Istanbul and Beyond
Turkey’s Cultural Crossroads
By Narom Chea & Doris
Turkey is at the crossroads of Western Asia and Southeastern Europe. Its 6,500 years of history have been influenced by cultural connections with the Ancient Greek, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires. A fusion of the Asian, African and European cultures and featuring diverse landscapes, historic landmarks, intriguing cultural practices, and interesting art, Turkey is famed for being a fascinating destination.
It is surrounded by seas on three sides: the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Its largest city and port is Istanbul, a cosmopolitan metropolis straddling the Bosporus Strait. Over its thousands of years of history, Istanbul has served as the capital of both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, and was sought after by competing powers.
Embrace Two Worlds
Connecting the European and Asian sides of Istanbul is the Bosporus Bridge. The coasts on either side are lined with striking architecture. Crossing the bridge gives one the chance to exist right where two worlds intersect, and embrace both.
There are fewer attractions on the Asian side of Istanbul though it is less hurried, greener and cleaner. Most travelers prefer the livelier European region. The famous Galata Bridge that spans the Golden Horn is a symbolic link between past and present. It is a lovely respite from the crowded Egyptian Spice Market and New Mosque. With mosques and buildings silhouetted against a soft red-pink sky, fishermen dotting the coastlines and seagulls overhead, the city is both peaceful and bustling.
The Past in the Present
Hagia Sophia is a famous Byzantine structure in the Old Town of Istanbul. Its name comes from the Greek for “Holy Wisdom.” Once a church, then a mosque, and now a museum,it exemplifies the harmonious coexistence of Christianity and Islam. Built in 537 CE and featuring a massive dome, the Hagia Sophia was a wonder of its time and is considered to have changed the history of architecture.
Standing on the opposite side is Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque due to the more than 20,000 handmade blue Iznik tiles adorning its interior walls. The sacred silence of this majestic mosque draws endless streams of devotees and travelers daily. When viewed from above the central dome, four smaller domes below resemble a beautiful flower. The Blue Mosque is the only mosque in Istanbul with six minarets, inspiring all who look upon it with its sense of reaching Heavenward.
Topkapi Palace, a large royal palace complex of the Ottoman Empire, is now a museum open to the public. Inside is a large display of the imperial treasures owned by Ottoman sultans, including European porcelains and glasses, Chinese and Japanese porcelains, Istanbul glassware and porcelains, copper and goldplate copper kitchen utensils, weapons and arms, gold and diamonds, holy relics, paintings, and many other collections.
Construction of what would later become the Grand Bazaar began in 1455. It is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. Consisting of 61 streets, it has over 4,000 shops. Up to 400,000 people visit the market daily, and in 2014 it was listed as the most-visited tourist attraction, with an astonishing 91,250,000 visitors that year.
The market features many local handicrafts which reflect local customs. Here visitors can find circular transparent blue amulets. Such an amulet, called a nazar, is typically fashioned of handmade glass featuring concentric circles or teardrop shapes in dark blue, white, light blue, and black. A nazar is said to protect its wearer from bad luck and ward off the “evil eye,” and is a legacy of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
Cappadocia’s unique natural phenomena were sculpted by millions of years of wind and rain eroding the soft volcanic rock.
Natural Wonders in the Heartland
Cappadocia is located on the Central Anatolian plateau in Turkey’s heartland. It is known for its natural wonders, in particular fairy chimneys, which are tall spires of rock that protrude from the bottom of a badland or arid drainage basin. Cappadocia’s unique natural phenomena were sculpted by millions of years of wind and rain eroding the soft volcanic rock. Some of the region’s rock formations resemble camels, others look like rose petals, while still others bear a striking resemblance to hatted elves.
Pigeon Valley is a spectacular sight to behold. It is named for the thousands of pigeon houses carved into the soft volcanic tuff. Pigeon houses have existed here since ancient times, as the birds are considered valuable sources of food and fertilizer. In the evenings the pigeons return to their houses — the sight of this return is breathtaking.
Multiple cave hotels can be found in Cappadocia. Carved out of the landscape, these extraordinary accommodations offer a distinctly medieval feel yet have the comfort of modern amenities. Staying in a cave hotel offers the modern traveler a unique setting in which to bond with the ancient beauty of Mother Nature.
Rising in the Sky
When the weather is fine, you can see a multitude of hot-air balloons soaring in the early morning sky, lit by the glow of the rising sun. The expansive panorama, adorned with the colorful balloons moving gracefully with the wind, is awe-inspiring and humbling. The contours of the sculpted moonscape etched against the sky complete the picture of wonder.
Snow-White Hot Springs
Pamukkale, which means “cotton castle” in Turkish, has been a spa destination since Roman times, serving both royals and commoners alike. When viewing the site from the mountain’s summit, one sees distant winding trails, a shimmering lake at its base and snow-white hot springs. The white cotton-like terrace landscape is made of calcified mineral deposits that built up over thousands of years. The travertine basins are filled with water that cascades down from the mountain’s mineral-rich springs. The surreal atmosphere is breathtakingly beautiful.
The Floating Experience
Called the Dead Sea in Turkish because of its calm waters which remain tranquil even during a storm, this small neighborhood and beach resort on the Turquoise Coast of Southwestern Turkey is the peaceful conjunction point of the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas.
One floats easily in the deep hypersaline lake because of its high salt content. The white sandy beaches are bordered with green waters which gently shift from light green to dark blue as the sea gets deeper. The lake is officially known in English as the Blue Lagoon. Blue signifies vitality and energy; green is pure and magical. When the waters embrace you, they wash away all tiredness.
Renowned for its therapeutic effects since antiquity, Turkey’s Dead Sea is becoming a victim of the ceaseless stream of visitors from near and far. Already at Earth’s lowest elevation on land, this ancient lake is receding at an alarming rate. As Nature continues to provide for us, may we also look after her welfare with a compassionate heart. The still waters of the Dead Sea remind us that no matter what storms may challenge us, it is possible to face them with a strong and steady spirit of Universal love.
Turkey is truly a magical destination. It is a global crossroads of cultures and histories, a place where people and their faiths come together, proving that beauty and diversity are as one.