Central Turkey

We marvel at the fascinating landscape of Cappadocia from high above in a balloon…and from deep below, prowling an underground city where Christians once hid out. We'll join a circumcision party, explore troglodyte ghost towns, shop for sheep at the market, and chat with an imam. Then we enjoy the modern capital, Ankara, and pay our respects to the father of modern Turkey, Atatürk.


Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more travels. This time we're venturing east of Europe…and, with the help of a lot of hot air, we're experiencing the breathtaking Best of Central Turkey. Thanks for joining us.

A great way to pump up your European vacation thrills is to venture east to Turkey. For 20 years I've been taking tour groups here because I think it's important for Americans to get to know a moderate and secular Islamic society…and because it's fun!

In this episode we'll marvel at a dramatic landscape from high above…and from deep below. We'll drop in on a circumcision party, and explore troglodyte ghost towns, shop for sheep at the market, and chat with an imam. We'll check in with today's urban scene in the capital city, and finish by paying our respects to the father of modern Turkey, Atatürk.

In the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey — the size of Texas — links Europe with the Middle East and Asia. We'll explore the region of Cappadocia and side-trip to Güzelyurt before traveling to the capital, Ankara.

Turkey has 75 million people. While the vast majority are practicing Muslims, its citizens have a constitution that requires the separation of mosque and state. In this episode we'll experience both the modern and the traditional, here in central Turkey.

We start in Cappadocia. While a fascinating parade of cultures has shaped the history of this ancient land, it's the striking geology that first grabs your attention. Cappadocia is famous for its exotic-looking terrain, especially these rock formations called "fairy chimneys."

Centuries of volcanic eruptions left huge boulders atop layers of hardened volcanic ash. As the softer rock eroded, the harder rocks were left precariously balanced atop the pinnacles that have become the icons of Cappadocia.

A wonderful way to appreciate this bizarre landscape is from above. That's why, for me, the most exciting balloon ride anywhere in or near Europe is here in Cappadocia.

You get up before sunrise and gather on a desolate field that's become a hive of activity. Nearly every morning the scene is the same as noisy burners are fired up and balloons filled. Climbing into the basket, you meet your captain.

Captain: Good morning everybody!
Passengers: Good morning!
Captain: My name is Mustafa. Your pilot was sick, so I will fly you today. So for my first day in aviation I'm really excited.

With the sound of a fire-breathing dragon, you skim the grass and slowly lift off.

While scary for some, the feeling I get is one of graceful stability…with majestic views. Soon, scores of tourist-filled balloons share the sky in silent wonder. The terrain below is a forest of pinnacles honeycombed with ancient dwellings, which we'll visit later.

Pilots skillfully maximize the drama of this unforgettable landscape.

Back on the ground, the terrain invites exploration. People have carved communities into these formations for thousands of years. While many of these evocative caves are abandoned, many cave settlements have grown into thriving towns, whose main industry is clearly tourism.

For extra guidance, we're joined by my friend and fellow tour guide Lale Surmen Aran. For years, Lale's led our bus tour groups around Turkey, and for this itinerary she's joining us.

Lale: While mainly Muslim today, Anatolia was Christian for five centuries before Islam even arrived. Early Christians had to take shelter: They had to hide from the ancient Roman persecutions, they had to hide from the seventh-century Arab invasions, and the landscape around here provided the perfect hideout.
Rick: It really does.

And, to actually see what Lale's talking about, we're descending into Kaymaklı, a completely underground city dug out of the rock.

Much of Kaymaklı was originally dug in Hittite times — over 1000 years before Christ. Later, this underground world provided an almost ready-made refuge. Through the centuries, when invading armies passed through the area, entire communities lived down here for months at a stretch. In ancient times, Christians were persecuted and actually did go, literally, underground.

This is a remarkable example of their determination to live free and true to their faith. Imagine: 300 AD, hiding out down here with your family — in fact, hiding out down here with your entire community — and people up there, hunting you down.

Tourists are free to explore the networks of streets and plazas. You'll find kitchens, cramped living spaces, massive roll-away-the-stone doors, and ingenious ventilation shafts to bring fresh air to the many underground levels.

They could have made these tunnels bigger, but this was part of the plan — it certainly made any invader vulnerable.

And, to conserve oxygen, candlelight was kept to a minimum. It must have been a long, dark wait. But for us, it's back to fresh air and sunshine. We're on our way again!

As time went on, sprawling communities, still digging caves for homes, inhabited entire valleys like Zelve. Around the 10th century, Zelve was one of scores of similar cave communities here in Cappadocia.

Cleverly, they wrung a livelihood out of this parched land. Caves served as ancient condominiums with holes dug out as cooking pits. In addition to living spaces, they also were equipped with natural pantries — cubby holes carved out for storage of food and wine. Big, animal-powered stone wheels ground grain.

People ingeniously used whatever nature offered them. Pigeon droppings were collected, providing valuable fertilizer to assure a good harvest in the valley below.

Imagine this place centuries ago: It was a thriving community — thousands of people. Families everywhere — old people, little kids running up and down these stairs, borrowing salt from the neighbors…and people lived here till the 1950s.

Nearby, in the town of Ürgüp, it's market day — another chance to appreciate the culture.

Wherever you travel, exploring a vibrant scene like this gives a fine insight into how the people live, what they grow…

Lale: Take a drink!
Rick: Woah!
Lale: It's natural honey.
Rick: And just eat this? A whole thing?
Lale: Yeah!

…what they eat…

Rick: Who needs baklava, huh? This is nice!
Lale: It tastes like honey!
Rick: Mmm!

…and how they interact.

Rick: All these beautiful spices, eh?
Lale: Yes, local spices. They sell them both powdered and rough…
Rick: Uh-huh…
Lale: …and you can grind it at home whenever you need it.

On the fringe of the marketplace you can even buy livestock.

Rick: How old is this little goat?
Lale: One and a half months old.
Goat merchant: [Speaks Turkish]
Lale: He can give you a good deal for the goat.
Rick: Yeah, how much?
Lale: The twin and the mother.
Rick: I just want the one baby.

I think this little guy likes me.

And where there's wool, there's yarn. The tradition of carpet weaving is integral to the local culture. And, across Turkey, families still make yarn from raw wool, and then weave carpets in the traditional — and painstaking — way. While they're ultimately sold in larger stores, many carpets continue to be made like this in people's homes to supplement the family income.

Throughout Turkey, big carpet stores hungrily welcome both tour groups and individuals. Salesmen are on you like white on rice. There's a lot to learn, but these guys are salesmen first, teachers second. Listen, learn, but don't be a pushover.

Places like this really know how to sell carpets. Before we go in, here's a shopper's tip: Prices often build in a 20% commission for the guide or person who brought you. And remember, even in a fancy place like this, bargaining is expected. Now, relax and enjoy the show.

Carpet merchant: Whenever you want, you can stand up, you can touch them, you can walk on them, you can feel them, you can…buy them…

It's fun to find out as much as you can about where the carpet was made, and whether there's any special meaning to the designs, and the traditional techniques.

Carpet merchant: Could you just imagine: all those little designs, all those little details — made by hand! And this carpet takes 24 months. I mean, two years of time by two person.

You pay top dollar in a place like this, but there's a good selection, you're assured of high quality, and they make payment and shipping almost too easy.

Carpet merchant: And, also, we will provide you a beautiful Turkey Samsonite bag.

To venture beyond the touristic side of Cappadocia, we're driving south, into the ancient and varied countryside. Rest stops and rustic villages can lead to pleasant surprises you'd never find in the bigger tourist stops.

Traditional life survives most vividly in the small, rural towns. And, with a spirit of adventure, the curious traveler is likely to stumble onto lots of cultural action. This elaborate family festival is celebrating an important event in this child's life: his circumcision.

For Turkish boys, a circumcision is a cultural and time-honored rite of passage. All the family and friends gather as the proud boy dresses up like a sultan prince. As the festival unfolds, the party kicks into gear.

When the time comes, the boy receives blessings from his elders…and then loved ones gather to cheer him on. Inside his home, his proud parents lovingly support their child as he meets the doctor.

Meanwhile, the music and dancing in the back yard continues for hours. Traditionally, Turks love a good circumcision party — some call it "a wedding without the in-laws."

We're heading further south away to the remote and untouristy town of Güzelyurt.

The ancient town seems one with the rock out of which it was carved. Sixteen centuries ago, monks built monasteries into the cliffside. Erosion has driven most of the residents here to more stable dwellings, but some remain, and exploring the town you appreciate the tenacity of its people.

Though seemingly abandoned, there's still life in the old town. Residents somehow eke out a living from its crumbling terraces and neglected gardens. People do their humble chores as if stubbornly refusing to give up on their town.

This is the kind of discovery I love to feature in my guidebooks. It's a perfect "back door." Almost no tourism, lots of history, plenty of character.

Today, like Turkey in general, Güzelyurt is Muslim. But for centuries, Christians worshipped here, and the city has an interesting connection with Turkey's neighbor to the west, Greece.

Until the early 20th century, Greece and Turkey were both part of the Ottoman Empire. There were Muslim communities in Greece, and Greek Orthodox communities here in Turkey. Like many Turkish towns, Güzelyurt was once a Greek town. Then in the 1920s, they had a huge population swap — most Christians here were moved to Greece, and Muslims there were sent to Turkey.

That's why Güzelyurt's historic church is now a mosque. Today its single minaret indicates that this is a valley where the people call God "Allah." Above that 1,600-year-old church are Selçuk arches, Ottoman facades, and on the horizon gleams the tin dome of the main modern mosque.

The market square is the heart of Güzelyurt. It's busy with people enjoying petite glasses of sweet çay and the happy clatter of backgammon dice.

Rick: Ah, six sixes! Ha ha! That's good! Look at that. Boom, boom.

An easy way to have fun with locals is over a game of backgammon — a daily treat for me anywhere in Turkey. If you don't know how to play, it's no problem. If you pause, someone'll likely move for you.

Rick: Oh, nice, huh? Nice game. Thank you. Very good. My partner my good luck.

And my friendly opponent, Kadir, is taking us to meet his family. Greetings are warm but formal. As is the norm in Muslim households, leave your shoes at the door. The eldest gets the most respect. A splash of cologne leaves us refreshed and clean. Tea making is given great importance and done with pride. And good luck if you want it without sugar. As things loosen up, I share pictures of my children. The daughters add to the fun, and we enjoy a little Turkish fashion show. And the grandfather entertains with tales of 30 years of shepherding. For me, intimate encounters like these are as rewarding as visiting the great museums.

Before we leave Güzelyurt, we've got an appointment with the imam back at the old church. Originally the Church of St. Gregory, this was first built in 385 AD. While Christians worshipped here 1,600 years ago, today it functions as a mosque.

The imam has agreed to a short interview. "Imam" means "teacher"; he'd be the equivalent of a Christian pastor.

Rick: Thank you for allowing us to be in your mosque. The government pays your wage. How do you contribute to your community?
Imam: [speaks Turkish]
Lale: [translates] He says that my primary duty is to lead the prayer in the mosque, which means that they're the caretaker of the mosque, and give information to the people whenever they want to have some religious education, information. So be available to them to answer questions. We don't have regular work hours. We have to be alert 24/7. Meet the needs of the community when there is a wedding, when there is a funeral, when there is a circumcision, when they're in trouble. Imam is among the very first people they would seek for help, advice.
Rick: Five times every day, I hear the call to prayer. It says, "God is great. There is one God. He is Allah. Muhammad is his prophet." Does that mean Muhammad is the only prophet, or the last prophet, and where does that leave Jesus?
Imam: [speaks Turkish]
Lale: [translates] It is our faith to believe in all prophets.
Imam: [speaks Turkish]
Lale: [translating] There is no difference to us between Muhammad, Moses, Abraham, or Jesus.
Imam: [speaks Turkish]
Lale: [translates] The only difference is we recognize Muhammad as the last prophet.
Rick: Okay. If you could share one message to the United States of America, what would that be?
Imam: [speaks Turkish]
Lale: [translates] He requests that people do not believe the distorted view of Islam, but try to understand and learn what really it is.
Imam: [speaks Turkish]
Lale: [translates] He requests people not to say Islam equals the terrorism, because it is not.

When the imam calls the people to pray, he's saying "God is great. There is one God and Mohammed is his prophet."

This global wave of praise races as fast as the sun five times a day across Islam, from Malaysia to Morocco and beyond. Throughout Islam, fundamentalism is on the rise. Many Turks see this as a threat to their democracy. Modern-minded Turks, while still Muslims, want their government to preserve the separation of mosque and state.

In fact, a constitutional obligation of Turkey's military is to overthrow its own government if ever it becomes a theocracy. It's a complicated issue, and there is a rising tide of fundamentalism here among Turks. But the people I've met seem determined to maintain the secular ideals of Atatürk.

A good place to sample today's Turkish character is in Ankara. A small provincial town just a century ago, today Ankara, with over 4 million people, is the vibrant capitol of a modern nation.

The city is a thriving example of Turkey's new affluence. Energized by busy boulevards, prestigious universities, and striking malls, Ankara is contemporary Turkey. If Turkey is more modern and comfortable with the West than other Islamic countries, it's because of its greatest statesman: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This is the mausoleum and memorial museum honoring the father of modern Turkey.

Inside, the museum tells the story of this amazing man, whose career started as a military hero. It's hard to overstate the importance of Atatürk. It's been said that the Turkish nation should thank God for Atatürk…and thank Atatürk for everything else.

Mustafa Kemal was a heroic leader in the First World War. After the war, he drove out the Allied occupation forces, overthrew the Ottoman sultan, and saved Turkey from European colonization. Then, in 1923, he established today's Turkish Republic.

A grateful nation re-named him Atatürk, or "Father of the Turks." As the first president of the Republic, he built the foundation of modern democracy here on the ruins of a corrupt empire.

A long hall celebrates the impressive accomplishments of Atatürk. He separated Mosque and state, emancipated women, replaced the Arabic script with Europe's alphabet, introduced Western-style industry, and legislated equality for all citizens.

The memorial site is grandiose, with avenues of lions and formal guards giving visitors a sense of patriotism and nationalism. The mausoleum itself crowns the site like a grand temple, giving those who visit a feeling of reverence and respect. Pilgrims from all corners of Turkey stand before the tomb of Atatürk, and remember the father of their nation.

Traveling here, we get to know that nation, and I find it's the faces that best tell the story. It's a land of diversity and contrast — a complex mix of people and history, where old and new thrive side by side: the holy and the secular, farmers and students, villagers and hipsters. The young and old, those who whirl when they pray, and those who don't pray at all. Those who wear scarves and those who don't. Families, widows, couples, and kids…traveling here, like traveling anywhere, the key ingredient of the experience is the people.

As we've seen here in Turkey, when you travel thoughtfully, get out of your comfort zone, and meet real people, you gain empathy, and come home with my favorite souvenir: a broader perspective. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Güle güle.