Where can you walk in the footsteps of Cleopatra? In the ancient city of Ephesus! Yes, we are here in Turkey roaming the roads of the ancient realm. Here’s some trivia: did you know that tulips were originally from Turkey? It’s true – the Turks sent them to Holland in the 16th century where they have thrived to this day. Win a bet with that one why don’t you? And tulips are just one of the many Turkish delights visitors experience in this fascinating country. Everything from mosques and carpets, to kabobs and cappadocia! There’s so much to see and do here, and I can’t wait to show it to you!
But wait – more trivia –Turkey is actually a land bridge between two continents, Europe and Asia! Turkey is basically divided by the Bosporus Strait, and connected by the bridge in Istanbul! One side’s Europe, and the other side’s Asia!
Throughout history, empire after empire has battled for control of Turkey, from the Roman and the Byzantine to the magnificent Ottoman Empire. Each of these dynamic influences has helped create Turkey’s historic treasures: its diverse culture and the amazing people we see here today. But in spite of all the battles, many ancient sites and ruins have stood the test of time, remaining much the same to today.
One of the most fascinating is Ephesus, a centuries old Greek and Roman port city, located just outside Izmir, just off the coast of the Aegean Sea. According to legend, it was founded in the 11th century BC by Ionian Greeks. In 334 BC, Alexander the Great captured Ephesus, and it flourished under his rule. In later years, this former harbor was the largest and most important Roman City in western Asia, or Anatolia, where Christianity was quickly spreading. So wear your walking shoes and tread lightly, for this is holy ground. It was here that the Apostle Paul strengthened a Christian congregation in the 1st Century AD.
The first main street established in Ephesus was Cretes, covered in marble slabs that still survive today. Cretes was once lined with expensive shops starting at the Heracles Gate, and it leads to one of the most beautifully restored buildings here, the Hadrian Temple, built in 138 AD. Follow the marble of Cretes to the money spot, the 2nd Century, Celsus Library, the 3rd largest library in the ancient world. Ephesus is so fantastic. But, as in any great place, there’s good news and bad news. What do you want first? Okay, the bad news: it’s about a mile from the entrance to the exit, and you’re going to have to walk it. The stones are really rough, it’s uneven, and you’ll get out of breath a little bit. But, the good news: it’s downhill all the way. You can take it nice and slow, so you aren’t totally wiped out when you come to the end.
You could easily spend days exploring everything here, but I found the little things the most interesting. The carvings were the billboards of the day, and some are absolutely amazing. Here you’ll see Sophia, the Goddess of Wisdom. She’s almost perfectly intact. And, don’t miss the brothel! It’s just right of the library, marked by ancient graffiti. In fact, before all the tourists arrived, visiting sailors made this quite a popular spot. Not to mention a secret passageway once connected it to the library, so men could say they were going to do a little reading and enjoy other Turkish delights! Hmmm…I wonder how Sophia felt about that?
But wait…there’s one spot in Ephesus that every visitor takes a photo of: the Latrina! Yep, it’s the most popular attraction at Ephesus. It’s an ancient Roman men’s room. What happened is, the aristocratic men would come in and they would have a servant who would sit down and warm up the seat for them. Okay, he’d sit there and it would get all warm and he’d go, “Master, your seat is ready!” and then the master would sit down. When he was finished, there was water running through the troughs here, and he would use it to clean himself. They would all just sit here and converse, there was no divider between them. They would drink wine and listen to music . . . how civilized!
Next, leave the Latrina, and continue down Marble Street, where Cleopatra and Marc Anthony once walked (totally incredible)! You’ll soon come to the Agora, the triple arches of the Mazaeus and Mithridates Gateleadingin to the majestic grand theater – capacity 25,000 people! This Greco-Roman style theater is still in use today – Elton John, Sting, the late Ray Charles, Joan Baez – they’ve all performed on this ancient stage!
So, what happened to this glorious old city, you ask? Well, the Goths sacked it in 262, destroying Ephesus, and its crowning glory, one of the Seven Wonders of Antiquity: the Temple of Artemis. Although the city was rebuilt, Ephesus had lost its original splendor. That, and after a few hundred years, the Aegean Sea had receded, so the city was no longer a usable port. Today, the sea is over a mile away. As a result, after the 14th century, Ephesus was totally abandoned.
Then, viola, it was rediscovered in the 19th century, and excavations continue with much more yet to be uncovered. It is an archaeologist’s Shangri-La. People don’t realize how many archeological sites there are here from the Romans and the Greeks. There are many, many, many, many more Greek ruins in Turkey than there are in Greece and the same for the Roman ruins, there are more here than in Italy or Spain put together! So when people say, “Well, what’s in Turkey?” You’ve got a great answer: “Turkey is the most historic country on this planet, period.”
To get a taste of a modern Turkish port city, also filled with history, there’s nothing like Istanbul, once known as Constantinople. So, how many days should you spend in Turkey? Just think, Turkey is about 10% larger than Texas and full of an incredible amount of history. The tour guides say a minimum two weeks. How many days in Istanbul? At least three, if not five days. So, if you’re operating on a limited time schedule, make Istanbul your base. It’s known for its beauty, surrounded on three sides by water…but it’s especially known for its religious and historic sites – mainly, the mosques. Before you go in, you’ll take your shoes off and put them on the rack outside (or take a plastic bag along to carry them with you). Now, if you don’t have a headscarf, they have some you can borrow. They’re all clean – they’ve got a whole cabinet of them just beside the entrance. But, out of respect, you need to cover your head, especially during prayer time. So be sure and watch others entering the mosques to be sure what to do.
The world’s most treasured mosques are found in Istanbul. Many are now museums, and, although they’re still sites of worship, headscarves aren’t always necessary. This is the case with Istanbul’s masterpiece of architecture, the Hagia Sophia. Originally built as a Christian church in 532 AD, it was the largest church of the Christian world at that time. It was converted into a mosque in 1453, after the Ottoman Turks conquered Istanbul. The conversion helped save the then crumbling exterior, which was restored, but even today, it’s the interior that’s truly remarkable. Rich with marble pillars, gold mosaics, and even a wishing column for visitors to wish for their hearts’ desires. I wish . . . Oops, I can’t tell you my wish, can I? It might not come true!
Turkey’s beauty and her historical sites have long attracted visitors from around the world, but this amazing country is finally getting the word out, drawing families, food connoisseurs, and shoppers looking for bargains! And wait ‘til you experience the shopping! Carpets and textiles to die for… are two of Turkey’s famous exports. One thing to shop for here is leather. Not your average, everyday leather, but something they call silk leather. Well known in the Italian fashion industry, it’s manufactured right here in the seaside resort town of Kusadasi, Turkey. Silk leather is the purest, softest, lightest and the strongest skin in the world, or so the natives say. They’re right! Just imagine the softness of silk fused with the strength and suppleness of lambskin, but there’s more to it than that. Besides the lightness, what else makes it so special? You can actually wash it! Think of the dry cleaning savings alone! Seeing is believing, and here in Turkey, they love to put on a show. They use the latest technology on silk leather which means it’s a magic leather, but you’ll have to experience that magic for yourself to get the gist.
Whether you’re traveling to Istanbul or further south to Kusadasi, the country of Turkey is sure to make an impression. For a full-on sensory experience check out the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul! The sights, the sounds, and, oh yes, the smells! Ahh, I wish we had smell-a-vision for the scrumptious fragrances here in the spice market. There’re so many different things to see – there are apricots and walnuts, and they have all the different kinds of peppers. Then, there’s something you’ll only see in Turkey – dried mulberries. There’re raisins, okra, pepper – this is interesting! In the wintertime, they take the dried eggplant and they stuff it with rice and they bake it in the oven. I wish I knew what some of these spices are called they just all smell so good! Just imagine what the food would taste like with a sprinkle of this or that.
You’ve definitely gotta check out this spice bazaar – it’s one of a kind. This market is one of the oldest and largest covered shopping markets in Turkey. It’s also called the Egyptian Bazaar because many of the spices were imported through Egypt during the Ottoman Empire. The spices here are simply the best and they make great souvenirs. Reasonably priced, lightweight, and a great way to bring the flavor of Turkey home to your kitchen! Don’t be afraid to ask questions – a lot of the spices may be unfamiliar, but most of the vendors speak English.
And speaking of spices…there is one thing you’ll definitely enjoy trying: traditional Turkish cuisine! The food is fantastic here. I bet you’ve had a lot of the cuisine from Turkey but you didn’t even know it, for example, shish-kabob. Chicken on a skewer. But here, oh, it’s so much better, marinated in these fantastic spices from the spice market and cooked over an open flame from charcoal. Oh – it’s so good. There are vendors with the chicken and just across you’ll find dona kabob, which is like lamb and beef on a skewer. You’ve probably had, like a gyro, where they slice the meat off the skewer, and they put in it a piece of pita bread and roll it up. The cuisine here is a blend of the different cultures that have occupied this amazing country. Most of the spices and foods used in the preparation of Turkish meals are all “home grown” or grown by traditional methods. Because of this, Turkish cuisine is said to have a very pure and unprocessed quality. It’s totally authentic, and you won’t be disappointed.
Once you’ve shopped and dined in the ancient land of sultans, you’ll want a nice to place to lay your turban. Istanbul is famous for its luxurious hotels that combine modern amenities with traditional culture. But the one that I found particularly lovely is ideally located near the ancient city of Ephesus in Kusadasi. The Korumar Hotel Deluxe, nestled in a beautiful bay on the coast of the Aegean Sea, offers amenities for the whole family. From beautiful rooms with spectacular views and private beaches, to a gorgeous outdoor pool overlooking the sea, the kids will just love it! For the adults, the Korumar offers traditional Turkish hammams, or Turkish baths. This is a cleansing ceremony, where you’re scrubbed within an inch of your life, an experience not for the faint of heart!
Many people are surprised at how prominent Turkey was in the history of Christianity. It’s here, near the ancient city of Ephesus, that you can visit the tiny rock dwelling where the Virgin Mary reportedly spent her final days. As no video cameras are allowed, a picture will have to tell a thousand words! This incredible little house was discovered in 1812 by a group of German monks, led by a German nun who saw it in a vision. Documented as authentic, the first meter of the foundation from the 1st century AD, marked by a faint red line easily spotted as you walk. The spring that runs under the house is said to have healing properties, and it’s holy water now runs from three fountains just below. Bring a bottle to fill…light a candle….and write a prayer to tie on the prayer wall for someone you love. A special prayer in a very special place in history. Want a cool remembrance? Tiny bottles filled with holy water are sold for donations and make lovely take home gifts.
The city of Istanbul will be your starting and ending point in Turkey, but before you leave, you have to spend a little time on the water! The Bosporus Strait, one of the busiest waterways in Europe…or is that Asia? Dividing Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul. Between two continents! You can run from one continent to another with a few short steps, what fun! Wow, Asia! Wow! Europe! I’ve always wanted to do that, and I am sure you’ll do it, too!
In a land of experiences, you will definitely have a very good time here. Turkey is a lovely country, it’s an interesting country. It always keeps me interested. And it’s exciting for the ancient history, the cultural blend of traditions—you see that in the carpets, you see it in the landscape, and you also see it in the people and folklore, it’s quite wonderful. So, on the Laura McKenzie scale of 1-10, I’d give Turkey a: 9 for sights & attractions 8 for hotels 8 for food, and a 9 for shopping!
Would I come back? I think I’m just getting started! You bet I would. If nothing more than to gather more of those aromatic spices in the bazaar and to see what new antiquities they have uncovered. Not to mention a massage at a hammam and a stroll along the water eating a dona kabob. Definitely not something we can do in Los Angeles!