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Victory is mine! Or, on visiting all of Turkey’s UNESCO sites

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One of the benefits of being posted to a country where I’ve lived for years is that I have the time to finish things that started as a “Wouldn’t it be great if…” thought. When you live in a country without a set timeline, it’s easy to get a lot done without accomplishing much finite – there’s always more time, and who knows how long you’ll be in the country. You want to save something for next year.

This is how I managed to arrive in Turkey for my tour, with four-and-a-half years in-country under my belt, having only visited five of Turkey’s 11 UNESCO sites (n.b. TO BE FAIR, Çatalhöyük was added in 2012, after I arrived this time. So, five of 10). Visiting all of Turkey’s UNESCO World Heritage sites had long been a hazy goal of mine – I really liked the idea, it seemed like an interesting and medium-difficult accomplishment, and few foreigners (or Turks, really) ever do. But pre-this job, I ran into one steep problem that kept me from going too far in my quest.

I didn’t have a car.

Far be it from me to champion vehicle ownership. My current car is the first car I’ve ever owned. I hate driving in the city. But when I was posted back to Turkey, I knew that if I really wanted to see everything I didn’t see before, I’d need my own wheels. Intercity busses only go so many places. So I acquired a car, and set out to see the remaining UNESCO sites on my list. Halfway through, I realized that UNESCO had sneakily added one additional site in Turkey to its World Heritage list in summer 2012, slightly lengthening the endeavor. But I finally made it to the last Turkish UNESCO site and crossed that line off my list of life goals.

Following, I’ve written up Turkey’s UNESCO sites in the order in which I first visited them:

1. Istanbul Old City, February 2006


It was February. I was an exchange student at a university in Ankara, visiting Istanbul with several fellow exchange student friends. We went out, stayed out late, saw the Blue Mosque, and accidentally got tear gassed. My first Turkish UNESCO site and also my first teargas experience. This being Turkey, neither would be my last. In June 2009, I moved to Istanbul, actually within the walls of the Old City. So for 16 months I lived inside a UNESCO site. It didn’t feel that historic at the time.

2. Göreme, May 2006


As someone who really enjoys exploring Turkey but often lacks a significant other, I got used to traveling solo to the sites I really wanted to see early on. This was my first solo trip in Turkey, and it was a success (My second, to Georgia, is a slightly less successful but much more interesting story). I grabbed a dolmus to the Ankara bus station, hopped an evening bus to Goreme, and spent a long weekend exploring Cappadocia. It was gorgeous. I rode a camel. In retrospect, that was about the most touristy thing I could do aside from a hot-air balloon ride. I’ve been back to Göreme, but I still have not ridden in a hot-air balloon.

3. Nemrut Dağ, September 2008

Fresh off a summer of intensive Turkish classes, I was on a roll in the Fall of 2008 – I had intrepid travel companions and the Southeast was an open road. So off we went over the end-of-bayram holiday, three American women in search of historical sites and adventure from Van to Gaziantep. I’ll spare the details of the non-UNESCO portions of this trip, but we met up with two acquaintances living in Gaziantep and caravanned up Mount Nemrut from Şanlıurfa. It was absolutely gorgeous, and absolutely freezing. The sunset wasn’t as bad, because we arrived when the sun was fully up, so had time to explore the whole mountaintop before the sun fully set and temperatures dropped. In a decision that in hindsight was incredibly misguided, we had booked a tour with a sunset and sunrise excursion on Nemrut. We woke up at 3:30 a.m. It was so cold. I was so unhappy to be away from full flannel blanket coverage. My friend was unseemingly chipper for the miserably freezing early hour, and kept trying to get us to pose for “interesting” or “active” photos. She later told me the only time she ever knew that I Was Not Joking Around, Was Completely Serious, and Was Not Compromising About Any Of This Guff was when she suggested some pose involving jumping, at about 4:45 a.m. on the top of the mountain. I peered through the giant fleece blanket I was wearing as a hooded cloak, and said, eyes narrowed and teeth gritted, “I’m quite comfortable here where I am, thank you very much.”
There is no dawn-time jumping photo of us on Nemrut.

4. Troy, March 2009
My best friend from when I lived in West Africa made the trek out to Turkey when I was living in Ankara for a jam-packed week of adventure. She was here for seven days, and during those seven days we hit seven cities in two countries – Istanbul, Çanakkale, İzmir, Hatay, Aleppo, Gaziantep, Ankara. I’d never been to Troy before, so I suggested we stop on our way from Istanbul to Izmir. It was interesting to see, but frustrating to tour, because the signage was … lacking in explication. The replica Trojan Horse at Troy itself looked like a (really awesome) kids’ treehouse. The one in the city of Çanakkale, though, was left over from the Brad Pitt movie Troy, and looked much more impressive. I’ve heard they’re working on building a museum at the site, which could help quite a bit.
This was the first site where I encountered the very real impact of the century-ago decisions to take the yields of archaeological excavations in the Ottoman Empire out of the Empire and back to “the West.” It’s really unfortunate, because the sites have been so denuded that the average visitor won’t find much value in visiting the original sites, and the visitors to museums in Germany, Austria, New York, etc., just see random pieces in a display box, divorced from any sense of place. This isn’t to say that I agree with those who say that these artifacts should be given back wholesale, especially as there are insufficient mechanisms in the “home countries,” if you will, to protect these artifacts from damage from the elements or from looters or sophisticated thieves. It’s a complex issue.

5. Selimiye complex, June 2011
It was summer and I had a tight group of friends with a sense of adventure. We met up with a friend in Edirne, because she’d had a work trip there, and explored the mosque area before hitting the road for our ultimate destination: Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. I’ll be honest with you, this site made less of an impression on me. Truth be told, I’m just not a fan of Mimar Sinan’s style. I appreciate the Bursa style of Ottoman monumental architecture (and the French Bursa-inspired Ottoman pattern books) much more. So, yes Selimiye is stunning and grand. But it’s just not my cup of tea. I did quite enjoy Edirne, and Trakya in general is a lot of fun. I came back to Selimiye in the summer of 2012 for the oil wrestling festival which is a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. It was amazing.

6. Safranbolu, August 2012
I moved to DC, thinking I wouldn’t be back in Turkey for several years at least, and then found myself back in Ankara in short order. Now that I had a defined time frame and also a car, I set out to make more progress on the UNESCO list. A few coworkers and I set out for Safranbolu one sunny morning, and spent a day wandering the quaint streets, shopping, and chatting with a very nice metalsmith. We also took a mildly terrifying touristic go-kart ride through all the town’s notable places. Safranbolu is pretty much exactly as advertised – adorable restored Ottoman houses along a winding river, with souvenirs for all buyers. I visited again in February 2013 on my way back to Ankara from Amasra and bought more metal trays.

7. Pamukkale/Hierapolis, August 2012
Two days after my trip to Safranbolu, a friend and I set out for The South to visit two UNESCO sites over the bayram – Pamukkale and Xanthos/Letoon. Honestly, once I got to Pamukkale I kicked myself for not going earlier. It’s lovely, and it’s huge, and it’s just great to explore. My intrepid co-explorer and I have a knack for taking the leisurely way to any site, and this was assuredly the case in Pamukkale – we may have been on deer trails at one point, but we did see parts of the complex that very few other tourists made it to. Wonderfully, at the end of the day after we’d clambered all over the ruins in the August heat, we arrived at the travertine pools and were able to cool off. Unlike the Russian tourists at Pamukkale, I have no photos of myself in a bikini posing on a Byzantine column.

8. Xanthos/Letoon, August 2012
The day after making it to Pamukkale, I set out with my intrepid friend for Xanthos and Letoon, a double-site UNESCO listing. We found the main town, Xanthos, and had much of the place entirely to ourselves, clambering over giant stones and wondering what the original buildings and monuments must have looked like. It was gorgeous, it was eerie. Once we had finished exploring Xanthos (again, some of the principal finds are in Western museums), we set out for Letoon, a temple/religious complex. If is currently half-submerged and full of very vocal frogs, but the series of three temples are beautiful and full of surprises, such as original mosaics. Xanthos and Letoon are definitely underappreciated for the treasures they are.

9. Hattusha, May 2013


With a car, Hattusha is an easy day trip from Ankara. Without a car, Hattusha is a bit trickier. Luckily, a friend and I climbed in to my trusty rusty Honda and set off for scenic Çorum province. In terms of the Turkish government’s investment in the development of its UNESCO sites, Hattusha is hands-down the best: the sprawling site has a well-maintained wide cobblestone road allowing you to drive from one noteworthy and informative interpretive sign and accompanying artifact to the next. We did end up in the middle of a Turkish elementary school group, but we were able to lose them and enjoy the ancient Hittite capital. Although many artifacts from Hattusha are in the Ankara Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, there’s still enough at the site to allow visitors to picture what the area must have looked like with a full ancient city within.

10. Divriği, August 2013


This was another solo trip – try as I might, I just couldn’t convince anyone to come to Sivas with me. My Turkish colleagues were horrified at the thought. So off I drove, through Çorum, stopping overnight in Sivas city, which seemed like a fun place to explore, before setting off down a few hundred kilometers of back roads to the town of Divriği, home of the Most Beautiful Doors in the World. The doors in question are attached to a Selcuk mosque and hospital complex. While the mosque is still operational (and very popular), the hospital is not, and has not been for several hundred years. The patterns and designs carved into the three large monumental doors of the complex are colloquially said to be proof God exists. They are most certainly impressively carved and designed. Divriği is often referred to as Turkey’s most remote UNESCO site, and I would not argue – it was a long drive down a pretty desolate stretch of road to reach the town, and it was pretty clear that the gas stations around there didn’t get a lot of non-local customers.

11. Çatalhöyük, October 2013
When I was planning my Divriği trip, I initially assumed that it was my final UNESCO site on the list. A last-minute scan of the official list showed me that I was wrong – Çatalhöyük had been added in the summer of 2012. I wasn’t too put out, because I’ve seen the Çatalhöyük collection in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations since 2006, and it is a site with a very impressive history – a Neolithic town, and a site with extensive artifacts that have survived. Recently, two coworkers and I set off for Konya to explore the area and cross the last UNESCO site off my list. It was about three hours out of Ankara, and at first glance looked fairly promising – there was a site caretaker and a visitors center, in addition to a walking path to go to all the main portions of the site. While the English-language texts in the visitors center were hilariously overblown yet informative, it may have been a better site to visit during the summer, in dig season. Çatalhöyük is an active archaeological excavation site, so while we were able to see everywhere the archaeologists had excavated, none of the artifacts were on-site – all of them were in the museum in Ankara or the museum in Konya. It was still cool to wander around the bones of a 9,000-year-old city, and they did a pretty good job of explaining what was there on-sight. We took a few pictures, and with that I had completed my Turkish UNESCO quest.

Unfortunately I won’t be able to see all the UNESCO sites at my next post. While there are only two UNESCO sites in the country of my next post, and while I’ve already visited one of those two, the other is currently not possible for me to visit. I’ll have to come up with some other goal.


2 responses »

  1. You didn’t love Selimiye?! Probably one of my favorite places in Turkey. You’re out of your mind.

    • Istanbul’s imperial mosque designs just do not float my boat the way, say, a good Selcuk-inspired minaret or Bursali mosque does. Mimar Sinan was brilliant, but not my fave


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