The diverse ancient civilisations of the Middle East have always held great fascinations for me as they have contributed much to the development of mankind. It is the birthplace of three of the world’s major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We had a most memorable two-week holiday in Turkey visiting historical sites and ancient monuments, for which the country is justifiably renowned.
After 4 days in European Istanbul, we crossed the Sea of Marmara to begin our 2000 km tour of Asian Turkey. The best introduction was the historic city of Bursa, which was the first Ottoman capital before 1453. It is especially noted for its majestic mosques and imperial mausoleums, including that of the founder of the Ottoman Dynasty. The most famous is the Grand Mosque. Built in the 14th century, it was the most impressive mosque until the completion of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul in 1616. I felt a sense of reverence and spirituality within its precincts.
A comfortable drive away from Bursa is the famed archaeological site of Pergamum, one of the greatest Hellenic cities of the 3rd century BC. At its heyday, it was a formidable rival of contemporary Athens in Greece and Alexandria in Egypt. Except for the medical centre devoted to the God of Healing, which is on the plain, most of the other important ruins are on the Acropolis (hilltop), occupying a towering position over the modern town of Bergama. Looking down from a vantage point, I was enthralled by the perfect classical lines and the sublime beauty of the ancient Greek architecture and its depth of civilisation as manifested in the remains of the library, the palaces, the spectacularly large theatre, the monumental temple and the much-venerated Altar of Zeus, of which only the foundation is left. The surviving art works were removed long ago by German archaeologists to their homeland.
The prosperous city of Izmir is the birthplace of Homer, the immortal Greek philosopher who wrote the epic work, the Iliad, and one of the progenitors of Western literature. We looked for but were disappointed that there were no relics of him. Nowadays, it is the springboard for visiting the ruined city of Ephesus, reputedly the most renowned archaeological site in Turkey and the high point of any tour there. Originally built about the 10th century BC, the Ephesus ruins date mainly from the Roman era between the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. It was the capital of Roman Asia Minor. At its peak, it had a population of 250,000 and drew visitors from distant Jerusalem and Athens. It was continuously inhabited until the 12th century when it was abandoned due to earthquake destruction. Together with Pompeii of Italy and Petra of Jordan, Ephesus is among the most spectacular and best preserved of the Roman ruins in the world.
We strolled along the grand main street, still lined with what is left of the palace of council chambers, temples, shops and residences, sculptures and fountains, concert hall, Roman baths and even a brothel. Sitting on comfortable ancient lavatories meant for the idle rich, we felt that we were being transported back in time to sample the sophisticated Roman life around 2000 years ago. Among the most imposing architectural jewels still in a good state of preservation are the elegant Celsus Library, the 25,000-seat Great Theatre and the impressive Arcadia Way, with carved marble columns on both sides, leading to the harbour.
A short distance away we came upon the House of Virgin Mary in Ephesus. First discovered in 1891, It is believed, but not widely known, that she was brought there by John, an apostle of Jesus Christ, after the crucifixion of the latter in Jerusalem and spent her last days there. It is now a shrine and attracts many visitors from all over the world. Both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II visited it on their official trips to Turkey. Close by the shrine is a fountain, the water from which is well-known for its healing powers for all sorts of ailments. Like the other visitors, including some in wheel chairs, we ,too, drank the holy water emanating from a nearby spring.
Our next destination was Cappadocia, which has numerous extraordinary rock monasteries and cave dwellings. We explored the Goreme “Open-Air Museum”, which covers a wide area of chapels and cloisters built deep into the rocks. Many were constructed between 8th and 13th centuries by the Greek Orthodox Christians in order to escape religious persecutions on account of doctrinal differences. They have beautiful frescos on their walls and ceilings depicting the Bible stories. Unfortunately, some had been vandalised with graffiti by irresponsible tourists.
I was intriqued by one of the ancient fortified underground cities in Kaymakli near Nevsehir. It was a refuge for the oppressed Greek Orthodox Christians. Built 8 levels underground with narrow winding tunnels linked to other similar caves in the area, there were living quarters for 2000, as well as various facilities for the storage of food and other essentials to withstand a prolonged siege. Some of the passages were so low that we had to bend ourselves, or even crawl, in order to pass. Its entrance could be sealed off from inside to keep invaders out. Even today, the inhabitants there still carry on with the tradition of building their houses adjoining or inside the rocks as their forebears did long ago. I was impressed by the many cave shops, restaurants and factories in this area. The catacomb of cave dwellings and structures are not unlike what you would see in Flintstone films.
The country’s varied landscape alternates between the alluring greenery and the rugged mountain ranges to the desert-like expanses of barren lands. The sight of the Aegean Sea provided a refreshing relief and roused some of our fellow travellers from their intermittent naps. We stopped at several quaint villages, hardly affected by the march of time. We observed, at first hand, their enviable unhurried lifestyle and charming customs evocative of a bygone age. We were treated with genuine warmth by the villagers, and not merely tolerated as camera-happy tourists.
The last leg of our journey was Ankara, the capital of Turkey. En route, we toured a 13th century caravan inn, Agzikarahan, where teams of traders used to stay when journeying to and from China, some 12, 000 km away, travelling along the great Asian overland Silk Road. Starting from Constantinople, they would travel across Anatolia, on to Persia, Central Asia and finished up in China. The two-way trips on camels, including the stay in China, would take between 18 months and 2 years. However, the rewards for such arduous efforts were the realisable huge profits at the journey’s end.
In all the countries that we have visited, Turkey was one of the most stimulating and enjoyable. To have seen Pergamum and Ephesus alone would have amply justified the trip, the rest were plumb bonuses. To maximise the benefits of such a trip, the services of a knowledgeable guide is indispensable. We had an excellent one who regaled us with his impeccable commentary and endless anecdotes.
It is no empty boast when the Turkish Tourism Office here hails their country as “the world’s largest open-air museum”. Its astonishing array of archaeological marvels and the splendidly-preserved national treasures are to be found all over its extensive territory. These are the cumulative contributions of 10 great cultures which have all left their permanent imprints on this truly remarkable land.
Brief History of Turkey:
- Turkey spans two great continents; about 95% of its land mass is in Asia and the rest in Europe.
- Among those who left their indelible marks were the ancient Greeks, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders and the Ottoman Turks.
- The Muslim Turks first came to the peninsula of Anatolia (now Turkey) from Central Asia in the11th century AD in search of a new homeland.
- Despite the determined efforts of the Byzantine and other Christian forces to check their advance into Europe, Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 and ended the Byzantine Empire. It was renamed Istanbul and became the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
- At its peak from the 15th to 16th centuries, it was a world superpower, with extensive colonies in Asia, Europe and Africa.
- Turkey became a republic in 1923 and ushered in an era of modernisation and industrialisation, culminating in its becoming a member of the Organisation of Economic and Cultural Development (OECD).
- It has been making repeated but futile attempts to become a full member of the European Union, but has so far been unsuccessful.
Lam Pin Foo