Cappadocia is not just all about rocks. Since prehistorical times, humans had established cave dwelling and even underground communities in the area. Kingdoms rose and fell; trade routes came by and moved away; religions flourished and replaced by other religions as new settlers arrived. The Hatti community emerged in 2500 BC, then came the Hittites, Assyrians, Phrygians, and Persians. In AD 17, the Roman arrived and Cappadocia became a province of the empire. The Christians came in the 3rd century AD, and Cappadocia soon became the dominant culture in the region where uncounted chapels and churches were carved out from the rocks. In the Medieval Ages, monastic communities flourished and so as caravanserais where trade routes connected Cappadocia with the world along the Silk Road. In the late Middle Ages, invasions from Turkmenistan, Mongolians, Seljuks and finally Ottomans wrapped up the ever changing story of Cappadocia.
Only 15 minutes from the town centre of Goreme, the Open Air Museum is one of the most popular attractions in Cappadocia. Despite the crowds, the UNESCO world heritage site is the best place to understand the a part of the history of Cappadocia.
In the midst of fairy chimneys, different kingdoms and communities left their marks in Cappadocia throughout history.
All communities in Cappadocia began in one of the many valleys. As soon as the first settlers discovered the unique properties of the volcanic rocks, cave communities emerged.
Small cave dwellings and pigeon holes were carved from the rock cliffs.
Small caves led to larger rock cut spaces as the communities evolved, such as the rock cut chapels constructed in the Middle Ages.
Goreme Open Air Museum hosts a number of the rock cut chapels and cave dwellings, mainly from the Byzantine era.
Despite the caves at the Open Air Museum have been abandoned for a long time, visitors today can still imagine how these cave communities might have operated centuries ago.
Many caves are only accessible via a flight of stairs.
What lies inside the caves are the real gem. The Karanlık Kilise or Dark Church contains some of the best preserved frescoes in the museum. It presents some great examples of Byzantine art.
A short hike to the east from Goreme brought us to the Love Valley, a little valley with bizarre fairy chimneys – rock pillars capped with dark basalt. Compared to the ones in Goreme, the fairy chimneys in the valley are much slenderer. We pretty much had the valley all by ourselves, except a few occasional hikers. There wasn’t much signage so we had to find our way on our own. Back then, there weren’t any smartphone with us too. We ended up reaching the White Valley and the village of Uchisar towards the end of our walk.
It was impressive to see all these fairy chimneys in the Love Valley.
The trail first took us to a higher ground to appreciate the rock pillars.
It isn’t hard to figure out why the place is called Love Valley.
Despite the somehow arid climate in the area, the valley was quite green at certain places.
It was hard to imagine from the first glance that the pillars were carved out from eroding the surrounding ground, instead of extruding out from earth.
As we walked to other areas, rock formations changed gradually.
There are actually numerous valleys around Goreme that we could visit: Love Valley, Rose Valley, White Valley, Red Valley, Pigeon Valley, etc.
Thick clouds gathered in the valley as we approached the village of Uchisar.
Equally stunning, the rock formations of the White Valley resemble a sea of white waves.
Our bus arrived in Goreme at around 08:00. Surprisingly the bus went all the way to the village centre, instead of the otogar at Nevsehir. Arriving at Cappadocia in early morning felt like waking up in another world: minimal traffic, occasional herds of sheep, stone houses and cave dwellings. But it was the bizarre rock formations, some of which towering straight up the sky known as fairy chimneys that captured our imagination. The unique rock formations of Cappadocia began 2.6 million years ago when eruption of the ancient volcano Mount Erciyes covered the area (about 20,000 square kilometres) with lava and ash. The ash later solidified into soft rocks exposed to erosion from wind and water. As most of the soft rocks were eroded away, the remaining hard rocks appeared like stone chimneys towering towards the sky.
We checked in at Hotel Elif Star to begin our temporary stay in a cave. The owner Jacky and her cat welcomed us. Jacky pulled out a map and recommended to us a number of hiking trails around the area, and a few lookouts for sunset watching.
In the midst of fairy chimney rock formations, unique valleys and the open air museum, Goreme is the main tourist hub in Cappadocia.
Inhabited since the Hittite era (1800-1200 BC), cave dwellings had been constructed in the era for thousands of years.
Throughout history, cave dwellings and underground structures have been carved out from the volcanic tuff. These rock-cut houses of Cappadocia provided homes and hideouts for people escaping from wars and persecutions from close and afar.
This world famous UNESCO world heritage town receives significant amount of tourists, reaching a record high of 3.8 million in 2019. When we visited in 2006, Goreme still maintained a relatively peaceful ambience.
Souvenir shops lined up the main street of Goreme.
Remnants from the past were still visible on the fairy chimneys in the side streets of Goreme.
Other than cave dwellings, other buildings in Goreme are also constructed with the local stones.
We stayed at Elif Star, one of the many cave hotels in Goreme.
This people-friendly cat approached us during our breakfast time at Elif Star.
Late afternoon offers the best moment to photograph the unique rock formations.
There are several popular spots to watch the sunset in and around Goreme.
Everyday, if weather is fine, tourists should be able to appreciate the scenery of fairy chimneys blanketed in the orange glow.
Around Goreme, there are a number of hiking trails to explore the interesting rock formations.
Even without exploring the surrounding valleys, visitors at Goreme can still get close to the fairy chimneys.
Cappadocia offered one of the best sunset scenery we have ever experienced.
We watched the sunset everyday while we were in Cappadocia.
At night, Goreme returns to its former tranquility after tourists make their way back to their hotels.
Communal baths and gymnasiums were essential components in the ancient Roman society. Records show that 952 baths of different sizes could be found in Rome in 354 AD. Apart from building up the body and engaging on social gossip, a bath and gymnasium complex might also house a library, a theatre, food shops and reading rooms. Erected right at the hot spring of Pamukkale, Hierapolis was a prominent Roman spa resort. Other than the usual bathing rituals, bathing in Hierapolis was also a form of medical treatment. Founded in the 2nd century BC as a thermal spa town, where doctors used the hot springs to treat patients. In its heyday, Hierapolis had bath houses, gymnasiums, temples, fountains, theatre. Thousands would come to visit the hot spring, including the Roman emperors. The city of 100,000 became a wealthy city prominent for art, philosophy and trade. Outside the city wall, the enormous necropolis suggests that many ancient Romans who came to Hierapolis for medical treatment actually died in the spa city. The recently discovered Tomb of Philip the Apostle and a number of historical sites in Hierapolis suggest Christianity had taken a strong hold in the city from Late Antiquity to the Byzantine era.
Many tourists come to Hierapolis to take a dip in a pool among ruined marble columns. The pool is, in fact, doing a disservice to the archaeological conservation. We just spent time wandering around the ruins leisurely and aimlessly.
Red poppy and yellow wild flowers covered large parts of the ground among the ruins of Hierapolis.
Built in 2nd century AD under Emperor Hadrian, the theatre at Hierapolis has 45 rows of seats that could accommodate about 15,000 spectators.
Tombs and sarcophagus of different sizes could be found in the necropolis. Some sarcophagus were elevated by a post and beam structure.
The extensive necropolis stretches kilometers and contains thousands of tombs from different era.
We once again passed by the travertine terraces of Pamukkale as we left Hierapolis.
Instead of walking down the travertine terraces in barefoot once again, we opted for another winding path to descend. The path is not for people who scares of height.
Three hours of bus ride took us from Selcuk to Pamukkale. Like everyone else, we came to Pamukkale for the spectacular travertine terraces. As we hopped off the bus, we were immediately approached by bus companies selling us tickets onward from Pamukkale. Along the path to the pools, we stopped by a small shop for a bowl of spicy Korean noodles. The first glance of the white travertine pools cascading up the slope under the blue sky was a truly spectacular sight. Pamukkale in Turkish literally means “cotton castle”. To many, the otherworldly scenery of the white and reflective travertine pools is one of the two most iconic natural wonders of Turkey (the other being the rock formations of Cappadocia). The travertine terraces at Pamukkale is made from continuous mineral deposit of hot spring accumulated for thousands of years. Calcium carbonate from the hot spring is deposited as a soft gel and gradually crystallizes into travertine. Pamukkale has been a popular tourist attraction for over two thousand years. Hieropolis, the spa resort town at Pamukkale, was founded in the 2nd century BC and flourished for centuries as a hot spring and healing resort in the Roman and Byzantine Empire. Today, Pamukkale continues to see large number of visitors from all over the world.
We entered the gate and soon found ourselves arriving at the remarkable travertine area. Shoes were not allowed, and visitor circulation was restricted to a designated path going uphill to the top. The only way to truly experience the pools up close was to take off our shoes and hiked up the travertine path in barefoot. Covered with layers of calcium deposit, walking uphill on the travertine was quite a torture for our feet. Along the way, we were disappointed to see that most pools had been dried up. Moreover, this site was just full of visitors jammed one after another on the path. Unless visiting at 8am during low season, it was next to impossible to enjoy the natural beauty without getting frustrated from overcrowding and misbehaving tourists. According to the UNESCO, this world heritage is threatened by over-tourism, hotel constructions near the pools, water pollution by bathers, illegal diversion of thermal water, etc. In recent years, hotels near the pools were removed, vehicular access banned, and pool access for tourists has been restricted, but overcrowding remains as an issue for the management to tackle.
The sheer scale of the white travertine terraces is quite spectacular.
We were lucky to have perfect blue sky during our visit.
The travertine terraces are as white as snow, but as hard as rocks.
The lower section of the terraces look fairy-tale like from a distance.
We were disappointed to see many terraces were dried up.
The scene would be quite different if the hot spring remained flowing down the terraces.
Other than Pamukkale, similar terraces and pools can be found elsewhere in the world, such as Hierve el Agua in Mexico and Huanglong in China. Each site has its own unique qualities.
The weather didn’t look too promising when we reached the top of the terraces.
Before the weather get any worse, we headed over to Hieropolis for a brief visit of the Roman ruins.
Sleepy town of Selcuk welcomes one of Turkey’s biggest concentrations of tourists. Home to the mighty Ephesus, as well as the ruined Basilica of St John (where some believed was the final resting place of St John the Apostle) and House of the Virgin Mary (a stone house where some said was the final home of the Virgin Mary), Selcuk has its unique power to attract visitors from around the world while maintaining the tranquility as a small town in the Aegean Region. After visiting Ephesus, we strolled around the town for a short while and completed the day by enjoying a glass of wine and a moment of perfect sunset on the rooftop of Homeros Pension.
Away from the Classical ruins, Selcuk is still dotted with historical buildings from the Middle Ages.
Alpaslan Mesciti is a 14th century building. Today, the building continues to serve as a mosque.
The Turkish way to chill out: to smoke Turkish tobacco with a water pipe or nargile in the front porch of their home or shop and watch the world goes by. The tradition started 500 years ago in the Ottoman Empire. Its popularity declined as cigarettes entered the Turkish market after World War II. In recent two decades, water pipes have made a solid comeback for the younger generations.
Other than smoking nargiles, some locals we met chose to play music to celebrate the last hour of sunlight.
Many of the elder generation preferred to socialize at the outdoor area of a cafe.
Near Homeros Pension, the beautiful sunset made everything to appear under a tint of orange.
Walking under the last bit of sunlight on the hill was a sublime experience.
For our short stay in Selcuk, we picked Homeros Pension, a family run guesthouse full of character.
The common areas of Homeros Pension are richly decorated.
Local handicrafts fit perfectly well with the interior.
Apart from local handicrafts, we could also find gifts left by previous travelers, such as these koalas from an Australian traveler.
The delicious food at Homeros was prepared by the experienced hands of the elderly staff.
The rooftop patio was a fantastic spot to enjoy the sunset. We were invited by the friendly staff to have a glass of wine during sunset.
With the clean air and relatively low buildings, we had no trouble watching the sun setting below the far horizon.
Watching the marvelous sunset and mingling with the other guests at the guesthouse on the rooftop patio was the perfect way to end our day.
After breakfast, a staff of Homeros Pension drove us to a bank for money exchange before dropping us at the world renowned archaeological ruins of Ephesus (Efes). Ephesus is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Turkey, thanks to its close proximity to the cruise port and airport in the resort town of Kusadasi. The magnificent facade of Ephesus’ Library of Celsus is the signature image of Classical ruins in Turkey. Two thousand years ago, Ephesus was one of the greatest Greek and Roman cities in Asia Minor. Founded in the 10th century BC by Attic and Ionian Greeks, Ephesus reached its peak after the Roman takeover in 129 BC. From 52-54 AD, Paul the Apostle stayed in Ephesus and probably wrote his Gospel in the city. Ephesus was named as one of the seven churches of Asia in the Book Revelation, indicating Christianity was quite popular back then. In the Byzantine era, major earthquakes, shifting of trade routes, and sacking by the Arabs all contributed to the downfall of Ephesus. Its glorious past was eventually forgotten, and Ephesus was eventually abandoned in the 15th century. Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the magnificent Library of Celsus and the 25,000 seat theatre exemplify the former grandeur of the city. Already in ruins since 401 AD, the Temple of Artemis has little remained except a restored column. The restored facade of Library of Celsus remains as the biggest draw for visitors.
Seats for up to 24,000 spectators, the splendid great theatre of Ephesus was the first impressive building that we encountered in the site.
It was the time in the year where poppies flourished.
Right by Celsus Library, the Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates was a arch of triumph built in 40 AD during the reign of Augustus, the first Roman emperor and the great nephew of Julius Caesar.
Popular with tourist advertisements, the facade of the Library of Celsus is the most famous image of Ephesus. Named after Celsus, a Roman consul in Rome and later the provincial governor of Asia, the library was built by Celsus’ son Aquila and filled with over 12,000 scrolls of reading materials acquired by the money of Celsus left behind.
From 117 to 262 AD, the Library of Celsus served as an important public space in Ephesus for 145 years, where people came to read the rare scrolls under natural light at the main floor. In 262 AD, the library was destroyed by fire caused by earthquake or Gothic invasion.
The statues at the library facade symbolize wisdom, knowledge, intelligence and valor.
Episteme, the Greek philosophical term of “knowledge”, was depicted as one of the statues at Library of Celsus.
The imposing Library of Celsus is the most popular photo spot in Ephesus.
After the destruction in 262 AD, the facade survived for another 800 years or so until the tenth or eleventh century. Lying in ruins for about a thousand years, the facade of Library of Celsus was restored in the 1970s.
As an important Roman city, Latin inscriptions can be found all over Ephesus.
Beyond Mazeus & Mithridates Gate, a Corinthian colonnade marks the Agora, the former commercial heart of the ancient city.
Paved with marble stone and flanked by colonnade, Curetes Street was one of the main treets in Ephesus.
Along the street, there are lots of interesting architectural details for all visitors to discover.
The Odeon was used for political meetings, concerts and theatrical performances.
Roman relief of the Memmius Monument
Nike, the goddess of victory, was depicted on a marble relief.
Arch with relief sculpture at the Temple of Hadrian.
Headless Roman statue at Curetes Street.
The Hercules Gate at Curetes Street marked the separation between uptown and downtown.
Beautiful frieze at Hadrian Temple revealed the high craftsmanship of the Roman builders.
Below the acropolis hill of Pergamon stands the town of Bergama and the scattered ruins of ancient Pergamon. A short taxi ride took us from the acropolis to the Red Basilica in Bergama. Originally a temple built by Roman Emperor Hadrian dedicated to Egyptian deities, the basilica was later converted into a Christian church in the Byzantine era. The brick structure itself is massive and red in colour, and hence the name Red Basilica. Massive red brick structures were common in Roman Italy at that time, but was something rather new and unique in Asia Minor. We stayed for roughly half an hour to appreciate the structure’s grandeur from the remaining archways and masonry shell.
Outside the Red Basilica, we had a quick bite at an pancake eatery. The town was pretty laid back, with donkeys wandering on the street and artisans sitting in front of shops weaving carpet. We ventured further uphill behind Bergama, passed by a military base, to the ruins of Asclepion, a medical complex in the Greek and Roman times. Most of the remaining buildings we saw dated back to the Hadrian’s time. There were theatre, pools, libraries, temples, and houses. Patients who came to Asclepion were offered spiritual treatments at temples, as well as physical exercises and spa services at the adjacent facilities. After a full day of sightseeing, we headed back to Izmir and then transferred to Selcuk.
At 21:00, we arrived at Selcuk Bus Station. A guy named Michael approached us to sell us bus tickets. At last, we bought from him tickets to Pammukale for the day after tomorrow. The van from Homeros Pension finally arrived and took us to the beautifully decorated guesthouse.
Bergama was quite a laid back town in the Aegean region of Turkey.
Sleepy street scene of Asclepion in midday.
Dated back to the 11th century, Bergama is famous for its carpet weaving. Most Bergama carpets are made with wool.
Donkeys and ponies were quite common in Bergama.
The Red Basilica was one of the largest surviving Roman structures in the Greek world.
The enormous structure formed only a part of an even larger religious complex.
Unlike Ancient Rome, red masonry used in such enormous scale was something new in Asia Minor
One of the rotundas of the Red Basilica is now occupied by a mosque.
Asclepion, the ruined medical centre in the Roman times, was a well known treatment centre in the classical times.
There were hardly anyone else when we visited Asclepion.
The theatre of Asclepion revealed that the ancient medical centre was once also served as a social venue.
Fine details at the theatre stair.
Ionic columns and remaining frieze and cornice could still be found at the ruins.
In times of Antiquity, Asclepion was the 2nd most popular medical treatment centres just after Epidauros in Greece.
At 19:00 we bid farewell to the hostel staff and left Sultan Hostel of Istanbul. We took the T4 bus from Hagia Sophia to the Taksim Square. We headed over to the office of Kamil Koc and waited for the departure of our first night bus in Turkey. At 09:00 the next day we arrived at Izmir, where we transferred to another bus for Bergama, the town where the famous Classical Greek city of Pergamon once stood in the 3rd century BC. We hired a taxi from Bergama’s otogar (bus station) to the acropolis archaeological park. I was quite excited for arriving at the ruined acropolis of Pergamon, largely due to my 2003 visit of Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, where the Great Altar of Pergamon was restored and displayed for the past 90 years. Seeing the Great Altar of Pergamon in Berlin’ three years prior to the trip was probably the main reason why I chose to stop by Bergama on our way to Selcuk from Istanbul. In the archaeological park, the acropolis where the high altar once stood was pretty much in ruins. A few notable structures, including the Trajaneum (where a headless marble statue in Roman armor stood in a courtyard) and the Greek Theatre, claimed to be the steepest theatre in the ancient world, represented the highlights. Near the base of the theatre lower, we stopped by the ruined Temple of Dionysus to pay a little respect to the God of pleasure and wine.
As the capital of Kingdom of Pergamon during the Attalid dynasty (281-133 BC), Pergamon was one of the major cultural centres in the Greek world. After 133 BC, Pergamon became part of the Roman Empire, and assigned as the capital city of province Asia. As trading routes shifted to Constantinople during the Byzantine era, the once Greek and Roman metropolis was transformed into a medium size city, but maintained its religious importance as it was mentioned in the Book of Revelations as one of Seven Churches of Asia. Then came the Ottomans who transformed Pergamon into a Turkish city with mosques and bath houses that we know today. From the first visit of German engineer Carl Humann in 1864 to WWI, the Germans had made numerous expeditions and archaeological excavations at Pergamon. Most of their findings are now on display at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. After WWI, artefacts found on site were being restored and exhibited at Istanbul or the Bergama Museum.
Probably the most famous Classical artefact in Berlin, the Great Altar of Pergamon has been moved to and reconstructed in the German capital about a century ago.
The statue of Athena Parthenos was found in the ruins of Library of Pergamon in 1880.
Today, the most prominent remaining structure at the Acropolis of Pergamon is the Greek Theatre. With a seating capacity of 10,000, the theatre was the steepest in the world.
Below the theatre lies the town of Bergama.
Off to the side at the base of the theatre once stood the Temple of Dionysus.
Looking up the theatre from the Temple of Dionysus allowed us to fully appreciate the scale and steepness of the theatre.
A series of stepped walkways allowed the ancient audience to disperse efficiently.
Fragments of classical cornice and frieze could be found all over the archaeological park.
One of the most remarkable structures in the acropolis is Trajaneum, the only Roman building on site.
Completed by Emperor Hadrian, the Trajaneum was used to worship Zeus as well as Emperor Trajan, Hadrian’s predecessor.
Occupying the summit of the acropolis, Trajaneum sent a clear message to the citizens of Pergamon that the Romans were fully in charge of the once Hellenistic city.
The Corinthian column capitals still look spectacular after 2000 years.
It was a pleasure to wander around the ruined acropolis and looked for the remaining architectural details.
The statue of Hadrian could still be found in the acropolis.
Situated at the mouth of Bosphorus into the Black Sea, Anadolu Kavagi, which literally means Control Post of Anatolia (Asia Minor), has been an strategic outpost and fishing village since Roman times. Today, a small fishing community remained. The village also serves as the last stop of the Bosphorus tourist cruise. Compared to the bustling scenes of cosmopolitan Istanbul, the tranquil village expresses a distinctive ambience that keeps on luring foreign tourists and Istanbul inhabitants to come for a brief getaway.
After getting off at Anadolu Kavagi, the first thing that caught our attention was the street food vendors right by the dock. We picked a seafood restaurant, climbed the stairs to the upper floor, and ordered fish buns, fried mussels, fried calamari, etc. After lunch, we ascended the hill behind the village to the ruins of Yoros Castle. We wandered around Yoros Castle a little bit before finding ourselves at an open lookout overlooking the Bosphorus and the Black Sea. Some say the towns along the Black Sea coast are quite picturesque and interesting, but we would have to leave them for the next time around.
Anadolu Kavagi appears as a lovely fishing village.
The waterfront of Anadolu Kavagi is occupied a cluster of fishing boats.
During our brief visit, several fishermen were busy fixing their fishing net while chatting causally.
The peaceful fisherman life at Anadolu Kavagi offered a pleasant contrast to the chaotic and busy scenes of Istanbul just 90 minutes of boat ride away.
Each fisherman we met seemed friendly and relaxed.
A handful of seafood stalls and restaurants can be found at the fishing village.
Just like Istanbul, we had all sort of cat encounters in Anadolu Kavagi. This cat sat right by the dock looking at the sea.
Even the cats seemed content with their hassle free lives in Anadolu Kavagi.
Located at the hilltop above Anadolu Kavagi, Yoros Castle guarded the confluence spot of the Bosphorus and Black Sea since the Byzantine times.
From Yoros Castle, we could see the Bosphorus as well as the Black Sea.
Our last day in Istanbul was spent for a leisure boat cruise on the Bosphorus Strait. For 1.5 hour’s time, boat took us from the pier of Eminonu to the village of Anadolu Kavagi where the Bosphorus Strait met the Black Sea. For the entire 31km journey, the boat sailed along the European side of Bosphorus. Our boat left Eminonu at 10:30 sharp. The first half was an exciting journey through the city of Istanbul, sailing under gigantic bridges, passing by luxury palaces and historical mosques. The boat made a few stops at different neighbourhoods in the city, until fishing villages and small suburban communities gradually took over. The entire journey was like going through a collection of postcards unfolding into an hour of motion picture. The experience reminded us of the last scene in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant, where the protagonist sits by the Bosphorus watching the busy boat traffic passing by.
“To be traveling through the middle of a city as great, historic, and forlorn as Istanbul, and yet to feel the freedom of the open sea – that is the thrill of a trip along the Bosphorus. Pushed along by its strong currents, invigorated by the sea air that bears no trace of the dirt, smoke, and noise of the crowded city that surrounds it, the traveler begins to feel that, in spite of everything, this is still a place in which he can enjoy solitude and find freedom.” Orhan Pamuk
Our boat left the pier at Eminonu as we bid farewell to Suleymaniye Mosque and Yeni Cami (New Mosque) in Fatih.
At the opposite side, the Galata Tower dominates the skyline of Karakoy.
We soon left the Galata Bridge behind to embark on our journey of the Bosphorus.
Built in 1820’s, Nusretiye Mosque in Tophane was designed in Baroque style.
Dolmabahçe Mosque (1855) and the modern skyscraper Süzer Plaza form a contrasting picture.
Dolmabahçe Palace was the main palace of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1887 and from 1909 to 1922.
The former Ottoman palace Çırağan Palace has been converted into a 5-star hotel, and hosts one of the most expensive hotel suite in the world.
Locals taking causal breaks at Barbaros Park in Besiktas, with Sinan Pasha Mosque at the background.
Ortaköy Mosque (Büyük Mecidiye Camii) and the 15 July Martyrs Bridge forms one of the most iconic scene along the Bosphorus.
Histoical building Zeki Paşa Yalısı stands silently below the shadow of the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge.
Built in 1452, the Rumeli Hisari Fortress near Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge was built by the Ottoman during their planned siege of Constantinople.
Apart from historical palaces and mosques, the waterfront of Bosphorus is also dotted with luxury apartments and villas.
There are all kinds of styles for villas along the Bosphorus.
Some villas have been converted into hotels or high end restaurants.
New villas in contemporary style have been constructed along with the traditional ones.
Some traditional timber villas still await for their chance of renovation.
The waterfront of Bosphorus has been popular among the wealthy class of Istanbul for centuries.
Some of the historical buildings were in really bad shape after years of negligence.
Further away from the city, some waterfront areas are occupied by less privilege communities.
Other than tourist boats, the Bosphorus is busy with all kinds of boats.
After the mosques, we found ourselves arriving at a Roman fortress tower. The security guard was kind enough to show us around. When we were done, he suggested we should take a short walk to visit the Complex of Sultan Bayezid II. We followed his instructions to exit the old city and walk for a kilometer or two, before seeing our destination beyond Tundzha River. The Tundzha River was lovely and the surrounding was peaceful. The Complex of Sultan Bayezid II was a unique compound consisted of a mosque, a medical university, and a hospital during the Ottoman era. Nowadays, part of the hospital complex is turned into a museum where visitors can get learn about Ottoman medicine, their medical treatment and long-term health facilities. This hospital complex once treated a wide range of sicknesses, from eye disease to mental illness. It was one of the first mental hospitals that treated patients with music, sound of water, and scents. After the visit, we hopped on a minibus returning to the otogar for our return trip to Istanbul. In Istanbul, we discovered a local eatery at Aksaray called Nederi Urfa. We ordered lentil soup, meat kebabs, pizzas, and dessert, a hearty meal to end the day.
On our way to the Complex of Sultan Bayezid II we passed by a produce vending truck.
The youngest vendors appeared to be the most enthusiastic.
The complex of Sultan Bayezid II stood beyond Tundzha River. Two men sitting at the back of tractor waved at us as they drove by.
At Tundzha River, a shepherd dog appeared from below the bridge, looked at us at a distance, and ran away.
A kid and probably his father were fishing by the Tundzha River.
Near the entrance, we had a brief encounter with a talkative lady.
The scenery of the complex and Tundzha River is quite picturesque.
Built in 1488, the Complex of Sultan Bayezid II contained a medical centre that was in operation for almost 400 years.
Centered of the külliye stands the mosque with a 20.55m dome. The complex is now a museum of the history of medicine, and a tentative World Heritage site.
The courtyard in the museum is a lovely garden. It was here where patients with mental illness were treated with various methods including music, water sound and scents.
The complex offered holistic treatment including medicine and water and music therapy.
Similar to other Ottoman complexes, courtyard and lovely colonnades are essential component of the Complex of Sultan Bayezid II.
Continuous maintenance in the last few centuries ensure the complex is still standing today.
Often compared to his contemporary Michelangelo in the west, Mimar Sinan was the greatest architect of the Ottoman Empire. Out of the 370+ projects in his 50-year career, the famous chief architect of the Ottoman Empire considered Selimiye Mosque his true masterpiece. The UNESCO seems to agree on this and granted Selimiye Mosque the status of a world heritage. The huge complex is organized as a külliye, with a wide range of functions managed by the mosque. At Selimiye, Sinan experimented with various configuration of domes, semi-domes and galleries to form an impressive and unified interior bathed with natural light. The famous mosque was even depicted on the Turkish 10,000 lira banknote from 1982 – 1995.
A statue of Mimar Sinan was erected in front of the Mosque to commemorate his architectural achievement.
Instead of a series of small domes, Sinan built a large central dome instead. The size of the dome is similar to the one at Hagia Sophia.
As a külliye, the mosque complex also includes schools, covered market, clock house, outer courtyard and library, all being managed under one single institution.
Four identical minarets were erected by Sinan instead of a series of distinctive minarets like many of its predecessors.
At the four corners, minarets point up to the sky.
The interior is dominated by a series of semi domes and the central dome. Lines are symmetrical, simple and elegant.
Just like the Hagia Sophia, celestial windows are provided at the dome base to lighten up the interior.
Supported by eight pillars, the dome is a stunning spectacle from below.
A drinking fountain is housed under a richly decorated structure.
Considered as one of the finest in Turkey, the mihrab is visible from any location in the mosque.
Several circles of lights are suspended over the vivid carpet to provide a warm ambience in the evening.
Close to the border between Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey, about 240km northwest of Istanbul stands a small city with a big history. Founded by Roman Emperor Hadrian upon an earlier Thracian settlement, Edirne was known as Hadrianopolis in the Antiquity era. After conquered by the Ottomans, the city was renamed to Edirne, and served as the capital city of the Ottoman Empire from 1369 to 1453, before the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. With Selimiye Mosque, the UNESCO World Heritage site that has been widely considered as the best work of architect Mimar Sinan, and several other impressive mosques and historical complexes, Edirne is one of the most popular excursion destinations for tourists in Istanbul. Taking an early morning bus (2.5 hour) from Istanbul Bus Station, spending a full day at Edirne and returning to Istanbul by a late afternoon bus was exactly how we spent our day.
In the morning, we took the tram and then metro to the main otogar, the main bus terminal of Istanbul where one can catch a bus to any destination in Turkey, and even to neighboring countries. We picked one company (worth the time and effort to check out the options) for Edirne. Bus companies in Turkey come in various prices, comfort and service levels. In general, the buses are clean and pleasant. Our first impression of Edirne, the main gateway city between Europe and Turkey, was pretty laid-back and peaceful. It felt like a completely different world from bustling Istanbul.
Built in 1447, the Üç Şerefeli Mosque is one of the most well known mosque in Central Edirne. With a 24m diameter dome, the Üç Şerefeli Mosque had the largest dome in the Ottoman Empire before the conquest of Constantinople.
Üç Şerefeli Mosque literally means the “Mosque with Three Balconies”, referring to its unique minaret.
Opposite to Üç Şerefeli Mosque, Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Bath was a public bath designed by Mimar Sinan and completed in 1569. Part of the building was demolished to make way for road construction in the 1960’s. The demolition was ultimately stopped but its damage remains visible today, epitomizing the careless urban planning back in the 20th century.
Completed in 1414, the Eski Camii (Old Mosque) is the oldest mosque in Central Edirne.
The most notable features in Eski Camii are the large calligraphy on the walls.
The calligraphy were created at various times by artists from all over the Ottoman Empire.
Most of the interior decorations dated back to the 19th century.
The Eski Camii is covered with nine small domes instead of one large one.
We managed to walk around the city and explored different streets in the heart of Edirne.
On the streets of Edirne, we bumped into several groups of kids wearing football jerseys.
On our way downhill from Suleymaniye Mosque, we passed by an area full of hardware and toy shops. Then we found ourselves arrived at the famous Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. Since establishment in 1455, the Grand Bazaar has been the most popular shopping venue in Ottoman Constantinople. With 91 million annual visitors in 2014, the Grand Bazaar remains as one of the most visited tourist attractions in Istanbul. We spent over an hour in this gigantic covered market (over 50 covered shopping streets). Most shops were selling tourist souvenirs, t-shirts, pottery, jewelries, etc. It was interesting to wander around the maze-like bazaar, a shopping arcade that predates modern shopping centres for several centuries. Similar to all tourist shopping areas in the world, it was impossible to find one-of-a-kind merchandise there. We left the bazaar empty handed.
Several blocks north the Grand Bazaar stands the equally vibrant Spice Bazaar. Also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar was established in 1660 and has served as the main spice market of Istanbul ever since. Today, the Spice Bazaar has become quite touristy, with souvenir shops mingled with shops selling spices, nuts, sweets and Turkish delights.
The Grand Bazaar is a huge maze of shopping arcade network where tourists may find joy to get lost in.
Today, most shops in the Grand Bazaar are catered for tourists.
Signage in the Grand Bazaar may help tourists to orient themselves if they are familiar with the street names of the neighborhood.
The warm lighting from the shops and the indirect sunlight from the celestial windows make visitors to easily lose track of time in the Grand Bazaar.
In the area near the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar, all sort of street vendors and small shops can be found. Gözleme flatbread is a common street food in Istanbul. It is a traditional food made with Turkish yufka dough cooked over a round metal hot dome.
Gözleme is somewhat crispy outside and soft inside. It is simple and delicious.
At the crossroads between Asia and Europe, Turkey has long been a trading hub in the midst of caravan routes. In the past, spices were among the most important commodities in international trading.
Spices have played an important role in Turkish cuisine.
Built in 1660, the Spice Bazaar is one one of the most popular covered market in Istanbul.
Perhaps because of the aroma, colours, and vibrant interactions between vendors and customers, we found the Spice Bazaar much more interesting than the Grand Bazaar.
It is full of surprises in the Spice Bazaar.
Smoking shisha with a traditional hookah water pipe has become a must do activity for tourists in Istanbul. In the Spice Bazaar or Grand Bazaar, it is easy to find a water pipe.
In the area around the Spice Bazaar, streets are lined with shops selling different merchandises from hardware to toys.
There are several famous mosques worth noting near the Spice Bazaar. Built in 1564 by the famous imperial architect Mimar Sinan, Rüstem Pasha Mosque is well known for its Iznik tiles in the interior.
Outside Rüstem Pasha Mosque, street vendors lined along the small lane.
We were attracted by the busy street scenes near Rüstem Pasha Mosque.
Situated near Galata Bridge, the Yeni Camii, or New Mosque, is another iconic building in Fatih.
Completed in 1665, the Yeni Camii is another great place to admire traditional Iznik tiles.
Like Rome, Constantinople was founded as the city of seven hills. The First Hill was the heart of the ancient capital where the Greeks found the city of Byzantium. For today’s tourists, the First Hill is equivalent to Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, while the Second Hill is dominated by the Great Bazaar. Upon the top of the Third Hill stands Suleymaniye Mosque, one of the most famous mosques in Istanbul. Commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent and designed by Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, Suleymaniye Mosque was completed in 1557 as the fourth imperial mosque. For Sultan Suleiman, erecting the Suleymaniye Mosque was like building his version of Hagia Sophia of Temple of Solomon. For architect Mimar Sinan, the most prominent architect in Ottoman history who was responsible for at least 374 structures and worked as the chief imperial architect for nearly 50 years, the Suleymaniye Mosque was considered as a fine example of work from his mid-career.
The four minarets of Süleymaniye Mosque are some of the most visible features of historic Istanbul from the Golden Horn.
The ablution facilities for wudu line along the exterior wall of the mosque.
To the right of the main entrance is the mosque cemetery, containing historical tombstones and the octagonal mausoleum of Suleyman and his wife Haseki Hurrem Sultan.
The design of Süleymaniye Mosque was strongly influenced by the Hagia Sophia.
The dome of Süleymaniye Mosque is 53m high and has a diameter of 26.5m, smaller than the one of Hagia Sophia.
A fountain stands in the centre of the first courtyard of the mosque.
The interior space is square in plan. Although simple in design, the white mihrab is undoubtedly the focal point inside the mosque.
Looking north, the skyline of Karakoy across the Golden Horn lies right in front of us.
Suleymaniye Mosque is surrounded by the campus of Istanbul University. We met two university students who were more than eager to chat with us about their beloved city.
Several restoration staff of Suleymaniye Mosque reminded us that maintaining such a huge amount of historical buildings in Istanbul required continuous efforts and techniques of many generations.
In 1459, six years after the conquest of Constantinople, Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II began the construction of Topkapi Palace. The palace remained as the main royal palace of the Ottoman sultans until the 18th century, when sultans preferred to stay in their new palaces along the Bosporus. Similar to other royal palaces around the world, Topkapi has become a huge draw for international tourists nowadays. We spent part of the morning to tour around the complex, which is consisted of four main courtyards and many small buildings. Many visitors consider the small museum housing the treasures of former sultans the highlight of the palace, though the intriguing architectural details of the Ottoman architecture are equally interesting. We didn’t spend time to see every single building and rooms in the complex, but we spent quite a bit of time at the Harem, the inner court of the palace. It was at these royal private apartments that we came face to face with the lavish decorations of imperial Ottoman architecture. Over the past few years, the palace has been undergoing massive renovations. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent to bring back the former glory of the palace.
The Gate of Salutation serves as the main entrance to the Topkapi Palace Museum.
A series of courtyards lead visitors into the inner section of the palace.
The Courtyard and Apartment of the Black Eunuchs housed the black eunuchs from Central Africa. They were in charge of the security of the Harem (inner court).
In 2006, the Imperial Hall was awaiting for a thorough renovation and repaint. Also known as the Throne Room, the Imperial Hall was built in 1580 during the reign of Murad III. Today, after extensive renovation in recent years, the ceiling and walls have regained their former colours.
Built in 1608 by Ahmed I, the Privy Chamber of Ahmed I features beautiful green Iznik tiles and window shutters.
The Twin Kiosk, also known as Apartment of the Crown Prince, was built in the 1700s. There is an elegant fireplace in the middle.
Window shutters are inlaid with mother of pearl and ivory.
Magnificent window shutter of the Twin Kiosk enclosed the seclusive life of the Crown Prince.
The Twin Kiosk is decorated with Iznik tiles and richly painted ceiling.
The Twin Kiosk is one of the best examples of the richly decorated buildings in the Harem.
Next to the Twin Kiosk, the Courtyard and Apartment of the Favorites was built by Osman III in 1754. After touring the Harem, we left the palace and moved on to visit the other sights in Fatih.
After Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, we have decided to get away from Sultanahmet and cross the Golden Horn over to Karakoy District. Spanning almost 500m across the Golden Horn, the Galata Bridge holds a significant place in Turkish literature and culture. Apart from its atmospheric setting and picturesque views, the bridge also represents a physical linkage between the more traditional, imperial and religious Fatih District and the more commercialised and cosmopolitan districts like Galata and Beyoğlu. Walking across Galata Bridge is like crossing the frontier between the old Constantinople and the new metropolitan Istanbul. We ended up reaching as far as Taksim Square, the heart of modern Istanbul and the city’s commercial hub.
At Taksim Square, we went up to a cafe roof patio for a cup of coffee and spent some time to watch trams and people criss-crossing the lively square. On our way back to Sultanahmet we dropped by the vibrant Karakay Fish Market near the Galata Bridge at the Karakoy side. Tourists and locals came for fish sandwiches or seafood snacks. We were too full to get one, and that was probably a mistake. It is hard to believe that such an atmospheric and popular waterfront market doesn’t exist anymore as the market has been demolished and relocated in 2015.
Looking north to Karakoy at the head of Galata Bridge from the Fatih side.
Restaurants below and vehicular traffic and fishermen above make up an iconic scene of the Galata Bridge.
Completed in 1348, the Galata Tower was the tallest structure in Medieval Constantinople, and still continues to dominate the skyline of Karakoy today.
We hopped on a tram of the heritage line towards Taksim Square. The first horse trams in Istanbul began in 1872, and the network turned electric in 1912. The extensive tram network ceased operation in 1966 to give way for other means of transportation. In 1990, a heritage tram line (using old train cars mainly targeted for tourists and nostalgic locals) was re-established in Istanbul and a few years later, a completely modern tram system was built in 1992 and has since then expanded to two modern lines and two heritage lines.
As the most vital transportation hub in the city, the Taksim Square is undoubtedly one of the busiest spot in the city. At the heart of the square stands the Republic Monument, a monument erected in 1928 to commemorate the founding of the republic.
Located at the main commercial heart of Istanbul, Taksim Square is also a popular spot for people watching.
The police force is always present to maintain the security of Taksim Square.
After some people watching and a cup of coffee, we left Taksim Square and returned to the Galata Bridge. Along our way, we passed by some beautiful buildings.
In less than half an hour, we reached Galata Bridge once again. Mainly made up of old and unlicensed market stalls, the once vibrant Karakoy Fish Market right by Galata Bridge was demolished overnight in 2015. A new fish market was built nearby, and understandably many consider the new market less atmospheric.
The bygone Karakoy Fish Market has become part of the neighbourhood’s collective memory.
It was only a short walk from Hagia Sophia to the Blue Mosque. During our stay in Istanbul, we passed by Sultan Ahmet Park between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque numerous times. The Hagia Sophia represents the engineering marvel of the Byzantine Empire. 1000 years after the completion of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque was erected to showcase the poetic beauty and the architectural genius of the Ottoman Empire. Unlike Hagia Sophia where the building has turned into a museum, the Blue Mosque remains as an active religious venue frequented by worshipers. Also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, it took 7 years, 5 months and 6 days for Sultan Ahmet I and his architect Sedefkar Mehmed Agha to complete the project. Being an apprentice of Mimar Sinan, the chief Ottoman architect that was responsible for 300+ projects across the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, Sedefkar Mehmed Agha epitomized the high Ottoman architecture with the Blue Mosque. With its 6 minarets, five main domes and eight secondary domes, the Blue Mosque has become a prominent icon of Istanbul’s skyline. Staying in Sultanahmet allowed us to pass by the Blue Mosque at various times of the day, and witness the beauty of the architecture under different sunlight.
Early morning is the best time to photograph the Blue Mosque from Sultan Ahmet Park when there is still a tint of violet in the sky.
Before the arrival of tourist groups, we could still have a moment of peace to photograph the mosque.
At dusk, atmospheric lighting lit up the Blue Mosque in front of the purple sky.
In early morning, we could freely move around and photograph the mosque without tourists.
While some mosques have only one dome, the Blue Mosque has a series of main and secondary domes.
Beautiful sunlight casts an orange tone onto the marble facade of the Blue Mosque.
Wudu is the ritual purification for the Muslims. The process involves cleansing of hands, mouth, nostrils, arms, head and feet. This process is usually done before formal prayers and handling of the Quran. A designated wudu area is provided at the entrance courtyard.
After the wudu area, worshipers enter the forecourt through the raised gateway.
The raised archway bring visitors into the forecourt.
The forecourt is consisted of a fountain in the middle and vaulted arcade around the perimeter.
The vaulted arcade is decorated by a series of domes.
Details of the wood work and metal ornament reveal the marvelous craftsmanship of the Ottoman Empire.
The Blue Mosque is one of the two mosques in Turkey that contains six minarets.
It was nice to take an early morning walk in the Sultanahmet area. To visit Hagia Sophia, one of the country’s most popular attraction, an early morning start allowed us to beat the crowds to walk around the marvelous structure and enter the museum at 9am. Hagia Sophia to Istanbul is like Colosseum to Rome, Parthenon to Athens or the Great Pyramid of Giza to Cairo. These architecture represent the architectural and engineering marvel that has defined an era in world history. The current building was built in 537 AD during the reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian. Back then, Hagia Sophia was the largest building in the world. Its great dome has a diameter of 107 feet, and remained as the largest in the world until the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica was completed in the late 16th century. In fact, one of the biggest achievements for architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus was to create the gigantic dome without resting on any solid wall support, but instead, constructed triangular pendentives to transfer the force of the circular structure to a square base.
Throughout history, Hagia Sophia has gone through times of destruction and alterations due to earthquakes and regime change. From 537 to 1453 AD, Hagia Sophia served as an Eastern Orthodox church and housed the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. After the Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople, four minarets were added, Christian figures and decorations were destroyed while mosaic art were plastered over, and the building was converted into the city’s primary mosque, until the Blue Mosque was completed in 1616. In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, converted the famous structure into a museum.
Hagia Sophia is one of the most popular tourist attraction in Turkey. We came early in the morning to avoid the tourist groups.
The 1500-year-old structure has been altered several times in history.
After almost a thousand years as an Eastern Orthodox church, Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque in 1453. Then in 1935 the building was converted into a museum.
The 40 windows at the dome allow plenty of natural light to enter the interior, and reduce the overall weight of the dome structure.
The interior of Hagia Sophia contains artifacts from the Byzantine and Ottoman era.
The windows in the dome allow natural light to enter the interior.
Richly decorated with mosaics and marble pillars, Hagia Sophia is the most important example of Byzantine architecture in the world. One of the highlights for a visit to check out the mosaic work on the upper level.
Outside the building, the splendid fountain built in 1740 is an Ottoman addition after the conversion into a mosque.
Served as a social gathering pavilion outside of the Hagia Sophia, the Fountain of Ahmed III was built in 1728 during the Ottoman era. The rococo-style fountain stands right outside the gate of Topkapi Palace, the royal palace of the Ottoman Empire.
Our Middle East journey began from Istanbul on 29th of April, 2006.
Formerly known as Constantinople, the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empire for over 1500 years, Istanbul is a city full of layers, where kingdoms came and go, and new buildings being built upon ruined ones. Occupying both sides of Bosporus Strait that separates Europe and Asia, Istanbul has always been a venue of cultural exchange between the east and west. The Sultanahmet area in Fatih District was the historical centre of Constantinople, where the emperors of the Roman Empire (330-395), Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire (395-1453) and the Ottoman Empire (1453-1923) chose to establish their splendid capital. Bounded three sides by water, the Historic Area of Istanbul is an UNESCO World Heritage site with a concentration of iconic cultural heritage that are precious to human civilization, including Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, Basilica Cistern, etc. Like many tourists, we specifically chose our hostel in Sultanahmet, just a stone throw away from the Blue Mosque. In Sultanahmet, we never needed to walk far to encounter the former glory of the empires.
Legends has it that in 667 BC, the Greeks came to the intersection of Golden Horn, Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea and found the city of Byzantium at the peninsula where the current Sultanahmet area is situated.
Because of its strategic location at the sole access point of the Black Sea, Byzantium was soon developed into a trading city. After Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium in the 4th century, Byzantium became Constantinople, and its glorious time as Europe’s largest and wealthiest city officially kicked off.
Defensive walls had been erected to protect Constantinople since Constantine’s time. Walls were also constructed along the waterfront to protect the city from sea attacks. After the partitioning of the Roman Empire, Constantinople remained as the capital of Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire).
In Istanbul, hundreds of underground cisterns were constructed during the Byzantine era. Measured 138m x 65m, Basilica Cistern was constructed by thousands of slaves in the 6th century under the orders of Emperor Justinian.
Probably taken from earlier Roman buildings, two stone heads of Medusa were used as column bases in Basilica Cistern. This mysterious cistern was forgotten briefly in the Middle Ages. After the Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople, local residents knew nothing about the cistern, but soon discovered that they were able to obtain water and even fish below their home basement by just lowering a bucket through a hole in the floor. The cistern was rediscovered by scholar Petrus Gyllius in 1545.
The most prominent Byzantine icon is undoubtedly Hagia Sophia. Built in 537, Hagia Sophia was the largest building in the world, and housed the patriarch seat of Eastern Orthodox Church until the the 15th century.
Standing opposite to Hagia Sophia is another cultural icon of Istanbul, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Blue Mosque. Inspired by the Byzantine icon Hagia Sophia, the Ottomans left their mark in Constantinople more than 1000 years by constructing the Blue Mosque over the former palace complex of the Byzantine emperors.
Smaller in scale than the iconic monuments, Sultanahmet also host many lesser known historical buildings in the residential neighborhoods.
Walking in Sultanahmet was like going back in time, as if every other street bend was marked by splendid timber houses and pavilions from the Ottoman era.
Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s autobiographical Istanbul: Memories and the Cities introduces readers his childhood Istanbul with a melancholic depiction of the Ottoman houses.
Pamuk’s writing and black and white photos showed me an unique Istanbul beyond the historical palaces, churches and mosques.
Searching for the Ottoman houses in Istanbul was not as easy as I thought, since many had been torn down in recent years.
Due to continuous urban renewal in the historical centre, many Ottoman houses were at risk for redevelopment.
Today, Sultanahmet has become a tourist hub, where many buildings have been converted into hotels and restaurants. In the time of commercialization, even the ruins of a 550-year bathhouse, the Ishak Pasa Hamam, is up for sale.
In Istanbul, we stayed at the friendly Sultan Hostel just two blocks behind the Blue Mosque.
At night, tourists would gather at restaurants in Sultanahmet to enjoy dinner and nargile or Turkish water pipe, along with live performance of the Sufi whirling dance.
Once-in-a-century pandemic has brought international travel to a complete halt. With the pandemic still raging in many parts of the world, it is unrealistic to plan for new travel anytime soon. As a result, we will take this opportunity to share some of our past travel experiences that predate this blog. The pandemic compels us to cherish our travel memories more than ever, and acknowledge that we should never take things for granted especially in turbulent times. The first travel memory we are going to write about is a 40-day journey through the Middle East from Turkey to Egypt via Syria and Jordan. In the recent decade, the Middle East has gone through drastic changes after the Arab Spring movement in early 2010’s and the rise of Isis, particularly for Syria where the ongoing civil war has displaced over 10 million and killed about half a million of Syrians in the past 9 years. Places visited and people encountered may no longer exist, but they live long in our memories.
In spring 2006, I and five other friends embarked on the 40-day journey from Toronto, Canada. We first flew to Athens via Zurich, and then landed in Istanbul on 29th of April. We spent 11 days in Turkey, visiting the splendid architecture of Istanbul and Edirne, archaeological sites of Bergama and Ephesus, and natural wonders of Pamukkale and Cappadocia, before crossing the border at Antakya into Syria. We spent a week traveling from Aleppo to Damascus, visiting Crusader castles and archaeological sites near Hama, Palmyra, Bosra and Maalula along the way. From Damascus, we hired a taxi to Amman in Jordan, where we stayed for 8 days. While Petra was our main focus in Jordan, we did manage to visit classical ruins and medieval castles, the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum Desert, and Aqaba diving resort. Then on 25th of May, we hopped on a ferry to cross the Gulf of Aqaba for Sinai Peninsula. In Egypt, we spent the remaining week to visit the diving town of Dahab, hike the sacred Mount Sinai, admire the pyramids in Saqqara, Dahshur and Giza, and the mosques and Coptic churches in Cairo, and finally ventured out into the far western end near the Libyan border for Siwa Oasis and the Great Sand Sea of the Western Desert.
Back then, I didn’t have a DSLR or smart phone, but traveled with a Nikon FM2 and 50+ rolls of films, including some Fuji Velvia (slide positives) and Ilford Delta (B&W negatives). Number of shots were limited and low light photography was restricted by the film ISO and the availability of a flat surface to place the camera. Yet, the photos’ film grains and occasional blurry effects due to hand movements somehow provoke a unique mood and vaguely remind me each distinct moment when I released the shutter. Each shot has no second take or immediate image editing. Compared to the multi gigabytes stored in memory cards, the slides and negatives of the Middle East trip are much more tangible as if one-of-a-kind souvenir from the trip. Scanning the films afterwards made me to spend a whole lot more time on each photo, and sometimes led me to rediscover bits and pieces of forgotten travel memories.
The 40-day Middle East trip in 2006 remains as one of my most memorable travel experiences to date.
The first time seeing the great architecture of ancient Constantinople was like a dream come true to me.
It was hard to perceive that all the ancient architecture in Turkey were maintained by generations after generations of craftsmen throughout the centuries.
The old Ottoman houses of Istanbul provoke a sense of melancholy that can only be found in the works of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.
With the otherworldly landscape, hiking in Cappadocia was fun and felt like walking on another planet.
In the past decade, reading the news about how Syrians have suffered and learning about so many cultural heritage, including the Aleppo Citadel, have been destroyed or badly damaged was really upsetting.
Archaeological sites in Syria like Palmyra and Apamea (pictures above) has become venues for frequent looting and destruction under the Isis.
10 million people have been displaced by the Syrian Civil War. Cities like Hama, the city famous for its ancient norias, has been standing in the forefront between the rebels and the government force.
I have encountered so many innocent Syrian children, including these school kids in Damascus, back in 2006. No one would have foreseen the brutal civil war coming in a few years’ time.
Compared to the Syrians who are still going through the civil war, the Jordanian children that I’ve met in Amman during the trip have been much more fortunate.
Every time meandering through the Siq, the narrow gorge that leads into the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, and approaching the Treasury was like going into an Indiana Jones movie.
Riding a camel in Wadi Rum Desert offered every visitors a chance to feel like being Lawrence of Arabia.
I would never forget hiking the pilgrim route up Mount Sinai at 2am in complete darkness, standing at the summit in bone-chilling wind, and watching one of the most anticipated sunrises in my life.
Getting lost in the chaotic Islamic Cairo would be so much fun if not the scorching heat.
Venturing out to the remote Siwa Oasis on my own was one of the most adventurous event in my travels.
Heading out from Siwa into the Great Sand Sea gave me the perfect Sahara moments: doing rollercoaster Jeep rides up and down the dunes, watching sunset over the undulating desert horizon, and sleeping under the Milky Way in the open desert.