Meandering through Western Turkey
/ By Josh
To me the most exciting and meaningful aspect of exploring Turkey has been the opportunity to dive into the culture, especially the fringe elements that even many Turks aren’t aware of. To me the perfect trip consists of exploring little known places and spending time with locals, learning about their way of life, and getting to taste, see, and hear the connections between the land, the labour, culture, and arts.
On this trip we did none of that.
With coronavirus fears keeping strangers from visiting freely and masks making conversation muffled and confusing we had to settle for something else. This time we meandered through six provinces, filling in the gaps between the places I’ve already been, visiting some well-known sights and sprinkling some less-known ones in between.
I began the journey by rendezvousing with my old travel companion Fred in the City of Eskişehir and heading to the rather sleepy town of Seyitgazi, home to a medieval complex that perches above the town. We wandered through the Seljuk and Ottoman buildings, which have grown and evolved relatively organically evident by the chaotic layout of hidden entrances, doors that no longer led anywhere, and walls almost making a maze of the place. At the heart of the complex is the tomb of the warrior-saint Seyyit Battal Gazi, born in the 7th century in a time when the Islamic Ummayids were vying with the Byzantines for control of Asia Minor. In the Ummayad army he gained fame for his deeds and after his death his legend grew. Within the tomb itself there are two parts of his legend that are easy to spot. Said to have been a giant, the ornately carved coffin is five and a half metres long, and beside it, the coffin of his wife, said to have been a Byzantine princess.
While blocks of ornately carved marble left over from the Romans are certainly not uncommon, Seyyit Gazi may have the strangest use for such left behind masonry. The ablution fountain (for ceremonial washing before prayers) in the central courtyard flows out of an ancient sarcophagus. While I don’t doubt the sarcophagus is quite clean, something that once held a dead body doesn’t seem a natural fit for washing with.
Heading south out of the open country and into broken hills forested with dusty pines, I was yet again in the land of the Phrygians, this time to visit their greatest surviving monuments. Over the past year I’ve managed to visit many Phrygian sites, cave dwellings, tombs, and shrines, but Midas city offers the best collection of monuments by far.
Winding through the narrow valley we caught sight of a dusty mesa rising above an equally dusty village of stone houses and farmyards. Even from a distance we could make out the wall of rock jutting out from the main body of the mound, its smooth surface decorated with geometric patterns and strange writing.
Yazılıkaya is probably the greatest place to get a sense of what makes the Phrygian land and culture so unique. While Gordion, some 120 kilometres away, was the capital of the Phrygian Kingdom, it lacks the towering spires of rock, homes cut into cliff faces, and the magnificent Phrygian façade monuments carved into the living rock of Yazılıkaya or the Göynüş Valley.
Entering the site we first came to the Yazılıkaya monument, also known as the Midas Tomb. While the name Midas Tomb may sound exciting with it’s connection to the legendary King Midas who turned objects into gold with his touch, it’s not quite the truth. First of all, it’s a shrine to the mother godess Cybele, not a tomb at all, and secondly the tomb was dedicated to a Midas, of which there were many in Phrygian history.
While the historical sights seemed to be filled with these false references to Midas, possibly to make them seem more attractive (there’s also the Midas throne which is neither connected to Midas nor a throne), the sights of Yazılıkaya are magnificent in their own right. The Yazılıkaya monument is massive, the sharp geometrical patterns that adorn it in sharp contrast to the inscriptions that curve and weave along the edge of the rock.
Below the cliffs we passed a settlement carved into the rock, hollowed out so much that it looked almost more like a twisted net of stone with more open space than stone itself. Further along we came across unfinished monuments, tombs, deep cisterns, and countless other signs of the ancient civilizations that called this place home.
One thing that makes Yazılıkaya so great to visit is that it’s not just that there’s so much to see in the countryside around Yazılıkaya itself. A short drive to the north has you in a valley lined with castles and monuments. The condition of some of these being quite stunning; the inscribed writing looks fresh and sharp after millenea.
To add one more stange name-choice to the list we visited Gerdekkaya, an ancient chamber tomb fronted by a large porch carved in the rock. As a tomb it has a rather less cheerful purpose than the name Gerdekkaya, meaning ‘Wedding Rock’ would suggest. Whatever the name, the view of the valley turned gold by standing grain and sunflowers, was magnificent from the porch of the ancient tomb.
With the sun beginning to sink low, we made for the City of Afyon where we planned to spend the night and visit some friends.
The next day I took Fred around to experience the sights and tastes of Afyon. We made the hike up to the pinnacle of Afyonkarahisar’s titular castle, wandered the old neighborhood at the foot of the castle mount, stopped in to visit our feltmaker friends, chat with the charcoal vendors, tasted some clotted cream Turkish delight, and eventually sat down to a dinner of local specialities, followed by the heaviest desert in existence: Ekmek Kadıyıfı. Ekmek Kadayıfı is a desert made from a dense bread soaked in a sugar syrup topped with a heavy helping of clotted cream, then finished off with another layer of syrup-soaked bread for good measure. My teeth ache just remembering it.
Taking our leave of Afyon the following morning we took the scenic route to Aizanoi in the province of Kütahya. From what I’ve been able to learn Kütahya doesn’t seem to be home to many great sights, Aizanoi, however seems to be the stunning exception.
While the city is far more ancient, massive construction projects were undertaken here by the Romans, the most notable being the Temple of Zeus, one of the best preserved Roman Temples in all of Turkey.
Driving through the village we passed scattered ruins, then, coming around a corner between abandoned village houses, the Temple of Zeus suddenly came into view, dominating a low hill. The temple at Aizanoi is one of those special historic places where restoration was done subtly, broken pillars and statues still lay strewn about the foot of the temple platform while great columns and beams appear precariously askew, all creating an aura of historic authenticity, as if this temple just sat as it is for two thousand years, slowly decaying but maintaining a sense of splendor.
The area was amazingly quiet, other than one stray dog and a guard at the ticket booth we had the place to ourselves for the most part. Somehow the village houses around the temple mound seemed more forlorn than this eighteen hundred year old building.
While the Temple of Zeus is certainly the crowning jewel of Aizanoi there are Roman Baths, bridges, ancient road ways, stadiums and theatres, and even a rather curious building thought to have been part of a marketplace. While “interesting” and “interest rates” don’t often go together, what makes this place genuinely interesting is that an edict dictating the price of goods was found here, inscribed onto the walls. It’s believed that this edict was intended to standardize prices to curb the effects of inflation in the market.
The province of Uşak, like Kütahya, isn’t exactly a hotbed of must-see sights. After visiting I think it might actually be Turkey’s least interesting province. According to some highly suspect signs, Ulubey Canyon, our first stop in the province, is the second largest canyon in the world. The problem is there is no easy way to measure a canyon’s ‘largeness’. Do you mean depth? Width? Length? Volume? The fact that Ulubey is downright small compared to many of the world’s other great canyons in ALL these measurements makes me feel pretty confident that the “2nd largest in the world” claim is completely unfounded.
However, world records aren’t needed to be beautiful. From the glass viewing platform we could see a wide section of the canyon’s serpentine path, spires of rock, and dusty tracks winding their way among them.
Along an arm of the canyon we explored the ruins of Blaundus, a spot I had been excited to see for quite some time. Blaundus is a rather small city ruin. Very little of the buildings that made the cities of the classical era remain in any form beyond heaps of overgrown rubble. There are a couple small sections of columns, an arch or two standing forlorn, defying gravity, as well as a small squat section of wall with an unimpressive gate still standing.
What really attracted my attention to Blaundus is the strange arrangements of standing stones. They almost looked like some absurd, balancing act version of Stonehenge. Most of the pictures I had seen on Instagram or elsewhere were taken at night (in defiance of the ‘no entry after 7 pm sign no doubt) and made the rocks look massive.
Turns out they are not massive.
Once it had grown really quite dark we decided to change plans and head to the city of Isparta, a fun University city full of good food, nightlife, and cafes. Along the way we had to make a very important stop at Işıklı Lake. Işıklı Lake is the birthplace of the Menderes river, a river known as the the Meander in ancient times. The English word meander is tied to the way that this river twists and turns its way through the countryside, much as we did on this trip.
The only problem was that it was now quite dark; this and the howling wind made for this abysmal photo:
The next morning in Isparta we had a disappointing realization: all the great cafes and restaurants were closed until ten, by which time we hoped to be long gone visiting some other sites in the countryside. The only hope for cafeine was in a mall a short drive away. This trip to a mall turned out to be the closest we would get to a cultural experience. The cafe was completely empty so we ended up chatting with the staff for a while. As we talked we dicovered it was his birthday, so we bought a slice of cake, procured a few candles and had an impromptu birthday party!
While I certainly can’t complain about getting to travel and see so many interesting places, this trip really confirmed something for me. I’d much rather take my time, see less, but get the opportunity to really dig into a place, meet the people that live there and get to see a glimpse into their lives, its difficulties and joys. Visiting a dozen genuinely interesting places is great, but people are always more interesting.