Fly to Exotic Istanbul; It's Now Possible

Fly to Exotic Istanbul; It's Now Possible

Prepared by Harold Stephens,
Travel Correspondent for Thai Airways International

THAI and Turkish Airlines signed a code share agreement now making some new exciting destinations possible.

Last week I explained the meaning of code sharing, and this week I will give you the results--Istanbul. To present the full report I asked Writer/photographer Robert Stedman to fly ahead and send me his findings. Here is his story with some of his fine photographs.


The players in its past read like a who's who of Western Civilization. Names like Noah, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Antony and Cleopatra and a whole line of famous Sultans stand out from the 10,000 years of remarkable Turkish history. It’s undeniable, few countries have a history as rich as Turkey's.

But in many respects, modern Turkey has become a victim of its own complex, saturated history. Past civilizations and Empires have helped to veil Turkey in gossamer of myth and misconceptions. As Emin Nacin, a professional Turkish tour guide explained, "People usually come to Turkey expecting camels and deserts." It's quite a shock when I tell them we don't have either." Turkey today is a blend of rich history and startling contrasts.

Istanbul, Turkey's largest city with a population in excess of 13 million is an excellent example. Look in one direction and you'd swear you're back in the times when Sultans ruled. Turn around and look the other way and it could be any busy European city. Istanbul is where east literally meets West and the past blends in with the present.

One reason for this dichotomy is that Istanbul was founded over 2,600 years ago. The city was made the Roman capital by the Emperor Constantine and following the division of the Empire it became the Byzantine capital. However, in 1453, the city that possessed the mightiest fortifications of the Western world fell to the Ottoman Turks.

The Ottoman Empire lasted up until the First World War. After a brief struggle for independence, Turkey emerged as a Republic in 1923, led by General Mustafa Kemal. General Kemal changed his name to Ataturk, which means, “Father of the Turks.” For most foreign visitors it's a bit difficult to understand the reverence for Ataturk. Everywhere there are countless statues, portraits and reliefs of the man. However, even though Ataturk sought to found a totally secular state, today religion is once again entering the political arena with the growth of pro Islamic parties.

Still, Ataturk is revered and most Turks see as something more or less like a combination between George Washington and the King Of Thailand. Although Ataturk died in 1938, it's against the law to slander or criticize him. Doing that might send you to jail for three years or more.

'To understand Anatolia (Turkey) is to understand history," Ataturk wrote about his new Republic. And in many respects the leader of the Turkish revolution was correct. He realized that Ottoman history was too deeply rooted in the capital of Istanbul, so he made a new capital in Ankara, central Anatolia, where it remains today.

The general also believed that modernization of his country would only take place with the adoption of western standards. So out went the old Arabic alphabet and it was replaced with a Latin one. Ataturk recognized the adverse effect religion had when mixed with politics. Incorporated into the new Republic's constitution were a series of safeguards, like freedom of religion and rights for women. Turkey's western orientation and buffers between religion and state have, in recent years, put them at odds with at least one of their neighbors, Iran.

For a country that is 99% Muslim you can see in Turkey what is undoubtedly the most relaxed interpretation of Islam. Alcohol is readily available and most Turks drink a concoction call Raki. Raki is about 40 proof, clear and when you add water, turns slightly milky. The taste is medicinal.

And when you pass the local newsstands, tabloids are displayed that feature photos of almost nude women. More often than not, the fleshy females appearing in the publications are belly dancers; each trying to get the most mileage out of the free publicity offered by the papers. You can even get a copy of a Turkish Playboy. However, there are certain restraints. The bunny magazine is wrapped in opaque white plastic and, according to local merchants, reading it in the bookstore is a criminal offence.

Understandably, the nightlife in Istanbul is anything but dull and the capital boasts a large number nightclubs and cabarets.

Ataturk may have been correct about understanding the country’s rich history but an understanding of its geography is also essential. Turkey has always occupied a strategic position in both Asia and Europe. Today she is the second largest country in Europe. She shares common boarders and cultural links with the Russia, Iran, Iraq, Bulgaria and Greece. Because of the potentially aggressive nature of some other neighbors it's no wonder that Turkey maintains the largest standing army in Europe of around 500,000 troops. And Turkey is also an active member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Turkey is one of the few developing countries in the world today that is totally self-sufficient and goes on to produce an excess of crops and goods.
Some other main exports are fabrics, fruits vegetables and minerals. In order to find a better share of European market, Turkey has been aggressively wooing its European neighbors for membership in the European Union (EU). However, with the current crisis in the EU all bets for membership seem to be off.

Geologically, Turkey has more that its share of the extreme and bizarre. For instance, not far from the Aegean Sea there is a place called Pamukkale where you can see a calcified waterfall. For millions of years thermal hot springs, saturated with calcium carbonate, have run off the edge of a plateau forming a puffy petrified cascade of basins ringed by stalagmites. In some places the puffy white calcium cliffs are over four meters thick. The thermal waters have been used since Roman times for the reported therapeutic powers.

Centuries ago, when St. Paul passed through Pamukkale he was given a less than enthusiastic welcome by the towns residents — they threw stones at him. He later compared his reception to the temperature of the waters as being “less than lukewarm.”

Behind the waterfalls lie the ruins of the Roman city of Hierapolis with its well preserved Necropolis and partially restored amphitheatre. At the theatre you can sit in the same spot that Roman emperors occupied as they watched helpless Christians being eaten by lions.

Another oddity of nature is located near the towns of Goreme and Urgup in central Anatolia. Ifs an area that looks more like what you would expect to find on the surface of the moon. Violent volcanic eruptions some three million years ago covered thousands of square kilometers of the surrounding plateau with ash and lava. Time, wind and water helped carve the ash into a lunar landscape of strange looking cones and capped pillars that range in color from warmish reds to cool greens.

In the period between the 10th and 13th centuries early Christians took advantage of the unusual volcanic ash formation and carved hundreds of chapels and churches directly into the rock.

Moving along to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast at Side you can enter and walk around an ancient theatre that overlooks the sea and, after more than 2,000 years, looks in great shape. It makes you wonder whether anything our civilization builds will last a few hundred years, let along two thousand.
In the centre of Turkey's Aegean coast lays the region of ancient Ionia and the spectacular ruins of Ephesus. Along Ephesus's Arcadian Way, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra once rode in procession together. In the great theatre, St Paul preached against the Ephesian goddess Artemis in favour of the “One God.” Ephesus was the Roman capital of Asia and of which St Paul asked: "Is there a greater city?"

Southeast of Ephesus is Aphrodisias. Aphrodisias is one of the most remarkable historical sites in Turkey. The ancient Roman city hasn't been fully excavated and every year, new finds are being unearthed.  Aphrodisias has one of the best-preserved stadiums of the Roman world, which could seat an incredible 30,000 spectators. At Ephrodisias is also the ancient Temple of Aphrodite. But since the Romans used timber for the roof only a row of columns with Ionic capitals remain. Not far from the Temple is beautifully preserved Odeon with a marble orchestra pit and richly decorated stage.

Ifs a trifle disconcerting seeing how advanced man was two thousand years ago. The Romans built-an efficient aqua-duct and water delivery system, ensuring everyone had cool, clean water. They had an effective sewage system that used running water. They even built elaborate heating and cooling systems in some buildings. It really makes you wonder how advanced our civilization is when you stand beneath a three-storey building built out of stone, marble and cement and realize the builders didn't have cranes, jackhammers or pile drivers. Or when you sit in the back seats of an amphitheatre and yet are still able to hear the drop of a coin on its marble stage.

History in Turkey goes not only back to Greek and Roman times but also back to the very beginnings of western man. Archaeological digs in Central Anatolia have uncovered settlements that date back to 6,500 BC. In fact, a former American Astronaut is convinced he has found evidence of Noah's Ark in Turkey's central region. As professional guide, Emin Naci put it, "We may not have the camels and deserts anymore but what we do have is better, much better."


Harold Stephens
E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel (

Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.