Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Amazing Turkey

As we've discussed, Turkey hasn't fared well lately in the media, and it's unfortunate that recent events will define the country in the minds of a lot of people. And let's be honest -- if you read my blog on a regular basis, you'll know that I'm not overly fond of living in Istanbul -- on the one hand, its 15 million inhabitants means there's always something interesting to do, but unfortunately, you'll have to fight your way through aggressive crowds to get to it. It frustrates me to no end. But I do love Turkey. Because it's almost 1,000 miles across (and, I suppose, located on or near the edges of three continents), the landscape varies, with mountains in the northeast, a Middle Eastern vibe in the southeast, rock-cut houses and flower fields and travertines in the middle, and Mediterranean cliffs and beaches in the south.

On top of that, this land, what we call modern-day Turkey, has such an amazing, lengthy history -- because of its geographical position, it has seen so many world-shaping historical events, and so many different cultures and civilizations have left their mark here. I am particularly fascinated with ancient times, and it's kind of amazing to live on such historic stomping grounds, where all of this history took place that seemed so distant and exotic when we learned about it in middle school.

The two big rivers that formed Mesopotamia, the "cradle of civilization," are the Tigris and Euphrates, and they both start in southeastern Turkey. The world's first city might be the 9,000-year-old Neolithic site of Catalhoyuk, southeast of Konya. The world's first temple might have been built 11,000 years ago at Gobekli Tepe, just outside of the modern-day city of Urfa.

Of the seven wonders of the ancient world, two are found within the boundaries of modern-day Turkey. The Temple of Artemis, a massive columned temple dedicated to the goddess, stood at Ephesus, near present-day Izmir -- today, just one single column remains. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus was built in the 4th century as the final resting place for King Mausolus, and today it's just a pile of stones in the resort town of Bodrum.

Temple of Artemis
Mausoleum of Mausolus

Both of the ancient wonders are located in western Turkey, on (or formerly on) the Aegean, and each were built by their local civilizations of the time. But that area had also been settled by the Greeks; I'm not sure exactly who was where when, but the Greek historian Herodotus, the world's first guidebook writer, was born in Halicarnassus (Bodrum) in the fifth century BC. Not surprisingly, there are Greek ruins all over the place in western Turkey (along with the ruins of all the other civs).

The Tetrapylon at Afrodisias

Turkish locations also pop up in some of the Greek myths that we all learned about in school. Remember Io? Zeus fell in love with her, but when Hera found out, he transformed poor Io into a cow to save her -- but Hera wasn't fooled and sent a gadfly to torment Io-the-cow, who wandered all over the world trying to escape, including across the "ox passage," otherwise known as the Bosporus. This is, incidentally, also thought to be the site of the crashing rocks that Jason (of the Argonauts fame) had to use his wits to sail through. My favorite, though, is the Bellerophon myth that features in the Iliad and is set in southwestern Turkey. To atone for his sins, Bellerophon is sent to kill the Chimera, a fire-breathing monster terrorizing the locals. He successfully completes the task with his trusty steed Pegasus, and today, in the foothills of Mt. Olympos, you can see the "remains" of the Chimera -- around 20 small flames that start spontaneously out of the rocks. According to Lonely Planet, they were once so bright that sailors could use them for coastal navigation. Bellerophon's tomb is said to be at Tlos, near Kas.

Bellerophon's tomb at Tlos
The Chimera in Olympos, Turkey

Of course, the area's biggest contribution to Greek myth (or history, if you prefer) comes in the Iliad and the Odyssey, those high-school classics. Those stories were always thought to be myths, but archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann was convinced Troy was a real place, and in the late 1800s, he found it, not too far from the modern-day city of Canakkale. Not everyone is convinced that the Troy archaeological site is actually the site of ancient Troy, but at the moment, it's the only claimant.

Wow, this got really long, so I think I'll stop here. Even though I haven't talked about the Roman Empire, Alexander the Great, the Byzantine Empire or the Ottoman Empire. Or talked about Turkey's numerous Biblical links -- St. Paul was born in Tarsus, Abraham was maybe born in Urfa and lived in Harran, Iznik used to be known as Nicaea (think Nicene Creed and the early Christian councils), St. Nicholas was born in Patara and preached at Myra, St. Philip was martyred at Hierapolis, Mary maybe ascended to heaven at Ephesus...

The Red Basilica in Bergama, one of the seven churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation. All seven churches are in modern-day Turkey -- this was the church that needed to repent.

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