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Turkey for Christmas

Jonathan van Bilsen



December 4, 2011

Turkey for Christmas

Turkey for Christmas is certainly on most people’s grocery list, but have you ever considered visiting the country at Christmas, or any other time? Many people cruise to this ancient Middle East land and explore the coastal ruins of Ephesus or journey through Turkey’s largest metropolis, Istanbul, the only city which spans two continents and certainly one of my favourite in the world. The country of more than seventy million inhabitants is rich in religious history. It is the land where Paul preached to the Ephesians and is the burial place of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It was home to the Ottoman Empire and the site of one of the largest massacres of World War I in Gallipoli.  One can visit the site (and replica) of the large Trojan horse, brought by the Greeks in an effort to overtake their enemies, but to me Turkey has one of the finest, best kept secrets in the world.

It was by chance that I discovered the 150 year old Dolmabahçe Palace. It was built by the reigning Sultan of the day at a cost of 35 tons of gold. The ceiling alone is adorned with 14 tons of gold, but the most unique artifact is a chandelier, donated by Queen Victoria. This, the largest chandelier in the world, has 750 lamps and weighs 4.5 tons. Thousands of gifts from rulers all over the world are on display and there is never enough time to explore all the rooms. 

I compared Dolmabahçe to my visit of Turkey’s well known Topkapi Palace (made famous by the 1964 film of the same name) and found the latter a distant second in elegance and significance. Upon entry to Dolmabahçe you are given blue foot coverings (to be worn over your shoes) to keep the palace as clean as possible. I stood in amazement in the entrance hall and visualized royalty being greeted all around me. As I watched tourists awed by the artifacts, I recalled that originally this part of the palace was open only to men. The women and children lived in another section known as the Harem. The founder of present-day Turkey, Kemal Ataturk stayed here when he visited Istanbul and died in the palace in 1938. 

The ornate palace has 285 rooms, 43 large halls and 6 Turkish baths. The large, original carpets were woven for Dolmabahçe and some of the rooms have parquet floors with three different wood inlays. Staring at artwork by some of Europe’s famous artists I was immediately transported back to the time of the great Sultans of the Ottoman  Empire. 

Located on the Bospherus Sea, the grounds of this royal summer palace are immaculate. The ‘French styled’ gardens are adorned with ornate foliage from all over Europe and the Middle East. The walks along the paths by the sea are worth the visit alone. The word Dolmabahçe means ‘the filled garden’ because it is founded upon a reclaimed area of land created by ‘filling’ up the sea.

I’m not sure why this magnificent palace is never on tour itineraries and when I asked a local guide she explained it was a bit out of the way. I thought to myself, all of Istanbul is a bit out of the way if you live in Port Perry, so to fly all that way and not visit this historic site would be missing a tremendous opportunity.

Not visiting Dolmabahçe would be like missing the magical ‘Fairy Chimneys’ of Cappadocia, a region located in the centre of the country. The area is mystical and unique, due largely to the strange land formations of sedimentary rocks, which after volcanic eruptions 9 million years ago, eroded into hundreds of spectacular pillars and minaret-like forms. The volcanic deposits are soft rocks that the people of the villages at the heart of the Cappadocia Region carved out to form houses, churches, and monasteries in the 10th and 11th centuries.

From the 1th to the 6th century, Christianity was not accepted in Anatolia (present day Turkey) and the people who practiced it constantly lived in hiding from the Moors. They began to sculpt tunnels underground and after many years had developed a network, which covers more than 100 square kilometres and is home to 200 underground cities. 

Giant churches, adorned with colourful frescos are joined by small tunnels; accessible in many cases only on hands and knees, are found throughout the region. I have the bumps and bruises to confirm the difficulty in getting around, but the Christians endured it for 600 years.

Entrance to the vast, underground city was through small portals in the ‘Chimneys’ and in a successful effort to ward off their enemies the Christians made hundreds of fake entrances in many of the thousands of sedimentary rock pillars.

The next time someone suggests you enjoy turkey at Christmas consider taking a trip back to a region where the origins of religion thrive. You will not be disappointed and you will have leftovers for years to come.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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