As a general rule, most museums and sites in Turkey’s ancient cities are closed on Mondays, although there are many exceptions to this rule.
Ancient ruins and architectural heritage
At the crossroads of civilisations, there are an impressive number of ancient ruins in all regions of Turkey.
The Hittites, the first indigenous people to rise to found a state in Anatolia – although they were preceded by a certain Çatalhöyük, the oldest settlement found so far in Turkey – have left evidence of their existence on the ruins of Hattuşaş, their capital.
The ancient Greeks and the Romans who followed them left their mark mainly on the Aegean and the Mediterranean, leaving behind the marble ruins of hundreds of cities, temples and monuments. Some have been largely restored and shine with new splendour, such as Ephesus, as well as many others along the Aegean coast that are on the checklist of most travellers to Turkey, and others that are more obscure and off the beaten track, such as Aphrodisia near Denizli and Aizanoi near Kütahya.
Meanwhile, other indigenous peoples, such as the Lycians, carved beautiful tombs – many of which are quite well preserved and can be seen all over Lycia – for their loved ones who had disappeared on the rocky slopes.
Legendary Troy stands as an example of different civilisations literally living on top of each other. While what can be seen today is clearly Hellenistic, the site has its roots as Hittite Wilusa, and was then rebuilt many times by the ancient Greeks.
Perhaps the most unique “architectural” heritage in the country, some of the caves and churches in Cappadocia, carved out of “fairy chimneys” and underground cities (literally!), date back to the first Christians hiding from persecution.
The Romans’ successors, the Byzantines, innovated with more ambitious projects, culminating in the great St. Sophia of Istanbul, built in 537, which was the largest cathedral in the world for almost a thousand years. While one or two itinerant monasteries from this period can be found in almost every region of the country, most of the Byzantine heritage still intact today is in the Marmara region, especially in Istanbul, and in the area around Trabzon in the far northeast, which was the domain of the Empire of Trebizond, a shattered Byzantine state that survived the fall of Constantinople for about ten years.
The Seljuks, the very first Turkish state to be founded in Asia Minor, built most of their monuments – which include large majestic portals and very intricate masonry reminiscent of landmarks in some parts of Asia – in the major centres of the time in eastern and central Anatolia, especially Konya, their capital.
The Ottomans, who saw themselves as a Balkan state until their demise, built most of their monuments in the Balkans and the natural extension of the Balkans into what is now the Turkish-Moroccan region, as did the Byzantines, who inspired the Ottomans in many ways. Most of the earliest Ottoman monuments were built in Bursa, where Byzantine and Seljuk influences are hardly to be found. Later, when the dynasty came to Europe, some of the main monuments in Edirne show a kind of “transitional” and rather experimental style. It was only after the fall of Constantinople that the Ottomans adopted Byzantine architecture almost to scale, with some adaptations. However, Ottoman imperial architecture probably reached its peak not in Istanbul, but in Edirne – in the form of the Selimiye Mosque, the work of Sinan, the great Ottoman master builder of the 16th century.
The 19th century brought back Greek and Roman tastes in architectural styles, so there was a great explosion of neoclassical architecture, which was as fashionable in Turkey as it was in the rest of the world at the time. The Galata side of Istanbul, Izmir (most of which was unfortunately lost in the great fire of 1922) and many towns along the coast, of which Ayvalık is one of the most important and best preserved examples, quickly filled with elegant neoclassical buildings. At the same time, residents of the regions further inland preferred the pleasant, more traditional and less pretentious whitewashed half-timbered houses that make up picturesque towns such as Safranbolu, Beypazarı and Şirince in the north, centre and west of the country respectively. The beautiful and impressive wooden houses in the coastal districts and islands of Istanbul were also built at this time. Other contemporary trends of the time, such as Baroque and Rococo, did not make much headway in Turkey, although there were some experiments in combining them in Islamic architecture, as can be seen in the Ortaköy Mosque on the banks of the Bosphorus and a few others.
The further east you go, the more the landscape changes and so does the architectural heritage. In the remote valleys and hills of eastern Karadeniz and eastern Anatolia are numerous medieval Georgian and Armenian churches and castles, some of which are well preserved, but not all have been so lucky. The Armenian cathedral on Akdamar Island in Lake Van and the medieval castle of Ani are halfway between perfect preservation and total destruction, but both are must-sees if you’ve made your way east. For a change, Southeast Anatolia has more Middle Eastern architecture, with vaulted courtyards and an intense use of yellow stone with very exquisite brickwork. It is best seen in Urfa and especially in nearby Mardin and Midyat.
Being at the crossroads of civilisations also means being the battleground of civilisations more often than not. It is therefore not surprising that so many castles and citadels dot the landscape, both in the cities and in the countryside, on the coasts and inland. Most of the castles built at different times in history are now the main attractions of the towns on which they stand.
The 20th century was not kind to Turkish cities. Due to the pressure of high rates of migration from the countryside to the cities, many historic neighbourhoods were razed to the ground in favour of soulless (and usually boring and ugly) apartment buildings, and the suburbs of the big cities were turned into slums. There is no real jewel in the name of modern architecture in Turkey. Steel and glass skyscrapers, on the other hand, are now slowly and sparsely appearing in the big cities. One example where they are condensing into a skyline is the business district of Istanbul, although this is hardly impressive compared to the major metropolises of the world known for their skyscraper-filled skylines.
- Along the coast of the Troads – ancient legends mingle with beautiful landscapes and the deep blue Aegean Sea.
- The Lycian Way – walk along the most remote part of the country’s Mediterranean coast, past ancient towns, forgotten hamlets and balsam pine forests.