Istanbul, Cappadocia, Pamukkale,
Selçuk and Ephesus

March 5th - 19th, 2023

This is my blog post about a two-week trip through Turkey (or Türkiye, the country's official name since 2021). Unlike most of my trips, this time I wasn't travelling solo. I was joined by my wonderful friend Geraldine, who came all the way from Singapore to accompany me on this adventure.

We started our trip with a four-day stay in Istanbul, the capital of Turkey and one of the world's most historic cities. For me it was the second time in this amazing city. I had come here on a weekend trip in 2009, but I had never been to any other parts of this huge and fascinating country. For our first day, I had booked a half-day guided walking tour through Our guide picked us up from the hotel and took us on the tram into the city center. Our first stop on the tour was the extraordinary Basilica Cistern, which is an underground freshwater reservoir built in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian. The enormous cavern was able to hold 80,000 cubic meters of water, and was vital for the city to survive any potential siege by one of its many enemies.

The 336 marble columns, holding up the huge cavern of the Basilica Cistern, are almost all re-used columns from earlier Greek temples, including Doric capitals and sculptures like the face of Medusa here.

Our guided tour was supposed to include visits to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. However, the Blue Mosque was currently under renovation and closed to visitors, so we could only see it from the outside.

One big change since my last trip to Istanbul, was the fact that in 2020 the Hagia Sophia was converted back into a mosque, after it had been a museum for 85 years. This was a rather controversial decision, but it does have the advantage, that entry is now free. The disadvantage, however, is that guided trips no longer get preferential access and there are often very long lines with waiting times of up to two hours to get inside. So our guide suggested that we skip the Hagia Sophia on this tour, and come back by ourselves some other time, as the lines are generally much shorter in the late afternoon. Instead we continued our tour to see the nearby 18th century Nuruosmaniye Mosque, which was totally empty.

In the morning of our second day, we decided to take a ferry to Asia. Istanbul is the only major city in the world that sits on two continents, since the Bosphorus is the dividing line between Europe and Asia. The 20-minute ferry ride took us from Karaköy to Kadiköy, where we walked around the residential areas of the Asian part of the city and enjoyed great views of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia from the shoreline.

In the afternoon, we went back to see the inside of the Hagia Sophia. Just as our guide had predicted, the afternoon line to get in was significantly shorter than in the morning, and it moved quite quickly. Even though I had seen it before, walking into the interior of the Hagia Sophia was again an absolutely overwhelming experience. It is hard to fathom that this huge and richly decorated space has been standing here for almost 1,500 years. It truly is one of the greatest monuments ever created by humans.

Constructed from 532 to 537 on the order of Emperor Justinian, the building was completed in a mindbogglingly short period of only 5 years. It is considered to be the pinnacle of Byzantine architecture. At the time of completion, it was not only the first dome shaped roof sitting on a square base, but also the largest interior space in the world (a title it held for almost 1,000 years, until Seville Cathedral surpassed it in the 16th century). The Hagia Sophia was the religious and spiritual center of the Eastern Orthodox Church for more than 900 years. After the Fall of Constantinople, rather than destroying the huge building the Ottomans made it their own and converted it to a mosque. Over the years, they added reinforcements to the outer walls and constructed four elegant and tall minarets around it. The Hagia Sophia served as a mosque from 1453 until 1935, when it was converted into a museum.

There are a few notable changes inside the main hall, since the building was converted back into a mosque. Everyone now has to take off their shoes; women have to cover their hair with a headscarf and the marble floors are covered in carpets. Also, the Byzantine mosaics are now hidden behind pieces of fabric due to the ban of displaying representations of figures in Islam. Only the mosaics of Mary and Jesus above the entrance gate outside the prayer hall, are still visible.

Founded in the 7th century BC by Greek settlers as Byzantium, there are not many, if any, cities in the world with a longer, more varied and more interesting history than Istanbul. It has been one of the most fought over cities in history, and it was the capital of several empires of different religions, each of which has left their mark on this great city. During a brief period in the 5th century BC it fell under the control of the Persian Empire, but was recaptured by the Greeks in the Greco-Persian wars and remained part of the Athenian league over the next few centuries. The city was incorporated into the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD, and in the year 330 the Roman Emperor Constantine moved the seat of the imperial capital from Rome to here. He gave his new capital the name Constantinople, a name it would retain until it was renamed to Istanbul in 1930. Constantinople kept the title of imperial capital of the Roman/Byzantine Empire for more than 1,100 years, while it continued to grow in size, wealth and importance partly due to its position at the Western end of the Silk Road. The last great empire to rule over this city were the Ottomans, who conquered Constantinople on May 29th, 1453 after a 53 day siege, which marked the fall of the Byzantine Empire. Soon after the conquest, Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror began the construction of the Topkapi Palace, which continued to be extended and was the residence of the ruling sultans until the 19th century. Today the palace is a museum and one of the main tourist attractions in the city. We visited the palace and its extensive gardens, which are located right next to the Hagia Sophia, in the afternoon when the crowds thinned out a bit.

There are two separate tickets available, one just for the palace and gardens and one including the Harem, which is probably the best part and should not be missed.

The Harem is where the royal family's female members as well as the sultan's concubines lived and were being attended to by eunuchs. It is a labyrinth of passageways, formal halls, beautifully decorated bedrooms and luxurious hammams.

Topkapi Palace is surrounded by large and beautifully manicured gardens, that include many elegant pavilions and water features. You also get some great views from here over the rest of the city.

We stayed in the beautiful and very luxurious JW Marriott Bosphorus hotel located in the Galata district, which is on the European side, but across from the historic city center on the other side of the Golden Horn. In medieval times, this part of the city was a colony of the Republic of Genoa. The most prominent monument left by the Genoese is the 13th century Galata Tower sitting at the highest point of this fairly hilly part of the city.

Originally built as a watchtower, the 62-meter high structure was the highest building in the city at the time. Today the tower is a museum, and you can quickly reach the top by elevator to enjoy amazing views over this huge metropolis. (The Istanbul of today is the largest city in Europe with a population of more than 15 million.) This is the view of the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque with the Sea of Marmara in the background.

We spent our last evening in Istanbul with a dinner cruise on the Bosphorus, where we had beautiful views of the illuminated bridges and palaces long the waterfront. The cruise included a three-course dinner and a performance of traditional dances, including some belly dancing. The whole thing was a fairly cheesy and touristy experience, but a lot of fun nevertheless.

The next morning we had to get up early to catch a flight to Kayseri in Central Anatolia from the Sabiha Gokcen International Airport, which is the second airport of Istanbul located on the Asian side of the city.

From Kayseri Airport, it is about an hour's drive to the center of Cappadocia. There is a closer airport, called Nefsehiri, but it has fewer flights and it seemed more difficult to reserve a rental car there. That is why we had decided to fly into Kayseri. The rental car handover at the airport was a bit unusual. Even though I had rented trough Enterprise, there was no Enterprise office at the airport. Instead, a guy waited for us holding a sign with my name on it at the exit, then walked us to the carpark, where he made me sign a few papers and handed us the key to a car. He also gave us his personal phone number and told us to call him if there are any problems. For drop-off five days later, we were told to just leave the car somewhere in car park and give the key to the guy in the booth. "He is my friend," he said. It felt a bit like this guy just lent us his personal car, but the car was good and it all worked out well.

The drive from Kayseri was easy, mostly along a modern four-lane highway. It was early afternoon when we arrived in the town of Ürgüp, where we stayed in the spectacular Yunak Evleri Cave Hotel. Our huge two-storey suite was literally built into a cave.

I had been wanting to come to Cappadocia for a long time. It is a region of great historical importance, but the primary reason for its fame is its very unique geology. Located on a high plateau of over 1,000 meters in altitude, the landscape is largely made up of ancient volcanic rock as well as sedimentary rock stemming from a time where the area was covered by a shallow sea. These fairly soft layers were then sculpted first by erosion over millions of years, and then by people carving out elaborate underground cities and cave churches since the 4th century. The result is an otherworldly landscape of unique rock formation, strange spires and alien columns, along with countless man-made caves.

Over the course of its history, Cappadocia was home to many different civilizations and empires, including the Hittites, Persians and Romans. The region is also located near the birthplace of Christianity and housed some of the earliest Christian churches. Many of the cave dwellings and churches were built to protect the local Christian communities from persecution. During the Byzantine era, Cappadocia continued to be an important religious center, and many of the region's famous rock-cut churches and monasteries were built during this time. The best preserved examples of these can be found in the Göreme Open Air Museum, which was our first destination the following day.

The museum is located a few kilometers outside of the town of Göreme and includes some of the main settlements of the early Christian communities. The most spectacular part of the museum are the beautifully painted cave churches from the 9th and 10th century. Unfortunately it was strictly forbidden to take pictures inside the churches, and there were security guards in each of them enforcing that rule. But I thought these ancient murals were so amazing, that I have included some scanned images from a guide book here.

Some of these cave chapels had every inch of wall space painted in incredibly vivid and bright colors, that have been untouched for more than a thousand years. It is not something you are prepared to see when you walk through a small entrance into a cave. A truly astonishing sight.

The city of Göreme, located in the center of Cappadocia, is the most famous town in the region but therefore also quite touristy.

The whole town is nestled among these strange looking rock formations, and there are huge rock spires with caves carved out, looking like alien spaceships that had landed between the houses.

Sitting at the edge of the national park, the most spectacular among the Cappadocian towns is Uçhisar, which is dominated by its 60-meter high castle overlooking the city and surrounding plains. The "castle" is not an actual castle, but a steep rock promontory dotted with numerous man-made caves and crisscrossed by underground passageways and large rooms. It is believed that up to a thousand people once lived in the castle rock.

It is a short but steep climb to the summit of Uçhisar Castle, but it's well worth the effort. From the top, you have incredible views of the town and the strange landscape with its vividly colored rock formations. The region is surrounded by several volcanic peaks, the highest of which is the snow-covered Mount Erciyes at 3,916 meters.

The Göreme National Park and the rock sites of Cappadocia were granted UNESCO world heritage status in 1985, one of the first two sites in Turkey to receive this honor. On our second day here, we continued our exploration of the area first with a visit to see the very strange and somewhat phallic looking rock formations of the aptly named Love Valley.

A short drive from there is another spectacular area called the Fairy Chimneys. Here you will find different but equally weird looking rock formations, that look like giant mushrooms.

Among the Fairy Chimneys, you can also find what is probably the most unusual police station in the world.

Winters in Cappadocia can be quite cold and snowy. During our time here the weather was fairly mild, but temperatures did not go much above 15 degrees. Visiting Cappadocia in winter or early spring has the advantage that not many tourists are here, and you can enjoy the amazing open air museums and other sites in relative emptiness and silence. The disadvantage is that you are likely to miss out on one of the best experiences in Cappadocia and that is a hot air balloon flight. We had reserved a balloon flight in advance, but it was cancelled on all three days due to bad weather and strong winds. Apparently flights are rarely allowed to go up during this time of the year and are much more likely to happen in summer.

On our last day we visited, what to me was possibly the most fascinating of all the sites, the Zelve Open Air Museum. Zelve is not as famous as the museum in Göreme, so it receives a lot fewer visitors, and it is spread out over a much larger area, so you get the feeling of walking alone through a ghost town here. Large communities of Christians and Muslims lived for centuries in these extensive cave dwellings, which included churches, mosques, wineries, grain mills and pigeonries. The huge, pink-colored rock walls have so many caves carved out of them, they look like Swiss Cheese. Some of the cave dwellings sit right underneath huge overhanging rock walls, that give them an almost cathedral-like feel.

It is hard to imagine, that people lived in these cave dwellings until 1952, when they were forced to move due to the risk from erosion.

The churches in Zelve are not as well preserved as those in Göreme and don't have many painted murals, but because of that they almost feel even more otherworldly and mysterious. You can walk into many of the cave churches and dwellings and explore them at your own pace.

Seeing Cappadocia was a dream come true, just an incredible place. Following our four days in Cappadocia, our original plan had been to drive from here further east to Sanliurfa and Gaziantep with the main goal to see Göbekli Tepe. Unfortunately, this area was the epicentre of the devasting earthquake on February 6th, which hit the south-eastern part of Turkey and northern Syria, and destroyed so many lives and buildings, including the 2,000 year old fortress in Gaziantep. We heard that Göbekli Tepe was unharmed, but we obviously had to change our plans, and instead decided to visit another famous site further west.

We had an early morning flight from Kayseri airport departing at 8:25 am, which meant leaving Ürgüp at 5:00 am for the one hour drive in the dark back to Kayseri. There is an airport fairly close to Pamukkale, called Denizli airport, but we would have had to fly via Istanbul to get there from Cappadocia. Instead we decided to take a direct flight from Kayseri to Izmir and then drive three hours to Pamukkale. We arrived at our hotel, the very large Richmond Pamukkale Thermal in the early afternoon. The hotel, like many others around here, has its own indoor and outdoor thermal pools, fed by volcanic springs. We spent the afternoon hanging out in the very hot pools and enjoyed the surprisingly good buffet dinner followed by a belly dancing show in the hotel bar. However thermal pools and belly dancing shows are not the main reason to come to Pamukkale - this is:

No, this is not snow. These are the white terraces of Pamukkale, which literally translated means "Cotton Castle". This completely alien landscape was created over the course of thousands of years by hot thermal springs, which dissolve carbonate minerals deep underground and then deposit them all over this hill side. It is a sight like nothing I had ever seen before.

In the 20th century, the popularity of the white terraces grew immensely, and tourism became a major industry in the area. However, the influx of visitors had a negative impact on the site, with pollution and erosion damaging the terraces. To protect the white terraces, the Turkish government started a program to restore the waterflow and demolished several of the hotels that had been built right next to them. The terraces of Pamukkale together with the ruins of Hierapolis were given UNESCO world heritage status in 1988.

This geological wonder is created by several hot springs ranging in temperatures from 30 degrees up to boiling hot. The hot water from the thermal springs flowing down the terraces forms these cascades of bright blue pools.

To avoid any damage to the fragile terraces, you are only allowed to walk on them barefoot, which was a bit cold in March. We entered the site from the bottom and walked uphill. The barefoot walking and surreal landscape inspired some among us to whip out some yoga poses.

The white terraces and thermal springs of Pamukkale were already a popular tourist attraction in the 2nd century BC. Just above the terraces are the ruins of the originally Greek and later Roman spa town of Hierapolis, which at its peak in the 2nd and 3rd century AD boasted a population of 100,000.

The main monument still standing is the enormous and very impressive theatre. Built in the 2nd century AD under emperor Hadrian, it had a seating capacity of 15,000.

Greeks and Romans believed that the hot springs had healing properties, and the city included extensive bath houses and thermal pools.

We had two nights in Pamukkale, and then drove west, back towards the Aegean coast to our next destination, the town of Selçuk. This would be about a two hour drive going straight, but there was another important site along the way, worth a detour.

About one hour to the south-west of Pamukkale you can find one of the more recent UNESCO World Heritage sites (inscribed in 2017) - the amazing ruins of Aphrodisias. Named after the Greek goddess Aphrodite, the city was founded during the Hellenistic period some time in the 3rd century BC, and rose to great prominence during the Roman and Byzantine periods. The city was abandoned in the 7th century AD, most likely following a massive earthquake.

The ruins of Aphrodisias are considered to be among the best preserved monuments from antiquity in all of Turkey. These are the remains of the Temple of Aphrodite, which dates back to the 1st century AD and gave the city its name.

Other large scale structures which show the former importance of the city, include the large Roman theatre and the central plaza with its huge oval shaped pool.

The Tetrapylon was a monumental gateway that marked the entrance to the city's main street.

One of the most striking features of Aphrodisias is its well-preserved stadium, which could seat up to 30,000 spectators. It once was one of the largest arenas in the Roman Empire and was used for athletic competitions, gladiator games as well as religious ceremonies.

The wealth of Aphrodisias mainly came from its nearby marble quarries and the incredible art produced by its sculptors. Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a large workshop, which still contained statues in various stages of completion, and show the almost industrialized process of carving marble here. Aphrodisias produced marble sculptures and friezes not just for the city itself, but for the whole of the Roman world. The attached museum has a very extensive collection of statues and carved reliefs found among the ruins, which showcase the great variety, creativity and sophistication of the sculptures created here.

There were very few tourists there, and most of the time we did not see another person while walking around the huge area. As it is located between the two much more famous UNESCO world heritage sites of Pamukkale and Ephesus, Aphrodisias probably doesn't quite get its fair share of attention, but it is a truly amazing sight, that no visitor to this area should miss.

Selçuk and Ephesus
We continued our drive towards the town of Selçuk, where we stayed in the incredibly beautiful Vinifera Vineyards Hotel.

The hotel is an actual working vineyard, that has a few hotel rooms attached as well as a very good restaurant. It seemed we were the only guests there and we had a huge suite overlooking the beautiful vineyards.

The main reason to come to Selçuk is to visit one of the most important and famous sites in all of Turkey - the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus. Ephesus was originally founded as a Greek city in the 10th century BC. Over the centuries it became one of the most important cities of the ancient Mediterranean world and played a significant role in the political, cultural, and economic life of the whole region. Ephesus reached its peak during the Hellenistic period in the 4th and 5th century BC, when it was a major center of trade, connecting Asia with Europe. The city was ruled by various powers over the centuries, including the Lydians, Persians and the Kingdom of Pergamon. In 129 BC it came under the control of the Roman Republic, and continued to grow to become the second largest city in the Roman Empire and eventually was designated as the capital of the Roman province of Asia.

During the early Christian era, Ephesus gained religious significance as it was an important center for the spread of Christianity. According to tradition, the Apostle Paul lived in Ephesus for a few years, and the city is mentioned in the New Testament. However, by the late Roman period in the 3rd to 7th centuries AD, Ephesus began to decline due to various factors, including invasions, earthquakes and the silting up of its harbor. Ephesus used to be a port city, but over the centuries, the river silted up the bay, such that today it is located about 9 kilometers from the coast. The city was eventually abandoned in the 15th century.

Excavation and reconstruction of the ruins began in the 19th century and continue to this day. Although only partially excavated, the uncovered parts of the city stretch over a huge area and include the remains of large residential buildings, palaces, temples, baths and public latrines as well as several theatres.

The imposing and elegant façade of the Library of Celsus is the most iconic structure in Ephesus. It was built in the 2nd century by a Roman consul as a memorial to his father.

Ephesus was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 2015.

The Great Theater of Ephesus could seat 24,000 spectators.

Some of the residential buildings are now covered under a huge steel roof in order to protect the fragile wall paintings and beautifully preserved floor mosaics. Walking through the extensive residential areas gives you a real sense of what daily life would have been like for the wealthy citizens of this city.

After several hours exploring the ruins, we drove to the coastal town of Kuşadasi, which is quite a large and busy resort town overlooking the Aegean sea. There isn't much to see in the town itself, but there is a beautifully situated Ottoman castle on a little island connected to the mainland by a causeway. The castle walls have been rebuilt in the early 19th century.

The next day we drove to the small, originally Greek, village of Sirince, which is located in the mountains a few kilometers to the east of Selçuk. Nestled into the hillside and surrounded by ancient terraced fields and vineyards, it is a great spot for hiking. We went on a beautiful, though slightly chilly, hike above Sirince where we had great views over the town and surrounding mountains.

We finished the day with a cup of Turkish coffee that was brewed in the traditional way in hot sand.

Because of its proximity to Ephesus, Selçuk is one of the most visited towns in Turkey. But Ephesus is not the only site worth seeing. Sitting on a hill above the city are the ruins of an enormous 6th century basilica, which according to legend was built on the site of the tomb of St. John the Apostle.

Right next to the remains of the basilica are the impressive walls of Selçuk Castle. There is not much left inside the castle walls other than a small chapel, but the beautiful views over the town and the surrounding mountains make it worth the hike up to the castle.

Selçuk was also once home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, namely the Temple of Artemis. The temple was completely destroyed around 400 AD, and there are only a few foundations left. One other site worth seeing in Selçuk are the ruins of the Roman aqueduct, which today are a popular nesting spot for storks.

This concluded a magical two weeks in Turkey. We flew back to Istanbul from Izmir on Saturday evening and spent the last night in the airport hotel at IST, before parting ways the next morning on our flights to Munich and Singapore.


The whole trip on a map: