The World Heritage Sites in Turkey join many other countries to form an impressive collection of well-preserved historical and cultural sites that beat any history book. Often referred to as open-air museums, they tell stories of earlier civilisations, living trends and urban traditions. An organisation called UNESCO works with relevant government bodies in each country to preserve these protected areas.
The UNESCO World Heritage list and sites defy their mission as the identification, protection, and preservation for future generations of natural and cultural heritage around the world considered outstanding value. Given the extensive historical timeline and the massive amount of empires that have ruled these lands, one could assume many monuments and sites within Turkey belong to that list. However, only 18 do but the good news is 60 are sitting on the tentative list waiting for approval by the World Heritage committee because their contribution towards recording history is essential.
18 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Turkey
1: Troy Archaeological Site
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 fired the imagination and inspired thousands of years’ worth of art, literature, and legend. For many years, historians wondered if tales of ancient Troy were a myth, but in 1865, history experts in the northern Aegean area discovered the city where the famous Trojan wars happened.
Excavations of the protected area revealed 13 layers of buildings, constructed during its long reign as a city from 3000 BC to 500 AD. According to archaeologists, the ruins at Troy show the first contact between Anatolian civilisations and the Mediterranean world. Tourists explore defensive walls, ancient gates, monuments to Athena, and the market place remains and concert hall. Don’t forget to see the statue of the Troy horse in the main town, although it is not the real one.
2: Heritage in Bursa and Cumalikizik
Found on the slopes of Uludag Mountain in north-western Turkey, Bursa was the Ottoman empire’s first capital during their Turkish reign, which began in the 14th century. The empires first five sultans developed social systems are still of enormous fascination to archaeologists and scholars. There are several remaining monuments, including a staggering 127 mosques, 45 tombs and 37 hammams. Another legacy of Bursa 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.
3: Safranbolu: A UNESCO Gem
As 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. In the Black Sea region of Turkey, the town was once a trading centre, for precious spice saffron, and 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 creaky in their antiquity - Safranbolu is about as quaint as you can get.
4: Diyarbakir Fortress and Hevsel Gardens Cultural Landscape
As a unique addition to the UNESCO stable, the 8000-year-old city walls of Diyarbakir and its interior gardens made it onto the list in 2015 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 Tigris 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 5.8 kilometre-long city walls of Diyarbakir with their towers, gates, buttresses, and 63 inscriptions from different periods, and Hevsel Gardens, a green link between the city and the Tigris that supplied the town with food and water.
5: Ancient Ephesus In Aegean Turkey
After 150 years of excavation and subsequent discoveries, it is safe to say Ephesus is Turkey’s premier ancient site. As Turkey’s most visited site of archaeological importance, thousands of visitors pour in each day, to explore the grand theatre, the Celsus Library which once held 12,000 scrolls and the preserved Roman houses. Ephesus was once a vibrant city with a quarter of a million inhabitants.
This bustling centre of trade and pilgrimage was diverse and interesting in its heyday, hence visits by Saint John, Saint Paul and 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. There is still more to come, with archaeologists estimating they have only uncovered 20 percent of Ephesus. Recent surprises include a gladiator burial ground and there is more to come. (Read - What to see when visiting Ephesus.)
6: Divrigi Great Mosque and Hospital
Built-in 1229, the Bey of Mengucek, Emir Ahmed Shah commissioned the Divrigi Great Mosque and Hospital in Turkey’s Sivas province. Few tourists venture in that direction; therefore, it does not receive much praise as other sites on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. Comprising the original decorated mosque and hospital, the beautiful architecture and exquisite carvings ensured the site gained world heritage status in 1985. The geometrical and floral reliefs on the main hospital door attract much interest because of Armenian and Georgian artwork.
7: Hattusa Historic Site
Hattusa, the Bronze Age Hittite Empire’s ruling capital, holds a marvellous collection of Royal palaces, temples, and army buildings. Excavated about 100 years ago, discoveries included temples, ramparts, gates, and several incredible sculptures, including some lion sculptures, the best remaining examples of Hittite stone carvings. The 13th-century Yazilikaya Temple, about 2 kilometres from the site, is the city’s most significant temple. Today, Hattusa is an open-air museum, allowing visitors to explore the Hittite civilisation.
8: Historic Areas of Istanbul
Istanbul’s incredible architecture and history saw the historic city part added to the UNESCO list in 1985. It includes Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Hagia Irene church, 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, Turkey’s cultural heart and its UNESCO status reflect its inhabitants desire to champion the city’s heritage. (Find out more about sightseeing in this area of Istanbul.)
9: Nemrut Dag: Outstanding Universal Value
This rather eerie site with a ruined temple and iconic, lonely heads sit high in the Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey. As the burial site of a first-century king, Antiochus I Epiphanes, it is an awe-inspiring site, with its enigmatic heads staring out into the distance. The mountain-top shrine was all but unknown until 1881. Despite having had over a century to study the site, it is unknown how they built the structures or what they are doing there; despite beliefs, it is Antiochus’s burial temple, archaeologists have found nothing there to support this. The statues, which are all around eight to 10 metres high, depict Apollo, Zeus, Antiochus, Heracles, and Tyche.
10: Catalhoyuk Neolithic UNESCO Site
The archaeological sites at Catalhoyuk are one of the largest Neolithic settlements ever found. Around 9000 years ago up to 8000 people lived here in an organised settlement. The mound comprises 13 levels of buildings, each with about 1000 structures. Today, little remains, other than the excavation areas, which have archaeologists from all over the globe flocking to the site. It is best to visit between June and September when most 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.
11: Pergamon Ancient Heritage City
Modern-day Bergama, a rather quiet market town, is the modern incarnation of the powerful ancient city of Pergamum. While thousands visit Ephesus every year, Pergamum is a 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 a wealthy and powerful kingdom. Pergamon’s legacy includes the invention of parchment. (More things to while in the Izmir region.)
12: Selimiye Mosque
Built-in 1574, the hilltop mosque of Selimiye in Edirne is a gem of ancient Ottoman buildings and an excellent example of 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 a double site, but each is well worth a visit. Xanthos, the Lycian Empire’s capital, dates to the eighth century BC, and has a violent past - one famous story says Lycians committed mass suicide rather than submit to invading Persian forces. This 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 fine ancient ruins.
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 which in ancient times refused Leto a drink from the fountain. You can also see a sizeable Hellenistic theatre dating back to the second century BC.
14: Goreme National Park: Cave Churches and Monasteries in Cappadocia
Goreme’s open-air museum began life as a significant Byzantine monastic settlement comprising 20 monks, before becoming a pilgrimage site and now, a tourist attraction. The cluster of ancient churches and chapels hold several beautiful frescoes depicting Bible scenes - reflecting the area’s heritage as Turkey’s first place to embrace Christianity. Even without old artwork, the Goreme Valley is a spectacular site. The erosion-sculpted rock formations are incredible natural monuments that have stood for millennia. They provide a striking backdrop to the beautiful frescoes in the Goreme Valley religious sites. (About the Cappadocia region in Turkey.)
The national historic site of Hierapolis was a spa centre for wounded Roman soldiers. These days, the site is famous for its proximity to the hot springs at Pamukkale, where calcium deposits have formed a series of natural terraces, prompting locals to nickname the formation. In ancient times the spa city houses Greeks, Romans, Jews, pagans, and Christians - a diverse mix of people brought together by the spring’s restorative powers. However, earthquakes brought disaster to the site, and in 1334, citizens abandoned Hierapolis altogether. Because of its proximity to the cultural and natural heritage site of Pamukkale the well-kept site is worth a wander around before heading for a soak in the springs. (Read more about Pamukkale and Hierapolis.)
16: Gobeklitepe: The World’s First Temple
Inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage site list in 2018, Gobeklitepe temple is one site making historians and archaeologists examine everything we know about humankind throughout history. Believed to be the world’s first temple and where man transitioned from hunter to a farmer, it sits in the south-eastern district of Sanliurfa and since its inclusion has enjoyed increased popularity. Many conspiracy theorists say aliens built the temple; however, no such proof has arisen, and this suggestion also makes archaeologists mad.
17: Ani: City of 1001 Churches
Sitting in eastern Turkey, on the border with Armenian, the ancient ruins of Ani city must be Turkey’s most underrated historical sites. Few tourists venture there because of its location off the beaten track, but should you head there, book a hotel in nearby Kars. As the ruling capital of the ancient Armenian Bagratids kingdom, it holds great importance. Be prepared to put on a good pair of walking shoes because the ruined churches spread out. The best one to see is the Fethiye cathedral and its large, domed ceiling.
18: Aphrodisias City
Last, on our list of cultural and natural sites, Aphrodisias city ruins will impress even people who dislike history. Sitting in Geyre, combine it with a trip to nearby Pamukkale. There are two parts to see. The first is the marble statue museum. During Roman times, the city was renowned for their expertise and excellence, of marble statues, many of which include intricate details. Then explore the rest of Aphrodisias including the agora, temples, bouleuterion, and two bath complexes.
Also of Interest
Cities to Visit in Turkey: From world heritage sites in Turkey to cities, this list highlights the best metropolis for sightseeing, shopping, and nightlife tours. Including well-known places like Istanbul, and lesser-known Mardin, it is the perfect starter list for any first-time visitor to the country.
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