metro. In 2018, this train will depart from Haydarpasa station, much closer to the city centre.
Modern train connecting to Ankara, travels up to 250 km/h, the actual speed is shown continuously inside the waggons. Tickets cost about 8 EUR including seat reservation and Wi-Fi. Departure bang on time and 2½ hours later I arrive in Eskisehir (’old city’), founded in the first millennium BC by the Phrygians. The bus would have taken twice as long. A modern city, more than 700 000 inhabitants. A tram line crosses the town, inside people stand neck to neck. A very large pedestrian area (Inönü Cadd), countless shops. The old town hugs a slope, a variety of active glass blowers and a meerschaum museum. Some 19th century houses, called Odun Pazari, mostly in bad condition. Plus a variety of mosques, wells, and tea houses. Parallel to the pedestrian area a long stretched elevated garden with pocket parks, seating and water pools is being built. The Porsuk Cayi river flows right through. An open air museum for airplanes in a park-like setting is run by the university, mostly military planes from 1940-70.
A one-hour bus ride on very good roads (4 EUR, like everywhere in Turkey, on most modern buses, coffee and biscuits are included in the price) to Kütahya (180 000 inhabitants, 1,200 metres altitude). Canyons and dams along the way. Towering above the city is a byzantine fort which was modernised by Seljuk dynasty and then by the Ottomans. Of the original 72 towers, about 30 remain. Nice view from above, warm winds. In the old city the impressive Ulu Camii mosque, built between 1381 and 1401. Next is the art museum which houses the amazingly well preserved amazon sarcophagus from the nearby Phrygian settlement of Aizanoi (founded 3000 years BC), which is decorated with high reliefs, all scenes of wars fought between Greeks and Amazons. Plus more finds from the region, for instance up to 7,000 year-old clay pots.
Germyan street has some remarkable well restored 19th century houses. I get to know the teacher and artist Mehmet Gursoy has been reviving the age-old technique of Islamic tile painting since 1972. UNESCO has decorated him a living culture heritage, his house is a museum cum shop on umpteen floors. He has arranged numerous international exhibitions, from Tokyo to Washington DC, a dozen alone in Germany. Right now he is busy with an order from the emir of Qatar. Before that, he had decorated two private hammams for Arab clients based in London. Took him seven months.
5½ hours bus ride to Izmir (about 9 EUR), through the Anatolian highlands: pine forests, large vineyards, olives, tomatoes, apricots, figs. Lots of windmills but I haven’t seen any solar farms. Izmir (more than 4.5 million inhabitants), formerly Smyrna, earliest settlements 8,500 years ago. Today the third biggest city and very fast growing: 50% of the population is younger than 30 years. A massive fire destroyed large parts of the place in 1922, so historical sightseeing is limited: The world’s biggest agora, the old bazar, and a few mosques. A pretty promenade along the bay, old clock tower, large pier built into the sea with plenty of restaurants, shops, and a cinema. Only one metro line so far, traffic appears a bit chaotic. Huge concrete factories on the edge of town town, dusty air. A modern business district with futuristic towers. Some of the residential areas that cover the slopes of the coastal mountains remind me of Latin American favelas. The locals advise against visiting the old fort high up the mountain for safety reasons. Suburbs stretch many miles along the coastline.
With a minibus/collective taxi to Selcuk (38,000 inhabitants): the highlight is a byzantine fort, completely preserved. The Isa Bey mosque dates back to 1375; ancient aqueduct in the old town. Only one column of the Artemis temple, once famed as one of the seven wonders of the world, has survived the onslaught of time.
Starting point for Ephesus (UNESCO site): 2,000 years ago this city had 200,000 inhabitants and was situated on the seashore. Around that time the massive basilica (130 by 25 metres) and the amphitheatre holding 25, 000 seats were erected. In 262 AD Ephesus was devastated by a big quake. English archaeologists began excavations in the 19th century, followed by Austrians. A partial redevelopment took place. Most ruins visible today date from the first and second century. The Celsus Bibliotheque is the most famous sight (originally this was the world’s third biggest after Alexandria and Pergamon). Along marble streets, a large market square, monumental wells, latrines, various temples, thermal baths, a theatre, and brothels. The spectacular terraced houses were equipped with mosaic floors and wall paintings.
Trajan Temple, Pergamon
About three hours north lies Bergama, with just a bus change in Izmir. The ruins of antique Pergamon (UNESCO site) stretch across a mountain. This was the capital of the namesake kingdom during Hellenistic times some 2,200 years ago. Later when the Romans took over, the city had 200,000 inhabitants. Big town walls and a 45 km long water supply with pressure reservoirs and aqueducts, which can still be seen today. The city’s decline came with a series of earthquakes, and the place did not particularly strive under the Goths and later the Osmans either. Today’s city is partly built over the remains of the old one.
Early in the morning I walk 3 km up the hill but don’t get far as a chap called Ismail who has lived in Vienna for a long time stops to offer me a ride. His German is perfect, and he gives me an insight into the carpet weaving history in Bergama which has collapsed due to lack of demand from Europe. In the evening, I visit him in his carpet shop. Years ago he bought the carpet inventory of some local cooperatives, who were already in decline. He tells me that for the past two years only tourists from China, Korea and Russia are coming, no more western Europeans. Tourist guides are looking for other jobs, some hotels stand empty. Up on the mountain the steepest amphitheatre of the antique world with some 10,000 seats. The mighty Trajan temple rests on a massive base. The world famous Pergamon altar can be seen in Berlin’s outstanding Pergamon museum. Unfortunately for the locals, only the basis of the altar remains here.
About 200 metre downhill is the huge temple of Demeter and the biggest gymnasium of the Roman world which consisted of two parts, separated by a 212 metre long street tunnel. Mosaics and wall paintings can be seen in houses Z and Attalus. Down in modern Bergama the gigantic brick temple of the Egyptian gods Serapis, also known as red basilica. More Roman bridges, theatres, and a stadium. To sum up, this is an unbelievable rich place to satisfy any appetite for history. In my hotel I meet Timujin, a Turkish jazz musician living in New York City. Currently he is on a month-long assignment, sponsored by Bergama city, to broaden the horizons of local musicians and scholars, which also includes public concerts. He thinks that local music is still very traditional.
Selimiye Mosque, Edirne
I travel on via Edremit, Troja and Assos, taking a ferry in Cannakale across the Dardanelles. The narrowest points here, separating Asian Turkey from its European counterpart remind me of the Panama Canal (without the locks) with very busy ship traffic all day long. Historic grounds with picturesque fort at Kilitbahir. Big cemeteries along the way: in World War I, Australians and New Zealanders fought a brutal and static battle against the Turkish army; about 100,000 soldiers perished. Commemorated every year on ANZAC day, April 25th.
Beach day in Gelibulu (formerly Gallipoli) on the European side. A large sandy bay, heavy ship traffic. Light houses mark their routes. The local bus driver refuses repeatedly to accept my fare, maybe it’s free?
Inside Üc Serefeli Mosque, Edirne
North to Edirne, the Aegean Sea to my left in a shiny deep blue, the Dardanelles to my right. Amazing peninsula. Sunflower fields as far I can see, the corn just gets harvested. Edirne (formerly Hadrianopolis, later Osman capital) is a very ancient city. In the evening I get to know a law student who helps out in his father’s shop. He offers me tea and we explore the depths of our language barriers. The beautiful archaeological museum displays findings from Bronze to Osman times. Plus old kilim rugs, petrified mammoth bones, contents of various graves and one of formerly 165 dolmen megalithic tombs, which were found in the area. 450 year old Selimye mosque (UNESCO site) is on a par with Istanbul’s great mosques: four minarets, each 70 metres high. Through a connected tunnel I can walk into one of the covered bazars. Nearby stands the even older Ulu Camii mosque with stunning interiors. The Osman sultans outfitted their capital with splendid buildings: The reddish Üc Serefeli mosque features a mighty main and six smaller cupolas. Several Roman bridges across the Tunca Nehri river are still in use today. Three covered bazars from the 16th century are still in use. Alipasa bazar is 270 metres long, one of the biggest in Turkey. Plus a variety of wooden Osman houses, a very large caravanserai (traditional roadside inn) and an inviting pedestrian zone. Signposts for Bulgaristan (i.e. Bulgaria; the border is just 4 km away) and Yunanistan (i.e. Greece, 20 km).
Roman Bridge, Edirne
The modern bus station way out of town, as always; huge university campus along the way. I am travelling a couple of hours east. I spent a night in Bolu, brand new hotel near the bus station. Next morning through the mountains via Karabük (huge steel mill, heavy air pollution in the area, apparently all coal-fired). Nearby Safranbolu (UNESCO site), on the steep slopes of several gorges. Around 1,500 protected historical timber-framed houses. Many of them now housing a konak (hotel/pension) and well preserved. Narrow alleys; I stay in a 200 year old building with lots of original period features. In the village centre the Köprölü Mehmet Pasha mosque from 1661. Nearby the remarkable Cinci Inn, a caravanserai on the Silk Road (built between 1640 and 1648, today a hotel with 65 beds). Impressive historic hammam next door. The ‘castle’ was built in 1906 on a hill, now a museum.
Safranbolu, as the name correctly suggests, is the country’s saffron growing centre and many products on the market contain this spice. Some remnants of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ here: alleys with blacksmiths (offering everyday items as well as tourist kitsch), steep old cobblestone plaster, colourful artsy shops and overgrown tea houses. Tourism is predominantly domestic. At night-time I count four live bands playing in cafes or public squares with some people dancing, until around 11 pm. About 200 metres higher sits the newer town, another 150 metres up is residential Baglar. Bus back to Istanbul (6½ hours, about 16 EUR).