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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Traveling in Turkey




My wife and I loved Turkey. It is one of the most amazing countries we have visited. People were extremely friendly and helpful, prices were cheap, and food was delicious. It is true that everyone seems to be trying to sell you carpets, but even when they knew we weren't buying they were friendly.

A very good book to take with you is Ancient Turkey: A Traveler's History by Seton Lloyd. It will help to understand the very rich and ancient culture of Turkey including the Hittites who built Hattusas. It doesn't go into that much detail, but it covers a lot of ground and gives you a feel for the rich history of the place.

We rented a car and drove around to some of the most amazing archaeological sites I have ever seen. I don't recommend driving...it was nerve wracking. Better to arrange a driver or find buses. Driving in Turkey is a strange combination of people driving WAY too fast with tractors driving WAY too slowly. It is chaos.

Istanbul is an amazing city. Sites from Roman times through the Byzantine Empire to wonderful Islamic sites to modern times. It is a modern city (not as modern as Ankara) mixed in with every phase of history you can imagine.

Here is a picture we took from inside the harem of the Topkapi palace. It gives you an idea of just how gorgeous and rich the place is:



In Istanbul, along the main roads between the market and the Blue Mosque/Haiga Sophia area we found a great restaurant called Cennet (pronounced 'Chen-et') which had some interesting and unusual food (all very good!) and had very friendly service. Occasionally there was also live Turkish music. We went back to this restaurant over and over and the waiters got to know us. That waiter had a dream of moving to New York City and was disappointed when we told him how expensive it was in NYC. I wonder if he ever came here. If I am ever back in Istanbul this is top of our list for dining.

People in Istanbul were very nice. I remember one carpet salesman kept trying to interest us in his wares. We kept pleading poverty. Eventually he recognized us and would joke, "Oh, you're the POOR Americans. I'm not interested in poor Americans." He'd then talk with us for a few minutes before moving on. We liked him and he always took time for us even when he knew we were the "poor Americans."

The city of Canakale is near the ancient site of Troy as well as the WW I site of Gallipoli, made famous by the excellent Peter Weir movie (starring a very young Mel Gibson) of that name. You can get good tours of the ruins of Troy. These ruins have been badly excavated in the past and this makes them somewhat disappointing at first. But the truth is it is still powerful to stand there at the site of Homer's Illiad and to actually see the main gate of Troy. There is actually one unusual angle of the wall that is mentioned at some length in the Iliad and is one of the main places where fighting takes place. And you can actually see that unusual angle right there in real life. It was one of our favorite places in Turkey.

Ankara is a very modern city where you see far more women in jeans than in traditional dress. But we mainly stayed there as a jumping off place to the interior of Turkey, a vast area once ruled by the ancient Hittites (not to be confused with the biblical Hittites who would have been the last remnants of the great empire).

It was in Ankara where we first realized the depth of kindness in the Turks. We got lost looking for our hotel. I knew we were at the wrong end of the city, but somehow we couldn't get to where we needed to go. The streets all led us the wrong way. Finally we wound up stuck in a line entering a HUGE bus depot and were forced to the booth to pay for parking. In English we did our best to explain we were lost and had to find our hotel. The person working the parking booth actually abandoned his post (to the distress of his boss!) and insisted on getting in our car and guiding us to our hotel. He wouldn't take taxi fare back to his job so I had to stop a taxi, give the driver money, and insist our kind guide take the taxi back.

The ancient archaeological site of Hattusas, (Bogozkale) near Ankara, was one of our favorite sites to visit. The site is fascinating and is about 4000 years old, the capital of the vast Hittite Empire. We got a good guide at the site who showed us around for hours giving very good information. His family had been part of the original excavation of the site and he really knew his stuff. I had studied up on the Hittites, so I could tell if he was BSing us. As far as I could tell he was giving us a wealth of true information. In the end it turned out he wanted to sell us carpets, but it also turns out that this is actually one of the best places to buy Turkish carpets. We actually bought three from him at VERY reasonable prices. Much nicer, lower pressure and cheaper than buying them in Ankara or Istanbul. One carpet we bought was unique to the area and is proudly displayed on our wall at home. I will say, though, that hauling the carpets for the rest of our trip was tough. We tried to ship them, but, as I will mention below, a huge earthquake disrupted any chance of shipping them. So I carried them through the rest of Turkey and through Israel, our next destination.

The Hittite Empire was one of the main rivals of Egypt and their capital city was vast. It covers a huge area and though much of it is long ruined, there are some touches that are amazingly preserved. There is one ancient gate where you can still see the marks made by the gate (now gone) scraping on the stone floor. It really gave me chills to see those marks. There is also an amazing stone that is clearly out of place:



This stone was a gift from Egypt to mark the first known diplomatic treaty in history. Egypt and the Hittites had been fighting a long, drawn out war, including the famous battle of Kadesh, one of the most famous chariot battles in history. That war ended in a draw and eventually the kings made peace. The Egyptian and Hittite versions of the treaty have both been found and this stone was sent from Egypt to commemorate the treaty.

We also stayed in Konya, a more modest town. Here, too, people were friendly as could be and food was delicious and cheap. Once again we got lost in our car and someone insisted on coming with us to guide us to our hotel. He also in a desultory way tried to sell us carpets but when we showed him we had already bought some at Hattusas he accepted that and was still as nice as could be. He didn't even wait for us to offer money or a taxi ride back. He got us to where we needed to go, got out of our car, and disappeared in no time. Another wonderfully kind Turk who helped us.

We were staying in Konya merely as a jumping off place to reach the archaeological site of Catal Huyuk (pronounced "Chatal Who-yook") which is one of the fist towns ever settled by humans. It isn't a spectacular site like Hattusas but for those who know its history it is amazing to stand where humans first began to urbanize.

We were in Turkey when the big earthquake hit near Istanbul. We did not feel it because we were far away in Konya. We knew something was up when all the TV channels were showing nothing but wreckage. We had to fly through Istanbul that day on our way to Israel and had no idea if we would make it. We had loved Turkey so much we were prepared to be stuck in Istanbul and were willing to volunteer for the rescue efforts. In the end it turned out we had no trouble flying out. We were delayed about one hour by the disaster...less than the average delay flying through New York's La Guardia airport. This says a lot for Turkey that even in the face of a huge disaster they manage as well or better than New York City's airports.

Turkey is top of my list for a return visit should we ever have the time and money. A wonderful place I highly recommend.

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