Turkey Has A Lot To Offer. These You Won’t Want to Miss.
Turkey is one of the most exciting countries on earth for any lover of the ancient world. Its every corner is saturated with history. You can visit Urartu in the far east, then squint at the Hittite inscriptions at Carchemish on the border with Syria. The temple of Augustus at Ankara gives us his Res Gestae. St. Paul hailed from Tarsus. One of the mounds outside Gordium might be the tomb of King Midas.
But some of Turkey’s hundreds of archaeological sites offer particularly remarkable experiences. We couldn’t quite narrow it down to ten, so we offer our top twelve archaeological sites in Turkey.
12. Troy (Truva)
We confess: there’s not that much to see at Troy. The ruins are so meager that the managers of the site have constructed a big wooden horse that makes the place look like a very rich kid’s treehouse. But — it’s Troy. It’s your chance to see the Scaean Gate and the foundations of “the topmost tow’rs of Ilium.” The smallness of the place is worth seeing all by itself — it’s a lesson of sorts, to see how poetry has magnified what was originally quite small. And while there’s not much to see, the imagination can run wild here like nowhere else. The archaeological site is surrounded by fields and country paths. No one seems to mind if you set off on foot and walk down to the sea (though since the coastline has moved, it is now a good five or six miles’ walk). I skipped a few stones down at the beach in honor of the glories of peace and long life before making my way back to my hotel.
11. Didyma (Didim)
Along with Priene and Miletus, Didyma is one of a trio of remarkable tourist sites south of Kusadasi (Kushadasi). Unlike the other two, Didyma is important really because of a single building: the remains of the Ionic temple of Apollo. Known also as Branchidae for the family that kept the temple, it appears repeatedly in Herodotus’s account of the Persian Wars. As we have written before, there really is no place on earth you can get a better sense of the majesty and magnificence of the Ionic style. The Doric Style of architecture is stout and stony — and for that reason, the best-preserved Greek temples are almost all Doric. The Ionic style was bigger, loftier, grander. Massive drums of gorgeous marble columns lie scattered about the ancient site. It’s one of those places in Turkey you’re likely to have all to yourself too.
Sardis was the place where Greece and Persia met. The great Royal Road of the Persian Empire arrived — after a journey that Herodotus says would take a walker three months — at the edge of the Mediterranean here. During the Ionian revolt that set in motion the Persian Wars, Sardis was burnt by a group of Greeks that included an Athenian contingent. Later Seleucid satraps and Roman proconsuls alike made this city their center of government. The archaeological excavations include somewhat aggressive reconstructions, though they do show off the opulent swagger of Hellenistic Asia Minor. Exquisite mosaics abound. But perhaps the most remarkable thing is coming inland to Sardis after long journeys along the coast: here you feel for the first time that you have come to a different country, an interior land of open vistas, brown hills, and fertile floodplains. Today we might call it the first outpost of Anatolia; in antiquity it was known as Lydia. A great rock outcrop lords it over the ancient city, which probably looked precisely the same even before there was a Sardis. Just outside town are numerous tumuli, presumed to be the burial-places of Lydian kings, such as Gyges and Croesus and Alyattes. The largest of the tumuli — the Karniyarik Tepe, whose original tenant remains unknown — has a circumference as great as the Great Pyramid.
Priene today is a city that makes no sense. Far inland, at the edge of a vast fertile plain, it presses up against the flank of Mount Mycale. What were the Ionian Greeks doing here, and why did they crowd up against a mountain when there was a vast plain to build in? The city, it turns out, was once built on the sea, and the fertile plain was all ocean. The Meander River has brought down enough silt to move the shoreline more than twenty miles out to sea since the city’s founding. The process happened so quickly that even by Hellenistic times Priene was landlocked. The old bouleuterion of the city looks like it was abandoned just yesterday; the archon’s throne appears to be awaiting the results of the most recent election. The ruins here have an inland, forested, bucolic character; they are rarely visited, and offer some of the best atmosphere of all the archaeological sites of Turkey.
Miletus was one of the great port-cities of Ionia, but like Priene its harbor silted up, and the city was abandoned. Repeated earthquakes through the centuries toppled almost every building, producing the archaeological site we see today, acres upon acres of jumbled broken marble and limestone, and one amazing, indestructible theater. The Milesians were famous for their science and philosophy. Cut off both from the seaborne tourist trade and the larger interior roads, it is now a quiet place: hitchhiking to the site I got picked up by one of the German archaeologists who worked there. Besides the ticket agent at the gate, he was the only person I saw that day in what was once a great and thriving city.
Myra is not a household name, but it’s an incredible site. The star attractions are the Lycian tombs cut into the cliffside. Tourists are not allowed to climb the hill to view them, but they are well worth seeing from down below. Their mere presence, from a culture that accented and ornamented mortality so visibly, feels like a message from a long-gone era. Besides the tombs, there is an impressive Roman theater. Craziest of all, there is a Santa Claus museum here featuring the tomb of Santa Claus. Santa Claus is of course St. Nicholas, who was bishop of Myra. He was buried here. His tomb was raided and his corpse carried off for relics. A visit here to Santa Claus’s cenotaph sounds like a great way to traumatize — or rather, properly educate in real history — your young children.