With all that has been happening recently concerning some terrorist groups claiming to be Muslims – the Charlie Hebdo incident and the subsequent supermarket attack in Paris, bombings in Iraq and Syria, looting and destruction of historical sites in Iraq, Christian beheadings in Libya, and other threats from ISIS (they now want to be called Islamic State, to the dismay of Muslims) – some friends and family expressed concern over my decision to travel to Turkey, where the population is 99% Muslim and is the usual route of so-called extremists traveling to Syria to join these terrorist groups. Truth be told, I was apprehensive, too. For the two months leading to the trip, I would regularly check news about Turkey – the rallies, the attacks against the police in Istanbul, the widespread blackout across Turkey , the plan to convert the Hagia Sophia Museum back to a mosque, the Pope’s statement about the alleged Armenian genocide, update on politics and the then-upcoming elections – almost anything related to Turkey, really. I even called the airline asking if there was a management decision allowing passengers to hold off on their Turkey flights. There was none.
It did not help that I had initially planned to do this as a solo trip, as most of my friends wanted to do a European tour and/or could not easily file for a two-week leave. That I explore Turkey for at least two weeks was a non-negotiable for me. Turkey is a big and geographically diverse country with such rich history dating as far back as 7th millennium BC or even earlier, and the things and places that piqued my curiosity simply cannot be crammed into less than that. And frankly, there were particular things that I wanted to do, see, eat and experience that might pose a problem if I were to travel with someone with her own sets of preferences or travel style. Thankfully, I found someone who was care-free (or lazy) enough to let me take control of the itinerary, and we are now 11,277 meters over Tehran as I write this, on the tail end of our trip. I am happy to say that I have found the experience more enriching than I had imagined; Turkey more beautiful and charming than my research allowed me to glean; and most importantly, the Turks more accepting and friendly than my preconceptions had led me to fear. There are exceptions, certainly: businessmen who were friendly but remained businessmen at their core, and some taxi drivers who were being typical taxi drivers – but these things are what I would expect from most people in any other country – and are far outweighed by the hospitality we experienced.
Fast forward to almost two months after the trip, friends continue to ask: Why Turkey? I find it impossible to properly answer this question over a 1-minute elevator ride, or a facebook message, or even a 3-hour social event, and so I end up gushing a very generic ‘It was amazing!’, and hating myself after that. So I’ve decided to take my time to describe Turkey the way it deserves – hoping that I can share the experience in a 10-point summary.
1. Turkey has diverse and stunning landscapes
If you had asked me when i was younger, you would have discovered that Istanbul was all I knew about Turkey. Over the years, I eventually learned of the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia. And as I was researching for the trip, the travertines of Pamukkale. And then the ruins of Ephesus. And the vineyards of Sirince. And the mediterranean waters of Oludeniz. And the Agean and Black Seas. And the snow-capped mountains of Anatolia and beyond. And the farmland across the country. The list goes on.
That isn’t snow. It’s carbonate minerals formed by flowing water. On top are terrace pools where one can take a dip, said to be therapeutic/has many health benefits
2. Turkey has such rich history
One night in Singapore, as I and my colleagues were having dinner in an Arab restaurant, our boss started to tell stories of his vacation in Turkey years back, in vivid detail. “Turkey’s history density per square inch of land may rival that of Italy”, he said, and it stayed with me. Barely a year later, there I was, witnessing the Greek influence on its architecture, transported to a time when gladiators fighting to their death was “entertainment”, and aching over the Gothic destruction of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – the Temple of Artemis.
Would you believe that the Virgin Mary actually lived in Turkey before? This is said to be the site of her house, which is now a shrinel visited by both Christians and Muslims. This is definitely one of the trip’s highlights for me. Incredibly blessed.
3. Turkey is one of the few intercontinental countries in the world
Turkey is one of the very few countries in the world which span two continents (in contiguous parts). Cruising along the Bosphorus Strait, knowing that the land mass on one side is Europe and the other Asia is really quite an experience. But the more compelling aspect is seeing how the country, and especially Istanbul, is truly a mix of Asian and European influences, especially since the many secular reforms made by Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic.
4. Turkey has both Muslim mosques and Christian churches
With 99% of the population being Muslims, it is no surprise that Turkey is filled with mosques. The Blue Mosque, in particular, is one of Istanbul’s most important landmarks. But surprisingly, there are also quite a few Christian churches in Turkey, especially in Istanbul. We were lucky that we were able to visit the largest Catholic Church in Istanbul before we flew back home (though sadly weren’t able to hear mass) – St Anthony of Padua Church.
5. Turkey has a church-cum-mosque-cum-museum – probably the only one in the world*
An Orthodox church during the Byzantine period, a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin empire, and a mosque under the Ottoman era, the Hagia Sophia is now a secular museum that holds relics of both Islam and Christianity. Perhaps one of the most moving moments for me during the trip was seeing a mosaic of the Virgin and Child in the apse, and beside it, the minbar, or pulpit, where imams (Muslim priests) deliver their sermon.
*let me know if there are others!
6. Turkey has knowledgeable Muslims – on both Islam and Christianity
Apparently, the first word and command in the Qur’an is “Read” and therefore continuously acquire knowledge. I am not exaggerating when I say that one of my greatest takeaways from this trip is being inspired to be a more learned Christian. I mean, the Muslims’ knowledge of Christianity put me to shame (and I’m not just talking about our tour guides)! And although the Christian population has largely dwindled over the years, especially after the 1923 Greek-Turkish population exchange (essentially a swap: Christians in Turkey to return to Greece, while Muslims in Greece go to Turkey), there still remains a tiny fraction of them, hence the presence of still-functioning Catholic and Orthodox churches.
7. Turkey has stunningly turquoise Mediterranean waters
Some of my friends criticize me for having high standards when it comes to beaches, but can I be faulted if the first two beaches I swam in as an adult – Boracay and Palawan – are some of the country’s and the world’s most beautiful? So yes, I like my beach with fine white sand, and I was not particularly eager to spend time lounging in the non-fine non-white shores of Turkey, especially with such limited time; but I also did not want to dismiss Turkish beaches without giving them a fighting chance (haughty, haughty, born-of-country-with-7,107islands-me). I also wanted to see what the Mediterranean waters look like, so I included an island-hopping trip in our itinerary.
Verdict: the beach did disappoint (brownish, pebblish blah), but the turquoise waters with matching ruins on islands stunned! Bonus points for one of the islands being the site of Santa Claus’ (St. Nicholas) original burial place. Yep, he isn’t from the North Pole, kids.
8. Turkey has fresh and delicious farm/sea-to-table food, always
With agriculture as one of the main occupations of most Turkish people, the country is one of the few who are self-sufficient when it comes to food. If there is one consistent thing about our trip, it has to be the quality and freshness of the food. I can still taste the succulent tomatoes, the crisp lettuce leaves, and the juicy and tender meat. I even learned to love lamb, which I used to despise!
9. Turkey has the best breakfast
I know I just talked about food , but Turkish breakfast, or kahvalti, deserves its own spot. A typical Turkish breakfast comprises white cheese, old cheese, black olives, butter, honey, jam, egg, tomatoes, cucumber, and finally, tea! Lots and lots of tea! Sometimes, cold cuts and sausages are also added. Even simple hostels serve really, really good breakfast, especially outside Istanbul. Truly, there is no better way to start your day in Turkey.
10. Muslim Turks hate the terrorists, too
“I hate the ISIS more than you do,” was the most powerful statement I heard during the trip from a Muslim that we came to know. In fact, he goes so far as to say that for him, ISIS is not a Muslim group, because there is nothing in the Qur’an that says they can kill people in the name of religion. For the record, let me just say that WE FELT VERY SAFE DURING THE TRIP, from the city of Istanbul to the coast of Fethiye to the Cappadocian region and everywhere else in between. I really feel for the Muslims who are affected by the reputation and fear that these other groups are creating for the entire religion, and pray that the violence and hatred would end, and soon.
I tried my best, in words and in images; but as always, nothing beats experience. I recommend that you put Turkey in your travel radar, if it isn’t in there yet. 🙂