Turkey Travelog – Part 1 – Overview

I’ve always wanted to go to Turkey. (“And the 200 other countries in the world!” chimes in Sukumar, helpfully).  I find countries at the crossroads of 2 or 3 distinct cultures extremely seductive. Sri Lanka. Turkey. Plus, Turkey is an aggressively secular country – despite being 98% (“99%” our tour guide asserted) Muslim. It’s the only Islamic country that uses the Roman alphabet.

Turkey’s current stature as a role model to Islamic countries is due – in no small measure – to its founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Atatürk – Literally, “Father Turk” was a fierce visionary leader who was determined to modernize his country and make a clean break from its past.

The country once known as “Byzantium” played a starring role in many a historic conflict. So many different cultures have thrived here; so many people have crossed swords to own Anatolia. Hittites, Hatti, Luwians, Phrygians, Lydians, Lycians, Urartians, Persians, Arabs, Seljuks and the Ottomans. Their ruins – and contributions – dot the landscape.

The entire country is a veritable open-air museum. The oldest city in the world – Çatalhöyük – dating back to 7500 BC is in Turkey. The Trojans of “The Illiad” fame lived in the Dardanelles region of Turkey. Celaleddin Rumi, the Sufi Mystic, flourished in Turkey. One of the greatest kings of the last millennium – Suleiman the Magnificent – ruled Turkey.

Long association with the Greeks and Romans has enriched their culture, instead of diminishing it. The Turkey of today has a distinct culture, one that’s unlike any of its Arab or Mediterranean neighbors. Walking in the streets of Istanbul is an instant immersion into the vibrant Turkish culture. We felt we had stepped into a new world – one filled with new sights, tastes. And sounds.

Turkish, unlike most languages spoken in Eurasia, is Altaic and not Indo-European. To our utter consternation, we couldn’t understand a word of Turkish. In most countries – be it Egypt, France, Iran or Spain – one can glean the meaning of words through its Latin, German or Sanskrit roots. Not so in Turkey. “Caddesi” means “Avenue” for Christ’s sake. And it is pronounced “Jaddesi”, not “Kaddesi”, thank you very much.

We managed to learn a few words though. “Mehrhaba” (Hello), “Tamam” (OK), “Afiyet Olsun” (Bon appétit) and Günaydın (Good Morning). We did find a few common words, largely due to the Arabic and Persian influence – Hisab (Bill), Meydan (Maidan), Misafir (Travelers/Guests), Nazar (Eye), Gul (Rose) etc. The Turks were very delighted every time we spotted such words.

We found Turks to be the friendliest and most hospitable people we have ever seen. Even in crowded Istanbul; or in laid-back Cappadocia. Once – in a train – we asked a co-passenger for directions. This attracted the attention of the 6 other passengers around us. Very soon, they were calling their friends, surfing the web with their blackberries – all with the express purpose of giving us solid directions. And this was not an isolated incident. Every single Turk we met was helpful, courteous, polite and friendly – With the exception of Taxi drivers in Istanbul.

With 15 Million people, Istanbul is a bustling, decidedly a 1st world European city. Its difficult to imagine that this country was once called the “Sick man of Europe”. Its women are free – or they appear to be free. Most people dress like Europeans and you’ll be hard put to find women in head-scarves. If you want to see the “real” Turkey, you should step outside cities such as Istanbul or Ankara. But even there, you will never find a woman in a burqa.

Istanbul has a fantastic MRT and bus system. Most tourist sites are well connected by MRT and utmost, you may have to walk a few blocks. You’ll be a fool or a tourist to try the taxis here. We tried to board a taxi from the Spice Market to our hotel – a distance 15 TL (Turkish Lira) away. And the taxi driver – who looked like a crook and acted like a crook – airily informed us that “In this traffic, at this time, it will be uh, 45-50 TL”. Take the MRT. It is cheaper and saves you the hassle. By comparison, the taxi drivers in Ankara are more reliable.

One of the most memorable things to do in Turkey is to listen to the “Mehter Band”. The oldest military band in the world, they accompanied the Ottoman Sultans to the battleground and played music that instilled fear in the hearts of their enemies. You can listen to the Mehter Band in the Azkeri Muze (Military Museum) in Istanbul. The band – in full Ottoman regalia – play old instruments such as the Davul (Drum), Zil (Cymbals), Zurna (Trumpet) and Kös (Bass Drum). The hour-long performance is kid-friendly (evidenced by the throngs of school children that screamed in delight every time the cymbals clashed) and eminently enjoyable.

But the most authentic performance we saw was the Sema ritual of the Mevlana order – Also known as the “Whirling Dervishes”. The Mevlevi are followers of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam. Their mesmerizing whirling ritual symbolizes their union with god. Men – and sometimes women – clad in voluminous robes whirl and whirl to the sounds of live classical music. Interestingly, the Mevlevi Order is – technically – an outlawed group in Turkey. But in the 1950s, the government recognized that the Sema ritual was a tourist magnet and relaxed their stand.

It is said that Mohammed the Prophet loved cats. Perhaps because of that, Turkey – and Istanbul in particular – is a stray cat’s heaven. Everyone – I mean everyone – feeds these cats. Restaurants feed their scrap to these cats. Passers-by share their meal with them. Street-hawkers and tourists feed them biscuits. The cats have it made. They are sleek, have a shiny coat and an attitude to match: None of them liked me. In fact, when I petted one of them, the miserable cat pretended to love me, then like a lightning – a quick “Meowr!”, a flick of steely claws – and I was left scratched and bleeding. I hated all cats, till I met Kendigelen.

But that’s another post. You have to wait for that, while Sukumar follows this with a photo blog of Turkey.

Update: Sukumar’s photo blog is delayed, so here is my next installment.


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    Priya – Enjoyed reading this post and learnt quite a bit about Turkey I didnot know. Am already making plans to add this to my list of next visits.
    Wishing you a great year ahead! Cheers..

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    Hi Priya!

    That’s a delightfully informative post! Literally walked the streets of Turkey in my mind! I have heard similar accounts of Turkey from others who have visited the place…and I certainly do hope that someday I’ll be able to see this for myself (and hopefully, they will continue to be tourist-friendly). 🙂

    Didn’t find any mention of the famous Turkish coffee or even Sulaimani chai…or are you not much of a coffee person?

    Look forward to Sukumar’s photo blog.


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    Mahua – Thanks for your comment. Great to hear from you 🙂

    I wish you a great new year too. Take care.

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    Raghu – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    I’m sure you’ll have a great time in Turkey when you do visit. Turkish coffee & Tea will be covered in Part-3 of the travelog. Suleimani Tea – I’ve had this in the Middle East, but it isn’t popular in Turkey. BTW, I’m addicted to coffee 🙂

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    Joe (subscribed) said December 30, 2010, 7:09 pm:

    Nice Travelog Priya. Looking forward to the next two parts. Did you get to bring home any Turkish Carpets ?

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    Joe – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Unfortunately, we didn’t buy any carpets in Turkey. Perhaps when Sukumar buys me a bigger house (Ahem, Sukumar – Are you listening?).

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    /** The oldest city in the world – Çatalhöyük – dating back to 7500 BC is in Turkey. **/

    The turks settled in today’s turkey only b/w 6th century to 10th century, and essentially formed today’s turkey. So the oldest city in the world is neither populated by turks, nor can be attributed as civilization of today’s turkey. why there is no mention about this Turkish invasion of turkey, destroying the local culture 🙂 ?

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    Senthil – Thanks for your comment.

    >>why there is no mention about this Turkish invasion of turkey, destroying the local culture

    Probably because this post isn’t meant to be about the history of Turkey? There’s a thought for you 🙂 You know, every post has a theme – it can’t cover everything under the sun 😉

    Plus, there was no “one invasion”, there were many, occurring in different time periods. The original settlers of Turkey were the Hatti. Even the Hittites were Indo-European.

    It is incorrect to say that Turks settled in the 6th century AD. Seljuks settled Anatolia around 10th-11th century. Today’s Turks are an amalgam of all the different people that lived in & passed through Turkey. Just because they speak Turkish doesn’t make them purely Central Asian.

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    Very cool. Learnt some new things about Turkey from your post. Looks like blackberry’s are omnipresent. Looking forward to some information on how technologically advanced Turkey is in a future post.

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    Nice One Priya a sneak preview into Turkey. especially the tips about travelling in cabs. 🙂

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    Ganesh – Thanks for your comment.

    How technologically advanced Turkey is – We found that all the hotels were wi-fi enabled & access was free. Perhaps Sukumar can pitch in with some observations.

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    Kumaran – Thanks for your comment.

    There were some decent taxi drivers in Istanbul, but they were few & far between – like auto drivers in Chennai.

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    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 31, 2010, 7:48 pm:

    Nice post Priya. I really enjoyed going to Turkey. Its one of the rare countries that I want to go back many times to.

    Ganesh, in general Istanbul and Ankara felt like 1st world cities. The infra, roads, mass transit, quality of modern buildings, food hygiene….

    We did pass by some “slums” in both cities but they seem isolated to some specific pockets unlike in India where we have squalor everywhere.

    Are you looking for a specific kind of technological accomplishment?

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    Sukumar – Thanks for your comment.

    Yes, Turkey cannot be covered in a single trip. Its a country that needs 4-5 trips if you want to do justice to it.

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    thanks for acknowledging Turk Invasion Truth (TIT 🙂 )..

    You said that kamal pasha was the architect of modern turkey as a secular nation by abolishing the islamic caliphate. But Gandhi, the epitome of secularism in india, participated in Khilafat movement to vehemently oppose this abolition of caliphate. Since Gandhi did not want turkey to be Secular, let us all oppose this conspiracy against Gandhian Values in turkey. 🙂

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    Peer Mohamed said January 1, 2011, 12:00 pm:

    Narrated nicely!!

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    Senthil – What happened to the Kurds in Turkey is a separate post on its own. That’s not the way to treat minorities. But in India, minority appeasement is taken to such great lengths, that even the so-called “Atheist” parties participate in Iftar! Thus, they make a mockery of their principles as well as the faith of the believers.

    Yes, I believe minority interests should be protected in a healthy manner, but in India, it has gone to unhealthy levels. Having said that, I admire Gandhi, even though I may not agree with everything he said & did. He was truly a great soul.

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    Peer – Thanks for your comment.

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    Thanks for sharing Priya. This is Gikki [Suku’s BITS classmate].

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    I did not finish my previous comment 🙂

    Thanks for sharing. Turkey’s geographical location between Europe and Asia puts it in a unique perspective and open to influence from both continents and vice versa. it is definitely a unique place to visit and we will keep it in our list.

    Since you may have done research, you could shed light on the interesting things for one to do outside of the big cities of istanbul and ankara. I remember a colleague of mine a few years ago doing a full month back packing trip in Turkey and he was speaking of great hiking trips. Looks like with a huge coastline, Turkey would offer beach bums a lot of opportunities as well.

    Are women in Turkey fully burqa clad? Do you see a lot of them working?


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    Gikki – Thanks for your comment.

    We didn’t see a single burqa clad woman in Turkey. Some of them – especially outside large cities – has head-scarves on. Many of them – especially in the cities – seemed to be working & looked every bit like a modern European woman.

    Cappadocia is definitely worth a trip, for its unique landscape. Apart from that, Ephesus, Izmir, Pamukkale & Nemrut Dag are some of the places in our list. Many people take an Aegean cruise to see some of these places. A Greek Island cruise also covers some of the spots in Turkey, mainly Ephesus.

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    Gagan (subscribed) said January 4, 2011, 11:45 pm:

    Great post, Priya! Turkey is a country I’ve been wanting to visit for a long, long time. You can’t imagine my disappointment when I found out that it is not a part of the Schenzen countries list. But one day for sure…

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    Thanks Sukumar. You answered my question. In a way it was about standard of living. How much of the population speak English?

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    Gagan – Thanks for your comment.

    Yes, Turkey isn’t integrated into the European Union. Paranoia on the part of the EU.

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    Ganesh – We were surprised to find that many young, educated Turks couldn’t speak English. Apparently, 50% of students opt for English, 25% for French & 25% for German in schools. These days, there’s also a demand for Spanish & Russian, while the demand for French is coming down.

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    Harish Dorai said January 11, 2011, 10:25 pm:

    Priya – very nice and interesting travelog. Very interesting to note on the Turkish language and the words. May be because of the Turkish influence, some of these words, I have seen in Urdu ghazals as well – such as “Mehrhaba” and “Tamam”.

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    Harish – Thanks for your comment.

    Its indeed interesting to know that ghazals have these words.

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    I have been meaning to read your travelog right from the day you tweeted it. Finally found time today. Thoroughly enjoyed the ‘Classic’ Priya writing , informative, interesting and witty.

    I have seen a youtube video of Whirling Dervishes and always wanted to see a live performance.

    I hope to read the rest of the posts before you post another one 🙂

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    Archana – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    When you say “whirling dervishes”, I’m reminded of this incident. We met an Indian couple in Cappadocia. They were in their 50s. When we told him we had been to the whirling dervishes ceremony, the man asked us “Was it worth the money?”. We were completely taken aback. What price tag can you put on a religious ceremony of another culture?

    Sukumar commented that it was akin to asking if the Deeparadhana in the Kapaleeshwarar temple was worth the money! One can afford to see a program or not. But talking about cultural, religious events in the crass language of money was jarring.

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    Vamsi (subscribed) said January 24, 2011, 1:23 am:

    Many thanks for the wonderful post. You and Sukumar keep visiting countries in my bucket list, post a beautiful travelog and give such details that make me feel almost as if I visited that place. (that is the complement)

    I always felt enchanted by the location of Constantinople/ Istanbul’s strategic location and the way it must have controlled the trade. (the other one being Suez Canal).

    Thanks once again for Sukumar for the wonderful photos.

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    Vamsi – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

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    Karthik.pk said February 4, 2011, 9:50 pm:

    A Great write up Priya :)….Absolutely true that Turkei is a melting pot of cultures…I guess it must have been the United States of 14 the century where different races have merged to form a distinct race…. Kemal Pasha was truly visionary who had the sense to look west instead of looking east ..and bingo we have a country which has the potential to join the Euro zone …Thanks for the wonderful post

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    Karthik – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Interesting analogy – US of the 14th century. And yes, we must all admire Mutafa Kemal’s vision.

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