8 Amazing Places in Turkey You’ve Never Heard Of

December 20, 2012 by

Europe, List Mania: Viator's Top Picks, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

Nearly every visitor to Turkey spends time in the vibrant east-meets-west city of Istanbul. But Turkey spreads far beyond the banks of the Bosphorus, to ancient cities and provincial towns, small islands and massive mountains. Don’t miss Istanbul, but be sure to spend time exploring some of these other amazing places in Turkey.

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Diyarbakir

Diyarbakir

In Diyarbakir. Photo courtesy of David Joshua Jennings.

Out of the smoke-blackened urban squalor Diyarbakir’s colossal black walls will thrust into view like a sudden canyon. Built of black volcanic basalt more than 1700 years ago, they stand twelve meters high, 3.5 meters thick and stretch for almost six kilometers – the second longest medieval fortification outside the Great Wall of China.

The history of Diyarbakir began another 1700 years before these walls were even erected, with the Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni around 1500BCE, which was subsequently conquered by the Urartians, the Assyrians, the Persians and then Alexander the Great. The Romans took over in 115 CE and named the city Amida.

In 359 Amida again fell under the Persian curtain and was snatched back and forth between the two monsters for almost 300 years. It was in Byzantine possession when a tribe of pre-Islamic Arabs called the Bakr swept into Upper Mesopotamia and captured the city in 639. They renamed it Diyar Bakir, meaning “Realm of the Bakr people.”

Over the next few centuries the city was ruled by various Arab, Turkish, Persian, Kurdish and Mongol dynasties until it was inhaled by the expanding Ottomans Empire in 1515; but because it lay on a crux where armies poured endlessly out of Persia, Syria and Anatolia, the city was to suffer many more tribulations, the 20th century being perhaps the bloodiest.

Most people bypass Diyarbakir due to its reputation as the caldera of Kurdish nationalism and unrest (with the threat of violence that accompanies that reputation). Although true enough in 80s and 90s, Diyarabakir today is safe and generally docile unless the political climate is undergoing a heated phase. It is the best place in Turkey to experience Kurdish cultural fervor. Try to visit in late March during Nevruz, the Kurdish New Year, when nearly a million people gather outside the city to sing, dance, jump over fires and celebrate.

To pass the day you can go for a walk atop the walls that enclave the old city, but beware of pickpockets. Other notable sites include: Ulu Camii, the oldest mosque in Anatolia, converted from a church in 639 and rebuilt in 11th century; the Old Caravanserai, now a place of cafes and souvenir shops, located across the street from the Ulu Camii; the Virgin Mary Church, a Syrian Orthodox church founded in 3rd century where you can still hear fragments of the Bible sung in Aramaic; and the largest Armenian church in the Middle East.

Urfa

Urfa

Urfa. Photo courtesy of David Joshua Jennings.

Urfa is an oasis situated some eighty kilometers east of the Euphrates River and is perhaps the most evocative city in the country. Unlike the metropolises and resort towns of Western Turkey, the atmosphere in Urfa is unmistakably Middle-Eastern, complete with bustling bazaars and Kurds and Arabs clothed in loose-crotched shalvar pants, capes and iridescent costumes bedazzled with spangles.

The beginning of Urfa’s recorded history begins in the 4th century BCE. It is one of several cities in the Euphrates-Tigris basin where Mesopotamian civilization first arose. Urfa also has a number of connections with the Old Testament (it is the alleged birthplace of both Abraham and Job) and is a pilgrimage site for all of the Abrahamic faiths.

During the summer the desert heat becomes scalding, but fortunately an enormous, clean, cool, heavily shaded park occupies the center of the city, which is a great place to chill out, smoke nargile and challenge locals to a game of backgammon.

Places of interest include: the birth cave of the prophet Abraham; Urfa castle, which was built in antiquity and offers spectacular views over the city; the legendary Pool of Sacred Fish (Balikligöl), where Abraham was allegedly thrown into the fire by Nimrod; the mosque of Halil-ur-Rahman, built by the Ayyubids in 1211 and now surrounded by attractive gardens; and the Rizvaniye Mosque, a more recent Ottoman mosque completed in 1716.

Hasankeyf

Hasankeyf

Hasankeyf. Photo courtesy of David Joshua Jennings.

Hasankeyf is a small village on the banks of the Tigris River that has been continuously occupied for nearly three millennia — first by the Assyrians and Urartians, followed by the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Turks. The whole area exudes an atmosphere of antiquity.

The glorious days of Hasankeyf have long since passed and most of its architectural wonders have fallen into state of disrepair or ruin, but at least you will be able to explore the area without seeing any other tourists, as the village is well off the beaten track and not frequently visited. If you plan to go, however, go now: Hasankeyf is slated to be inundated upon the completion of the Ilisu dam project sometime in the next few years.

The archaeological highlight of Hasankeyf is the extensive citadel that overlooks the village from a rock bluff 100 meters above the river. Below it, crossing the Tigris in a series of devastated columns, is the Old Tigris Bridge, which was built in 1116 by the Artuqid Sultan Fahrettin Karaaslan. Two pillars — one of which serves as the balcony of someone’s home — and some foundation work are all that remain of the bridge today.

Other sites around the village include: the Ulu Camii, a mosque built by the Ayyubids in 1325; the El Rizk Mosque, built in 1409 by the Ayyubid Sultan Süleyman; and the 14th century tomb of Imam Abdullah, the grandson of Cafer-i Tayyar, uncle of the prophet Mohammad.

Aside from these historical sites, be sure to spend some time exploring the thousands of caves and troglodyte dwelling found in the cliffs that surround the city. Until the 1970s many people still lived in these ancient dwellings, but now only a few families remain. You can explore and even camp in them without being disturbed.

Van

Modern Van (pronounced “von”) lies over the ancient city of Tushpa, which was the capital of the Urartian kingdom as far back as the 9th century BCE. Back then the major settlements were centered on a steep hill that is known today as Van Castle, a few kilometers west of the modern city. The castle is free to climb and explore and offers great views over the city.

Van is predominately Kurdish these days, and is located on the eastern shore of the beautiful, eerie Lake Van — the largest lake in Asia Minor. Van serves as a perfect base for long walks along the shoreline or for visiting the ancient Armenian church on Akdamar island — reachable by ferry from the highway just outside the city.

The modern city is also justifiably famous for its breakfasts and its cats. Van breakfast culture is celebrated throughout the country (most breakfast joints in Istanbul are called Van Breakfast Houses) and is best experienced on Kahvalti Sokak (Breakfast Street) near the city center. Van cats, on the other hand, are a mysterious breed of kitten that is native to the city, known for their white fur and chatoyant green/blue eyes.

Ani

Ani Turkey

Ani’s ruins. Photo credit: sly06 via Flickr.

A short drive from the eastern Anatolian city of Kars, Ani encompasses the ruins of a city that once served as the capital of the Armenian Empire, which, in its heyday, rivaled some of the most powerful cities in the Middle East. At its apotheosis it was known as the City of Forty Gates and a Thousand Churches.

Ani first rose to prominence in the 5th century as a hilltop fortress belonging to the Armenian Kamsarakan Dynasty. In 956 the capital of the Armenian kingdom was moved here, followed shortly by the Patriarch of the Armenian Church, making Ani the undisputed center of Armenia.

During its eleventh century golden age Ani contained some 100,000 citizens, but its prominence began to decline with the death of King Gagik in 1020, followed in 1064 by the arrival of the Seljuk Turks, who conquered the city and massacred most of the populace. Though Ani lived on for another six and a half centuries, it remained a provincial town straddling the edge of rival empires.

Since Ottoman times, Ani has been located on one of the world’s most hostile borders — between Turkey and the Soviet Union, and then later Armenia — and fell within a Turkish military zone that did not allow tourism. Fortunately, things have cooled down recently and most of the area is now accessible.

The ruins themselves are breathtaking, scattered among the undulating Turkish steppes near the jagged canyon that separates Turkey from Armenia. Most of the well-preserved churches date back to the late 10th century and early 11th century. The most distinctive is the church of Christ the Redeemer, which was split perfectly in half by a lightning strike. Other sites include the ruins of a Zoroastrian fire temple, a small Ottoman fort, and the first Seljuk mosque in Anatolia.

If you can, try to visit in June when the whole area is abloom with wildflowers.

Mardin

Mardin

Mardin. Photo courtesy of David Joshua Jennings.

The ancient, honey-colored city of Mardin dominates a great hill overlooking the Mesopotamian plains in the heart of the Syriac homeland. The city is known for its heavily-decorated stonework and architecture reminiscent of Old Jerusalem.

Syriac Orthodox Christianity, whose churches can be found throughout Mardin, was established in 431, but the Syriacs themselves trace their origin back to the Akkadian Empire, which emerged in Mesopotamia around 2200 BCE. The Syriac population of Mardin had dwindled significantly due to emigration in recent years, however, and now the population harbors a farrago of Turks, Kurds and Arabs, making Mardin of of the most ethnically diverse towns in Turkey.

The city was unofficially closed to tourism during the 1990s due to conflicts between Turkey and the PKK in the surrounding countryside, but Mardin has recently begun to throw up a number of decent tourist facilities and is definitely a worthwhile trip for the intrepid traveler.

Perhaps the most rewarding experience of Mardin is to be had wandering around the narrow, winding backstreets of the old city, where one can stumble upon the Church of Forties, a Syriac Orthodox church dating back to 10th century, and the Zinciriye Medresesi, an Islamic school built by the Artuqids in 1385.

Safranbolu

Safranbolu

Safranbolu. Photo credit: Kübra Kilic via Flickr.

Safranbolu is the gem of Turkey’s Black Sea coast and a must-see for anyone interested in what provincial life was like in the Ottoman Empire. The town is famous for its stately, well-preserved Ottoman-style houses and architecture, for which it earned its status as a UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1994.

The Old Town, which is situated in a deep ravine below the modern city, boasts countless historical artifacts, including 25 mosques, 5 tombs, 8 historical fountains, 5 Turkish baths, 3 caravanserais, and hundreds of houses and mansions, some of which have been turned into museums.

No town in Turkey delivers you more effectively back in the 18th century. Spend a day or two strolling up and down the pleasant cobblestoned streets and pass the night in a creaky, wooden historical mansion/pension.

Dogubeyazit

Dogubeyazit

Dogubeyazit. Photo credit: *saipal via Flickr.

If you’re heading east towards Iran, the last Turkish town you’ll hit before the border is Dogubeyazit, which is situated on a plain surrounded by some of Turkey’s highest mountains.

The area has a rich history, with monuments dating back to the time of the Kingdom of Urartu over 2700 years ago.

The modern town itself is uninspiring, and most people head to the campgrounds outside the city, which they use as a base to climb nearby Mount Ararat and to visit the stunning Ishak Pasa Sarayi, an 18th-century palace and fortress located 5 km outside the city.

Mount Ararat (5,137 meters) sits on the border of Turkey, Iran and Armenia, and is the supposed landing point of Noah’s Ark. Guides and equipment to hike to the summit, as well as a few locals who believe they’ve found the ark, can be found in Dogubeyazit. The climb is long, but there is a fairly easy route from the south in late summer for climbers who are familiar with the use of axe and crampons.

Everyone needs a climbing permit and a licensed guide to accompany you, both of which can be arranged in Dogubeyazit. A return trip to the summit takes about four days.

Since you’re in the area, you may also want to visit the second-largest meteor crater in the world, located on the Iranian border about 35 km east of town.

 – David Joshua Jennings



4 Responses to “8 Amazing Places in Turkey You’ve Never Heard Of”

  1. Shubhajit Says:

    Hi,

    You have written a very informative piece of article. Though I am not much into Islamic countries but the photographs of Turkey inspire me to visit there once. I from India and traveling is like a second nature whenever my finance and time allow me.

    I like Ani’s ruin and Urfa. Hope to visit there one day. cheers!

  2. Natalie Says:

    Sorry but heard of every single one of them! They are all big cities or major attractions.

  3. Vinay Says:

    Will be in Turkey-Istanbul & Izmir end of January. Will keep in Mind. Thanx

  4. Birgi Says:

    Turkey has countless of touristic attractions, cultural and natural wonders such as Ephesus, Pamukkale, Selcuk, Antalya, Sardis, Cappodocia etc… It’s a fascinating place for those looking for alternative tourism routes.