For anyone interested in world civilizations, there is no richer land to explore than Turkey. Here some of the earliest Neolithic agricultural villages were built, and here the bronze-age Hittites defeated Ramses II’s Egyptian troops and impressed themselves on the memory of the Hebrews enough to make their way into the Bible. What was known to the Romans as “Asia Minor” looms large in the Christian scriptures as well; many of the early churches founded by Paul were located here, as well as the seven great churches identified in the book of Revelation. This was the heartland of early Christianity. The Nicene Creed was composed at Nicaea–modern Iznik–and many of the most influential early saints and theologians came from here.

In the 4th century, Constantine founded Constantinople (modern Istanbul)–named after himself–and made it both the eastern capital of the Roman Empire and official center of Christendom. It continued to cling to that title after the empire in the West fragmented in the wake of the fall of Rome, producing the brilliant culture of the Byzantines. It was a Byzantine cry for help to Rome that prompted the Crusades. When the Turks conquered the last remnant of Byzantium in 1453, they rebuilt Constantinople as the spectacular capital of the mighty Ottoman Empire, which produced extraordinarily beautiful and influential architecture, the classic Sufi mystical poetry of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, and music which influenced composers like Mozart and Beethoven. Jews expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in the late 15th century built a rich culture here as well.

In the 20th century, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk built the first secular state in the Muslim world, setting precedents that powerfully influence the region to this day.

My wife, Paula Elliott, and I had been heavily involved with Washington State University’s World Civilizations program since its inception, and had enjoyed previous trips to both Italy and Greece, so we found it highly attractive to begin our joint sabbatical year in the fall of 2002 by touring Turkey, with special attention to its many classical sites. One of my goals was to add to the University’s collection of copyright-free images for studying the ancient world.

To Homer’s Greeks, the coast of what we now call “Turkey” was where the Achaeans sailed to recapture Helen from Troy; but by the Classical era, Greeks had settled all around the Aegean Sea, including the Turkish coast. Sappho’s Lesbos is visible from the Turkish mainland. Much of what we mean when we refer to ancient Greece lay in fact within the modern borders of Turkey. This region was incorporated into the empire of Alexander the Great, and then into the Roman Empire. Those interested in the architecture of the Greeks and Romans can find many of the best-preserved sites in Turkey.

The most renowned site in the region is of course Troy, though some find it a disappointment because the ruins are so fragmentary. The excavations directed by the German Homer enthusiast Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s at Hissarlik, near modern Çannakale, are now generally acknowledged to have uncovered the ruins of ancient Troy, though Schliemann misidentified the layer belonging to the era of Homer’s Trojans. However, his excavations are also generally acknowledged to have severely damaged the site. In the absence of modern standards of archaeological documentation, crude trenches were carved through the site, and quantities of precious objects were carted off to Germany without their context being clearly established. It takes a vivid imagination, a well-trained guide, or a good guidebook to make much of the site today. I recommend the excellent illustrated volume sold at shops near the site, written by Professor Mustafa Askin: Troy: with Legends, Facts, and New Developments.

But for anyone who loves Homer, it is still thrilling to stand on top of the fortress and gaze out over the “windy plains of Troy.” What is no longer visible is the beach that figures so prominently in the Iliad, for like most Greek coastal cities, Troy was left stranded inland when silting converted the Aegean coastal waters into plains. The grazing of sheep and goats over centuries may have been mainly responsible for destroying the roots of plants that originally retained the soil on the upland slopes. Goats caused the downfall of more ancient cities than Alexander ever did. Without access to the sea, these cities could no longer function, and were abandoned.

The most famous of the later cities which thrived along the coast was Ephesus–modern Efes–now thronged with tourists “following in the footsteps of Paul” and climbing up the vast theater where, according to the book of Acts, a riot led by silversmiths once prevented the Christian missionary from speaking. They derived their income from the sale of images of the fertility goddess Cybele–called by Romans “the Diana of the Ephesians”–to pilgrims visiting her magnificent temple nearby. Naturally they objected mightily to Christian denunciations of pagan idol-worship.

The site of the great Temple of Cybele, famed throughout the ancient world, is little more than a vacant lot today; but images of the goddess survive in the nearby museum at Selçuk, including a magnificent Roman version. The contemporary scholarly consensus is that the globes hanging from her neck are neither breasts nor eggs, but the severed testicles of bulls which were sacrificed to her. It has been suggested by some that when Jesus referred in Matthew 19:12 to “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” he may have been speaking of the more frenzied devotees of Cybele, who castrated themselves in her honor. Winged lions and bulls decorate the image, conveying not simple maternity, but fiercely potent fertility.

Ancient Pergamum–modern Bergama–did not share the fate of the coastal cities, because it was always located at a distance from the sea, and was famed for its library and the scholars who worked there. When the jealous Egyptians at Alexandria cut off their traditional supply of papyrus, the scholars responded by developing a technique of writing on cured animal skins. The Latin word pergamentum–”parchment”–is for that reason derived from the name of this ancient city.

The acropolis at Pergamum featured a vast hillside theater and several splendid temples, the most famous of which was dismantled by German archaeologists and is now displayed in Berlin. But the fragmentary ruins of the temple dedicated to the emperor Trajan there are still impressive. A visit to the Bergama museum to see the many rich carvings and architectural fragments from the site helps bring ancient Pergamum to life. Also worth visiting is the nearby site of the ancient Asclepion, where the dreams of pilgrims were used to diagnose their ailments by the priests of the healing god, Aesculapius. It was here that the famous physician Galen lived and worked. His writings continued to be studied in the Muslim world and in Europe well past the Middle Ages.

Of the scores of other interesting but lesser-known Greek and Roman sites in Turkey, Didyma is notable for being the site of one of the largest classical temples ever constructed. The accompanying photograph shows only the porch, its columns soaring 64 feet into the air. This temple housed the second most famous oracle in the ancient world after Delphi. Our guide told us an entertaining legend about the priests here. Supposedly when visitors made an inquiry, they were given one answer orally and the diametrically opposite one was recorded in the archives. If a disappointed patron returned to complain that the oracle had been mistaken about the future, the priest would assure the aggrieved party that the records clearly showed that the opposite prediction had been made.

Magnificent Greco-Roman theaters are scattered all over western Turkey, many in better repair than similar theaters in Greece and Italy. Visitors go to Pamukkale primarily to explore the blue pools and white cliffs that adorn every Turkish travel poster; but at the top of the cliffs are not only a number of fine small museum buildings, but the sprawling ruins of ancient Hieropolis. In ancient times, the income from visitors to the baths helped build an enormous theater, whose scaena, or backdrop, is unusually well preserved.

To see some of the other Classical sites of Turkey, you can explore my photographic tour. Nearly 500 high-resolution photographs from the trip are also available for viewing and downloading on the website of WSU Libraries’ Department of Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections.

WSU history professor Robert Staab, who helped plan our trip, is organizing a WSU-sponsored two-week tour of Turkey for late May 2004. For further information contact Prof. Staab.


Paul Brians is a professor of English who teaches World Civilizations and interdisciplinary multicultural courses dealing with the humanities in a historical context at WSU. His latest book Common Errors in English, is published by William, James & Co. His wife, Paula Elliot, is the architecture and performing arts librarian at WSU.