Cliff-dwelling through the ages

Cliff-dwelling through the ages

We leave behind Istanbul and the gilded splendors left on the banks of the Bosphorus by two millennia of successive empires for a further jump backward into ancient history. The next stop is Nevsehir, the gateway to Cappadocia, in the heart of the arid highlands of Central Anatolia. In Cappadocia, or “Land of Beautiful Horses” in the language of its Bronze Age Hittite settlers, history is hewn into the rock, by the elements and the various human waves that have inhabited it since pre-Hellenic times.

FAIRY CHIMNEYS AND BYZANTINE CAVE CITIES

Turkey - Cappadocia Fairy Chimneys

Cappadocia is an otherworldly landscape of jagged cliffs and soaring towers.

Millions of years of volcanic activities covered the area with layers of lava and compressed volcanic ash (or tuff) that were then eroded by the harsh climactic conditions into an otherworldly landscape of jagged cliffs and soaring towers. “Fairy chimneys” were formed when the lava covering the tuff gave way along preexisting cracks and the remaining protected areas became isolated pinnacles. These pillars of soft rocks topped with conical lava hats can reach heights up to 130 feet (40 meters).

The region is a beehive of cave and cliff dwellings. By some estimates, local inhabitants were carving their homes into the soft tuff as far back as 4000 years ago. Later, some of the first Christian settlements were established in the protective remoteness of the area. Eventually they grew into vast underground cities capable of sheltering tens of thousands inhabitants.

Turkey - Cappadocia cliff city

Kaymakli is a seven-floor labyrinth of tunnels

One of the largest, Kaymakli is a fascinating seven-floor labyrinth of tunnels, some of them quite narrow, with the various living spaces arranged around ventilation shafts. Of the four levels open to visitors at this time, the first floor holds mainly stables and a giant millstone that controls access to the other floors. A stunning church with a pillared nave and two apses is carved into the second floor, its domed ceiling covered in vivid Byzantine frescoes. The third floor contains all the life-sustaining areas: wine and oil presses, grindstones and kitchens.

We spend the night in Uchisar, the highest point in Cappadocia, topped by a sprawling cliff dwelling, the Uchisar Castle. From there the entire city, many of its buildings anchored to the rock face, cascades all the way down do the valley below. Our hotel is nestled in the rock, at the base of the castle. The view is jaw dropping!

Turkey - Frescoed cave chruch in Cappadocia

A richly frescoes Byzantine cave church in Cappadocia.

The next day, we head to the nearby troglodyte (cave dwellers) complex of Pasabagi (more gloriously frescoed rock churches there). This is also the area where the most spectacular “Fairy Chimneys” are located. The site is known as Monks Valley, as the chimneys were home in the fifth century to a hermitage of Simeon monks, who lived in seclusion by cutting shelters high the pillars.

GREEK AND ROMAN ANTIQUITIES CONVERGE

Turkey - Ephesus Greek Amphitheater

Ephesus had the largest Amphitheatre in the antique Greek word.

Because we are “in the neighborhood” (i.e. Turkey), we don’t want to miss the ancient Greco-Roman city of Ephesus. It’s quite a trek from Cappadocia: a three-hour drive to Ankara, during which we ride along the crusty banks of Tuz Gölü (meaning Salt Lake). With its 643 square mile (1,665 square kilometer) surface, it is the second largest lake in Turkey and one of the largest hypersaline lakes on the planet. After a quick stop in Ankara, the country’s capital since it replaced Istanbul in 1923, we fly to Izmir for the night and we are ready to explore Ephesus in the morning.

Ephesus. Turkey.- The Library of Celsius.

The Library of Celsius in Ephesus.

In spite of its long and illustrious Greek history, it is the memory of its Roman grandeur that remains. By the first century B.C. it was one of the largest city in the Mediterranean world with a population of more than 250,000. It had the world’s largest theatre and its largest building, the temple of Artemis. Both can still be seen, although little remains of the latter. But the stunning façade of the Library of Celcius, built a couple of centuries later and the iconic monument of Ephesus, still stands in all its awesome splendor.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Uchisar

Back to Byzantium

Back to Byzantium

Like many of my far-flung travels, my recent trip to Turkey begins with two words: “Yes! When?”

At the other end of the phone half way around the world, a friend is telling me of her upcoming business in Istanbul, and can I get myself there for a bit of exploring afterward. As simply as that, thoughts of visiting Turkey “someday” become “next month.” Four weeks later, I am landing at Istanbul Atatürk Airport; and find myself immediately immersed in the mystique of the millennia-old oriental city.

The drive from the airport takes me along the Bosphorus, the legendary boundary between Europe and Asia that flows through the middle of the city, east to west from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. On both sides, Istanbul spreads from its endless waterfront over wooded hills.

At the crossroads of cultures

The Byzantine Cathedral Aya Sofia

One a cathedral then a mosque, Aya Sofia is now a museum filled with Byzantine treasures

Fortunately for visitors to this sprawling city, successive dynasties of Byzantine kings, Roman caesars and Ottoman sultans conveniently settled themselves within and on top of their predecessors’ seat of power, in the Old City neighborhood of Sultanahmet. Bound by water on three sides (the Golden Horn, Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara to the north, east and south respectively), and the ancient city walls to the west, this peninsula holds what once was Constantinople and Byzantium before that.

We spend the next three days bouncing back and forth between empires. Our first stop, Aya Sofia, is a metaphor for the evolution of Istanbul. A massive structure whose huge dome is considered to this day one of the world’s great architectural achievements, it was built in the sixth century as a Christian cathedral by Byzantine emperor Justinian. Eight centuries later, following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, Aya Sofia became a mosque, its soaring domes and elaborate mosaics covered with Arabic script and gold for the next five century, until it became a museum in 1931. Now some beautifully restored Byzantine mosaics can be seen again along with the Ottoman artwork.

Istanbul -the Blue Mosque.

The cascade of domed roofs of the Blue Mosque.

From there we walk across a small park toward the cascade of domed roofs and the spear-like minarets of the seventeenth century Sultanahmet Mosque (a.k.a. Blue Mosque). Rumor has it that when Sultan Ahmet I set out to build the mosque that bears his name, he wanted to surpass the grandeur and beauty of Aya Sofia. While I am no expert, I will call the endeavor a draw.

The Blue Mosque is indeed as stunning as its sixth century neighbor. Its central dome rises 140 feet (43 meters), held by four giant columns. The mosque’s interior is covered in elaborate abstract patterns of Iznik tiles. Light streaming from 260 windows set high into the domes plays on the tiles and creates an otherworldly atmosphere. While it is one of Istanbul’s prime tourist attractions, the Blue Mosque is still a place of worship that can hold up to 10,000 worshipers.

Down into the sunken palace

Istanbul Cistern Basilica

The Istanbul Cistern Basilica dates back to Roman times.

After this architectural extravaganza, the small bunker-like building across the street from Aya Sofia that marks the entrance to the Basilica Cistern is a bit of a let down. Inside its non-descript doorway, we start down an ancient stone staircase. Fifty-two damp steps later, we reach a surreal underground world of towering Hellenic marble columns (336 in all, lined in 12 rows of 28 each) rising from a dark pool of water. We are in the Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarnici (Sunken Palace). Originally constructed in the fourth century by Emperor Constantine, the cistern was enlarged in 532 to its present state by Justinian to meet the water needs of the Great Palace imperial complex. The 30-foot (nine meter) high columns are thought to be “recycled” from various parts of the empire. For me, this unique watery cathedral-like space is one of the most striking sights of Istanbul.

istanbul medieval Rumelian fortress.

The medieval Rumelian fortress on the Bosphorus.

The next morning we board a public ferry to cruise from the Golden Horn, the crescent-shaped inlet that has served as a natural harbor for Istanbul since before it was Byzantium, out into the Bosphorus and east toward the Black Sea. We pass the great 19th century Ottoman waterfront palaces, then the colossal medieval walls of the Rumelian fortress. Further east still, we discover traditional fishing villages and yalis (seashore wooden villas).

No end of Treasures

Istambul-Dolmabahce

The Dolmabahce Palace.

What about all the other much vaunted “guidebook musts?” Yes, we do fit those in also. We wander through Topkapi Palace, a labyrinth of ornate rooms that conjure images of turbaned sultans and their harems, before enjoying a panoramic view of the Sea of Marmara from its private terraces. We dutifully follow the crowds through the Dolmabahce Palace – think Versailles on the Bosphorus. And we make the de rigueur stop at the Grand Bazaar. This ancestor of the shopping mall is now overflowing with overpriced goods for tourists. The Spice Bazaar, a vast aromatic market piled high with coffees, dried fruits, spices and herbs feels more enticing. Besides, locals still shop there; always a good sign.

Istanbul Chora Museum.

the Chora Museum is a striking exemple of Byzantine Church .

On the last day, an afterthought visit to the out-of-the-way Church of the Holly Savior in Chora (now Chora Museum) delivers one of the biggest thrills of my stay in Istanbul. The current structure, build in 1081 on the site a fifth century church, is considered one of the most striking surviving example of a Byzantine church. In the early fourteenth century, Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites endowed the church with exquisite mosaics and frescos that illustrate the genealogy, birth, life and resurrection of Jesus. After the fall of the city to the Ottomans, the Chora Church was converted into a mosque and its glorious artworks plastered over. Thus they remained mainly intact throughout the centuries, to be cleared and restored when the mosque was turned into a museum in the late 1950’s. These are the most breathtaking Byzantine mosaics I have ever seen.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Byzantium