Turkey’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Turkey’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites are a marvellous blend of cultural and natural beauty highlighting the best of the country’s history. Anyone who knows Turkey well, will testify as to its diverse historical timeline and touring the UNESCO sites is a perfect introduction to a country that is sometimes hard to understand.
The UNESCO list includes buildings, cities, complexes, deserts, forests, islands, lakes, monuments and mountains. To be added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, they must be culturally unique or of physical significance.
While each World Heritage Site still belongs to Turkey, UNESCO says international communities also benefit so to preserve each site for future generations, they actively work with the government towards their preservation and promotion.
All UNESCO Heritage sites are open to the public, so you can tour them independently or buy round-the-country tours to see them all in one trip. However, don’t expect a quick, whirlwind visit because there are 18 to date and they are scattered all over Turkey from east to west.
Turkey’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites
1: Troy Archaeological Site (1998)
With 4000 years of history, Troy’s extensive remains reflect first contact between Anatolia and Mediterranean civilisations. Bronze Age Troy featured in the Trojan War of ancient Greek oral and literary tradition and the archaeological site has revealed a large and prosperous city occupied over millennia. There have been lots of debates about whether mythical Troy even existed, however today it is accepted that archaeological excavations have indeed revealed the city of Homer’s Iliad. In Turkey, Troy is known as Hisarlık.
2: Bursa and Cumalikizik: Birth of the Ottoman Empire (2014)
A serial nomination of eight sites in Bursa and nearby Cumalikizik village, this site promotes urban and rural systems of 14th-century Ottoman towns. The site includes commercial districts of khans, mosques, religious schools, public baths and a kitchen for the poor, and the tomb of Orhan Ghazi, Ottoman dynasty founder.
On Uludag Mountain slopes in north-western Turkey, architectural styles include Byzantine, Seljuk, Arab, Persian and many other influences. Bursa is also directly associated with significant historical events, myths, ideas and traditions from the early Ottoman period and many sultans, courtiers and Muslim leaders chose it as their burial place.
3: Safranbolu (1994)
Safranbolu, a typical Ottoman town played a crucial role in trade between east and west over many centuries. Developed as a trading centre after the 11th-century Turkish conquest, by the 13th century it was an important caravan station.
There are three distinct historical districts; Cukur marketplace, Kirankoy, and Baglar (the Vineyards). Kirankoy, formerly a non-Muslim district with a contemporary European feel to it, had artisans and tradesmen living above their shops. Cukur illustrates how the separation of Muslim and non-Muslim quarters during Ottoman rule enabled each community to establish settlements according to their own tradition.
4: Diyarbakır Fortress and Hevsel Gardens Cultural Landscape (2015)
This historical fortress in south-east Turkey comprises inner and outer sections constructed in the 4th century AD by emperor Constantias II who used stone from the old Roman city of Amida. They are the world’s broadest and longest defensive walls after the Great Wall of China. The walls have numerous towers, gates and buttresses and sixty-three inscriptions and the site also includes Hevsel Gardens, seven hundred hectares of fertile land connecting with the Tigris river that supplied food and water, Anzele water source and Ten-Eyed Bridge.
5: Ephesus Ancient City Ruins (2015)
The 10th century BC Ephesus, an ancient Greek city of Ionia, now sits near Izmir, the third largest metropolis of Turkey. As one of twelve Ionian League cities, in its heyday under Roman Republic control in 129BC, the population of 60,000 people made it the largest Roman Asia minor city after Sardis and Alexandria Troas.
Famed for Artemis Temple one of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Ephesus was also one of seven churches of Asia and where Saint John and Mary spent time. Every year, millions of international and local tourists visit Ephesus making it a top visited tourist attraction of Turkey.
6: Great Mosque and Hospital of Divriği (1985)
The remarkable Great Mosque and Hospital of Divrigi in the Sivas province of eastern Turkey combines a grand hypostyle mosque with a two storey hospital which also includes a tomb. Sitting on slopes below Divrigi castle, the mosque features a hexagonal, pointed roofed dome over its prayer niche, a cupola over the ablutions basin in the prayer hall and elaborately carved stone portals on the north and west sides.
The adjoining hospital, the Darush-Shifa, designed by architect Hurrem Shah in 1228 is entered by a grand, elaborately carved stone portal leading into a double height atrium formed by four massive piers supporting a dome with an oculus over a central pool, around which are located the hospital rooms.
The sophisticated technique of vault construction and a creative, exuberant type of decorative sculpture, particularly on three doorways, in contrast to unadorned interior walls, are unique features of this masterpiece of Islamic architecture.
7: Hattusha: Hittite Capital (1986)
Hattusha, the former Hittite Empire capital is notable for its urban organisation, and landmark ruins like temples, royal residences and fortifications. The Lion’s Gate rich ornamentation, the Royal Gate and Yazilikaya rock sanctuary often feature in travel magazines.
Found within the Bogazkale District of Forum, besides city landmarks and a rock sanctuary, the site also features Kayalı Bogaz ruins and Ibikim Forest. The best-preserved ruin at Hattusha is the lower city, Great Temple, though others of a similar date and shape can be found in the upper part, which consists of temples for Hittite gods and goddesses.
8: Historic Areas of Istanbul (1985)
The Byzantium and Constantinople empires ruled from the historic centre of Istanbul, and its unique integration of architectural masterpieces reflect the meeting of Europe and Asia over many centuries. Buildings within this UNESCO site of Istanbul include the Hagia Sophia, a former church, mosque and now a museum, the 15th century Faith complex, Topkapı Palace from where the first Ottoman sultans ruled before they moved to Dolmabahce, Suleymaniye Mosque, and the Blue Mosque. Out of all tourist attractions in Turkey, the historic areas of Istanbul are the most popular and host millions of visitors every year.
9: Nemrut Dag (1987)
Sitting high on Nemrut Dag of Eastern Taurus mountain range of south-east Turkey, the late Hellenistic King Antiochus I built these temple tombs and statue heads as a monument to himself. Dating from 50 BC, five giant seated limestone statues, identified by their inscriptions as deities, face outwards from the tumulus on the east upper level and west terraces. Flanked by guardian lion and eagle animal statues at each end, this complex design and colossal scale combine to create a project unequalled in the ancient world.
10: Catalhoyuk Neolithic Site (2012)
Catalhoyuk, a rare example of a well-preserved Neolithic settlement is an important historical site depicting human history as we transitioned from village to urban living. The vast site forming two tells rises to 20 metres above the Konya plain on the Southern Anatolian Plateau.
Excavations revealed 18 levels of Neolithic occupation dating from 7,400-6,200 BC, and they supplied different evidence of prehistoric social organisation and cultural practices and gave light to early human adaptation to sedentary life and agriculture. The enormous collection of features including wall paintings representing symbolic worlds, make it the most significant Neolithic settlement documenting early agricultural life.
11: Pergamon and its Multi-Layered Cultural Landscape (2014)
Pergamon was a cultural, scientific and political hub. These days, landmark buildings to see on a visit include the extremely steep theatre, long stoa, a three terraced Gymnasium, the tumuli, pressurised water pipelines, city walls and Kybele Sanctuary. The Hellenistic dynasty founded the most extensive library in Pergamon, while the Attalia Dynasty founded the famous sculpture school.
Later on, Romans built many more important structures including Asclepion Sanctuary, a legendary healing centre whose sacred spring still flows, the Roman Theatre, a Great Aqueduct, Trajan Temple and the Sarapeum. Ottomans later built other urban structures like mosques, baths, bridges and water systems. Pergamon is a testimony to the unique and integrated aesthetic achievement of civilisations. It incorporates Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman structures, reflecting Paganism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, preserving their cultural features within the historic landscape.
12: Selimiye Mosque and its Social Complex (2011)
This square mosque, with its single great dome and four slender minarets, dominates the skyline of Edirne, a former Ottoman capital. Selimiye complex includes a covered market, clock house, outer courtyard and library, designed by Sinan, a famous 16th-century Ottoman architect. Interior décor consists of exquisite Iznik tiles, and the complex is a harmonious expression of an Ottoman kulliye, a group of buildings constructed around a mosque and managed as a single institution.
13: Xanthos-Letoon (1988)
Made up of two neighbouring settlements sitting between the Antalya and Mugla Province of southwestern Anatolia, Xanthos-Letoon is a remarkable archaeological complex. Standing for unique examples of ancient Lycian architecture, the two sites showcase architecture of Anatolian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine civilisations. Archaeologists also uncovered important Lycian texts and these inscriptions, often engraved in rock or on massive stone pillars proved crucial to better understand the beliefs and lifestyle of Lycian people and their Indo-European language.
14: Goreme National Park and Rock Sites of Cappadocia (1985)
Erosion has sculpted dormant volcanic landscapes of central Anatolian Turkey to form Goreme National Park, and its famous fairy chimneys, cave churches, and weird rock site formations. The density of rock-hewn cells, churches, troglodyte villages and subterranean cities make it a beautiful, sizeable cave-dwelling complex of Cappadocia. Renowned for religious activity, dating back to the 4th century, small anchorite communities carved their homes and churches out of tufa rock, and in later years, they served as places of refuge to invading army forces.
15: Hierapolis-Pamukkale (1988)
Pamukkale, a surreal landscape of calcite-laden waters, and terraced basins result in a white covered hillside nicknamed the ‘Cotton Palace.’ Nearby, ancient Hierapolis, a former spa destination holds many ruined landmarks including baths, temples and other Greek monuments but its claim to fame stems from Pluto’s Gate, a mythical gate to hell.
16: Ani: City of 1001 Churches (2016)
Sitting near the border with Armenian, Ani medieval city receives little tourists because of its remote location, but it is a must-see out of all of Turkey’s archaeological sites. The prime time of Ani was during the 11th century, as Bagratids Kingdom’s ruling centre, and a pivotal point on the old trading routes. By the 14th century, an earthquake, and invasion by the Mongol empire led citizens to desert Ani, and it fell into ruins. Extensive excavations have revealed marvellous landmark buildings like the Cathedral and Saint Gregory Tigran Hornets Church.
17: Aphrodisias (2017)
For many years, tourists neglected Aphrodisias ancient ruins in favour of Pamukkale’s Calcium pools. In 2017, its inclusion to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list changed all that as increasingly more tourists arrive to find out what all the hype is about. They are not disappointed because this city was a school of sculptors and excellent examples of this craft are on display in the current day museum where hundreds of impeccable and detailed sculptures of prominent rulers and society stand. Other landmark buildings include two bathhouses, a theatre, temples, and agora.
18: Gobeklitepe (2018)
In 2018, Gobeklitepe took its deserved place on the UNESCO list. As the world ’s oldest temple, it threw religious stories into chaos as archaeologists and historians sought to find out more about the t-shaped pillars dating back 11,500 years. Turkey declared 2019 as the year of Gobeklitepe as they seek to promote the Neolithic site giving us great insight into how man has evolved over the centuries. Archaeologists say excavations are ongoing and there is a lot more to discover, so this is one of Turkey’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites worth watching.
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