The 15 UNESCO World Heritage sites of Turkey
Throughout the world, many countries have an impressive collection of historical and cultural sites that beat any well-written history book. Often referred to as open-air museums, they tell stories of earlier civilisations, living trends and urban traditions. An organisation called UNESCO, actively works with relevant government bodies in each country to preserve such sites. The program, called the UNESCO World Heritage sites defies their mission as….
“The identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity”.
Given the extensive historical timeline and the huge amount of empires that have ruled the lands of Turkey, one could easily assume that a many sites within the country belong to that list. Sadly, and rather surprisingly only 15 do but the good news is that 60 are waiting consideration and likely to be accepted because their contribution towards recording history is as important.
The 15 UNESCO Sites of Turkey
Archaeological site of Troy
Troy is well known in popular culture for the bloody battle that began with Greek soldiers pouring out of a wooden horse - an incident that has fired the imagination and inspired thousands of years worth of art, literature and legend. For many years, historians wondered if tales of the ancient city of Troy were simply a myth but in 1865, history experts in the northern Aegean area realised they had discovered the city that was the site of the famous Trojan wars.
Excavations revealed 13 layers of buildings, constructed during its extensive reign as a city from 3000 BC to 500 AD. According to archaeologists, the ruins at Troy demonstrate the first contact between Anatolian civilisations and the Mediterranean world. Tourists can explore the defensive walls, ancient gates and monuments to Athena, and remains of the market place and concert hall. In the main town centre you’ll see a statue of the Troy horse, although of course it is not the real one.
Bursa and Cumalikizik
Found on the slopes of Uludag Mountain in northwestern Turkey, Bursa was the first capital of the Ottoman Empire during their Turkish reign, which began in the 14th century. The city was ruled by the empire’s first five sultans, who developed social systems which are still of huge fascination to archaeologists and scholars. There are a number of remaining monuments, including a staggering 127 mosques, 45 tombs and 37 hamams. Another legacy of the city is the iskender kebab, which has made its way across the world.
Cumalikizik, 10 kilometres from Bursa, is a rural location with a 700-year-old history. Tourists can enjoy the old buildings and wander the atmospheric streets.
City of Safranbolu
Widely held to be the best preserved Ottoman city, Safranbolu is renowned for its typical Ottoman mansions. The old town, Carsi, is picturesque with its red-tiled roofs and winding alleys with cute candy stores and traditional cobblers. Situated in the Black Sea region of Turkey, the town was once a trading centre, particularly for precious spice saffron, as well as leather, iron and copper. Today, people come to soak up the atmosphere and stay in the town’s lovely boutique hotels, built in the Ottoman style and gloriously creaky in their antiquity - Safranbolu is about as quaint as you can get.
Diyarbakir Fortress and Hevsel Gardens Cultural Landscape
One of the newest additions to the UNESCO stable, the 8000 year old city walls of Diyarbakir and its interior gardens made it onto the list this year and include the inner castle, gates and towers. Diyarbakir is not a tourism hotspot in Turkey, so few people venture in that direction and it does not receive the praise it deserves in most major travel guidebooks.
Sited on an escarpment on the Upper Tigres River Basin, the fortified city and surrounding landscape has been a strategic site since the Hellenistic period and beyond - through Roman, Sassanid, Byzantine, Islamic and Ottoman times till the present day.
The site includes the Amida Mound, known as Ickale (inner castle), the 5.8km-long city walls of Diyarbakir with their towers, gates, buttresses, and 63 inscriptions from different periods, as well as Hevsel Gardens, a green link between the city and the Tigris that supplied the city with food and water.
After 150 years of excavation and subsequent discoveries, it’s safe to say Ephesus is one of the world’s premier ancient sites. Thousands of visitors pour in each day, exploring the grand theatre, the Celsus Library which once held 12,000 scrolls and the beautifully preserved Roman houses.
Ephesus was once a vibrant city with a quarter of a million inhabitants. It was a bustling centre of trade and pilgrimage - it would’ve been a diverse and interesting centre in its heyday and was visited by Saint John, Saint Paul and (apparently) the Virgin Mary. It was so wealthy and important that its Temple of Artemis was the largest on the planet, and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
And there’s still more to come, with archaeologists estimating just 20 percent of the city has been excavated. Recent surprises include a gladiator burial ground and there is surely more to come.
Great Mosque and Hospital of Divrigi
Built in 1229, the Great Mosque and Hospital of Divrigi is in the Sivas province of Turkey and was originally ruled by the Bey of Mengucek, Emir Ahmed Shah, who commissioned the mosque.
Not many tourists venture in that direction therefore it does not receive much praise as other sites on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. Consisting of the original ornately decorated mosque and hospital, the beautiful architecture and exquisite carvings ensured the site was one of Turkey’s first UNESCO sites, added in 1985. The geometrical and floral reliefs found on the main door of the hospital in particular attract a lot of interest, and are thought to be inspired by Armenian and Georgian artwork.
Hattusha: the Hittite Capital
Hattusha was once the capital of the Bronze Age Hittite Empire and holds a marvellous collection of Royal palaces, temples and army buildings. The site wasn’t excavated until about 100 years ago, and excavations revealed temples, ramparts, gates and a number of incredible sculptures, including some lion sculptures which are considered the best remaining examples of Hittite stone carvings. The 13th century Yazilikaya Temple, about 2km from the site, is considered to be the city’s most significant temple.
Today, Hattusha is an open-air museum, allowing visitors to explore the Hittite civilisation.
Historic Areas of Istanbul
Istanbul’s incredible architecture and history saw its old town added to the UNESCO list in 1985. It includes Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Hagia Irene, Zeyrek Mosque, Suleymaniye Mosque, Little Hagia Sophia and the Walls of Constantinople.
These structures and places represent the country throughout its long and colourful history. Istanbul is without a doubt the cultural heart of Turkey and its UNESCO status reflects its inhabitants' desire to champion the city’s heritage.
This rather eerie site with its ruined temple and iconoic, lonely heads sits high in the Taurus mountains in southern Turkey. It’s thought to be a burial site of a first century king, Antiochus I Epiphanes. It’s an awe inspiring site, with its enigmatic heads staring out into the distance.
The mountain-top shrine was all but unknown until 1881. Despite now having had over a century to study the site it’s still not known how the structures were built or what they’re really doing there; despite being widely held to be the burial temple of Antiochus, archaologists haven’t found anything there to support this.
The statues, which are all around eight to 10 metres high, are thought to depict Apollo, Zeus, Aniochus, Heracles and Tyche.
Neolithic Site of Catalhoyuk
The remaining mound at Catalhoyuk is the remains of one of the largest neolithic settlements on the planet. Around 9000 years ago up to 8000 people lived here in a highly organised settlement. The mound is comprised of 13 levels of buildings, each with about 1000 structures. Today, little remains of the centre other than the excavation areas, which have archaeologists from all over the globe flocking to the site.
It’s best to visit between June and September, when the majority of the digs take place as you might find an expert willing to explain a little about the site and its significance. Otherwise, the museum is a good source of information. You can also visit the experimental house, a reconstructed mud hut where archaeologists test theories about the ancient culture.
Modern-day Bergama, a rather quiet market town, is the modern incarnation of the powerful ancient city of Pergamum. While Ephesus is visited by thousands each year, Pergamum is a pretty quiet site, redolent in classical splendour. Visitors can explore the many incredible sites in peace, including the Asclepion, the famous Roman medical centre, and the astounding mountainside Acropolis, accessed via cable car.
Pergamum reached its peak of power during the time of Alexander the Great, when it was described as one of the Middle East’s wealthiest and most powerful small kingdoms. Pergamum’s legacy includes the invention of parchment.
Built in 1574, the hilltop mosque of Selimiye in Edirne has been called the gem of ancient Ottoman buildings, by many historians, and considered one of the highest achievements in Islamic architecture. The 18 domes accompanied by four 71 metre high minarets, project a majestic and beautiful structure. However, the mosque is not the sole interest at the site: the religious building stands at the centre of a large social complex - a kulliye - which includes a hospital, school, library, Islamic academy and some shops. The mosque's exquisite and innovative design and its social structure set it apart from other mosques, and ensured its entry to the UNESCO list.
These two proximal ruins on the Mediterranean coast are considered a double site, but each is well worth a visit in its own right.
Xanthos was the capital of the Lycian Empire, the greatest city in Lycian history. The site dates back to the eighth century BC, and has a violent past - one famous story goes that the Lycians chose to commit mass suicide rather than submit to invading Persian forces. This apparently happened twice. Visitors to Xanthos can explore the tombs (including the famous Harpy Tomb), obelisk, amphitheatre, acropolis and Roman streets. Neighbouring Letoon is home to some of the finest ruins in the region. The site is a sanctuary dedicated to Leto, Zeus’s lover and the mother of Apollo and Artemis. The most significant ruins here are the three temples standing side by side and dedicated to Apollo, Artemis and Leto.
A flooded nymphaeum (fountain with statues) is populated by frogs - the same frogs who in ancient times refused Leto a drink from the fountain. You can also see a large Hellenistic theatre dating back to the second century BC.
Goreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia
Goreme’s open-air museum began life as an important Byzantine monastic settlement comprising 20 monks, before becoming a pilgrimage site and now, a major tourist attraction. The cluster of ancient churches and chapels hold a number of beautiful frescoes depicting Bible scenes - reflecting the area’s heritage as one of the first places in the world to embrace Christianity.
Even without ancient artwork, the Goreme Valley is a spectacular site. The erosion-sculpted rock formations are incredible natural monuments that have stood for millennia. They certainly provide a striking backdrop to the beautiful frescoes in the Goreme Valley religious sites.
he ancient Roman city of Hierapolis was a spa centre for wounded Roman soldiers. These days, the site is famous for its proximity to the hotsprings at Pamukkale, where calcium deposits have formed a series of natural terraces, prompting locals to nickname the formation “Cotton Castle.”
In ancient times the spa city houses Greeks, Romans, Jews, pagans and Christians - a diverse mix of people brought together by the restorative powers of the springs. However, earthquakes brought disaster to the site, and in 1334 Hierapolis was abandoned altogether. Due to its proximity to popular Pamukkale the site is well maintained and well worth a wander round before heading for a soak in the springs.