Friday, October 29, 2021

Trotting Around Turkey (Retrospective from August, 2021)


It’s been more than 2 months since Terri and I headed off from Bali to Turkey for a three-week exploration of that country. We had to do this since we were not allowed to transit through Singapore to reach New Zealand if we had been in Indonesia (then a covid-19 hotspot) within the previous 3 weeks, and Turkey was one of the few countries that would let us in and which had direct flights from Jakarta. We had to rearrange our flights to New Zealand and our highly coveted and rare spots in New Zealand’s Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) system, but luckily we had enough forewarning of the Singapore situation to get that all done.

Hittite statue, Ankara Museum

So it was that on August 12th we found ourselves arriving at the crack of dawn into Istanbul’s vast new airport and then catching an onward flight to Ankara. Istanbul airport was notably quiet, but our Ankara flight was fairly full. We caught a taxi into the centre of town and settled into a shabby hotel in the old town of Ankara. It was my fourth trip to Turkey, after previous visits in 1994, 2008 and 2009, but I hadn’t been back to Ankara since that first 1994 trip and I was amazed at how much the city has grown, sprawling outward over the outlying hills in endless serried ranks of mid-rise apartment blocks.

Our plan was to rent a car for the duration of our trip, but we had had difficulty finding a reasonably-priced rental online or at Ankara airport, so we spent part of that day pounding the pavement on Libya Caddesi, home to more than a dozen local car rental firms, eventually turning up a promising rental for 4900 Turkish lira (TL), or about 490 euros, for 18 days. We shook hands on the deal, but didn’t sign anything, and were mildly apprehensive that we would turn up in two days’ time to find no car waiting for us.

Hittite grave goods from Alaca Hoyuk

The Turkish lira has been sliding steadily against major currencies for a few years, largely a result of some idiosyncratic economic policies pursued by Turkey’s populist autocratic leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It’s now at 10 lira to the euro, one fifth of its value in 2008 and 2009. On my first trip to Turkey in 1994, the old lira had just collapsed in value from 7000 to 30,000 to the US dollar and hotels, food and transport were ridiculously inexpensive for me. In 2008 and 2009 Turkey was noticeably more expensive, probably the same price or more expensive than neighbouring Greece. This time around it was 1994 all over again, with food and fuel ridiculous bargains for those of us fortunate enough to have hard currency to exchange; I suspect that for ordinary Turks earning salaries in lira, the country is still really expensive. (I was told that 90 lira, or 9 euros, is a typical daily wage for retail workers and waiters in Turkey these days, and it has to be hard to survive on that sort of salary.) We went for a lavish late lunch after our car rental expedition, feasting on varieties of grilled meat and a profusion of salads and bread for 150 lira, before returning to our hotel for a jet-lag-induced nap.

Cuneiform letter

We spent a full day prowling around Ankara the next day, playing tourist. The highlight was the epic Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, full of artistic treasures from Catal Hoyuk, Alaca Hoyuk and Kultepe (three places we were about to visit) and Carchemish and Urartu (which we weren’t going to see). The museum is really well laid out, with striking display cases full of bronze, gold, pottery and wall paintings, and we were almost overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information and the profusion of sites. We also checked out the castle district just above the museum (decrepit, but full of atmosphere and with great views over the urban ocean of Ankara and its 6 million inhabitants) and the underwhelming Roman ruins of the Temple of Augustus (hidden behind a popular historic mosque) and the Baths of Caracalla (really just a field of ruins).

The next morning we arrived at the car rental place to find that our car wasn’t there. This was, however, not entirely the fault of the owner of the agency, as the day before the previous renter had totalled the car in a spectacular highway crash. He set us up with a car for the same price at an agency just down the street and by 12:30 we were driving away from Ankara (a rather hair-raising experience given the big-city traffic), headed east towards the ancient Hittite capital of Hattusa. Once we were out of the metropolis, traffic was relatively light and driving got a lot easier.

Hanging With The Hittites

Lion Gate, Hattusa

I have been fascinated by history and archaeology since I was quite young. I once took a course in high school, taught by the redoubtable Mrs. Schindelhauer, called Origins of Culture, that combined archaeology, ancient history, linguistics and mythology. I loved the course, and many of the cultures we studied still fascinate me. I don’t remember whether the Hittites were on our curriculum, but if they weren’t, they should have been. The Hittites were one of the big boys on the Bronze Age block in the ancient Near East in the second millennium BC, and maintained an extensive network of trade networks with the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Mitanni and the Mycenaean Greeks. I had never visited any of their historical sites, and so I was looking forward to Hattusa.

Postern Gate, Hattusa

When we arrived there mid-afternoon, I was blown away. Bronze Age sites are often just mounds, full of interesting bits of pottery but offering much less to the imagination than a classical Roman or Greek city. Hattusa was not like this. For one thing, it’s huge, requiring a car to get around the sprawling ruins that climb up the rocky hillside. We drove steeply uphill, past ruins that we would return to later, arriving at the Lion Gate, one of the principal entrances into the city. The impressive city wall has been reconstructed, running many hundreds of metres uphill, and the Lion Gate punctured the wall in the characteristic parabolic style of Hittite entrances. There were two lions flanking the entrance, facing outward to impress arriving visitors; one had been extensively reconstructed, but the other seemed original. The gateway was as impressive as many Egyptian entranceways, and set the stage for what was to come.

More steep driving uphill brought us to the apex of the city wall and the Sphinx Gate. The sphinxes on either side of the entranceway were impressive (and rather Egyptian in style), but the postern gate was far more striking. This consisted of a long underground tunnel passing below the wall for a good fifty metres of darkness before emerging at the foot of a steep stone glacis flanking the Sphinx Gate. It’s not clear whether this was supposed to be some sort of security feature or whether the engineering was supposed to awe visitors from far away; all the Hittite cities we visited seemed to have a similar postern gate. 

King Gate, Hattusa

We clambered around happily, then drove down the opposite side of the ancient wall to another parabolic doorway, the King’s Gate, featuring a figure in a short kilt flanking the gap in the wall; it’s not clear whether this was a king or a depiction of a god. We took more photos, then continued downhill past a large series of temples (Hattusa was said to have more than thirty temples, each dedicated to a different divinity). As we returned to the level of the surrounding countryside, we saw a replica of what archaeologists think the city walls looked like when they were standing, and found a section of Bronze Age city street leading to the largest temple in the entire city. It really gave me the feeling of walking through a Bronze Age city, and was perhaps the most atmospheric part of the entire ruins. We left with a keen sense of what a large, imposing city Hattusa must have been in its heyday 3400 years ago.

Hittite paved street, lower city of Hattusa

Hittite relief, Yazilikaya

Before driving off, we visited a nearby site, Yazilikaya, which seems to have been a ritual centre. It features a number of carved reliefs, mostly of gods and kings, that reminded me strongly in style and composition of the Achaemenid Persian carvings I saw in Iran back in 2009. The antiquity of the art and its technical skill were both impressive. We got back into the car exuberant with our first exposure to Hittite culture, and drove north towards Alaca Hoyuk in search of a place to camp. We followed directions in the iOverlander app to a spot on the edge of a farmer’s field, set up our tent and cooked dinner under the stars, happy with our first day of exploring Turkey.

The next morning’s activities got off to a delayed start when we arrived at Alaca Hoyuk’s gate to find that Terri had misplaced her glasses. We retraced our route 5 km back to our campsite, searched around there, then drove back towards the ruins, watching the road, since we suspected that the glasses had been left on the roof. Sure enough, we found the glasses on the road, halfway back to Alaca Hoyuk. Sadly, they had been run over, and one of the lenses had completely disappeared. 

Sphinx Gate, Alaca Hoyuk

After that ill-omened beginning, Alaca Hoyuk was a wonderful followup to Hattusa. It’s a much more compact site, basically a large mound, but has its own sphinx gate and subterranean postern gate (with a right-angled turn in it, making it even darker and spookier than the one at Hattusa). There are grain silos, foundations of temples and several cool reliefs, including one of the king sacrificing, and another of a musician and two acrobats in action. The main attraction, though, were the pre-Hittite Early Bronze Age tombs that were excavated below the Hittite layers. They have been reconstructed and filled with replicas of the grave goods that were found (we had seen the originals in the Ankara museum a couple of days before), and give a real feeling for the funerary customs of the time. All the tombs are oriented the same way, with a body found in the same corner of each tomb, lying on the same side of the body in each case. The grave goods included a few bronze statues of deer (or bulls?) that are striking and are often used as symbols for the entire Hittite civilization.

Early Bronze Age grave (reconstruction), Alaca Hoyuk

Relief of  musician and acrobats, Alaca Hoyuk

Alisar Hoyuk

From Alaca Hoyuk we drove to nearby Alaca town and spent a frustrating time trying to buy “ispirto”, which we thought was white fuel for camping stoves but which proved to be methylated spirits (which don’t burn well in my MSR stove). We also tried to buy gasoline to burn in the stove, but were informed that for security reasons, the gas station was not allowed to sell fuel in separated containers (?!?). In the process, we ended up buying a portable charcoal grill which ended up serving us very well for the rest of the trip, as well as some pretty dire Turkish wine. Our next destination was Alisar Hoyuk, another Hittite site, but when we got there, we couldn’t find the archaeological site. We sat in a grove of trees and had a picnic while I searched on Google Earth for anything that looked like a mound. I found it, on the other side of the main highway from where we had turned off, and we backtracked to find a completely unmarked, unmaintained mound that had been excavated in the past, as witnessed by deep trenches cut into the ground. The soil was covered in potsherds, and Terri found what we thought was probably a Neolithic scraper for scraping hides; it fit into her hand with ergonomic perfection. We drove off towards the site of Kayalipinar, but ominous rainclouds in the distance convinced us to cut our trip short and we searched out a remote campsite at the edge of a farmer’s pasture. It was an idyllic spot to set up our tent and grill up lamb chops on our new hibachi.

Possible stone scraper, Alisar Hoyuk


The next morning, as we were packing up after a leisurely breakfast, a farmer drove by on the nearby dirt track, stopped and called out to us. We were worried that he was going to scold us for camping on his land, but instead he welcomed us and asked us to come to his house for breakfast. We explained (as best we could, given a lack of common language) that we were about to leave, and thanked him for his offer. A few minutes later he returned and gave us a loaf of bread and a huge chunk of home-made cheese, the first of numerous examples of Turkish hospitality that we would experience.

It was a long day of driving that day as we made progress towards the northeastern corner of the country and the Kackar Mountains. Our first stop was at the ruins of Kayalipinar, located in an idyllic valley whose irrigated green fields contrasted vividly with the stark stony hills around. We discovered that this was the Halys River, famous in classical history as the location of a decisive battle between the Persians and the Lydians in which Croesus, King of Lydia, misinterpreted the ambiguous words of the Delphic Oracle: “If you invade the Persian Empire, you will destroy a great kingdom.” Only after his defeat did he realize that he had destroyed his own great kingdom. Kayalipinar was another Hittite city and, like Alisar, the site is completely abandoned. There wasn’t a lot to see aside from the replica of a Hittite relief and something that looked a lot like a filled-in postern gate. We gazed out across the farm fields and tried to picture what the area must have been like in Hittite times. We also did the first of a number of Facebook Live videos (a great idea by Terri), showing off the area and talking briefly about its history.

First distant view of the mountains of the Black Sea coast

We left Kayalipinar behind and drove further east into the hypermodern sprawl of Sivas, one of the major cities of eastern Turkey. There were no historical sites to see, but there was a supermarket, an ATM and a gas station to replenish our cooler, our wallets and our fuel supply. We drove further east, past wheatfields awaiting harvesting, through stark rock canyons, over a 2200-metre-high pass and finally onto a series of small back roads that constituted a short cut to the Black Sea coast. Towards the end of the day we came out along a narrow canyon which widened here and there enough to build a few villages. At the edge of one of these oases, we found a perfect campsite down beside the rushing river. We grilled chicken legs and fried up a vegetable omelette over the coals of a driftwood campfire, and sat out under the stars, soaking up the atmosphere.

The Mists of Kackar

Fresco from Soumela Monastery

We drove further through narrow canyons and over high passes the next morning before finally popping out over one final pass onto the descent towards the major city of Trabzon. The weather changed at the top, and we drove into fog and mist. At the crest of the pass we stopped to buy honey and nuts and pastries from a vendor who had travelled several times to Georgia, and who threw in a big bag of delicious plums for free. We descended along a road that had suddenly turned into a major divided highway, and turned off for the uphill sidetrip to Soumela Monastery.

Soumela Monastery in the omnipresent mist

I had wanted to visit this site, one of the most famous Greek Orthodox monasteries in the world, for decades, ever since I saw pictures of it in National Geographic. It is the most famous tourist attraction along Turkey’s Black Sea coast and as such it was absolutely crawling with Turkish domestic tourists. We parked in a vast carpark and caught a shuttle bus up into the mist before disembarking and walking along a short hiking trail to the monastery. It’s a surprisingly small place inside; most of the complex is dormitories for the monks, rising some six stories high and clinging to the precipitous cliffs, but only one part of one floor of the dormitories is open to the public. There are two small churches and a tiny chapel in the courtyard behind, and that’s about it. With the vast throng of tourists, it was very crowded and it was hard to get a sense of the serenity or isolation that must have been features of the monastery when it was in operation. The monks left, along with most of the Greek inhabitants of Turkey, during the great population exchange  in 1923 following the Greek invasion of Turkey just after the end of World War One. The monastery is run now as a cultural museum, so there was none of the incense-wreathed atmosphere of an active Orthodox church. On the way out, we diverted a few hundred metres to a subsidiary monastery which provided us with the iconic view of Soumela playing peek-a-boo with us through the curtains of mist.

Painted church facade, Soumela Monastery

With that, we retreated to the car and continued downhill towards Trabzon, a big city packed with concrete apartment buildings. We continued along the motorway that hugs the Black Sea shore, wondering why on earth this region is so popular with Turkish holidaymakers. What little natural charm it once had has long since been buried under concrete, with almost continuous urban sprawl along the coast, lapping upwards high into the steep green hills that line the shore. There is a lot of industrial development as well, and the towns seemed bereft of any visible charm or atmosphere. There aren’t even any decent beaches that we could see. We decided that finding a wild campsite would be impossible, and so we opted for an inexpensive hotel, the Mori Sport Hotel, in Iyidere, partway between Trabzon and Rize. It proved to be a great base, with comfortable rooms and a big swimming pool. It felt good to shower after a few days of sleeping rough, and we went out for a lavish supper of grilled meat that set us back 12 euros in total.

First hike in the Kackar Mountains

From Iyidere our route headed further east to the city of Rize, and then up a valley towards the mountain resort town of Ayder. In Rize we stopped to top up on a few groceries and were, for the first time, able to buy gasoline for my MSR stove by showing my passport and having the details recorded for reporting to the police. The road was wide and newly paved, perfect for tour buses. Ayder is very much on the domestic tourism itineraries for this region, and the road was lined with whitewater rafting outfits, tea plantations and big tourist restaurants specializing in coach tours. 


When we got to Ayder, it reminded me of a down-market French ski resort, full of new hotels and with no parking to be found. We ground our way uphill to the top end of the village and found (we thought) a place to stay in a hotel that catered mostly to Arabic-speaking guests. We decided that we would have breakfast while we waited for our room to come free. It was a nice breakfast (omelette, sausages, olives, tea, bread) but we were charged more for the breakfast (15 euros) than we had paid for a huge supper the night before. To top it all off, it turned out that there was no room at the inn either, and we ended up leaving our car parked in front of the hotel while we caught a lift up to the end of the mountain road to do some hiking, hoping that there would be a place available at a nearby hotel when we came back later that afternoon.

                                  Segurigera orientalis

We had briefly contemplated driving our 2-wheel-drive low-clearance sedan up the road towards Kavrun Yaylasi (Kavrun Meadows; “yayla” is the same word as the Kyrgyz “jailoo”, a high-altitude grazing area for flocks that spend summers up there and winters back down in the lowlands). As we bumped along an increasingly steep, rutted and muddy track, we were glad that we were paying a few euros for someone else to damage their minibus. It took nearly an hour to make it 10 km and 1000 vertical metres uphill. We leapt out, shouldered daypacks and took off for a few hours of hiking under sunny blue skies.

Maree on the trail in the Kackars

The hiking that afternoon was idyllic. We climbed steeply above the untidy jumble of the yayla and followed a tumbling mountain stream steadily uphill towards distant granite spires. The Kackar massif tops out at 3900 metres and keeps snow (and tiny, retreating glaciers) all summer long in shady areas. We were well below this level, walking through grass liberally flecked with variegated patches of wildflowers, most of them familiar from two years of hiking in Georgia (the Georgian frontier lies only 100 km to the east). We ambled along contentedly until we reached a lookout point over a series of glacial tarns, where we stopped for photos and to contemplate the dramatic alpine scenery before turning around and trotting smartly downhill, hoping that we hadn’t missed the return journey of the minibus. Luckily the driver was in no hurry to leave on schedule, so we were in plenty of time to catch a lift back to Ayder through mist and drizzle that was rising inexorably from below. In Ayder we found a really nice hotel room behind our original choice. We spent the afternoon and evening packing our gear for our planned 3-day trek around the Kackar massif starting the next morning, and were in bed early, tired by the first real exercise we’d done in over a week.

Yours truly at the top of our Kackar hike

The next morning we had a long wait before the morning minibus back to Kavrun, so we breakfasted again at the same restaurant as the previous day, where a rather embarrassed waiter told us that we could have the same breakfast for 5 euros to make up for the outrageous price he had charged us the day before. We threw our packs, laden with tent, sleeping bags and mats, cooking gear, fuel and warm clothes, into the vehicle and set off uphill again. We had not been able to check the weather forecast the day before (there was no phone signal at our hotel), but the previous day’s forecast was for light drizzle early, clearing by 1 pm. When we got to Kavrun, it was certainly drizzling, although perhaps more heavily than advertised. Undeterred we set off uphill into the fog, following a river upstream.

The start of rainy cold misery

As we trudged along the rain, far from tapering off, seemed to be getting heavier. We followed the GPS signal and map on my smartphone, and yet we still managed to veer off the proper trail, heading steeply uphill towards a mountain climbing basecamp rather than along the lower path that followed the main river. We turned around to retrace our steps and find the proper route, and almost immediately two things occurred to change our plans. First of all we encountered a group of Turkish mountaineers who told us cheerfully that 90 mm of rain was forecast that afternoon and evening, and then while we were talking to them, thunder began to boom around us. We decided that we didn’t want to be hiking through a spectacular lightning storm, so we beat a hasty retreat through rain that rapidly became torrential and very cold indeed; in fact it got so cold that it turned to hail which stung as it hammered down onto our heads and faces! My phone was in my shorts pocket, and got so soaked by water running off my raincoat that it never worked again. Terri was extremely unhappy about the amount of lightning and the nearness of the strikes, so we made very brisk time indeed back down to Kavrun, where we found a small café and sat there drinking soup, dripping water and trying to warm up until our minibus driver announced our departure. We returned to Ayder, rapidly put our packs into the car and drove straight back to Iyidere; our three-day trek had lasted barely three hours! We were glad to have seen the Kackars (again, I had first seen them featured long ago in a National Geographic article) and to have done some hiking, but it seemed as though there was almost daily heavy rain, mist and fog, so it might well have been three very soggy days indeed. We spread our clothes out around the room to dry and headed back to our grilled meat restaurant for another sizeable feed.

Return to Cappadocia

From here we retreated back towards Ankara, fleeing the crowds, the ugly urban-industrial sprawl and the incessant rain, heading for empty spaces, dry weather and more archaeological sites back on the Anatolian Plateau. We spent a long day driving back through Erzincan and Sivas, along brand-new motorways (some of them were still having their lane markings painted as we drove along them). After 540 kilometres of driving, we pitched our tent on a dirt track above a small village west of Sivas, looking out over sere hills and small patches of irrigation in the valley bottoms. It was an idyllic spot to watch a nearly full moon rise and to grill chicken breasts garnished with the wild thyme that carpeted the hillsides.

The letter of a seriously annoyed king

We were headed towards the tourist mecca of Cappadocia, but we had some historical sites to visit first. We got to Kultepe fairly early and were amazed to have the entire site to ourselves, other than a small archaeological team, and not to have to pay an admission fee. It’s a big site, closer in size to Hattusa than to Alaca Hoyuk, and a very important one too. It was a major Hittite centre, and also had a colony of Assyrian merchants living in the lower town (the Karum) below the mound of the upper city (Kanesh) and its palaces. There’s a series of palaces excavated in the upper town, although they’re not visually very impressive. The site sprawls quite extensively, and we wandered around for a while before running into the archaeology team that’s excavating the site. One of their postdoctoral fellows, a Brazilian based at the Sorbonne in Paris, took time to chat with us and fill us in on their work. They’re currently investigating the pre-Hittite early Bronze Age city at the lowest levels of the mound, trying to understand the social and economic picture of that early period. She pointed out the yellow flame-damaged mud-brick of the palaces (all consumed by fire at the end of the Hittite period) and directed us to the Karum, which we hadn’t heard about and would have missed without her advice.

Reconstructed house, Kanesh Kunum, Kultepe

We paused to do a Facebook Live video, talking about the historical details revealed in some excellent signboards scattered around the site. Kanesh seems to have been the key Early Bronze Age site of the region, and it was the capture of Kanesh by the Hittites that propelled them into supremacy in central Anatolia. There are 23,500 cuneiform tablets that were discovered in the lower city (the Karum) which paint a picture of life in ancient Kultepe and the wider Anatolian world. One letter, from a local ruler of the kingdom of Mama named Anum-hirbi to the ruler of Kanesh, is a litany of complaint about border infringements and promises not kept.

Gateway to a Selcuk medressah, Kayseri

The Karum was a surprisingly large suburb, stretching hundreds of metres in a dense labyrinth of rectangular houses linked by narrow streets. Here the visiting Assyrian merchants set up house, keeping their trade goods inside their houses. When the colony burned down, their record-keeping tablets were baked into hard, durable form for archaeologists to dig up millennia later. We saw graves, houses, a temple and, most interesting of all, a modern reconstruction by experimental archaeologists of what these houses must have looked like when they were still standing.

Kultepe is on the outskirts of the major city of Kayseri (ancient Caesarea), and we were soon in the sprawling suburbs, searching for somewhere to restock our food supplies. We ended up in a large shopping mall where I tried (unsuccessfully) to have my phone touch screen repaired. We then drove into the historic centre of the city (a rather hair-raising experience), tried unsuccessfully to find a commercial parking lot and ended up parked behind a gaggle of apartment buildings. I had been to Kayseri before, back in 1994, and I remembered it as having a number of interesting buildings from the Seljuk period (the 11th and 12th centuries). Terri and I did a whirlwind walking tour, seeing graceful old mosques and medressahs. We ended up in a medressah repurposed as an artisans’ market, while in the fortress we found the excellent archaeological museum where we spent a wonderful hour learning about the many ancient sites of Kayseri province.

Goddess idol, Kayseri Museum

Our first view of the balloons

Kayseri is less than an hour from Goreme, the tourist capital of Cappadocia, and before sunset we had established ourselves in a cheap-but-cheerful commercial campground on the outskirts of the town. It would be our base for the next three nights, and we celebrated by grilling lambchops over a very slow charcoal fire and drinking the first really good red wine we’d found in Turkey (Cappadocia is the major wine-producing region of the country).

We were awoken early the next morning by loud roaring sounds that we eventually and groggily realized must be the famous hot air balloons of Cappadocia. We crawled out of the tent and found enormous balloons towering above us as they inflated in the field next to the campground, or floating perilously close above us. We wandered out to take photos, and ended up being offered the traditional end-of-flight glass of champagne by a balloon crew that had landed nearby. Terri had never been ballooning before, so we resolved to go the next morning with the company (Royal Balloons) who had given us champagne. (An example of a successful marketing strategy!) It was amazing how many balloons were in the air; I counted over 100, and there must have been even more, since not all of them were in the air at the same time, and some were launched quite far away and were hidden by the convoluted terrain.

Balloon wedding pictures

Campground kitties, Goreme

After breakfast we used the children’s swing sets to do a workout with the gymnastic rings we were carrying around with us, then had a long and refreshing swim before the day’s crowds began to arrive. The campground had several cats and kittens wandering around, and since we were missing our beloved Bali cats Ginger Bear and Mama Cat, we spent some time feeding them milk and letting them munch on our lamb bones. Eventually we called Royal Balloon and went to pay for our balloon ride at their office in town (a lovely early birthday present for me from Terri!). We spent the afternoon walking through the fantastically shaped “fairy chimneys” of Rose Valley and Red Valley, past isolated vineyards, ancient eroding churches and modern pigeon coops carved into the soft volcanic tufa of the area. It was visually stunning and great fun, although much hotter than we had become used to over the previous ten days. That evening, after grilling up chicken, we wandered across the road to try to photograph the full moon rising over the distinctive fairy chimneys of Cappadocia.

Cappadocian fairy chimney landscape

Rose Valley

Terri in Rose Valley

Cappadocian vineyard

Walking into Rose Valley

Natural rock passageway

Magical Cappadocian landscape

Fairy chimneys 

Full moon rising over Cappadocia

Cappadocian full moon

Pre-dawn flight preparations

Our second full day in Cappadocia saw us up at 4:15 to go ballooning. We got picked up, taken to the company offices for a welcome early breakfast, and then driven to the balloons, already being inflated with hot air blasted out of gas-fired jets that lit up the pre-dawn in various shades of yellow and orange. By 5:40 our balloon was aloft, long before sunrise, and we rocketed high up before returning closer to ground level to sweep through some of the deeply incised canyons, sometimes tickling treetops and grazing rock pinnacles. It was fun and exhilarating and a completely mass-tourist thing to do, and we had a wonderful time. We watched the sun rise and set the bright colours of the balloons aflame, and looked into the distance towards Mt. Erciyes, the 3900-metre volcano that gave rise to this unique landscape. By 7 am we were headed for our landing, pursued below us by the ground crew. We hit the ground with substantial sideways speed, but our pilot landed us upright and kept us there long enough for the ground crew to catch up and load us onto their truck. We clambered out, sipped our champagne and babbled excitedly to our fellow passengers about the experience before being driven back to our campsite, both of us buzzing with adrenaline and fun.

Looking down on other balloons

Terri looking very pleased with the balloon flight

Cappadocian plateau, badlands and valley

Balloons and full moon

Wall-to-wall balloons

Enchanting landscape

We had a lavish fry-up of eggs and sausages before taking advantage of the early start to the day to get going early on another hike, this one up the Pigeon Valley towards the nearby town of Uchisar. There were essentially no other people on the hike, and we walked along marvelling at the fabulous rock formations and churches before climbing up into the fairytale architecture of Uchisar and its towering “castle”, with sweeping views out over the landscape. We wandered through the streets and then back, via the deserted Zemi Valley, to Goreme. That afternoon we drove over to the third tourist town of Cappadocia, Urgup, and did a wine tasting at a vineyard there; we left with a trunkful of Cappadocian wines to see us through to the end of our Turkish sojourn. A dinner of takeout doner kebabs, washed down with a bottle of Cappadocian red, sent us to bed early and a bit tired out from walking.

Pigeon Valley

Pigeon Valley

Uchisar Castle
Zemi Valley


We woke up on August 24th with only 10 days to go before our flight to New Zealand. We did another pull-up workout on the playground equipment and had a quick dip in the pool before hitting the road. We headed southwest out of Goreme, stopping first at the underground city of Kaymakli. I remember being enormously impressed with the underground labyrinth of Kaymakli back in 1994. This time around, although the rooms and physical layout were equally impressive, the crowding was terrible, and in the context of covid-19 it was a potential superspreader event, especially given the number of European and Russian tourists without masks. As well I was less convinced that people had actually lived underground here; it seemed more likely that this was just underground storage for grain and oil and a place to stable animals out of the winter cold. 

Ihlara Valley

We beat a hasty retreat from the hordes and kept driving west towards the Ihlara Valley, recommended to me by my dromomaniacal friend Kent Foster. We parked at one end of the valley, paid the admission fee and ambled down into the valley, a slash of green incised deeply into a very brown and rocky landscape. The first half of the trek was full of daytrippers by the hundreds, but we took the opposite bank of the stream and had very few fellow trekkers on our side. The walk was pleasant, through riverine forest beside a crystalline stream, with occasional rock-hewn chapels up above the river. At the halfway point the path came out in an untidy gaggle of riverside restaurants, and after that we had the entire valley to ourselves, except for a pair of elderly cowherds tending their animals. The second half of the trek was idyllic, with the valley walls retreating slightly to leave a riparian strip of pasture and bush to walk through. We stopped at one point to eat some of the juiciest blackberries I have ever tasted, and it was late afternoon when we emerged at the village of Yaprakhisar and hitchhiked back along the main road to our car. We picked up the car and then stopped for a takeout dinner of grilled lamb and a magnificent salad in a local restaurant run by an interesting local guy who had worked for two decades in Germany. We carried it back to a spot we had scouted out at the end of our hike, where we camped beside the river in an isolated meadow, ate our dinner and sat watching the stars pop into view overhead.

Ihlara Valley hike

To the Dawn of Civilization

Scenery near Yaprakhisar
The next morning we checked out a nearby Christian chapel carved from the soft volcanic rock which was just above our campsite, then drove out past a series of impressive fairy chimneys before hitting the main road. It was a busy day full of sights. We were on our way towards a famous caravanserai at Sultanhani when we spotted a brown sign (for tourist attractions) marked “Asikli Hoyuk”. We knew nothing about the site, but we knew by now that “hoyuk” means the same thing as “tell” in Arabic: an archaeological mound. We diverted a few kilometres off our route and were immensely glad that we did. 
Terri atop Asikli Hoyuk

Asikli Hoyuk is one of the very oldest sedentary villages found anywhere, dating back to 8400 BC. Its location, atop a small hill overlooking a rapidly flowing stream, would have been perfect for a group of people making the transition from hunting, fishing and gathering to agricultural existence. The very lowest levels showed circular semi-subterranean huts, but within a few centuries these had morphed into a series of cubist adobe huts crowded cheek-by-jowl with their neighbours. There were no streets in this later layout; entrance to houses was through a hole in the roof, and access to the outside world was across the neighbours’ rooftops. The later incarnation of the town had big common spaces with limed floors that had been resurfaced several hundred times, perhaps annually for big ceremonial occasions. The inhabitants seem to have cultivated early strains of einkorn and emmer wheat (the wild antecedents of our modern wheat) and to have buried their dead under the floors of their houses. My favourite part of the site was the experimental archaeology section, where students have built replicas of the early and later Asikli houses, complete with selections of plants found in the dig and plantations of einkorn wheat in the gardens outside. I walked away much more knowledgeable about early Anatolian urbanization than I was an hour earlier.

Asikli Hoyuk replica hut (early phase)

Asikli Hoyuk replica hut (later phase)

Interior of the winter quarters at Sultanhani caravanserai

From there we stopped in at two Seljuk-era caravanserais, a small one at Agzikarahan and a much larger one at Sultanhani. Agzikarahan was locked, but we drove around the perimeter, admiring the elaborately sculpted entranceway so typical of the Seljuk style. Sultanhani was much larger and more elaborate, and much more on the tourist trail, although it was still free of charge to visit. The architecture of the interior was striking, with a very cubist raised mosque in the centre of the courtyard, and a large, beautifully designed winter quarters for traders at one end. I could imagine Marco Polo, his father and his uncle bedding down for the night here in 1271 as they began their three-year overland odyssey to Mongol China.

Main gate of Sultanhani caravanserai

Torched palaces at Acem Hoyuk

Our last historical site for the day was Acem Hoyuk, which proved to be another fabulous spot to learn about early Anatolian history. It was a major city during the Assyrian Trading Colonies period, perhaps even bigger than Kultepe/Kanesh. It has yielded far fewer cuneiform tablets than Kultepe, largely because its Kanum (Assyrian merchants’ colony) lies under the houses of the modern village, precluding extensive excavation. Its palaces looked the same as those at Kultepe, as they also all burned to the ground, leaving the characteristic sulphurous yellow colour and contorted outlines we had seen at Kultepe. We were the only tourists at the site, and we ran into Dr. Yalcin Kamis, the excavation director, a professor at Nevsehir University. He was very generous with his time and answered a host of our fairly naïve questions about the history of the site, the region and the Hittite/Assyrian Trading Colonies period in general. I walked away much more informed than I had been when I entered Acem Hoyuk.

Terri and Dr. Yalcin Kamis at Acem Hoyuk

Tuz Golu and its causeway road

We weren’t done yet with the day’s explorations. We had seen photos of pink water in a large inland salt lake to the north, so we raced north along the highway hoping for a spectacular photo opportunity. As it turned out, while there is a large salt lake (Tuz Golu), it’s much less pink and pristine and spectacular than Instagram photos make it appear. We drove along the shore on the motorway, trying to find a spot at which we could camp, and where the waters would look amazing, but found neither. In the end we drove across the lake on a rough causeway, past the enormous industrial salt works that disfigure much of the lakeshore, and we ended up camped on the shore of a much smaller salt lake (Duden Golu) a few kilometres inland from the main lake. We fried up mushrooms, cheese and sausage and watched the stars overhead, spotting 4 meteors (from the Perseid meteor shower) and 3 satellites before calling it a night.

Flamingoes take flight on Duden Golu

Before driving off the next morning, Terri and I went for a long walk along the dry bed of the salt lake towards the open water that we could see in the distance. After trudging for a few kilometres across the salt flats, we finally got to the muddy edge of the vestigial lake which was full of flamingoes and geese and four cranes who loomed large over their smaller neighbours. They were startled by our presence and took flight in a huge, chaotic wave that made for a memorable spectacle. After a long walk back to our car, we drove off in the opposite direction to our arrival the night before, and in no time at all found ourselves in a sizeable provincial town, Kulu, where we stopped for groceries before jumping onto the main highway back south towards Konya. We drove through heavy traffic and a dust haze whipped up by the summer winds off the parched landscape and within an hour found ourselves at Catal Hoyuk.

Catal Hoyuk under its protective roof

If you know anything at all about human prehistory, chances are that you’ve read about Catal Hoyuk, one of the earliest and best-known prehistoric sites in the world. It’s been excavated since the 1950s, and the spectacular artistic finds and burial practices have captivated people (and textbook writers) for decades. Terri and I found that Catal Hoyuk is to a certain extent a prisoner of its own fame and success. It’s visited by hordes of tourists and schoolchildren every year, and boasts an impressive visitor’s centre and reconstructed buildings. Unfortunately the level of communication is very much pitched towards elementary school students rather than interested and educated adults, so it feels very much as though you’re being talked down to by the signboards. 

Reproduction of a famous Catal Hoyuk wall painting

This carping aside, though, Catal Hoyuk is very impressive, with two separate mounds yielding houses and burials that talk to us over the intervening millennia. Catal Hoyuk is actually a full millennium younger than Asikli Hoyuk, but its artistic products, particularly the wall paintings of vultures and supernatural creatures and hunting scenes, are unique and make for great textbook pages. Just as during the second phase of habitation at Asikli Hoyuk, Catal Hoyuk’s houses are cubical and rammed cheek-by-jowl with their neighbours, with rooftops playing the role of streets. Ancestors seem to have been buried under the floors of most houses, and occasionally the preserved and adorned heads of ancestors seem to have been used in ritual purposes. We stood at the bottom of the larger mound and gazed up at the levels of structures and ritual spaces and were awestruck at the sheer weight of (pre-)history that loomed above us.

Vultures and the dead; reproduction of Catal Hoyuk painting

Boncuklu Hoyuk excavation

Having recorded another Facebook Live video, we raced off through the oppressive dusty heat (Catal Hoyuk’s surroundings have become a lot less fertile and welcoming than they were in the 8th millennium BC!) to a nearby site mentioned on a signboard, Boncuklu Hoyuk. Boncuklu was the antithesis of Catal: we were the only tourists, there was no visitor’s centre or strictly enforced walking path, and the excavation director for the site, Dr. Ian Baird of Liverpool University, spent a half-hour showing us around the tiny excavation site and talking about prehistory in Anatolia in general, and Boncuklu in particular. Boncuklu is as old as Asikli Hoyuk (8400-7400 BC) and DNA from some of Boncuklu’s inhabitants shows up thousands of years later in the first farmer immigrants to Europe. The houses are like those in early Asikli, circular huts semi-sunk into the ground, with ancestors buried beneath the southeast end of the hut and hearths diametrically opposite in the northwest end. Interestingly the bodies of lower-status individuals buried in garbage middens (rather than under huts) seem to have had a different diet from those buried in huts, with the midden burials showing more marsh-based diet of fish and snails and frogs and turtles, and less big game. We watched his graduate students patiently excavating lime-paved floors with trowels and dental picks and toothbrushes, pausing from time to time to get Dr. Baird to take an official photo of anything new and noteworthy. As at Asikli Hoyuk there were some experimental archaeological replicas of huts, and also some plantations of emmer wheat and other marsh vegetation. Boncuklu was once at the edge of a fertile marsh full of ducks and other game birds; now it is in the midst of a hot, dusty, unpleasant agricultural plain. We thanked Dr. Baird for his help and retreated, wilted by the fierce heat, to a small hotel in Konya for a shower, air conditioning and some takeout doner kebabs.

Terri and Dr. Ian Baird at Boncuklu Hoyuk

Seraffedin Mosque, Konya

Konya is a neat city. I remember liking it a lot back in 1994, and it’s become lovelier, with a lot of civic improvements following on from a general increase in economic prosperity over the intervening decades. Known as Iconium in Roman times, it became a major centre of Seljuk rule later on, but it’s most famous now as the home of the mystic Persian-language poet Rumi, much beloved of Western celebrities like Madonna and Coldplay. Known in Turkish as the Mevlana, his life and history exert a huge pull on tourists today, attracting them to Konya in droves. On the morning of August 27th we set off from the hotel on a whistle-stop walking tour to see some of the top attractions of the town. We saw the attractive Ottoman exterior of the Mevlana Museum, the Rococo lavishness of the late-19th century Azizia Mosque, the more austerely classical Ottoman Serafeddin Mosque and then the tomb and mosque of Shams-i-Tabrizi who is revered as the spiritual guide and teacher of Rumi. A low hill, manicured into an attractive modern park, held the large and plain Seljuk Alaadin Mosque, while across the street lurked the truncated minaret of the Ince Minaret Mosque. Konya, like so many mid-sized Turkish cities, has seen a boom in municipal construction and beautification, and we walked along the main circular boulevard towards the Archaeological Museum through a construction site where parks and walkways were being added beside the lanes of traffic. The Archaeological Museum was small and disappointing, a stark contrast to the outstanding museums in Ankara and Kayseri. There were lots of marble Roman sarcophagi, many featuring the Labours of Hercules, and some original pieces of wall painting and burial goods from nearby Catal Hoyuk.

The Ince Minaret, Konya

The Labours of Hercules

We ambled back to the hotel to drive out of town, only to find that our car trunk wouldn’t open. After much headscratching and attempts by various folks to help, we were finally advised to take it to the main Fiat dealership on the outskirts of town. We followed Google Maps to a huge building with an outsized service centre in the back. There were a lot of cars waiting to be serviced, but when we explained our problem with the aid of Google Translate, we were whisked into the shop where a mechanic skilfully broke into the trunk from behind the back seats (we hadn’t been able to figure out how to move them forward, and there was a trick to it), then found the electrical fault that had caused the problem and rapidly fixed it. Our car was phenomenally dusty from driving on dirt roads, and after finishing with the trunk, the mechanic took an air hose and methodically blew all the dust out of the doors and the interior of the car. When we went to pay, the gentleman in the reception waved away our credit card. “You are our guest! No charge." I’m not sure whether it was a known fault under warranty, or whether they were simply taking pity on two hapless and dusty travellers, but it was a welcome surprise. We drove off smiling.

Child burial from Catal Hoyuk

In Search of the Phrygians

Typican Phrygian tomb interior

The last few days of our explorations were devoted to searching out another lesser-known ancient culture, the Phrygians. They are more recent than the Hittites (and much, much more recent than the folks who inhabited Catal Hoyuk and Boncuklu Hoyuk) and lived in the area just to the west of Ankara in the centuries before the arrival of the Persian Empire. I didn’t know much about their culture other than that they were always depicted in Persian and Greek reliefs wearing distinctive soft caps, and that their most famous king was Midas, he of the golden touch. We drove out of Konya across a dusty plain through enervating summer heat and were relieved when the road gained altitude and climbed into limestone hills with cooler temperatures and shady forests. We turned onto a small, dusty road and checked out and rejected a couple of campsites before settling into a secluded spot just off the track, nestled in a grove of pine trees. We grilled chicken over charcoal while sipping a fine Cappadocian red wine and watched the stars come out, glad to be off the Konya Plain.

Our first Phrygian tomb

The next morning we drove towards the King Midas Monument at Yazilikaya, through a pleasant landscape of stony hills, meadows and pine forests. Before we got to Yazilikaya, though, we turned off to follow a sign towards Phrygian tombs. We parked the car and walked a couple of kilometres; we took a couple of wrong turns, but eventually found ourself at a complex of cave tombs excavated into outcrops, a bit reminiscent of Cappadocia but with much harder rock. The scenery was photogenic, with bleached blond grass, azure skies and grey and orange rock. Some of the tombs were quite large, perhaps family plots, with big rectangular spaces divided into arched spaces for a dozen or more bodies. We strolled back to the car pleased with our impromptu diversion.

The Midas Monument, Yazilikaya

Yazilikaya (Turkish for “inscribed rock”; I just realized that this name is the same as that given to site of the Hittite reliefs outside Hattusa) was spectacular, much more impressive than I was expecting. We drove into a tiny village of modest farm houses surrounded by lush orchards, and immediately our eyes were drawn upward to the huge orange-tinged rock face on the hill above the town, where we could see signs of ancient stonemasonry. We parked the car and set off to investigate. We climbed up towards our destination, which revealed itself to be a vast flat façade of a monument, chiselled into the stone of a steep outcrop. Enormous effort had been expended in creating a structure that seemed lifted straight out of Petra, with a classical roofline that would have not have been out of place on the Parthenon. As we gazed up at it, we saw a line of incised writing in an unfamiliar alphabet, Paleo-Phrygian. It was unfamiliar, but not completely unknown; in fact, it looked a lot like an ancestor of the ancient Greek alphabet, although partly written from right to left. The textured stonework of the façade was intricate and beautiful, and we stood below it, gazing up in admiration as clouds of swallows swooped and circled in a mad whirligig of feathers and frolic. We strolled a little further along the base of the cliff and found a tree full of the most delicious small yellow plums to which we devoted twenty blissful minutes.

Paleo-Phrygian script

The world's tastiest plums

Atop the ruins of Yazilikaya

We eventually pulled ourselves away from our plum-scrumping and continued our explorations. We had thought that the Midas Monument was all there was to see, but we hadn’t done our homework. A path led along the base of the cliff before angling uphill to disclose a vast spread of ruins. This had been a city, the major ceremonial and religious site of the Phrygians, and they had left a lot behind. We spent two hot but happy hours clambering up and around structures carved into the solid rock. Our favourites were the vast and cavernous underground cisterns with their precipitous staircases leading down into the welcome shaded coolness of their depths. The city had had impressive waterworks (necessary if you’re going to build a city atop a rocky hilltop), and an ancient spring provided much needed water after two hours of sweaty ruins-exploring. On the way back to the starting point we passed a series of underground tombs and another partially-built monumental façade that was the smaller twin of the first one.

The entrance to a subterranean cistern

Incomplete monument, Yazilikaya

Phrygian tomb near Yazilikaya

That afternoon we explored a few more outlying tombs; the entire area is honeycombed with funerary complexes, so we picked a couple at random, hoping to find one where we could easily camp. The first one was where I realized that the Proto-Phrygian inscription was more-or-less decipherable knowing the Greek alphabet. The next tomb was set picturesquely partway up a cliff, providing sweeping views out over the valley; the stonework inside the tomb was impressive. The final tomb was at the end of a rocky track that was at the limit of what our car could handle, and was perhaps the most picturesque of all, with a series of tombs carved seemingly at random into a large rock outcrop. We scrambled up and into as many as we could, marvelling at the construction and admiring the shafts of light that pierced the darkness. Like many ancient societies, most of what remains of the Phrygians seems to be graves, since they devoted such immense effort into crafting imposing tombs.

Phrygian tomb near Yazilikaya

Sweaty, tired but exultant at our day with the Phrygians we gave up on camping near the tombs and started driving north along the dirt road towards Eskisehir. The valley was fairly densely settled, but as we climbed over a rise we were surrounded by pine forests which provided a fine tent spot for the evening.

The ruins of Gordion

We had one final major sight to visit before returning to Ankara and starting the long journey to New Zealand. While Yazilikaya was the religious centre of the Phrygian kingdom, the political capital lay to the east, in ancient Gordion. We made our way there the next morning, via a stop in the major regional city of Eskisehir for a workout in a local park and to visit the ancient site of Dorylaeum. Dorylaeum was hard to find as it was mislabeled on Google Maps, but we eventually located it on satellite view. It was utterly abandoned, a desolate mound beside a highway in an industrial area near the airport. It had clearly been heavily excavated over the years, but there were no signs or displays, just potsherds and bits of marble crumbling out of the earth and a few deep archaeological trenches. It was a major town in Roman and Byzantine times, site of a key battle during the First Crusade, and we could see what must have been the lower town and agora/forum across the road, but it didn’t offer us much to look at, so we saddled up and drove towards Gordion.

Maybe the world's oldest geometric floor mosaic

Gordion was fabulous. We drove into town in the late afternoon and went directly to the main excavation site, which sprawled untidily across the top of a large mound. This was the city which was said to have been founded by Gordias, the father of King Midas, sometime around 800 BC. It featured some impressive Cyclopean stonework in its entrance gate, and a series of big “palaces” which seem, in the Minoan style, to have been big industrial complexes as much as they were royal dwelling places. This was clearly the capital of a wealthy and powerful kingdom; their wealth was derived from gold mines (hence the story of the Midas Touch) and trade, and, as at Yazilikaya, much of the wealth was devoted to crafting funerary monuments. Standing atop the ruins, we could see at least a dozen conical mounds rising above the valley floor, each of them a large tumulus constructed atop the grave of a king or prominent noble. One mound in particular stood out above the rest; known as the Midas Mound, it seems more likely that Midas built it to mark the grave of his father Gordias.

The entrance to the Midas/Gordias tumulus

We drove towards the mound, stopping in at the small site museum to admire the archaeological finds. The most spectacular display was of a large geometrically inspired floor mosaic found in a Phrygian house, said to be the oldest such mosaic found anywhere. Terri, who’s taken up mosaic-making this year, was entranced. There was a newer Greek-era mosaic as well, along with a couple of Phrygian tombs made from cut stone that looked a bit Egyptian. Just before it closed for the day, we scuttled across the road to the Midas/Gordias Mound and entered an 80-metre-long underground tunnel that led under the rubble to the grave in the heart of the tumulus. It was constructed of massive timber beams that are, improbably, still preserved intact. We weren’t allowed into the grave itself, but peered in fascination through the steel bars at the 3800-year-old wooden structure. It was yet another example of impressive ancient workmanship, and we retreated to the road impressed. We camped that night on the lower slopes of another tumulus, surrounded by ancient history and modern farm fields, grilling up lamb and sitting out under the stars contemplating the ebb and flow of history.

Wooden tomb chamber, Gordion

Victory Day parade, Ankara

And that, more or less, was that. We drove into Ankara the next morning, getting caught in horrendous traffic, unable to reach our hotel (we had splashed out on a Radisson hotel room since the depressed lira had made it affordable) because of street closures for the annual Victory Day parade. We parked on a street full of shops selling toilets and bathroom fittings and walked to the hotel, begging our way through the police checkpoints. We spent the next day and a half relaxing in our hotel before flying to Istanbul, where we got PCR tests in a vast facility in the airport (the results were ready in only 2 hours, which makes me wonder why other PCR tests take so long to produce results) and hung out in another, shabbier Radisson near the old airport. And then we were off, flying Singapore Airlines to Singapore and onto Auckland, our Turkish adventure at an end.

Turkey was very good to us on this trip. It was unexpectedly inexpensive due to the devaluation of the lira (thank you President Erdogan!), and provided us both with a host of historical sites that were new to both of us. Even areas that we had both visited in the past, like Cappadocia, had new surprises in store for us. We camped wild a lot of the time, and Turkey is a country well suited to this sort of travel. The history that we encountered was fabulous in its breadth and in its antiquity. We didn’t even touch the classical Greek/Roman sites of the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, and I’m sure there are plenty of fascinating spots to explore if we find ourselves back in Turkey in the future, perhaps at the wheel of our 4x4 camper Stanley.