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The Middle East part I:
THE LEVANT

Part I coverse the journey across the bleeding heart of the Levant - from Turkey over Syria and Lebanon and deep into the West Bank

Let's admit it right away: When the talk of town is the Levant, we are talking about a true love affair. We have been many times to the Middle East on smaller visits and longer journeys. However, this +5 months journey took us along parts of long-forgotten trade routes that carried frankincense and myrrh, spices from India, gold and exotic African animal skin. Once rivaling the Silk Road, this route was the lifeblood of  many countries.

Already during our very first trip here, something happened that challenged every stereotype we’ve ever heard about. Most often, people would not only greet us with a warm salaam alaikum – they would do much more. Sitting in a coffeehouse enjoying a hookah with sheesha tobacco, people would spontaneously start a conversation or offer a game of backgammon while also insisting to pay for both. Often within minutes, they would invite us home to meet family and friends and share meals. We have experienced this courtesy many times anywhere between Aleppo and Amman. Talking to family and friends at home and abroad we always seek to inspire them to do this trip: travel across the Levant. They, too, will forever change how they see and perceive the Middle East.

Location: Turkey, Syria, Lebanon & Palestine / West Bank; the entire journey took +5 months

Arriving in Istanbul’s airport during Spring, we travel across Turkey's Western Anatolian plateau: Ödemis, Tire, Kaplan, Birgi, etc., before we push inland to the Pammukkale plain. We then travel south down to Mûgla and east to reach Turkey's little-visited Lake District.

 

After a few days here, we reach the Cukurova Plain on the border with Syria. Along the way, we visit some of the remotest parts of Central Anatolia, while enjoying the scenes and sounds of the timeless Turkish life. Turkey is easy-going travel and most stop-overs on our route to Syria are rewarded with friendly locals and a excellent food. As it is Spring time, the tourists have disappeared and as we travel east the energy rises due to the area’s proximity to the Kurdish regions and the Syrian border. For more taste of Turkey see our Hippy Trail journey and Kurdistan page, or neighboring Iraq.

 

Crossing into Syria we also cross into the core of the Levant. Here, we explore some of the most important sites, cities and places across Syria, Lebanon and the West Bank / Palestine. It is not always easy to travel here. Logistics and language can be a barrier, but this can be handled through flexibility, patience and humor. The most vital component is risk and risk management. Thus, our travel style is a bit schizophrenic as in “pick the best places, but circumvent conflict zones and conflict situations to minimize risks". This said, we also feel that this astonishingly complex region has a double-face: it has conflicts, wars, and religious hard-liners making travel here challenging. On the other hand, it is a region that is home to some of the most hospitable and friendly people on the planet. Add in lively streets, colorful markets, and good cuisine, and then we have it: our love affair.

 

Continue to Middle East part II for leg two on this journey.

 

 

Selected pics from this journey:

Our route during part I of this trip
Our route during part I of this trip

From Istanbul across Anatolia into Syria, Lebanon and Palestine / the West Bank.

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View to Middle East
View to Middle East

Jakob is looking towards the gate to the Middle East: the Bosphorus strait. Istanbul is one of our favorite cities. We've been here +10 times on different journeys and occasions. It offers an unparalleled mix between European and Middle Eastern culture.

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Instanbul's magical Blue Mosque, Turkey
Instanbul's magical Blue Mosque, Turkey

A great start of any journey is to gaze at the ornaments and beautiful interior of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. After a few hours around the old parts of Istanbul we found a roof top eatery and had shish kebab. The day ended with tea and hookah (water pibe) while seeing the sun set over the Bosperus strait. Insch'Allah, what a great day

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Turkish ice cream
Turkish ice cream

We never miss out "dondurma", or Turish ice cream. Made of milk, sugar, "mastic" plant resins and "salep" flour from the tubers of orchid plants (Ottoman recipe), the delicious ice cream carries a lot of history and tradition. It is great for cooling of during the hot summer months.

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Friday prayer in the Kocamustafapasa district in Istanbul, Turkey
Friday prayer in the Kocamustafapasa district in Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is an "archipelago of neighbourhoods" and it is fascinating to join the friday prayer while planning the onwards journey.

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Turkish contryside in between Bursa and Balikesir, Western Anatolian plateau
Turkish contryside in between Bursa and Balikesir, Western Anatolian plateau

The plance of a one-great Anatolian kingdom. Except from a key hotspots and the Agean coast from Izmir to Antalya much of Turkey is delightfully remote and off-the-beaten track.

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The bazaar in Salihili, Western Anatolian plateau, Turkey
The bazaar in Salihili, Western Anatolian plateau, Turkey

A good place to sleep over and stock up on dried fruit etc.

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Looking for a hostel outside Ödemis, Turkey
Looking for a hostel outside Ödemis, Turkey

All across Turkey we would encounter that special countryside feeling. Inside all villages and semi-large towns farmers on tractors, goats and stray dogs criss-cross the streets while the locals are called to prayer from the abundance of mosques across the country. There is a very lively Saturday market in Ödemis, otherwise it is very low key.

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View over the Kaplan plan during a hiking tour in Bozdagler Mts., Turkey
View over the Kaplan plan during a hiking tour in Bozdagler Mts., Turkey

Known for the religious intensity of its inhabitants, Tire has more than 30 ottoman mosques clustered inside the city and its backstreets. The picture is taken on a hiking tour into the Bozdagler Mountains above Tire.

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One of Tire's many mosques, Turkey
One of Tire's many mosques, Turkey
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Buying fresh honey on the Tuesday market in Kaplan, Turkey
Buying fresh honey on the Tuesday market in Kaplan, Turkey

Kaplan, sitting deep in the Bozdagler Mountains, hosts a good Tuesday market. There is also a pretty caravanseri nearby in the village of Tahtakale dating back to the 15th century.

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View over magial Birgi, Turkey
View over magial Birgi, Turkey

Birgi is a very "undeveloped" village in the mountains - extremely pretty and fairytale-like. It has the feel of a quaint and an authentic Turkish village. The collection of authentic Ottoman houses in Birgi is astonishing! Birgi has a rich history thanks to its location along the famous Silk Road. Its name comes from the medieval Greek word Pyrgion, which means little tower. It has been home to Phrygian, Lydian, Persian, Pergamon, Roman, and Byzantine civilizations.

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Inside the shrine of Birgivi...
Inside the shrine of Birgivi...

...which is popular with devout muslims whom come here to study, pray and find peace. There are several cozy private prayer rooms inside. A good place also to sit, relax and read a book - or even take a nap.

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The gorgeous Cakiroglu Konagi
The gorgeous Cakiroglu Konagi

One of the finest historical houses in all of Turkey. This three-storey wooden house, completely covered in frescoes, was built in 1761 for Serif Aliaga, a wealthy local tradesman.

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The fine Ulu Cami in Birgi, Turkey
The fine Ulu Cami in Birgi, Turkey
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Sunset over Birgi village during a morning hike, Western Anatolian plateau of Turkey
Sunset over Birgi village during a morning hike, Western Anatolian plateau of Turkey

The problem with most open-air museums is that there is often a bit of an artificial feel to them; not so with Birgi. This is a lively place with friendly and welcoming people who make your stay all the more pleasant. No matter where you walk, you’re met with a smile, a hoşgeldiniz (welcome) or an invitation for tea. This is Turkey in its most pleasant form and shape.

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Buldan village, Western Anatolian plateau
Buldan village, Western Anatolian plateau

A good place to stop for lunch or dinner. We drove during two days along the very remote way through the mountains from Ödemis over Aleshir, Buldan and Saraköt to the Pammukkale plain.

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Inside a local mosque in Sarigöl, Turkey
Inside a local mosque in Sarigöl, Turkey
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The market in Derbent, Turkey
The market in Derbent, Turkey

A vast market and a good place to walk around.

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View over Pammukkale's travertine shelves
View over Pammukkale's travertine shelves

A mandatory stopover across the Western Anatolian plateau. We were the first to entre the shelves and pools as the site opened at 7.00 AM and had the site to ourselves for 90 minutes.

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The Roman theatre at Hierapolis, Pammukkale, Turkey
The Roman theatre at Hierapolis, Pammukkale, Turkey

The travertines and natural ppols were discovered by the Romans centuries ago, which is why they build a large spa city, Hierapolis, to take advantage of the water's curative powers. Today, Hierapolis is a vast ancient site with lots to explore for history buffs.

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Pools of Pammukkale, Turkey
Pools of Pammukkale, Turkey

In april, there are still snow on the mountains nearby.

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Inconspicuous on the outside - nobody knows the secret colorfully painted mosques on the Pammukkale
Inconspicuous on the outside - nobody knows the secret colorfully painted mosques on the Pammukkale

All wants to visit Pamukkale, but all seem to miss out on the beautiful wooden mosques on the montains behind Pamukkale. Why? Because nobody will take you there and you will have to ask around and find the key master yourself. The mosques are closed to the public. With some stamina we pushed on and got inside both the mosque in Belenardıç and Yukari.

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Wooden mosque of Yukarı Cami in Akköy, Pammukkale plains, Turkey
Wooden mosque of Yukarı Cami in Akköy, Pammukkale plains, Turkey

Around Denizli, we’d find quite a few villages that have modest looking mosques, until you go inside. These painted mosques are fascinating places to visit. Some of them are still in use; others aren’t, like the Yukarı Cami in Akköy, which is believed to have been built in the late 1800s.

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One of the walls depicts a pair of scales. They symbolize the weighing of the soul if one dies. Depending on the result of the weighing, ones’ soul ends up in hell, which is represented by a cauldron filled with flames, or in heaven, reached by the steps surrounded by flowers. Next to the stairway to heaven is the image of Mecca and the Ka’aba.

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Wooden mosque of Belenardıç, Pammukkale plains, Turkey
Wooden mosque of Belenardıç, Pammukkale plains, Turkey

We'd discover the same symbols as the ones we saw in Akköy in this mosque that dates back to 1884.

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Wooden mosque of Belenardıç, Pammukkale plains, Turkey
Wooden mosque of Belenardıç, Pammukkale plains, Turkey

Wooden mosques are impressive buildings. They rarely look as if they are built out of wood from the outside, but once inside, it becomes obvious. The plastered walls of those mosques are built out of stone, the structure and supports are made out of wood, as is the carpet-covered floor. The Western wall of the mosque in Belenardıç was destroyed in an earthquake and has been restored, without the paintings. Just like the mosque in Akköy, the murals are everywhere.

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Lunch in Acipayam village between Denzili and Mugla, Turkey
Lunch in Acipayam village between Denzili and Mugla, Turkey

From the Pammukale plain we drove south towards Mugla to explore this atmospheric city, visit one of the oldest hammams in Turkey and look for even more wooden mosques.

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View over the Old City in Mugla, Turkey
View over the Old City in Mugla, Turkey

A beautiful and exotic city with an amazing historic old city of mazed alleys and a vast bazaar. Many of these Ottoman neighbourhoods had whitewashed houses and an array of tea gardens - cay bahcesi - filled with local shisha-smoking men and students.

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The bazaar in Mugla, Turkey
The bazaar in Mugla, Turkey

The bazaar is jammed with artisans' shops, local vendors and small eateries. Local farmes come here to sell their local produce.

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