There is an almost uncountable number of ancient Greek and Byzantine archaeological and historical sites in Turkey, many of which attract hundreds of thousands, even millions, of visitors every year.
Many of them are landmarks not to be missed by any travelers to Turkey, and they should especially not be missed by Greek travelers, since they are incontrovertible evidence of their people’s long, rich history and contributions to Western civilization.
Hagia Sophia: the holiest site in Greek Orthodoxy
Built on the ruins of two previous churches after the Nika riots of 532, Hagia Sophia was Byzantine Emperor Justinian I’s crowning achievement.
Taking only five years to be completed, the brilliant architecture of this building has allowed it to stand the test of time and nature. Today it is Istanbul’s most visited landmark.
Built originally as an Orthodox basilica, it was briefly converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral during the Fourth Crusade, then was made into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Each culture has justifiably regarded the building as the highest platform of spirituality and art. Hagia Sophia functioned as a museum beginning in 1935, and the colossal edifice was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1985.
The monument remained a repository of invaluable history from the last 1,500 years, until it was controversially turned into a mosque in 2020, despite its status.
The mythic ancient city of Troy
Since the time of Homer’s epic “The Iliad,” Troy has served as the stuff of legend and the source of artistic inspiration for millennia. Although at times thought to have been only a mythical place, it was actually proven to be an actual city, located on the mound of Hisarlik in modern-day northwestern Turkey.
The excavation of the site is attributed to German entrepreneur and visionary amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who began work there in the 1870s. With over 4,000 years of history as a priceless cultural connection point between Eastern and Western civilizations, Troy was named a World Heritage Site in 1998.
Ephesus: a Greek, Roman, and Early Christian site in Turkey
Close to the modern city of Selcuk in the Izmir province of western Turkey lies the port city of Ephesus, a remarkably well-preserved example of Greek, Roman and early Christian culture, which has been inhabited since the 10th century BC.
Its Temple of Artemis, which belongs to the Classical Greek era, is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Library of Celsus is a Roman addition, and was designed to serve as a mausoleum for Senator Celsus, who is buried in the crypt below it.
The Christian era is represented in the city in the nearby House of the Virgin Mary. This humble structure has served an important place of pilgrimage for Christians and non-Christians alike since the fifth century. The area is rich with interwoven traditions from all the peoples who have made it their home, and the city was justifiably given World Heritage status in 2015.
St. Nicholas Church’s wealth of stunning frescoes
Born in nearby Patara in the fourth century, Saint Nicholas was the influential Bishop of Myra (the modern city of Demre in southwest Turkey). After his death, the new church built in his name in Myra became his resting place — until his bones were scattered around the world as holy relics.
St. Nicholas is the historical namesake of our modern-day Santa Claus (the name Claus is the German nickname for “Nicholas”) and the site is widely regarded as one of the most important Byzantine structures in Anatolia.
It served as a place of worship and pilgrimage from the fifth to the 12th century. The Myra church was later flooded and was even buried under silt, then discovered and partially restored by Russian Czar Nicholas I in 1862. It has been the site of ongoing archaeological excavations since 1988.
Antioch of Pisidia a Hellenistic settlement
The city of Antioch was founded in the Hellenistic period by Antiochus I Soter from the Seleucid dynasty — or possibly even earlier, by his father, Seleucus. The name “Antioch” was often used by Antiochus I when founding new settlements and renaming already-existing towns. He founded as many as sixteen new Antiochs in Asia Minor and the Middle East.
The term “Pisidia” is frequently added to its name, to distinguish this particular city from other Antiochs. However, even this is not entirely correct since Antioch is located on the border between the ancient Phrygia and Pisidia. Its location is better reflected by its Latin name – “Antioch ad Pisidiam” meaning Antioch (located) in the direction of Pisidia.
The apostle Paul visited Antioch on his first missionary journey and spoke at a synagogue there. His remarks caused an uproar which ended in him being thrown out of the city. He returned there several more times, however, to speak to its inhabitants. His experiences at Antioch are recounted in the Book of Timothy in the Bible.
Miletus, an Ionion Greek site in western Turkey
Miletus, located in western Anatolia, was one of the most important cities of Ionia. It is located near the mouth of the Meander River in ancient Caria. Today the nearest village is Yenikoy.
The archaeological site and the local museum, with important findings from Miletus, Didyma, Priene and Myous are a must visit, and so is the ancient theater there. Excavations in Miletus were begun by French archaeologists in 1868, while significant research has been carried out since 1899 under the auspices of the German Archaeological Institute.