B.C. Archaeology

Study Tours of the Ancient World


On the 21st September I went out to Istanbul Ataturk airport to meet the new group which was just arriving in Istanbul for the Western Turkey Tour. The new gang included: Jill Wunderlich, Mary Kirkness, Stephanie Rigby, Jennifer Gadsden, Jan Whalan, Mary Farquhar, Nancy Viviani, and David and Suzanne Cartwright. A number of hardy souls stayed on from the Eastern Turkey tour to do the second tour with me including: Margaret Debenham, Veronica McKervey, Deborah Russell, Catherine Fitzgibbon and Helen Fletcher. We were joined by Sevil Yalcin as our wonderful local guide, and our driver was the much-travelled Muzafar.

Once everyone was settled in the hotel we started our exploration of Byzantine Istanbul. We walked up through the Blue Mosque to see the monuments of the hippodrome including the obelisk of Tuthmosis III, and then after lunch saw the impressive Basilica Cistern, an underground engineering marvel from the time of Justinian. We then went to Haghia Sophia Basilica – once more under restoration it still awes with its stupendous scale and glittering imperial mosaics.

The Basilica Cisterns of Justinian
The Mausoleum of Ataturk

The following day we headed to Topkapi palace, the mediaeval residence of the Ottoman Sultans. We explored the tiles rooms of the harem and had a very pleasant lunch in the newly refurbished restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus. In the afternoon some of the group went to the Grand Bazaar to explore the many hundreds of shops in this vibrant complex dating back to the 15th Century. On the 23rd September we headed by bus into the interior of Turkey, crossing the Bosphorus via the Mehmet Bridge with fabulous views towards Topkapi on Seraglio Point. We headed into the country following the path of the new High Speed Railway being built to Ankara. We ascended the Anatolian Plataeu and headed to the ancient site of Gordion. Here we ventured into the 'Tomb of Midas', saw the artefacts in the site Museum, and then climbed the town mound to explore the citadel walls and temples of the Iron Age. We headed to Ankara and in the evening celebrated Kay Rocavert's birthday with chocolate cake.

On the 24th September we explored some of the antiquities of Ankara. We started with the Temple of Augustus which preserves the only intact version of the res gestae, the testament of the first Roman Emperor. We went to the Antiquities Museum and then up to the Byzantine citadel overlooking Ankara. A visit to the Ataturk Mausoleum is always a special occasion as it has an almost religious sanctity about it. We then drove west through the countryside to the small village of Bogazkale, where we checked into our family run inn. We celebrated Deborah’s birthday with another cake which we enjoyed while sitting round the open fire – it was refreshingly cool up on the Anatolian Plataeu!

The following day we headed off to the ancient Hittite capital of Hattusas. We were fortunate to meet up with and talk to the archaeological team who were digging at the site, including site director Andraes Schachner who kindly took some time out to show us his current investigations. We explored the Lion Gate and also the ancient royal Palace, and saw the rock cut sanctuary of Yazilikaya. On the 26th September we packed up and headed to Alaca Huyuk, a nearby Hittite site, where we saw some new displays of artefacts from the site and the ancient pre-Hittite tombs which have had their contents reconstructed.

Our rip then took us to Cappadocia, a wonderful part of central Turkey which is famous for its naturally carved landforms, fashioned over millennia out of the volcanic ash. The air was very clear and we had a good view of Erciyes Volcano from our lunch spot near Uchisar Castle. We climbed up rock cut steps to the summit of the Castle for a wonderful panorama over the entire area. We checked into our hotel in Urgup Village and in the evening Sevil organized a 'pottery kebab' for us, a lamb stew cooked in a pottery jar. The following day some members of the group went for a balloon ride over Cappadocia – they really seem to have enjoyed the experience. We then explored some of the sites of Cappadocia including the serene Zelve Valley and saw the 10th Century painted Byzantine churches of Goreme. We also had a chance to do some carpet shopping – they have a very good range!

The group at Hattusas
The famous 'fairy chimneys' of Cappadocia

The next day we headed to Kayseri airport for our flight to Izmir (we went via Istanbul). We were met by Muzafar who had driven all the way overnight from Urgup and checked into our hotel - this would be our base for a few days. Everyone seemed to enjoy the new St John Hotel – it has a very friendly feel, an oasis of calm in Selcuk. We went to the wonderful Hellenistic site of Priene on the 29th September. The town is remarkably well preserved with impressive theatre giving views over the Meander River Valley. The site also has a stunning Temple of Athena, and is nestled amongst the pine trees. We had lunch in a local restaurant and watched the ducks (who were possibly grateful we didn’t order duck!). In the evening we went down to Kayseri for an evening meal and watched the sun set over the harbour.

The 30th September was dedicated to Ephesus. Despite choosing the day with the fewest cruise boats the place was still busy - this is one of the most visited sites in the Mediterranean. We particularly enjoyed photographing all the cats amongst the ruins and exploring the reconstructed Roman villas - they have done a lot of new restoration work since I was there in 2012. We had some gozleme (Turkish pancakes) and also saw some of the nearby sites including the Selcuk Mosque, and enjoyed our evening meal on the roof terrace of the hotel, looking across to the Ottoman period castle.

The following day was a 'rest' day but most people went over on the ferry to the Greek island of Samos - some people went to the old hill town of Sirince while others (like the author) took is easy. An almighty storm came charging through at lunch time and drenched the entire area before suddenly clearing and becoming bright again. Our program next took us south across the Meander River to visit Miletos and Didyma. These two ancient sites are impressive, the theatre of Miletos being a very well preserved example, and with stunning views across to Mt Mycale. The Temple of Apollo at Didyma is exceptionally grand and really evokes its era of prosperity in the Roman times. On our way back to Selcuk we stopped to see the poor, sad remains of the Temple of Artemis and also explored the ottoman castle which preserves the Church of St John.

The Temple of Athena at Priene
The library of Celsus at Ephesus

On the 3rd September we packed up our bags and with a heavy heart said farewell to the St John Hotel - it was such a nice place to stay! We headed east up the Meander Valley to the ancient Hellenistic and roman site of Aphrodisias. We stopped to have lunch in a very pleasant restaurant and then toured this wonderful place. The stadium is really wonderful and so is the theatre, nestled into the side of the ancient tell. A highlight was the stunning sculpture from the Sebasteion (a monument to the deified Augustus and his family) which is housed in the on-site Museum. In the afternoon we continued on our road to Pamukkale, stopping briefly to see the famous travertine terraces rising up behind the town.

The Temple of Apollo at Didyma

It was a beautiful clear morning when we went to the top of the travertine terraces at Pamukkale - a few of us put our feet in the thermal pools, famous for their curative properties since antiquity. We then stopped to see the ancient pools with Roman columns and walked up the hill to see the magnificent Roman theatre of Hierapolis. The views from the top row of seats are stunning. We then headed NW through rich agricultural land to Sardis where we had a very traditional Turkish lunch in a small local café. We had a look at the reconstructed Roman gymnasium, the synagogue with its well preserved mosaic floors and the Temple of Artemis. Our road continued northwards until we arrived in Bergama which would be our base for 2 nights.

It was a wonderful clear day when we went to see the ruins of ancient Pergamon on Saturday 5th October. This stunning Hellenistic era city is constructed on the slope of a hill. We took the new cable car to the summit and then explored the stunning monuments on the Akropolis including the Temple of Trajan and the wonderful theatre which has one of the highest and steepest auditoriums from the ancient world. Some of the group accompanied me on the walk down to the car park, which gives a stunning view of the other excavated monuments at the site – we saw the Temple of Demeter, the reconstructed Roman house with mosaics, and the Gymnasium. In the afternoon, after lunch, we saw the ruins of the Askleipeion, the ancient medical centre where Galen worked in the early stages of his career in the 2nd Century AD.

The theatre of Pergamon
Rumeli Hisari Castle on the Bosphorus

Our journey continued northwards the following day. We headed through scenic country to Assos where we saw the stunning Temple of Athena - the view across to the island of Lesbos was very clear. After lunch we headed off to Troy. The ruins offer much more than people expect with the dramatic walls of Troy VI and Schliemann's trench exposing the earliest layers at the site. When we arrived in Canakkale we went to see the modern Trojan Horse which was used in the movie 'Troy'. The following day we crossed the Dardanelles on the public car ferry and went to see the new Museum of Gallipoli (very ideologically driven by the Islamist Government and representing Anzac as 'the Muslim faithful united in fighting the incursions of infidels') and we also went to the beaches and battle sites of Gallipoli. We drove to Istanbul, stopping en route at a restaurant with stunning views across the Sea of Marmara.

The following day we had a wonderful boat trip up the Bosphorus. The weather was perfect and we could travel at a slow pace to look at all the wonderful sites including Dolmabahce Palace and the stunning yallis (private mansions) along the way. We climbed up to Anadolu Kavagi, the castle guarding the northern entrance of the Bosphorus with stunning views across the Black Sea. We alighted near the Istanbul fish markets and took the tunel up Galata to visit the Galata Tower, a 14th Century watch tower. The view across the Golden Horn was magnificent. The following day, our last in Turkey, we visited the Archaeological Museum, now undergoing a major overhaul. We also visited the Blue Mosque - this is a stunning example of Islamic architecture from the early 17th Century with famous Iznik tile decoration. In the evening we had our 'last supper' at the Panorama Restaurant. It was wonderful to watch the moon rise through the minarets of Haghia Sophia with the Sea of Marmara glimmering in the background. This was a wonderful end to a very special tour.

Michael Birrell

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