The eastern part of Turkey holds countless rewards for the slightly adventurous, inquisitive traveler. Like everywhere else in Turkey, it offers a rich history and culture, varied cuisine – with no shortage of sweets – and plenty to see and do. It can, at times, feel like you are entering a world in which not much has changed in the last 1,000 years.
Most travelers largely ignore all of this. Because of that, the sense of welcome – and curiosity – that you feel when you do venture to Eastern Turkey is sincere, deep, and heartfelt.
There is no skirting around it; the driving distances are considerable and the level of accommodation varies; but the reward can be immense.
It is an awe-inspiring landscape of great beauty dotted with important sites for all three of the monotheistic religions (and lots of others that have long since vanished), crumbling ruins of kingdoms past, and a very important archaeological site that completely changes how we understand the development of humankind.
You’ll find picturesque stone villages with labyrinthine streets built along old trading routes set in a landscape of craggy mountains and scenic lakes.
Some believe the Patriarch Abraham was born in Sanliurfa (aka Urfa). The Church of St. Peter in Antioch, once the third most important city in the Roman Empire and now known as Antakya, is one of the very oldest Christian churches and where the phrase “Christians” was first used. Some believe the Gospel of Matthew was written here.
According to biblical legend, Noah’s Ark rested on Mount Ararat. Soaring high over the startlingly blue waters of Lake Van, Ararat’s graceful, snow-capped silhouette dominates the countryside. Lake Van itself offers the perfect vantage point to sip champagne and watch one the region’s spectacular sunsets from a castle on the shore built in the eighth century, B.C.
Even if sunset is more your thing, equally awe-inspiring is sunrise atop the mystical Mount Nemrut. The 7,000-foot mountain is capped with massive 2,000-year old stone heads of deities from a collection of Greek, Armenian and Persian statues.
In the south is the pilgrimage city of Urfa with its picturesque historic center and nearby Harran, famous for its beehive-shaped dwellings. Not far away is Gaziantep, with an excellent museum of archaeology, which claims to have the largest collection of mosaics in the world. At 18,000 square feet, who are we to argue?
We can arrange for you to meet an archaeologist working what is considered by many to be the most important dig of the 21st century – the oldest religious sanctuary in the world, not far from Urfa – Gobekli Tepe is the only shrine ever unearthed that was built by hunter-gatherers. It is 11,000 years old; Stonehenge, by contrast, is a boyish 4,500. It completely changes our understanding of the development of humankind. Here we learned that us humans (hunter-gatherers at the time) built shrines before we ever settled down and began to farm. As one renowned archaeologist said, “Gobekli Tepe changes everything.”
We think that a visit to Eastern Turkey can change everything as well. Just ask anyone who’s been.