The Middle East

Turkey: Ancient, Historic, Marvelous

written by | Posted on May 1st, 2009

This is a country that can boast of being “the cradle of civilization” without blushing and with no trace of hyperbole. Numerous civilizations have flourished and perished within its borders, leaving behind majestic remains that have made it one of today’s hot destinations.

There’s a highway in western Turkey winding through a weather-toughened landscape that seems to have been borrowed right out of the American Southwest—a sun-dried expanse of rocky terrain where the only vegetation seems to consist of parched shrubs that look like dwarf chaparral. Suddenly, after a series of serpentine turns, the remains of an ancient and imposing civilization come into view, underscoring how little in common this landscape has with places like New Mexico or Arizona.

This is Pergamum (sometimes spelled Pergamon), only one of hundreds of stunning archaeological sites strewn around this country—splendid archeological sites that reflect Turkey’s extraordinary history.

To visit, study and reflect on every archaeological site in the country would require volumes and take a lifetime, but those wishing a tantalizing taste of the best can do so by visiting the mere handful that exemplify Turkey. These, of course, would include Pergamum, Troy, the area around Cappadocia, Perge and Ephesus.

Always ranked among the top sites is Pergamum, not far from the Aegean Sea, about 200 miles southwest of Istanbul. The ruins sprawl over a bluff overlooking the town of Bergama. Pergamum dates back to the 12th century B.C. For a short period it was the seat of government for Croesus, the legendary moneyed ruler, in the sixth century B.C.

A few centuries later, one of Alexander the Great’s generals founded a dynasty that brought Pergamum to its apex around 200 B.C. when this gemstone of a city gained distinction for its astonishing Greco-Roman buildings and monuments.

Visitors begin their exploration of Pergamum at the end of the narrow road in an indistinct parking lot where vendors hawk schlock and freelance guides offer their services. Fortunately, the hustlers do nothing to diminish the glory of the old city. There are palaces, shrines, the remnants of a library that supposedly held 200,000 volumes until Marc Antony sent them to Alexandria as a gift for Cleopatra. There’s even a 15,000-seat amphitheater that astounds with its symmetry.

Those who come to Turkey solely to be humbled by its ancient wonders will not be disappointed with a visit to the ancient heights of Pergamum. The ruins, as does most of Turkey, often give visitors the sense of having wandered into a museum that runs on virtual time.

The site is an awe-inspiring example of Hellenistic urban planning. It’s laid out in terraces where residents lived according to rank. By the time the Romans came, Pergamum was home to more than 200,000 and today, most visitors are drawn to the most conspicuous structure remaining—the Temple of Trajan, an archaeological treasure gleaming with Corinthian columns carved from white marble that glisten in bright contrast against the blue sky and the gray granite of the old city.

One of the best ways to reach this and other historic sites is by joining one of the many tours bringing visitors by the busload to gape at the ancient wonders.

A large number of tour companies lead visitors to the wonders of Turkey and reading their itineraries can be daunting. Fortunately, some stand out because of their ranking and service.

Among these, FLO-USA, a company with a prominent Turkish tradition, offers tours to fit most budgets while providing a chance to experience the country and all its delights.

FLO-USA’s tours range from a Biblical excursion retracing the steps of St. Paul, to culinary tours of Istanbul. In between, it covers the entire country.

Its Crossroads of Civilizations package is a 14-day extensive trip that begins in Istanbul and literally encircles Turkey. After stopping in Canakkale and Troy (the ruins have none of the grandeur of Pergamum, but visitors will be overcome with a sense of wonder to realize they may be walking along the footsteps of Priam, Helen and other protagonists from the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey”), tour members will enjoy a long pause in Pergamum.

Another regal ruin that visitors will visit is Perge in the southwestern Mediterranean coast. Today, it’s an important archaeological site and one of the major attractions in the country’s coastal plain.