A Brief History of Turkey

  • Turkey's history goes back a long way. Turkey, as we know it today, is one of the world's earliest permanently inhabited regions, the setting for a whole series of invasions and empires. The stones found at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey mark it as the world’s first temple and one of the most important archaeological sites ever discovered. Carbon dating shows they may be as much as 13,000 years old. The region was conquered by Alexander the Great, leading into what is known as the Hellenistic period. This overlapped in to the Byzantine Empire, later the Latin Empire, which was the successor to the Roman Empire in that region. After the Mongol invasion in 1243, the area disintegrated into small Turkish principalities.
  • A tribal leader called Osman began to gain power in the fourteenth century and his followers (apparently knowledge about actual events is a little hazy) evolved into the peoples known as the Ottomans (from Osman, it's thought). The Ottomans proved to be an efficient fighting unit, united the principalities and conquered the Balkans. So, Hellenism gave way to Turkification and Islam, as the Ottoman Empire expanded. During the World War I, the Ottoman government committed genocides against its Armenian, Greek and Assyrian subjects and after its defeat in the war, the Ottoman Empire was partitioned.
  • Turkey was proclaimed a secular, unitary and parliamentary republic, on 29 October 1923 with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the inspirational reforming leader of Turkey as its first president. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is the father of the modern Turkish nation. When he rose to power in 1921, he lifted the ban on alcohol, adopted the Gregorian calendar instead of the Islamic, made Sunday a day of rest instead of Friday, changed the Turkish alphabet from Arabic letters to Roman, and mandated that the call to prayer be in Turkish rather than Arabic. He even banned the iconic red Turkish fez hat. Ataturk also developed links with the west and Turkey joined NATO as early as 1952. The economy strengthened. And the capital was moved from Istanbul, to Ankara, the second largest city, in the centre of Anatolia, the crossroads of Turkey

Facts and Factoids

  • Turkey is almost unique in that it straddles two continents. It is located mainly in what is known as Anatolia in Western Asia, but there’s a portion in the Balkans in Southeast Europe (Thrace). So it's an exciting fusion of east and west.
  • The name of Turkey is thought to come from Turchia, the word Italian observers used to refer to Anatolia.
  • With such a huge landmass, Turkey enjoys a variety of climates. It's been dubbed 'The Land of Four Seasons'. It's also being marketed as 'The Largest Museum in the World'.
  • The first ever Christian church was located in Antioch, Turkey.
  • While nearly all of the Turkish population is Muslim, Turkey is not officially a Muslim country. Nevertheless, Turkey has 82,693 mosques, more than any other country per capita in the world.
  • Most Turks did not have surnames, until a law was passed requiring it in 1934.
  • Turkey is the birthplace of such historical figures as Aesop; Homer; St. Paul; King Midas; Galen, noted physician, surgeon, medical researcher, and philosopher in the Roman Empire; and Herodotus, the father of history.
  • Santa Claus, also known as St. Nicholas, was born in Patara, Turkey, in the 3rd century A.D.
  • Tulips were first cultivated in the Ottoman Empire - not the Netherlands.
  • Turkish Delight, or lokum, is one of the oldest sweets in world history, dating back 500 years.

What To See in Turkey?

This is a great country to visit, with a huge amount of history and incredible scenery, not to mention the beaches and sophisticated ports.

Read about my Turkish travels:

Ankara, Capital of Turkey

I'm on a group tour of Turkey, run by an 'adventure tour company'.

Ankara, the capital of Turkey is our first stop. The must see is Anitkabir, the Mausoleum of Ataturk, who made Ankara the capital. This colonnaded monument sits high above the city fiercely guarded by goose-stepping soldiers. Next door is a museum with a wax statue of Ataturk. Other museums to visit include the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations (ancient friezes and artefacts - a fantastic overview of Turkey's complex history) and the ethnography museum (housed in an old bazaar).

As you would expect, Ankara has a thriving cultural scene, with homes for art, ballet and opera prominent. Mosques dominate the skyline, most notably the Kocatepe Mosque, with its soaring minarets (see above). Despite its very long history, this is undoubtedly a modern city. But there are pockets of its past still discoverable, especially in the old town, with its charming, traditionally tiered Turkish houses.

Dervishes at the Hacibektas Museum

Edging into Cappadocia, at Nevşehir, there’s the Hacibektas Museum. This is a Dervish dergah or lodge, now a museum, as well as a place of pilgrimage for those of the Bektaşı faith. It's a fascinating glimpse into this sect, recreating thirteenth century life. Adjacent is another much visited mausoleum – this time it’s the Sufi saint Haji Bektash Veli.


 I’ve been really looking forward to Cappadocia and it doesn’t disappoint. Urgup is our base for exploring the astonishing lunar landscapes (complete with fairy chimneys) and troglodyte cave-city. Here, history that stretches back to before the Hittites (2000 BC). Over two days we trek (it's hot work) through the Kaymakli Underground City and the World Heritage-listed Goreme Open Air Museum.

Kaymakli Underground City was built by Christians escaping Arab oppression and once home to 3,500 people, this troglodyte cave-city is one of the largest of 34 similar excavations in Cappadocia. There are nearly 100 tunnels on eight subterranean floors. with stables, a church and storage places. Only four are open to the public.

Goreme Open Air Museum is Cappadocia’s main attraction. It's a complex composed of rock cut churches, monastic buildings and wall paintings. There's also the unique Pasabaglari Valley, (multiple fairy chimneys) and the remarkable Red and Rose (and yellow) Valleys (the highlight of an extraordinary conglomeration of strange and improbable shapes).

Konya and the Sufis in Turkey

Next, more about Sufis, Rumi and whirling dervishes in Konya, Turkey's holiest city. Konya reached the height of its wealth and influence in the second half of the twelfth century, as the capital of the Seljuk sultanate of Rum. Today, this legacy is better known as the final home of Rumi (Mevlana), whose tomb is in the city. In 1273, his followers in Konya established the Mevlevi Sufi order of Islam, which became known as the Whirling Dervishes. I wish I could get to see one in action, but we're here on the wrong day. And these are decidedly spiritual sessions, not performances. (I did see one in Syria, later)


Overnight at the beautiful lakeside town of Egirdir. This is where they grow all those Turkish roses.


Pamukkale is another highlight. This area, known as the 'Cotton Castle,' takes its name from its many travertines, white calcareous deposits made by cascading mineral springs. Over hundreds of years, a unique myriad of pools, terraces, ‘frozen waterfalls’, and crystal clear turquoise pools (Don’t Touch – Hot signs) was formed. They are truly stunning.

There’s also the ancient spa of Hierapolis with a temple, holy area, monumental fountain, bath, basilica, necropolis and theatre. The only downside is that the whole area is overrun with tourists, many of them cruise ship Russians who are indifferent to local sensibilities (this is a sacred site). They are attired, for the most part, in bikinis and budgie smugglers.


Aphrodisias, another Graeco-Roman site, was the Roman provincial capital. It has a temple to Aphrodite (hence the name), a huge athletics stadium, some fine sculptures (mainly in the museum) - and a theatre. The ancient town was struck by an earthquake, the seventeenth century and was never rebuilt.

The Turquoise Coast of Turkey

By diverting inland we've missed the bright lights of Antalya and the eastern stretch of the Turquoise Coast. Last time I was here I stayed in Kas (truly picturesque, with balconied old Greek houses, cobbled streets and lively pavement cafes). Then, I went onto the unspoilt village of Datca, the other side of cosmopolitan resort town, Marmaris.

This time, I'm heading back to Fethiye to embark on a three day gulet (Turkish traditional yacht) cruise. Fethiye is another  charming port with a lively market square and a great place for al fresco dining. Once on board, we hug the coast, drift past the gorgeous turquoise blue lagoon at Olu Deniz and zig zag through the reeds of the narrow Koycegiz River at Dalyan. Here we view the Lycian tombs cut into the cliff face around Caunos. There are more Roman ruins and a dilapidated theatre. There’s even a submerged village to snorkel around, en route, at Kekova, though I’m not sure you’re still allowed to do that. They’re applying for UNESCO listing.

Life on Board A Gulet in Turkey

Life on board at (very) close proximity to the group members is interesting relationship wise. You definitely find out who you get on with. On the whole, this is a jolly group and we’ve had some riotous evenings on the Turkish vino. I’ve been bunking with Sharon and Tina. Tina looks after us all, when she's not being dizzy, so we've named her Mum. We are entertained by several single men, one of whom is an important financial adviser to the New Zealand government. His name, fittingly, is Chris Money. To pass the time on deck the group have been setting me challenges. So far I’ve done the Seven Deadly Sins, with photographic evidence, (gluttony and sloth are nicely combined by lazing on the deck demanding to be fed grapes) and the Seven Dwarves. Now we’re moving on to the Big Brother nominations. The Most Useful Trousers award and Best Meer Cat impression awards are hotly contested.


Ephesus and the famous Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, is the most famous of all the ancient Turkish sites. Its excavated remains reflect centuries of history, from classical Greece to the Roman Empire. Then, it was the Mediterranean’s main commercial centre. Much here has been well preserved, in the dry climate. Paved streets wind past squares, baths and monumental ruins. The Temple of Hadrian was built before 138 A.D. for Emperor Hadrian’s visit. And the most photogenic building  is not either of the famous temples, but the wonderfully restored façade of the Library of Celsus.

The roads are fair and the olive groves pretty (if unrelenting). and there's time for a hammam. This is a steam bath that involves some overly vigorous exfoliation.


North to Pergamum, more Greco-Roman remains and the place that gave its name to the word 'parchment'. The Turks invented parchment - paper made out of calfskin - when the Egyptians stopped exporting papyrus to Pergamum. The Egyptians were afraid that Pergamum’s library would become larger than the library at Alexandria, the world’s largest at the time. Pergamum is most famous for its acropolis and the friezes known as the Pergamum Altar. But you'll have to go to Berlin to see those, they take pride of place in the Pergamum Museum. Of course, in Pergamum, Turkey, there's also a (very steep) theatre. As you might have gathered, I’m getting theatred out.


Then, the ancient site of Troy, renowned for the ten year Trojan War immortalised by Homer. Here, nine ruined cities, one on top of the other, have been uncovered, going back some 5,000 years. There’s also a huge wooden horse (I’m fairly sure it’s not the original).


We visit the Gallipoli (it means beautiful place) Peninsula and view the heart-breaking memorials to the dead of 1916. An ill-fated Allied campaign, utilizing the ANZAC troops, was forced to concede victory to Turkey and withdraw.

We then cross the famous Dardanelles by ferry, before following the shoreline of the Sea of Marmara to Istanbul.

(Or read more about Turkey here.)

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