A country, new and old

Amid the ancient, a dynamic pulse emerges.

A belly dancer with with the group Baba Zula performs at Babylon, an Instanbul club.
A belly dancer with with the group Baba Zula performs at Babylon, an Instanbul club. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / May 13, 2007

ISTANBUL -- Turkey's identity crisis spilled into this city's central streets this month when police fired tear gas and swung clubs to break up secular demonstrators challenging a presidential candidate with an Islamist past.

Consider a subtler scene: As tourists and local hipsters sipped Efes beer and swayed to a funky fusion from the band Baba Zula inside the nightclub Babylon on a spring evening, a band member onstage sketched computer drawings that were simultaneously broadcast on a screen. First came an Islamic woman clad in a body-covering abbaya. Then, with quick flicks of the computer pencil, the black robe dissolved to form a devil's tail.

It is impossible to travel in Turkey, revered by outsiders for its history spanning civilizations and intimate Mediterranean coastline, among so much more, and not see signs of the cultural conundrum that remains after 84 years of statehood. Yet debates about identity are most often muted, carried out in the press, in cafes, or in prisons. Turkey, a heavily policed country, is usually calm.

Visitors -- many million each year, from Russia and Britain, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, among others -- have little problem finding what they seek: rediscovery of long-gone empires, or escape where Europe and Asia meet.

It is in maneuvering between vacation destinations and historic sites that contemporary Turkey presents itself. Join the crowds of commuters on Bosporus ferries. Or walk the streets and wait: One evening, on the main avenue of Sanliurfa, two suit-wearing students asked where I was from. I said the United States.

"Would you like to come to our home for dinner," one said.

I bought an offering of baklava for the table. Then we settled around broiled chicken, olives, cheese, and conversation about everything from soldier strength to cellphone ring tones. It was nourishing.

For the historically minded seeking a sense of place, perhaps the best beginning comes in the dramatic terrain of Cappadocia , where striations of stone spike into so-called "ferry chimneys," and underground cities once sheltered early Christians.

Continue east to modern-day Sanliurfa, once called Urfa, and Edessa as well. It is said to be the birthplace of Abraham, and known to have been the first state formed by Europe's crusading Christians. The old city center is still home to an authentic bazaar, a stop on the Silk Road and long a crossroads for Arab, Kurdish, Persian, and Turkish traders. Craftsmen still shape copper pots with hammers, and merchants peddle everything from pigeons to refrigerators.

Adventurous time travelers can head farther east to Turkey's borders with Armenia and Iran, and Mount Ararat, the volcanic peak that rises more than 16,000 feet. Some say Noah's ark came to rest on Ararat.

Or turn to the west and the ruins of Ephesus, near the Aegean city of Izmir. Columns, carvings, and building facades stand as relics of a settlement that passed from Greeks to Romans centuries before Jesus was born.

More recent changes can be remembered farther north on the battlefields of Gallipoli. In 1915, epic battles raged between Turkish forces and British, French, Australian, and New Zealand soldiers hoping to overcome the Dardanelles, a 38-mile strait, and take control of Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire fell within a few years, but victory at Gallipoli laid part of the military foundation for the modern Turkish state.

Fast forward 90 years, then, to the contemporary country that, cultural divisions and all, has in its urban centers and touristed edges become as dynamic and modern a place as many in the European Union, which still debates Turkey's worthiness for membership.

One package vacation to Turkey includes luxury hotels, luxury sedans, luxury yachts, and transport aboard a private plane. Cost: $45,000, more or less. That trip touches down in Bodrum, a jet set center for the Mediterranean coast.

The focus of any Turkish travel, though, remains Istanbul, a city spiked with stunning architecture old and new, and a lifestyle to match. Wallpaper, the post modern publication touting global design details, recently named Istanbul the "best city" in the world.

Tourists often embark in Sultanahmet, the historic quarter that is home to Hagia Sofya, the Blue Mosque, and more monuments of the Ottoman era, and before. Ottoman homes converted to boutique hotels offer perfect perches for reflecting on the passage of time.

Journey into the modern city, whether the network of streets climbing the hills through Beyoglu, thick with bustling meyhane, offering neighborhood atmosphere with their tapas-like tastes, or the skyscraper sprawl tracing north into Levent. An international lifestyle digs deep in the swerving, sunken facade of Kanyon, a high-end shopping mall.

Take a taxi east to the Bosporus and Bebek Brasserie , where waiters deliver Turkish coffee, or cappuccino. The decor is Scandinavian modern. Windows open onto the water, which roils or not, depending on the moment, only a few feet away. It is only one perspective, sitting in Europe and looking to Asia, but as good as any to begin, or end, the journey.


If You Go

Where to stay

Each of the following hotels includes breakfast with room rate.

Hotel Ibrahim Pasha
Terzihane Sokak No. 5 Adliye Yani Sultanahmet, Istanbul
Modern luxury in an old Ottoman building with a rooftop view of the Blue Mosque. Great location in the historic heart of the city. Doubles $170.

Harran Hotel
Ataturk Bulvari Sanliurfa
Caters to local business travelers and tourists. A great base for visiting the old quarter of Sanliurfa or venturing south to Harran and other towns in the Harran Plain. Doubles $80.

Artuklu Kervansarayi
Cadde No. 70 Mardin
More luxury, this time set in an old hilltop quarter, with sweeping views to the plains below and Syria. Doubles $110.

Class Hotel
Gazi Caddesi No. 101 Diyarbakir
Modern comforts in the unofficial Kurdish capital. Doubles $120.

Where to eat

Refik Restaurant
Sofyali Sokak 7
Beyoglu, Istanbul
Traditional dining: small hot and cold plates served family style at a cozy room tucked along the side streets. Dinner for two $60.

360 Istanbul
Istiklal Caddesi 311/32
Beyoglu, Istanbul
The cuisine is world influenced, but the point here is the view: Glass walls set atop an old building show the neighborhood and the Bosporus beyond. Dinner for two $100.


Turkey offers historical and contemporary rewards for travelers of all sorts, whether setting off to relax on the Mediterranean coast or for cultural enlightenment in the hinterlands of the southeast.

Online resources
Hip city guide to the newer side of life in the historic city on the Bosporus.
Hosted by the author of Lonely Planet's Turkey guidebook, it offers general and detailed information for sites around the country.
The Turkish government's tourism website, with overviews of many regional desinations.
Offers practical details taken from the much more thorough "The Rough Guide to Turkey" (2007).

Additional reading

For background to modern Turkey's cultural and political terrain, two worthwhile titles:

"Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001)
A compelling exploration of Turkey's 20th century by Stephen Kinzer.

"Snow" (Vintage, 2005)
A novel set in eastern Turkey by Orhan Pamuk, winner of last year's Nobel Prize in Literature. Explores broad swaths of historical and contemporary terrain.

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