Updated: Mar 31, 2019
"If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital" - Napolean Bonaparte
This trip took place in the late summer of 2008, three years before the conflict in Syria began. In the intervening ten years, the classic Middle East overland route between Istanbul and Cairo, traversing Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt, has disappeared from all but the most adventurous backpackers' itineraries. Syria of course is still wracked by civil war and is impossible to enter, whilst the other countries listed above are considered far too risky by many, or simply in the wrong neighbourhood. This is a great shame, because in all my time travelling, this trip stands out as one of the most rewarding in so many ways. It was a superb budget destination for one thing - a six week trip to the region was managed with only about $2500. Secondly, the scenery was superb. Spanning historic cities like Istanbul, Damascus, Jerusalem and Cairo, natural splendours like Cappadocia, the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts and Wadi Rum to world heritage sites such as Petra and Palmyra, this region really has it all. Thirdly, the food and drink in this region is outstanding - Middle Eastern food is incredibly varied and interesting, and eating out is almost always a joy. Finally, the people - almost everywhere I went, but especially in Syria, travellers and tourists alike are treated as welcome guests and, often, leave as friends. I went away from this part of the world with a warm glow and a new understanding of hospitality. I am truly grateful I did this trip, and hope - though don't expect any time soon, if ever - that one day it will be a viable option again. We need it to be safe, not just from a travel perspective, but from one of world peace and harmony in general.
Istanbul - not Constantinople
I'd taken a flight from Krakow to Burgas in Bulgaria, a budget flight with Wizzair, and travelled overland from there to Istanbul. A fairly straightforward bus journey from there took me through Thrace - the sliver of Turkish territory that is deemed to be European - through pleasant if unspectacular rolling countryside, mainly farms and small villages with occasional larger settlements such as Kirklareli. This region has been fought over for thousands of years and has changed hands between the Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians and Macedonians countless times. It's where Europe officially ends and Asia begins, but who can really decide on such things? The Bosphorous is generally accepted as the dividing point between these two colliding continents, but Georgia and Armenia, several hundred miles to the east, are also in Europe, so geographical vagaries shouldn't concern us overly. Turkey has always occupied a fault-line, a place where cultures and religions have clashed or mixed for thousands of years, and as such it should be considered as belonging wholly to neither. Istanbul, or as it used to be known, Constantinople, is a perfect case in point. A great Greek civilization sprang up here, and it was known even earlier as Byzantium - after Rome, one of the most important centres of Christianity. The Ottoman Empire conquered it in the 15th Century and created one of the finest cities that exists in Europe or Asia - and also one of the greatest cities of Islam. This wasn't the first time I'd come to Istanbul - I'd arrived previously in 2002 by ferry from Odessa in Ukraine, a two day chug across the Black Sea in a slow boat, at dawn on the Bospherous. Arrival by land is of course a trifle less romantic, but you get a feel for the immense size of the place this way. As we made our way along the glittering blue Sea of Marmara, an entree to the main course that is the Mediterranean, we came upon Istanbul by increments. You seem to enter the suburbs of the city about two hours before arriving to the centre; its estimated 15 million inhabitants (a conservative estimate, some say), crammed into semi-shanty suburbs, stretch out for miles and miles in every direction, and you get a sense of the size and importance of the place from this fact alone. That this is not the capital of Turkey does not overly concern the average Istanbulli; Ankara is the boring, administrative hub of the country much like Canberra is in Australia or Brasilia is in Brazil. Istanbul is where it's at, and everyone knows this is the real heart and soul of the country. It's also where most people come to search for work from across the vast Anatolian plain that stretches to the east. Istanbul, to many is Turkey.
Orhan Pamuk, arguably Turkey's greatest writer, said the following about Istanbul, which I partly subscribe to: "For me it has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy. I’ve spent my life either battling with this melancholy or (like all İstanbullus) making it my own". Istanbul presents the visitor with some glittering tourist sights, and when you are around the so-called 'Golden Horn' or Sultanahmet (old town) area of the city which contains the majority of its crown jewels, including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and Topkapi Palace, you are surrounded by majesty and grandeur. You are also surrounded by a lot of tourists and related tourist paraphenalia in a relatively concentrated area. Yet, walk a few streets away into another neighbourhood - and particularly on the Asian side of Istanbul, across the Bospherous - and you get what Pamuk meant. There is an air of faded grandeur to the city which is hard to avoid - decrepit buildings, a sense of decay and greater times gone by. To me, this adds to the appeal and mystique of the city greatly, and I admire it even more. You can easily spend five days in this great city, and I could write several more paragraphs describing the city's beauty. I'll stick to a couple though. The sights mentioned above are must-see and will be seen by almost every visitor to Istanbul. A good tip for all of them, but especially Aya Sofia which attracts huge amounts of people, is to try to visit when a large cruise ship hasn't just landed. Large queues and considerable waits are common. Hagia Sofia, it must be said, justifies the attention. It is probably the pick of all the sights in Istanbul, and if you only queue up to see inside one mosque here, make it this one. The interior, a huge domed affair, contains some brilliant Byzantine Christian mosaics from the 9th century (the building was converted to Islam use after the Ottoman invasion). The sense of history here is palpable, and you get a very good sense of the Greek/Turkish history of the city just by touring this building. Slightly less-visited is the Suleymaniye Mosque, designed by the great Ottoman architect Sinan for Suliyman the Magnificent. Newly restored to its original splendour, its generally regarded as one of the best of the 42 mosques he designed for Istanbul. To get a flavour of Byzantine Istanbul, check out the Chora Church. It's a bit of a schlep to get there, but the restored church in the remains of the old city walls offer a stunning glimpse of Byzantine splendour, its walls and ceilings decorated with beautiful frescoes and paintings.
Visiting Istanbul without either crossing the Bospherous or having a boat trip along it would be a grave mistake, mainly for the different vantage point it gives you of the city; Istanbul is a city built on, and defined by, water. It is surrounded by it on all sides, and is divided by it into two distinct parts - European and Asian Istanbul. The Asian part is less touristy, so head there to get a real flavour of how Istanbullis live. You can try some of the local catches being cooked up by the ferry ports - some of the local stuffed mussels are delicious with a squeeze of lemon. Another area most tourists end up is Beyoglu - the more upmarket, westernised areas of the city where most of the nightlife and restaurants are. Here is where most Istanbullis with a bit of cash come to show off and flaunt it, and you really don't feel to be in an Asian city at all. A great place to go to get a view of the watery city is Galata Tower, built by the Genoese. It's in the heart of Beyoglu, at the top of a hill, and costs $5 to enter. For those with a little more time, a boat trip to one of the Prince's Islands off the coast of Istanbul is recommended. I took one, one afternoon , to Buyukada, when the heat and crowds of the city were getting too much, and it was a perfect antidote. A half hour, $10 return trip takes you to a different world, where no cars exist and people are riding around on bicycles or horses and carts. It's another opportunity to get a great view of the city from the sea, and though there isn't too much to see or do there, the opportunity to laze around, relax and swim is a very pleasant one after a few days battling the crowds of the city. Whilst it's possible to stay the night there, the lack of things to do means that most people visit as a day trip as I did.
The Turquoise coast
After four nights it was time to move on and explore some more of Turkey. I headed to the crowded 'otogar' (main bus station) - a manic place where you get bus wallahs competing against each other, calling out the destinations of their buses - they go everywhere from here, and the place is massive - so it's a mighty relief when you get on the bus and start your journey - thankfully a simple process involving little queuing - you just pay the guy and get on. I was headed for the 'Turquoise Coast', several hours distant (an overnighter in fact) in the south of Turkey, famous for boat cruises and for being one of the most spectacular stretches of coastline in all of Turkey. The resorts I stayed on the Turkish coast were all, to varying degrees, good - Fethiye, Kas, Olympos - each one with something different to offer. I took the opportunity here to make like a tourist and lounge around a bit, knowing that not much of this awaited for the rest of the trip, at least until I got to the Red Sea in Egypt. By day I just sauntered down to the beach and paddled around, went for boat trips or explored Roman ruins - which in the case of Olympos or Patara were spectacular. The bay of Kekova, to the east of Kas, is particularly worth checking out also, and contains some stunning cliffs and more Lycian tombs. Probably the most famous - at least the most photographed - beach in Turkey is Oludeniz, a 15km dolmus bus trip from Fethiye, and this impressive natural blue lagoon is a real beauty spot. Unfortunately, as with much of the Mediterranean coastline in Turkey, the whole stretch leading up to it was lined with English-style bars and restaurants, advertising Sky sports, English breakfasts and cheap lager. Very bad news - it seems Turkey is the new Spain or Greece for holidaying Brits now, no doubt contributing to the spectacular price rises since I was there.
One way of avoiding the lager louts is to head to the Lycian Tombs which are situated in the hills above Fethiye - a good 90 minute hike uphill from the town, but offering superb views and some insight into a little-known culture that lived in this region over 2000 years ago. Lycian ruins dot this region of Anatolia and though we know relatively little of them, their legacy is impressive. What we do know is that they liked to give their dead spectacular resting places. The area where the tombs are situated is pretty and you walk through some traditional villages to get there, so it's well worth the effort.
Olympos is somewhat of a backpacker Shangri-la, and it has spread from word-of-mouth on the hippy trail in the 70's to a much larger 'resort' now. It basically consists of a long hillside, leading down to a pretty beach with ancient Greco-Roman ruins, lined with tree-houses and other rudimentary log huts or hostels for the budget traveller to stay in. A few days of pleasant relaxation can definitely be had here, although some may find it a bit too contrived. If you go during low season you may get a better impression, and there are some bargains to be had - $10-20 per person is average.
Buses in Turkey are pretty impressive. They go almost everywhere, almost all times of the day, and are pretty good value too. They usually include a steward, who gives out cups of tea and biscuits or snacks quite often, and sometimes offer sprays of cologne on your hands to freshen up. This a good job since train travel in Turkey is far less reliable and less frequent, usually only available from one major city to another. I moved on to Cappadocia next - plum in the centre of Anatolia, the heart of Turkey and a real 'heart' to the country. Happily after another rather long 10 hour overnight bus journey Cappadocia came as a pleasant surprise. If it had been my first visit, I'd say an astonishment, but I knew what to expect. The surprise was that I arrived as the sun was rising on a perfect blue sky, and just as I stepped off the bus, there were several hot-air balloons floating through the sky and over the other-worldly rock formations that make up this fairy-tale area. Cappadocia is famous for its odd rock formations - a result of volcanic activity and weathering, which has created some truly eye-catching rocks, many of which are, well, for want of a better word, extremely phallic-looking. The village of Goreme, where we stayed, is set in among these odd phallic features, and some of the hotels are carved out of the rock, forming 'cave-house' style rooms.
I took some shots of the balloons rising silently through the dawn sky and then checked into a lovely friendly little place so I could get my own cave room. Because of the heat this area experiences in the summer months, they are actually a very good idea. Stepping into the coolness and darkness of my room, I felt extremely happy and within a few minutes was fast asleep. Later, I shared a tea with the zen-like owner of the place, a middle-aged guy who had a very quiet but wise way about him. He said he was a 'Buddhist Muslim', a strange combination, but hey who's to argue. It's hard to do justice to the absolute other-worldiness and oddness of Cappadocia. There is not, I think, another place on earth quite like it, and the sheer size of the area and number of potential hikes you can do through the area, combined with a lack of maps and a tendency for tourists to do 4x4/biking/ballooning excursions, means that if you step out of your hostel and follow your nose into one of the many surrounding valleys, you have it practically to yourself, and feel like you are discovering something truly special. The fact that it hadn't really changed since my last visit - other than the inevitable price rise - was also encouraging. It's really quite unspoilt, and visting Cappadocia for a few nights induces a state of near-bliss and serenity.
I stayed for four nights - two more than planned, and did a lot of hiking around the Goreme area, through spectacular 'fairy-chimney' valleys and ever-changing shades of rock, from bright white to ochre-red and dark brown, to forgotten villages and small towns like Urgup, Uchisar and Zelve. I hired a brand-new mountain bike one day and cycled in the searing heat 45km though the valleys - extremely taxing going uphill - and got some spectacular views from the tops of those climbs, looking down on this volcanically created wonderland. Another day, I went to a spectacular rift valley called the Ihlara valley - 75km to the west. An already stunning hike up the valley was made fascinating by the presence of scores of very old chapels along the way - built in the 12th century by the Greeks who inhabited this area - one for each family - with some lovely frescoes to see and quite colourful interior decoration. It's really a case of go there now before the secret's out - especially for lovers of the outdoors. The area is crammed with objects and areas of interest, but it's not at all touristy - and there aren't many places in the world you can still say that about. I left Turkey on the 30th August after about 12 nights there in total - my visa for Syria was valid from the 31st, so I took a bus down to Antakya, which is on the Syrian border, (overnight again) from Kayseri. I arrived at the Syrian border a bit frazzled, hot and tired, but looking forward to a change of country, and somewhere I knew very little about. A country that was also about to change, three years later, irrevocably.
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This is the first blog of an 8 part series, To see the next part, on Aleppo in Syria, please go here: Part 2/8: Aleppo, Latakkia, Hama, Crac des Chevaliers