Being in Turkey can make people imagine that they are at the midpoint of the world, and in many ways there is no other place on earth that provides such a sense of being centred. Turkey is the proverbial bridge of civilisations: a place affected by almost every major Empire, at one point or another, whether in retreat or expansion. It was not just the nucleus of the Ottoman Empire for over six hundred years, but also the centre of the Eastern Christian Empire for a thousand years. It is the junction, highway and intersecting point between numerous, diverse cultures that have shaped and moulded what Turkey is today.
The Ottoman Empire encompassed a huge landmass during its pinnacle, containing many different ethnicities. At its peak in the sixteenth century, it extended from Basra to Vienna and for a considerable time challenged Europe’s hegemony. One of its main legacies was the great diversity of the people who lived under the empire including millions of Christians and Jews who were shown greater tolerance than their co-religionists experienced in Europe. Art, science and culture flourished as the Ottomans absorbed cultural traditions from conquered empires into new intercultural forms.
The modern Turkish Republic reduced its borders, but within them remains a tremendous diversity of people whose differences in language, heritage, religion, cultural traditions and historical memory linger. Some of these diversities are suspended within a profound sense of nationalism that has become the Turkish political statement to many outside of the country. In Istanbul, there is often the homogenisation of the Eastern and the Western, but in other parts of the country these ethnic linguistic and cultural differences are unreservedly noticeable, and wholly fascinating to the discerning observer. Every Turk is a proud Turk whether they are Islamist or secular, Conservative or Liberal, leftist or rightist, pro-European or anti-European – leading to all sorts of deeply held ideological perspectives that do not always yield or transform in the light of social exchange and interaction. Rather, the tendencies are for polarities to remain acutely embedded in the political, religious and cultural sphere. At times of national crisis, for example in the case of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, different factions can unite under a collective sense of disenfranchisement and dislocation at the hands of a seemingly neo-liberal authoritarian administration.
Turkey is always fascinating, enchanting and never, ever dull. There is much to like and love about the country but our list is limited to a top ten of Turkish delights.
All countries have their particular history and historical properties but in Turkey history positively oozes from every nook and cranny. Ottoman mosques, mausoleums, and monuments are staring at you from all directions. But there is also a wealth of archaeological and cultural significance from the ancient Hittites, the Persians, Romans, Christians, Seljuks to the cultures of Neolithic times such as Catalhoyuk in Anatolia. There is Troy, city of Homer’s Iliad, and along the Aegean Coast you will find Ephesus from Ancient Greece, one of the most impressive cities of the ancient world. Then there is Bodrum, famous for being the location of one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, the Mausoleum at Helicarnassus. One of the most stunning Roman structures is the Aqueduct of Valens which today is bisected by a six-lane highway in Istanbul. It is impossible to over-estimate the vast archaeological treasures within Turkey; the country is a living museum – but not all is innocence – of humanity.
Not just one of the greatest cities of Islam but of the world. Today, the city is home to nearly 18 million people who live compactly in densely concentrated zones of urban settlements that are loosely connected by major roads and thoroughfares. But for the people of the world who come to see Istanbul for the first time, there is the famed Blue Mosque, built by the young Sultan Ahmet 1, with its hierarchy of increasingly large domes dominating the city skyline, and vast complex that is truly an architectural wonder. Right opposite is the sixth century Hagia Sophia, built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the best preserved building of the ancient world. Then there is the legendary Topkapı Palace, brimming with cultural treasures. And of course the Galata Tower, built in 1348, with a sub-city that stretches down to the Bosphorus. It was from the Galata Tower that Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi flew across the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia in 1638, thus inaugurating the first ever intercontinental flight! The romantic Basilica Cistern, constructed in the sixth century, that shows how the water was brought to the city, fitted with light and music. The city is chock-a-block with museums including the Archaeological Museum, the Calligraphy Museum, Devan Literature Museum, Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, and Islamic Science and Technology History Museum. Oh, we nearly forgot to mention the Grand Bazaar.
The locals may not even notice what lies within, but for those who are new to the city the romanticism is overwhelming. Within the old quarters there are various stores, cafes, boutiques, bookshops, restaurants and second-hand furniture outfits that cater for every conceivable taste and preference. There are churches, synagogues and late Ottoman architecture that is invisible, hidden or transformed. Istanbul is genuinely the place where the East and the West meet now as they have done in the past.
Sinan Abdur-Mennan (1489/99–1588), known simply as Mimar Sinan, is the greatest architect of all time, he has built more buildings than any other architect who has ever lived, and many of his works are considered unrivalled masterpieces. Before he was made the Royal Chief Architect of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, he was a slave, a soldier, a janissary and Sultan’s bodyguard. His greatest achievements include the Sultanahmet Mosque in Istanbul, the Stari Most in Mostar, and his crowning glory: the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne. Involved in over three hundred constructions as chief royal architect, he designed colleges, palaces and even hospitals. Outside Turkey, his work can also be seen in Damascus and Belgrade. Such was Sinan’s influence that he is considered to be an inspiration in the majestic design of the Taj Mahal. He has been often emulated but never bettered.
‘Come, come, whoever you are’, said Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273), poet, jurist, theologian, philosopher and, of course, one of the greatest mystics of all time. Known simply as the Mawlana (‘our master), the author of the Masnawi and Diwan-e-Shams-e Tabrizi, has become one of Turkey’s most famous exports, with his poetry and verse remaining enormously popular in the West. His shrine in Konya is a place of pilgrimage for mystics and non-mystics alike from all over the world; and his Sufi order, the Mevlevi (aka the Whirling Dervishes), has hundreds of thousands if not millions of devotees. Today, the whirling dervishes perform the Sema to dedicated followers and swathes of tourists are enchanted by the symbolism, sounds and serenity of the whirling dance.
Imagine a dry, dusty land pierced by volcanic peaks and pinkish lunar landscapes dotted with enchanting villages sprouting fairy chimneys and still, inhabited caves. No it’s not Tolkien but Cappadocia in Central Anatolia, a place which has been inhabited since the time of Herodotus. Cappadocia’s unique historical and cultural heritage is characterised by the rock-cut churches of Goreme and their beautiful frescoes, while the nearby cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymakli provide subterranean refuge with their labyrinthine delights. A highlight is staying in the cave hotels, a must for any visitor. As with the rest of the country, history plays an important part in the region. Cappadocia has been at the crossroads of many empires since the Hittite Empire. Persians, Greeks, Romans fought over the land while Cappadocia became an important Christian region during the Byzantine Civilisation. Subsequently, the region became a Seljuk stronghold.
Meat or vegetables roasted or grilled on a skewer has a long history. Even though kebabs are associated with the Middle East, they were not uncommon in Central Asia and ancient Greece; even Homer enjoyed a kebab or two. And the Ottoman army marched on the humble kebab (and, it had to be said, raki). Today, kebab has become synonymous with Turkish food: it is the fastest of fast food before fast food was invented. In Europe and America, kebab means shish kebab (cooked on a skewer) or doner kebab, which is (horrible) thin sliced meat wrapped in flat, pitta bread. It is generally accepted that the method of grilling meat vertically originated in nineteenth century Bursa courtesy of Iskender Efendi who is known as the father of the doner kebab. There are many variations of the doner such as durum, halep and iskender kebab, the staple in a Turkish restaurant. There are other incarnations in other countries such as shawarma in the Middle East and Central Asia. In South America, it takes the form of Churrasco Turco. But there is more to Turkish food then kebab.
Much of Turkish cuisine reflects what is common across the region in terms of meats, sweets and breads, but there are huge localised variations to consider. In the South and south-east regions of Turkey the food is noticeably spicier, while in the North and north-east parts the food is more vegetable and fish based. But it is the Turkish breakfast which is legendary. Home-made jams, cheeses, yoghurts, natural honey, breads, eggs, olives, vegetables, fruits, sauces, pickles, dips and spreads are the norm. For Turkish families and friends, meeting for breakfast is not just about consuming delightful food, but also an opportunity to catch up and engage in all sorts of conversation, taking breaks in between courses as required. A breakfast lasts up to two hours, but it can set someone up for the rest of the day. The other aspect of the cuisine is the sweets in general, for they are as diverse as they are delicious. Baklava, Dondurma, Aşure and Tavuk göğsü, which is made from chicken breast, are all decidedly Turkish even if their origins emerge from a wider domain.
After a Turkish breakfast, a Turkish coffee is a must: roasted and finely ground beans are boiled in a special pot, called cezve, and served in a cup where the grounds are allowed to settle, with or without sugar (we prefer ‘medium’). While coffee probably originated in Yemen, coffee houses were established by the Ottomans – the first opened in Istanbul, then Constantinople – around 1555. Coffee houses established by the Ottomans in the centres of Europe during the end of the seventeenth century became the fuel for discussions that led scholars, thinkers and originators to inspire each other to dream up the Renaissance. Today, connoisseurs of coffee throughout the world cannot but wonder at the sight, smell and sip of a perfectly brewed Turkish coffee. An intense shot of caffeine is unavoidably followed by a rush of energy in thought and action. For the more dedicated, a Turkish coffee follows every substantial meal, morning, noon or night. The reading of the coffee cup residue is deemed an amusing pastime. Happily, few take the utterances of self-proclaimed soothsayers seriously.
8. Yılmaz Güney
What should be taken seriously are Turkish films. Turkey has the most vibrant cultural scene of all Muslim countries. Literature, art and music have distinguished histories and are thriving industries. But, for us, it is the Turkish film industry that is truly original and brilliant. The country has produced a plethora of legendary film directors from the late Lutfi Akad (Law of the Border, 1966) to Zeki Demirkubuz (Innocence, 1997), Yesim Ustao (Journey of the Sun, 1999), and Nuri Belige Ceylon (One Upon A Time in Anatolia, 2011). But the greatest is Yılmaz Güney (1937–1984). Güney, a Turkish Zaza, spent considerable time in prison, accused of being a communist and anarchist sympathiser, and often directed his films from prison – his assistant, Şerif Gören doing the technical leg work. His masterpiece is Yoli (1982), which like most of his films, deals with the dispossessed – the titles reflect the theme: Elegy (1972), Pain (1971), The Hopeless (1971), The Miserable (1975). Yoli portrays Turkey after the 1980 military coup and tells the stories of five prisoners on a week’s leave. But these real-life prisoners are also prisoners of tradition. A grim, allegorical film, it takes us deep into the unsavoury underbelly of Turkey.
While the Turkish authorities and elite are not very hospitable to dissidents and critics, the Turkish people are another story. Even in Istanbul’s crammed Metrobus, younger Turks always give up their seat to the elderly, mothers, those with special needs and tired visitors. But true Turkish hospitality is to be found outside of Istanbul, where the pace of life is markedly gentler, and where the environment is more soothing to the eye and to the body. It is here that the extreme generosity and hospitality of the vast people of Turkey can be witnessed in full. Much of it is nested in the Sufi traditions of humility and piety, but it is also seen among others from different backgrounds. Kindliness is found everywhere in Turkish society, from the store keeper keen to sell his wares, to the bus driver who directs passengers to their destinations, or to the family who are the hosts for dinner, feeding their guests the finest of home-made foods until no more can be eaten, and then offering them even more.
And finally there is the devastating and diverse coastline. Sandy beaches, jagged shorelines and hidden coves, popular for yachting and boating and obscured by stunning mountains, Turkey’s Southwestern coast is called Turquoise Coast for good reason. In ancient times it was known as Lycia: the distinctive rock tombs can be seen near the resorts of Dalyan and Fethiye. This is a place of contrasts with conifer forests hugging the mountainous coastline. Further north is the Aegean coast where the scenery is picture-perfect and idyllic beaches are scattered among popular resorts such as Marmaris and Bodrum, which also boast numerous Classical sites. More discerning is the Black Sea Coast, which extends from Istanbul to Georgia and is climatically similar to Northwestern Europe with walls of mountains plunging to the sea contrasting with pristine empty beaches.
There is only one thing missing in Turkey: sensible politics and governance.