(This article was first published on July 26, 2010 for the Study Abroad section at Global Post. View the original article here.)
PAMUKKALE, Turkey — At the edge the Pamukkale village, visitors encounter a mesa covered in a white rock that I still can’t convince my parents is not ice.
For 400,000 years, the edges of these naturally made white “pools” of rock appear to spill over like beer foam on the brim of a glass, one after another cascading down the steep hills overlooking the houses below.
These white rock formations, known as travertines, are unique in the entire world. Steamy hot water spews forth from a spring and other fissures at the top and flow downhill. Emerging from the earth at temperatures between 95 and 130 degrees Fahrenheit, the waters cool on their way down leaving hardened white calcium deposits in their wake. The Turks gave the formation the name Pamukkale, or cotton castle.
We made our off-season hike up the travertines on one of Turkey’s cooler days. We began our shoeless ascent up the ivory cliffs feeling a chill in our bones. Turkey banned shoes to protect further degradation of the deposits. However, that chill didn’t last as we crossed two warm sapphire pools. Staring into these placid mirrors, you could see the village and mountains behind you.
It’s no surprise why the Greeks and Romans believed that Pamukkale imparted supernatural healing forces. During our climb, we spent nearly half an hour letting our feet dangle in a rushing current of thermal water that felt better than any Jacuzzi.
The Pamukkale’s rock is not smooth, but layered over and over similar to the thin pieces of bread Turks pile on top of each other to make a dish called Borek. But it’s also hardly rocky or sharp, and the ridges of the deposits make climbing the cliff easier.
During peak season, the travertines are filled with tourists in bathing suits (sometimes revealing more than the eye would wish to see). During a later visit, my fellow climbers included U.S. exchange students visiting Turkey on a Rotary Club tour.
At the top of the cliff, you can see all of Mother Nature’s patient creation. The white rock stretches out for nearly a mile, and the village below seems helpless in the fact of the tide of white approaching it.
And the top of the plateau is no less disappointing. The 2,200-year-old city of Hierapolis provided a stunning finish to the 600-foot climb.
Archeologists say the city became a healing center due to the thermal waters pouring from its natural fissures. The massive cemetery in Hierapolis suggests that many terminally ill people came to the city in hopes of a miracle, according to researchers. An antique pool is located in the center of the city where steamy waters continue to pour in. It is still in use today by tourists and locals.
“When you bathe in the waters of Pamukkale, your body is healed,” said village resident Mehmet Guleç, “Our waters are special.”
Pamukkale’s waters continue to flow, with the deposits inching further downhill every year. In 1988, the site became a UNESCO World Heritage site in order to protect the travertines from excessive damage by tourism and development.
Today, people still come from all reaches of the world to see and experience the waters of Turkey’s Cotton Castle.
With any luck, the tradition will continue for another 2,200 years.
NOTE: This article was first published for “Today’s Zaman,” an English daily newspaper in Turkey. View the article as it originally appeared here.
If you were driving by ancient Troy, you would never know it today. Surrounded by hectares of green farms and olive groves, the broken walls of Troy hardly rise above the brush.
Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” immortalize the city as being the scene of one of ancient history’s bloodiest wars. According to Homer’s tale, the Trojan War lasted 10 years and pitted great warriors such as Achilles and Odysseus of Greece and Hector and Paris of Troy against each other. It was allegedly fought over a woman, Helen of Troy, who was smuggled from Greece by Paris. Although there is not much to look at today besides a dozen or so walls and a small theater, the settlement is reportedly over 4,000 years old and represents one of the treasures of Turkey’s grand inheritance.
Over 100 archaeological sites are spread out across Turkey’s rich landscape. Nine of Turkey’s historic places are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Troy is one and is where I met self-proclaimed Trojan and guide Mustafa Aşkın.
“I consider myself a true Trojan,” Aşkın proudly said from his office located alongside his brother’s all-in-one restaurant, hotel and souvenir shop.
Aşkın has been leading groups through Troy since 1978. Aşkın said Troy is his passion. The clutter of books on Troy and archaeology, artists’ renderings of the city and maps in Aşkın’s office are indicative of that. Aşkın grew up in the small village of Hisarlık, where he and his father herded sheep over the same hill that Troy lay buried beneath.
“[My friends and I] used to go through the fields and used to collect some coins, Roman coins,” remembered Aşkın about his first encounter with Troy. “We used to sell them to the tourists, which I feel sorry about now; it’s a shame.”
Aşkın said as a boy, he and his friends knew little about the special nature of the place, although it had attracted many archaeologists and tourists. Aşkın said his father told him that the people came because it was a holy place. They were making a pilgrimage.
“I never understood what was special about that rubble,” said Aşkın.
Today, Aşkın knows more about Troy than most of Turkey’s residents. He initially pursued medicine. However, test scores pushed him into economics in İstanbul and then to London for English training. Costs and a lack of scholarships brought him to his brother Hasan’s small shop next to the ruins of Troy. Aşkın decided to sign up to be a tour guide, and that is where his passion emerged and flourished.
“When I started researching [for my thesis on Troy], I said: ‘Oh my God! This is a vast subject and so interesting.’ I could not stop reading,” Aşkın said excitedly.
Since then, he’s published two guidebooks about Troy and an autobiography. Aşkın hopes that his work will help people understand Troy and respect the site more. He mentioned Turkey’s up and down relationship with its ancient history.
“I’m ashamed to say that in the past, for example, there were some governments, some [people] that simply refused and said the paganism period was not our history. Troy was not our history,” Aşkın said regrettably.
Indeed, the Anatolian plains are littered with ancient Neolithic, Bronze Age, Greco-Roman and Islamic sites, but unfortunately not all have been preserved well. The TAY Project, an independent group of archaeologists and specialists who have monitored Turkey’s settlements since 1993, have filed reports of hundreds of settlements disturbed by treasure hunters and development operations. The protection of a 7,000 year-old settlement in Bardakçıtepe was removed to permit the building of a six-story apartment complex. The world’s oldest known thermal city, Allianoi, near Bergama, is also under immediate threat from the floodwaters of a new dam. Turkey faces the challenge of modernizing while also holding on to priceless historic settlements.
Today, Aşkın hopes that Turkey will take better care of its inherited treasures. He believes that today, there is more protection of sites like Troy. However, a large part of the improvements came from Troy’s chief sponsor, Daimler-Chrysler, which declared bankruptcy last April. Troy also benefits from being a popular tourist destination. Aşkın said he hopes teams will continue to excavate the hill and that Turkey will make sure that the city is protected before and after excavations are made.
Aşkın reminded his audience that Turks are not homogeneous. “When [the Turkic peoples] came from Central Asia, they mixed with these people. Now, to today’s Turkish people, I say: We are Trojans, we are Hittites, we are Greeks, we are Armenians, we are Lydians, Phrygians … we are the descendents of those ancient people.”
Turkey’s monumental inheritance is easily evident in Hisarlık where two of history’s most damaging battles were fought. The Trojan War, which entrenched the Greek Empire, theoretically occurred just off its shores, while only 20 kilometers away across the strait, the Gallipoli campaign occurred where some say the groundwork for the Republic of Turkey began as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk successfully defended the Dardanelles from the invading allied forces.
Residents like Aşkın stand ready to usher guests and Turkish citizens through Turkey’s grand inheritance.
Picture a small village in middle of nowhere. When you look around, you see nothing but a few small flats and buildings that make up the “town square.” Alongside the narrow road serving as “main street”, farmers stand next to their overloaded tables bulging with fresh tomatoes, melons, and other fresh fruit. As you look away from the town, you see nothing but endless fields of wheat and rolling mountains sitting on the horizon. This is the small township of Polatli, Turkey. 72 km (43 miles) west of Ankara, the town is not far from the city of 4 million. However, Turkey is a country made up of large urban centers surrounded by much smaller townships and even smaller villages. For example, Turkey’s 2007 census reports that about 12.5 million people live in Istanbul alone while about 20.8 million people live in all of Turkey’s non-urban areas combined.
Polatli was not our destination, however, but the last checkpoint with civilization before setting out in search of the 3000 year-old capital of Phrygia, Gordion. Located in the incredibly small Turkish village of Yassihüyük (Yas-see-hew-yewk), Gordion was an incredibly important and strategic city for two empires: the Assyrians (Phyrigians) and the Greeks.
During the Phyrigian period, Gordion lied right at the river crossing for the road connecting Lydia and Babylonia. At the time, these cities were equivalent to today’s New York and London. They were huge city centers where much of the world’s power was concentrated.
For the Greeks, the city is the subject of one of its most famous myths: King Alexander and the Gordian Knot. According to the myth, Gordion had no established leader during its formation. Instead, an oracle predicted that the next person to enter the city driving an ox cart would become King. A poor peasant named Gordias entered carrying his ox cart with his son, Midas. Gordias was quickly declared the new leader. Midas, in honor of his father’s succession, dedicated the cart to the gods and tied it to a post with a very intricate knot.
The Gordian Knot, as it became known, would remain tied until 333 BC when Alexander the Great would
attempt to untie the knot. Previously, the oracles had said whoever could untangle the knot would rise to power as the next King of Asia. The impatient 23 year-old would ultimately cut the knot with his sword in a fit of rage. After his “success” at Gordion, Alexander would go on to conquer the rest of the known Asian continent, but his kingdom would be very short lived. Ten years later, King Alexander would die of a severe fever in Babylon. Some say Alexander was cursed by the gods for taking the easy way out with the Gordion knot.
In Turkey, I am surprised almost on a daily basis of how much history I can find around me. As two of my classmates and I drove through seemingly endless fields of wheat, I asked myself, “How did anyone find anything out here?” But there they were, hidden among the hills and rocks of Turkey lay the ruins of Gordion’s inner city.
My traveling companions included Nye, a retired British civil engineer who has lived in Turkey for many years, and Ivory, a student from Hong Kong visiting Turkey for the next two months as a part of her university program. Both of them are in my Turkish class, which I will talk about later in the blog. Feeling a bit like Indiana Jones, we walked along a small path circling the remnants of the ancient citadel. We had almost walked into the archeological site when the Turkish man in charge of watching over it warned us off. As a Boston resident where the oldest surviving structure is, at best, 500-600 years old, this was an experience. Standing on a cliff overlooking what was once an ancient citadel housing a powerful King, all his amenities, and the ancient elite, I couldn’t help but feel more connected with the ancient world I had spent years in my history and Latin classes reading about.
Just beyond the ruined citadel, you can see many small mounds in the distance. These mounds are not ordinary hills, but the burial mounds of Phrygia’s kings. The tallest and only excavated mound is the tomb of “King Midas” (the Midas Tumulus). Yes, this is thought to be the King Midas who was granted the golden touch. However, upon entering the tomb, visitors find out that the Midas portion may be exaggerated. In all the books that speak about Gordion, one is led to believe you will see the tomb of King Midas. Upon arrival however, the visitor is told at the entrance to the tomb that although the mound certainly contained one of Phrygia’s greatest kings, it seemed to have been built too early for Midas. Instead, archeologists believe the tomb probably belonged to Gordias, the father of King Midas. Alas, it appears that the site was nothing but fools gold!
Nonetheless, the site was incredibly interesting and the chance to step so far into a 3000 year-old tomb was invigorating. Walking just ten feet into the tomb, we noticed the temperature drop at least 30 degrees. We walked about 200 feet down a narrow tunnel built by archeologists in the 1950s when they discovered the tomb. All of the valuables and bodies were removed and given to either the Gordion Museum across the street or to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara. All that remained in the tomb itself was the wooden frame built by immense logs. The frame resembled a log cabin. As tradition dictated, the Phyrigians buried and sealed the tomb with earth and rock.
After our six hour adventure in Gordion, we rested at a small outpost behind the Midas tomb. The single story ranch was built out of the red rock found everywhere in Turkey. Sipping on Schweppes bitter lemon, we all agreed the adventure was much more surprising and interesting than expected.
Earlier, I mentioned my trip to Gordion to Mehmet, my Turkish host. He looked at me with shock and said, “Matt, why are you going out there? Nothing but rocks and dead plants. Not very interesting.” Mehmet was right that there were plenty of both rocks and dead plants in Gordion, but there was also so much more. With so much of Turkey’s main attractions crawling with tourists, one can get lost in the hustle. Getting away and visiting a much less traveled site provided us with a chance to really take the time and soak in what we were seeing.
That day in Gordion, I learned Turkey’s treasures are not just in Sultanahmet or along the Aegean Coast. Some of Turkey’s most breathtaking sites lay off the beaten path, away from the carpet dealers and tourist traps of the cities, and all you need is the motivation and the right companions to travel through the intimidating Turkish landscape and discover the treasures scattered across the country.