İzmir, the Pearl of the Aegean
İzmir is Turkey’s third-most populous metropolitan city (after Istanbul and Ankara), and is the second largest urban agglomeration on the Aegean Sea, after Athens in Greece. Historically known as Smyrna, the city has over 3,000 years of recorded history, and up to 8,500 years of history as a human settlement (since the Neolithic period). Located at the head of the gulf, this city has been a popular mercantile space on the Mediterranean Sea for most of its history. Recognised as one of the oldest settlements in the Mediterranean, İzmir has harboured a number of civilisations and empires within its borders over the centuries; from the ancient Hittite empire in 1500 BC, to the Lydian and Persian Empires, to the Roman Empire at around 133 BC, and beyond. The early 14th century saw the possession of the area by the Ottoman Empire, and it then grew to become an international port city (thanks to its access to the Mediterranean) in the 16th century. İzmir’s rich history and unique position has resulted in the city becoming a global hub with a multicultural past and present. The city’s golden age first began in the 16th century, thanks to an influx of products from European traders, and eventually became a major trade centre in the Ottoman Empire. İzmir’s multiculturalism is still on display, through its cuisine and its architecture.
One of the most famous sites of the city is the five or six-kilometre stretch of coastline, which stretches north from Cumhuriyet Meydanı to Alsancak and south from Konak Pier to Konak Meydanı, and is known as Kordon. The seaside promenade is a large and long avenue that thrives with life, colour, and culture, and is the perfect place for visitors and citizens alike to bask in the warm sunlight and get some fresh air by the sea. Kordon, the promenade is one of the city’s many icons, and is worth the visit to see the many cafés, restaurants, and clubs that line the waterfront. There are traditional horse-and-carriage rides available as well, for guests who are looking for a romantic ride down the promenade, and cruises are available on the bay of Izmir, making it a stunning trip, particularly once the sun sets.
There are a number of museums and art centres on the promenade as well, for those looking to soak in the city’s culture in the warm sea breeze. The Zübeyde Hanım Museum Ship is a 50-metre long, 307-tonne ferry that was first built in 1987 and sailed in Istanbul till early 2014, where it was then brought to Kordon and remodeled as a museum, devoted to Zübeyde Hanım and to the history of Turkish rescue operations at sea. Named after Atatürk’s mother who passed away in 1923, this museum may not have much to display, but boarding and exploring the boat itself is a fascinating experience, particularly for young ones.
The Arksas Art Centre, on the other hand, occupies a building that was first built in 1906 (which earlier housed the French consulate till 2010), and displays temporary exhibitions, dedicated to portraying art with a uniquely Aegean accent. The centre itself is well-designed and well-maintained, with the upstairs salons being beautifully decorated, and open to visitors. There are tours that are offered in English that are free of charge, with the art centre being open during the week; however, thanks to its popularity, it’s important to schedule a booking prior to your visit, in order to secure a place on the tour.
The Atatürk Museum, also located on Kordon, is dedicated to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of the Republic of Turkey, from 1923 to 1938. His efforts led to the modernisation of Turkey, turning into the secular, progressive, industrial nation that we see today. The museum was originally built as a carpet merchant’s residence between 1875 and 1880, and ended up in the state’s hands in the 1920s. The building turned into army headquarters, and then a hotel, before it was offered to Atatürk as a space to stay while he visited the city. Now, the building functions as a museum in his honour, containing his clothes, books, furniture, and other personal belongings.
Ephesus in Izmir was first founded in the Classical Greek period, and was an ancient Greek city, first built in 10th century BCE. The area’s rich history begins centuries ago, and during the Classical Greek era, this was one of the twelve cities of the Ionian League (a confederation formed mid-7th-century BCE), till it came under the control of the Roman Republic in 129 BCE. During this time, the city was famed for the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and was also famed for the Library of Celcus and the amphitheatre in Ephesus, capable of hosting 25,000 spectators. Ephesus is also one of the Seven Churches of Revelation, according to the Christian faith, with Ephesus standing in an important location (thanks to its proximity to the Temple of Artemis). The city was, unfortunately, destroyed by the Goths in 263, and was rebuilt, though its importance as a commercial centre dwindled. Unfortunately, the city was destroyed again by an earthquake in 614 AD, and the city’s harbour had reached a point where access to the Aegean Sea was cut off due to build up of silt, effectively locking the city in. By 1090AD, Ephesus had fallen into ruin, with a few buildings still standing to remind visitors of its rich, varied history, and of its importance in numerous civilisations.
Ephesus was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2015, thanks to its continued inhabitation for around 9,000 years, and for its role as an important centre for most of the ancient era, due to its access to the Aegean Sea. The ruins that are scattered around Ephesus are all that remain, and visits to these archaeological ruins are encouraged, to marvel at a time gone by, and to study ancient architectural marvels. One important visit is the Library of Celsus, built in the honour of the Roman senator Celsus, and was one of the largest libraries in the ancient world. The Grant Theatre, on the other hand, consists of three horizontal sections, and its remains are open for visitors to take in the breath-taking view.
For those looking for religious architecture, the Isa Bey Mosque, a stunning work of Seljuk architecture, is one of the oldest Anatolian mosques in Turkey , while the House of Virgin Mary is sacred to the Christian faith, as it is believed that the Virgin Mary was taken to this stone house by Saint John, where she lived until her death. This house is considered to be a place of pilgrimage by Christians, and is definitely worth the visit. The other religious space to visit is the Saint John Basilica, which was first built in the 6th century.
Agora of Smyrna
The Agora of Smyrna, alternatively known as the Agora of İzmir, is an ancient Roman agora located in Smyrna (present day İzmir). An agora was a central public space in ancient Greek city-states, and was the centre of the athletic, artistic, spiritual, and political life of the city, and is often seen as the best representation of the desire to accommodate the social and political order of the city, along with serving as a space for citizens to discuss political matters, make public announcements, or even for merchants to sell their wares. The Agora of Smyrna was originally built by the Greeks in the 4th century BCE, but was ruined by an earthquake in 178 AD. The site’s excavation began in 1933, and has been declared to be a Tentative World Heritage Site, under the historical port city of İzmir.
The reconstructed Corinthian colonnade and Faustina Gate alone are worth the visit to this heritage site, and the reconstructed chambers and cisterns below the two basilicas are informative and stunning to see, as this will give visitors a fair idea of how this multi-level marketplace would have looked during its prime. The cryptocortico is constructed of underground arches that support the above-ground structures, creating a very photogenic structure. Though this space is open to visitors, there are continual renovations and excavations being performed, and there is a ‘graveyard’ as well, for items that were excavated but not reconstructed, and consists of pieces of columns, with inscriptions in Greek, and sarcophagi from the Roman and Ottoman periods.
The Kemeraltı Bazaar is a historical market located in İzmir, and covers a large area, extending from the Agora of Smyrna, to the seashore along the Konak Square. The bazaar was originally formed around along street, and was first built in the Ottoman period. During this time, it was a small grand bazaar with vaults, known as kemeraltı in Turkish, granting it its name. In the 17th and 18th centuries, European merchants traded in the bazaar, expanding to Turkish immigrants from Greece and the Aegean Island in the19th century, contributing their wares and efforts to make the Kemeraltı bazaar one of the largest shopping centres and places of trade in İzmir.
The bazaar consists of a number of commercial batches, split into narrow lanes and tiny passageways, housing thousands of artisan’s workshops, mosques, synagogues, coffee houses, cafés, and stalls that sell and trade a variety of goods, from textiles to spices to jewellery. Food enthusiasts would enjoy a walk in the bazaar thanks to its range of stalls that sell fresh fruit, dried fruits, nuts, and traditional Turkish desserts and sweet pastries to munch on as you tour the bazaar. The bazaar is also housed in, and is a part of, the Kizlarağasi Hani, built during the Ottoman era, and is one of the popular tourist spots within this labyrinthine bazaar. The Kizlarağasi Hani houses many artisanal workshops that sell souvenirs, ceramics, Turkish prayer rugs, and other delicate items, while the upper floors are a great place to rest your feet and have some delicious Turkish coffee.
Şirince is a quiet village in the İzmir province in Turkey, and is approximately 8 kilometres from Ephesus, and is a bit of a drive from the city of İzmir, approximately 85 kilometres away. The area around this village has a long and rich history, dating back to the Hellenistic period (around 323 to 32 BC). This quiet, quaint village is the perfect place for those looking for a weekend getaway from the hubbub of the city, and boasts a fun history, stunning views, delicious food, and warm hospitality. The architecture alone is worth the visit, as a few houses have been opened to the public to invite guests to study and marvel at the architecture up close, while getting a good sense of the history of the village. The village itself is under preservation, so any new additions must match the existing aesthetic of the village. Its unique location and its fertile land have made it a stunning space for vineyards and olive orchards; the village is famous for its olive oil, fresh peaches, figs, apples, and other fruits.
This small village is surrounded by lush greenery -thanks to the fertile land its on – that perfectly complements its cute architecture, as all the buildings in Şirince are two stories tall. As you drive up to the village, the scene looks like it jumped out of a painting, and the enchanting feeling you get while seeing the village intensifies as you come closer; the narrow cobbled streets and quaint buildings add to the feeling of pre-modernisation, to a time when life was easy and pleasures were simple. The village is a delight to walk through, particularly during the end of summer, as the air is warm and the streets are cool and shaded; though cars are not allowed on the narrow streets, horses are allowed, so couples and family members can take horseback rides through the village, or stroll through the streets – either pace is preferred.
Şirince is well-known for its food and for its local produce, and guests to the village will be delighted to know that all the food in the village is locally sourced. The breakfast in particular is delightful, with an endless array of cheeses, olives, tomatoes, jams, and more. Local herbs are used for the main courses, and everything is cooked using olive oil from the local olive orchards.
Shoppers will be delighted to find the bazaar at Şirince, one of the best markets to visit on the Aegean coast. The fresh foods here are definitely worth the commute to this small village, and the bazaar also sells a number of souvenirs, jewellery, handmade soaps, local clothing, dried fruit, and fruits and vegetables, all produced by the village and its inhabitants. The bazaar is also famous for its Turkish coffee, traditionally made using a pan that’s filled with sand and then heated over an open flame. The hot sand lets the cups on the surface stay warm, and the heat is used to brew the coffee, as the sand heats the coffee up, resulting in a thick, strong brew.
The city is also well-loved for its trade fairs, exhibitions, conventions and meetings, with the İzmir international fair – Turkey’s oldest tradeshow, and considered to be the starting point of Turkey’s fairs and expositions industry – being held at Kültürpark in the first days of September. The fair’s participants are required to bring products with export or import potential, and brings a variety of entrepreneurs and industry professionals into İzmir. The city is also famed for its thriving culture, with the annual International İzmir Festival celebrating soloists, orchestras, dance companies, rock bands, and jazz groups, with venues scattered around the city, including at Ephesus and Metropolis. Music enthusiasts can attend the İzmir European Jazz Festival, which aims to bring lovers of jazz music from around the world to one space, while film lovers can watch award winning shorts and attend the International İzmir Short Film Festival, a hallmark of the city’s cultural landscape since 1999, belonging to the European Coordination of Film Festivals. The city’s art centre, the Ahmet Adnan Saygun Art Centre, also contributes to the thriving art scene in the city, along with upholding the city’s rich and vibrant culture. The city’s a popular spot for those looking to bask in the warm summer sun, and with the plethora of festivals and fairs to attend, apart from the historical sites to see, it’s no wonder that one can spend any amount of time – from a week to a month – and still find new spaces to explore.
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