Summer Travel: Turkey’s Aegean coast

There must be something in the human brain that draws our species to the coast, be it a primitive desire to hunt and fish, or a hedonistic drive to worship the sun and sea. Either way, life always seems better near the water.

One of our favorite coastlines may not be as fashionable as the French Riviera, nor as romantic as Italy’s Cinque Terra. But what it lacks in glitz and glam, it more than makes up for in cultural and historical relevance.

On that note, let me draw your attention to Turkey’s Aegean coast, a strip of land in the southwest corner of ancient Anatolia, also known as Asia Minor. It borders the Aegean Sea, and was part of both the Hellenistic and Roman Empires.

With a pedigree stretching back more than two millennia, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Turkey’s Aegean coast is home to some serious heavyweight attractions. We’re talking specifically about the foundation stones of the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), the ruined Roman city of Ephesus, the Basilica of St. John and the House of the Virgin Mary.

%Gallery-122971%There are actually several ways that travelers access Turkey’s Aegean coast. If you’re a fan of cruising, then you’ll be happy to know that the resort town of Kuşadası is home to a large ship berth. As such, it’s easy to combine a cruise through the Greek islands with add-ons in Kuşadası and even Istanbul. Kuşadası itself makes for an interesting stopover, complete with Ottoman-built city walls, a portside promenade and powdery beaches.

Another option, albeit one that’s mainly popular with British and European travelers, is to access the coast via charter flight to the city of İzmir. However, for North Americans traveling across the pond, it makes more sense to fly directly to Istanbul, and then travel south along the coast. Fortunately, Turkey boasts an excellent long-distance bus network.

Night buses with on-board stewardesses, overhead movies and reclining seats are surprisingly comfortable, very safe and all-together affordable.

If you’re interested in ticking off the list of sights that we previously mentioned, then it’s best to base yourself in the tiny town of Selçuk. Here along the coast you will find a few generic resort complexes, but we’re partial to the smaller B&Bs and guesthouses scattered amidst the historic center. Largely Ottoman in design, Selçuk is guarded by a grand fortress, and surrounded by rolling hillsides and sweet-smelling orchards.

When it comes to sightseeing, quite frankly you’re spoiled for choice.

Although the Pyramids of Giza are the only ancient wonder of the world that remains intact, the foundation stones of the Temple of Artemis were discovered in 1869 at Selçuk. Subsequent archaeological excavations revealed numerous sculptural fragments and column segments, thus improving our knowledge of one of the most influential temples in the Greco-Roman world. Today a solitary reconstructed pillar of incongruous stones marks the site.

One of the most impressive ruins in Selçuk is the Basilica of St. John, which was constructed by the Roman Emperoro Justinian I in the 6th century. In addition to serving as a house of worship, the basilica also marks the final resting place of St. John, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. After his exile from Jerusalem, St. John took up residence in Ephesus (modern Selçuk) where it is believed that he received the final word of Jesus Christ and wrote the Book of Revelation.

The basilica’s exterior was modeled after the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople (Istanbul), which stood for almost a thousand years before being demolished by the Ottomans in the 15th century. Inside, the Basilica of St. John is covered in marble and mosaics, and contains a crypt where the apostle’s tomb lies. On any given day, the ruins are visited by thousands of devoted pilgrims.

On a nearby hilltop lies another famous pilgrimage site, namely the House of the Virgin Mary. This humble stone structure is where St. John is believed to have led Mary after their exodus from Jerusalem. In the Catholic doctrine, the house is also where Mary spent the remainder of her life prior to her Assumption into heaven.

Of course, the most impressive sight along Turkey’s Aegean coast is Ephesus, one of the largest and best-preserved Greco-Roman cities. The centerpiece is the Library of Celsus, a monumental public depository that at one time held more than ten-thousand scrolls. Its main facade is comprised of two levels of Ionic and Corinthian columns, and gives way to the unrestored interior containing rows of storage niches.

Beyond the library, Ephesus holds several other noteworthy buildings including a 44,000-person theater, the largest in the ancient world, two agoras or open-air places of assembly, triumphal gates, ceremonial fountains, a gladiators’ graveyard and consecrated temples to the various gods and emperors. Everything is connected via broad colonnaded streets lined with polished marble slabs.

Here is an interesting piece of information: Although the present coastline is a bit far from the core of Ephesus, in ancient times the city was adjacent to the harbor. However, heavy silting over the generations gradually pushed Ephesus inland. As impressive as the ruins are now, we can only imagine how much more striking a seaside Ephesus would have appeared.

So, have we convinced you to take a trip to Turkey’s Aegean coast? Hope so, though if you still need more inspiration, check out the gallery below.

** All images are the author’s own original work. **