Throughout its long history spanning over 10,000 years Anatolia, the land that is now Turkey has been the birthplace of many great civilisations and empires all of which have left their mark in unique ways. From the Neolithic site of Çatal Höyük, to well-preserved ancient Greek and Roman ruins, to Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques, the layers of history in Turkey have left behind a stunning architectural, archaeological and religious legacy. Visitors can explore the area’s ancient history at a myriad of archaeological sites and in Turkey’s many museums.
Anatolia, the land that makes up most of modern-day Turkey, was home to some of the earth’s oldest known settled civilizations—not surprising, given that the region lies alongside Mesopotamia, considered the “cradle of civilization.” Çatal Höyük, one of the oldest human settlements in the world (ca. 7000 BC), is known for its unique findings, including the remains of adobe houses, murals, and female figurines which may indicate prehistoric mother-goddess worship. The site is located near the modern-day city of Konya (ancient Iconium) and is open year-round; summer is the most exciting time to visit, as visitors can watch archaeologists at work excavating the site.
Some of the best-preserved Greek and Roman ruins are scattered throughout south-western Turkey—indeed, there are more in Turkey than in Italy or Greece—and visitors can wander through their ancient theatres, stadiums, temples, and streets, as the Romans had had a presence in Asian minor, or modern-day Turkey, for close on 1500 years. Ephesus, Turkey’s most-visited archaeological site, is a place where visitors can ‘soak up’ history as they literally walk in the footsteps of the Romans. It boasts the largest cluster of Roman ruins in the eastern Mediterranean and though only an estimated 15% of the site has been excavated, it never ceases to impress visitors. The 2nd-century AD Library of Celsus and the theatre are particularly noteworthy.
Also popular with sightseers are the celebrated city of Troy; Pergamum (modern-day Bergama), which was one of the most important Roman cities in Anatolia; Aspendos, known for its well-preserved Roman theatre, which hosts the annual Aspendos International Ballet and Opera Festival; Olympos, with scenic ruins that peak out from foliage along a shaded stream; and many other sites.
Two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were situated in what is now Turkey, although sadly neither of them has survived to the present day – the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. The Temple of Artemis, located a short distance from Ephesus, was once an architectural masterpiece. Sadly, the temple did not survive to modern times and today it is marked by just one column, so visitors have to use their imagination to bring the place to life. The Halicarnassus Mausoleum, in modern-day Bodrum (ancient Halicarnassus), was built by the Carian queen Artemisia in the 4th century BC to commemorate her husband Maussollos. Most of the tomb was destroyed over the ages, and today the site consists of a few remains and a museum.
The Hittite capital Hattuşa is another significant ancient site. The Hittites, contemporary with the ancient Egyptians, established the first large-scale empire in Anatolia (2nd millennium BC), with a complex legal code and distinctive art. Hattuşa and its nearby temple site Yazılıkaya, in the modern-day region of Çorum north-east of Ankara, are UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Hittites ruled much of Asia Minor for half a millennium, their empire reaching its peak around 1200BC. Excavated finds, including hefty stone tablets with Hittite script, can be seen at the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations in Ankara which also exhibits items from Catalhoyuk, Turkey’s most important Neolithic and Bronze Age site.
Nemrut Dağı (Mt. Nemrut), in south-eastern Turkey, is another World Heritage site, famous for the enormous stone heads located high atop this mountain. The heads, and the huge stone statues from which they have fallen, were part of a tomb and temple complex built in the first century AD for Antiochus I, emperor of the Commagene kingdom.
Ancient times aside, Turkey has been home to other great empires that have shaped history, most importantly the Byzantines and Ottomans. Formerly a Byzantine church, the Kariye Museum, has some of the finest mosaics and frescoes in the world while Valens Aqueduct which once carried water for the Byzantines still has a commanding presence. More Byzantine masterpieces in the form of paintings can be seen 800km or so away in the hundreds of cave churches in Goreme.
When the Ottomans rolled into Istanbul in the 15th century, they took the capital of the eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium), Constantinople as their own in 1453, renaming the city Istanbul. Remarkable monuments and architecture still remain today from the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. Mimar Sinan, the great Ottoman court architect, transformed the skyline of many of the empire’s great cities including Istanbul and to its west, Edirne. His notable works in Istanbul include the Suleymaniye Mosque complex and the Rustem Pasha mosque and in Edirne the monumental Selimiye mosque which the architect regarded as his masterpiece.
A stroll through the Sultanahmet district offers visitors over a thousand years of history in just minutes, highlights of which include the famous Hagia Sophia, which was the largest building in the world for a thousand years after its construction in 532AD and still impresses by its scale; as well as the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii) and Topkapı Palace, the residence of the Ottoman sultans until the 19th century. The baroque Dolmabahce Palace that the sultanate moved to later in the 19th century is a total contrast with its hundreds of lavishly furnished rooms.
Other modern cities in Turkey also have deep historical roots, such as Konya, which was for a time during the 12th and 13th centuries the capital of the pre-Ottoman Seljuk Empire; and Bursa, the first capital of the Ottoman Empire before Istanbul, and home to fine mosques and tombs dating to the 14th century, including most notably the Yesil Cami (Green Mosque) and the Muradiye mosque complex.
Turkey in its present-day form was the vision of Ataturk (‘Father of the Turks’), warrior turned leader of a people, who established a homeland for the Turkish people after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War. It is no exaggeration to say that he set in train a cultural revolution which saw the adoption of a secular democracy, new alphabet and modern dress in a bold look to the West.