Ancient Ruins and Famous Legends: the Best Archaeological Sites in Turkey
Turkey has a stunning array of ancient sites. For so long a crossroads between East and West, it is a land that has been fought over for thousands of years, with the Greeks, Romans, Hittites, and Byzantines just a few of the empires to leave their mark. Whether you are planning to explore off-the-beaten-track ruins or are looking for inspiration for day trips from your holiday resort, here are some of the most fascinating and important archaeological sites in Turkey.
One of the finest and best-preserved ancient cities in the world, and a major tourist attraction, Ephesus has a history stretching back to around 6000BC, since when it's been home to Neolithic, Bronze Age, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman settlements. It was an important ancient port city and centre of commerce, which is reflected in the richness of the buildings. There are the stunning ruins of the Library of Celsus, a theatre that could host 24,000 people, a temple to Hadrian, an agora, public baths and latrines, city gates, monuments, and fountains. The city was also home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, while later additions include a basilica believed to have been built over the burial site of John the Apostle. Ephesus is near the resort of Kuşadasi, south of Izmir.
Perge, about 15 kilometres from the centre of Antalya, is a stunning ancient city dating back more than 3000 years. Originally a Pamphylian city, it was later ruled by the Athenians and Persians. In 334BC, Alexander the Great conquered Perge, while the Romans took control in the second century BC. It is also said to be where Paul the Apostle gave a sermon in AD46, while he was touring the region preaching the word of God. Most of the well-preserved ruins visible today date from the Roman era; they include a bath house, city walls, a necropolis, an agora, a theatre, and a waterway, while there is also a magnificent stadium that hosted sports including athletics and wrestling.
Hippodrome of Constantinople
Istanbul (then known as Constantinople) was the capital of the Byzantine — or Eastern Roman — empire, and it retains some important archaeological sites. The Hippodrome of Constantinople, now more commonly called Sultanahmet Square, was the site of a stadium that could hold up to 100,000 spectators, and hosted chariot racing and other sports. Today, little of the Hippodrome remains: only two obelisks. One of them is a hieroglyphic-embellished Egyptian monument dating from the 15th century BC, which was originally in the great temple of Karnak and brought to Constantinople by the emperor Constantine. He also installed the Serpent Column, which came from Delphi in Greece and is still partially visible. A small section of the stadium structure exists on the southern side of the square.
Göbekli Tepe, in southeast Turkey, is an important archaeological site that is home to what is believed to be the oldest temple in the world. It dates from around 12,000 years ago, in the early Neolithic era, when agriculture was in its infancy and nomadic hunter gatherers were starting to form fixed communities. The site therefore provides a glimpse into the beginnings of modern society itself. The hilltop ruins contain circular structures supported by stone pillars, many of them adorned with carvings depicting creatures including foxes, serpents, vultures, and boars, as well as more mysterious symbols.
The ancient Greek city of Pergamon, near Izmir, was the capital of the Attalid dynasty, and is a fine example of ancient urban planning, and was also particularly known for its sculpture school. It's home to landmarks including temples to Athena and Dionysus, a theatre, a library, the Great Altar, and an agora. Following its fall to the Romans, Pergamon continued to be an important centre, and there are many remains from that era, including the Temple of Trajan, an amphitheatre, and an aqueduct. The ruins are on a hill high above the Caicus Plain, and you can reach them via a cable car from the nearby modern city of Bergama.
This well-preserved ancient city is close to the mineral-rich white terraces of Pamukkale, near Denizli, so it's easy to combine visits to both. Hierapolis was founded by the king of Pergamon, Eumenes II, in the second century BC and was later integrated into the Roman Empire. Today you can see their amphitheatre, built using materials from an original theatre that stood on the same site, while other ruins include a necropolis, city gates and walls, temples, and public baths.
Hattusa, about 2.5 hours' drive east of Ankara, was a capital of the Bronze Age Hittite Empire, which between the 17th and 12th centuries BC covered much of modern-day Turkey. Today, the ancient city is preserved as an open-air archaeological museum consisting of two parts: the lower and upper cities. There are several temples where you can see reliefs depicting Hittite gods, plus ramparts, reconstructed city walls, and entrance gates adorned with stone carvings of lions.
You can find more recent Greek ruins in Turkey than those left behind by ancient civilisations. Just south of Fethiye, and an easy excursion from the resort, is the ghost town of Kayaköy. The persecution of Turkey’s Greek population during both WWI and the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922 resulted in the town of Kayaköy (called Livissi by the Greeks) being completely emptied of its inhabitants — which had numbered more than 6000 people, many of whom died on forced marches. The village has lay ruined ever since, and today is an eerie museum village that features 400 Greek-style houses, along with churches and other municipal buildings.
Situated in the Central Anatolia region of Turkey, the Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Turkey's most well-known natural wonders that contains one of the most mysterious and extraordinary natural landscapes on Earth. The town of Göreme and its surroundings, declared a national park in 1986, is home to fairy chimneys — distinctive rock formations carved by the erosion of the volcanic landscape by wind and rain. The human history of Cappadocia is just as impressive. Cut into the rocks, the underground cities date as far back as the fourth century; some are capable of accommodating tens of thousands of people. They were built by Christians sheltering from invasions by Arab forces when the area was on the eastern edge of the Byzantine Empire. There are some stunning subterranean churches, some with beautiful frescoes.
Just east of Antalya, the ancient city of Aspendos may have been first settled as far back as 1000BC. It was certainly an important centre around the fifth century BC, while in 333BC, the city paid Alexander the Great a levy on the condition he did not garrison his army there. Aspendos later surrendered to the Romans, and today is home to one of the best-preserved Roman buildings anywhere: its theatre, which was built during the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. The theatre is still used today to host performances, and can hold up to 12,000 people, while other fine Roman remains include aqueducts, a gymnasium, public baths, and the agora.
The ancient city of Troy is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world, and is a place rich in legend. But Troy is not just the city associated with the Trojan War — there are around 10 layers of history, starting with a small Bronze Age settlement, and ending around 500AD, when Troy was devastated by a series of earthquakes, stretching across 4000 years. Lost for hundreds of years, the ruins were discovered in the 19th century and various ancient layers of the city have been gradually uncovered ever since. You can see Roman baths, temples, and an amphitheatre, plus the walls and gates of earlier settlements. There is also a modern-day monument to the famous Wooden Horse, and a museum housing some of the more than 40,000 artefacts uncovered at the site. Troy Historical National Park is just south of Çanakkale, near the mouth of the Dardanelles.
High up on a hillside in the southeastern Adiyaman province, the open-air museum at Mount Nemrut houses some impressive disembodied giant stone heads. It is thought the site dates from the first century BC, and contains the tomb of Antiochus I, ruler of the Greco-Iranian Kingdom of Commagene. The stone heads were likely to have been installed to show Antiochus's gratitude to the gods and his ancestors, plus there are statues of a lion (representing earthly power) and an eagle (heavenly power), as well as inscriptions in Greek lettering. Mount Nemrut has some glorious sunrises and sunsets, the golden light illuminating the ruins beautifully.
Before travelling, be sure to check out our travel guide to Turkey.
Indulge in Turkey's best foods
Study up on customs and safety in Turkey
Be sure you know when to visit Turkey
Dream about what to expect on a Turkish gulet cruise
Find out what to take in along the Turquiose coast
Plan what to see in Marmaris
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Nick Elvin contributed to this post.