Turkey is rich in cultural wonders, heritages of civilizations long gone and ancient sites that beckon visitors with awe-inspiring historical significance. Throughout history, every nation that has occupied the lands that stretch from Edirne to Van has contributed to these wonders, particularly in one aspect: Castles.
The once strategic structures that carried significant military importance now host thousands of tourists across the country – and deservedly so, because there is one thing that strategic locales always seem to possess: the best, most beautiful spots to take in the scenery.
Of course, correlation is not causation. I don't know how one would be caused by the other, unless generals of yore wanted their castles to have good scenery while they waited for battle. But, one thing is certain: The geography of Turkey is littered with major strategic locations, and the country is also filled with some of the world's most alluring views. And, most of the time, those two aspects align with each other.
Let's take a look at some of Turkey's prime strongholds that in their prime were indispensable keeps and now offer unforgettable picturesque scenes whenever you visit a city in Turkey.
Without further ado, here are the wonders of empires, from Roman to Byzantine, from Seljuk to Ottoman:
Afyonkarahisar is a city famous for its unique Ottoman architecture thanks to its beautiful houses. However, at the top of the mountain whose slopes are the foundations of the city, rests a crowning structure with a commanding view of Afyonkarahisar, and it is hard not to be impressed.
The Castle of Afyonkarahisar was built during the time of Hittite Emperor Mursili II in 1350 B.C. Constructed on a steep rock, the castle stands at a height of 226 meters (741 feet). The nearly 3,500-year-old castle was called Hapanuva during the Hittite era, and Akroenos in Roman and Byzantine times. Seljuks called it Karahisar (Black Castle), which in time merged with the town's name, Afyon, to create the hybrid city of Afyonkarahisar we know today. In the end, it is a bit ironic and funny, that now, the castle is known as the Castle of Afyonkarahisar, thus making its name in actuality "The Castle of the Black Castle of Afyon."
The little, sweet town of Boyabat is a highlight of the province of Sinop. Now, I may be biased on this one, as it is my mother's hometown and I spent many years of my childhood wandering its streets. But, Boyabat truly is one of the most lovable towns in Turkey's Black Sea region. One of the reasons, apart from the serene green landscape, is the castle.
The town's castle, constructed on top of a high hill, was built by Paphlagonians, one of the most ancient nations of Anatolia. Although the exact age of the stronghold is unknown, it is believed to be around 2,800 years old.
Atop two steep cliffs, it is hailed as one of the most magnificent historical structures of the Black Sea region. It overlooks the Gökırmak Valley and the town of Boyabat from a stunning height – a fast emerging trend among these historical castles, I wonder why.
Once you climb to the castle, you might feel like you can see the whole world. The structure was reconstructed under Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman rule and carries traces from various civilizations, including its newly discovered large underground city and numerous tunnels.
It serves as a museum today.
Blue waves wash across the beach, crystal waters reflect the warmth of the sun invitingly, welcoming one to the cooling freshness of the Aegean. And there, on an island you might feel you can swim to, stands the great castle. Well, you don't need to swim, as even though it is an island, it is still connected to the mainland via a relatively narrow man-made causeway.
Güvercinada, or Pigeon Isle, is that island, taking its name from an avian species – which is only too appropriate when you realize that it is connected to the town of Kuşadası, or Bird Isle. One can't help but wonder if these places were so crowded with birds once upon a time that such a course of naming was necessitated.
The castle on the Güvercinada is one of the most important symbols of the region and garners some of the most touristic traffic in Turkey. It is also on UNESCO Tentative World Heritage List.
Its walls were built by Ilyas Agha, its intention most likely being the protection of the harbor, as it is situated in a perfect position across the bay of Kuşadası. It also houses a citadel that was commissioned by the famed Ottoman admiral Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha, or Hayreddin Barbarossa, whose naval victories secured Ottoman dominance over the Mediterranean during the mid 16th century.
Surrounded by turquoise waters, the castle is a must-see with beautiful views of Kuşadası on one side and the endless Mediterranean on the other. It also hosts important cultural and artistic events.
Pertek Castle, takes its name from the district (or vice-versa, I am not sure) and stems from the Armenian word “pertag,” which means tiny fortress. So, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Or does the egg belong to a different chicken perhaps? I've lost track of where this metaphor is going ... Coming back to the castle, it is truly a sight to behold.
Standing on a small island in the middle of a lake, it is truly a tiny fortress and seems insurmountable. In truth, the castle was not always in the middle of a lake. In fact, once upon a time, it was built on the side of a sharp rock adjacent to the River Murat. However, after the completion of Keban Dam, it was surrounded by water.
Its true origins are somewhat murky, but it is believed that it was first built in the Kingdom of Urartu, an ancient kingdom that rose to power in the mid-ninth century B.C. The current structure dates from the 11th century, during which Tunceli's Pertek province was under the House of Mengüjek, a principality of Seljuks.
The castle is thought to have been restored and rebuilt in the 16th century, during the Ottoman Empire. The castle walls are completely made of natural stone blocks.
According to Evliya Çelebi, the famous 17th-century Ottoman explorer, the castle once hosted a sculpture of a blackbird. It was removed and an Arabic inscription was placed in its stead.
Stationed at one side of the Bosporus, one cannot miss Istanbul's famed Rumelihisarı. Whether you are on a ferry crossing between continents, or you are driving across a bridge spanning the waterway, it attracts your eye with its magnificence.
The structure constitutes a famous part of Turkish history. It was built by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. Its name meaning “Fortress of Rumelia, or Roman lands,” the castle was constructed at the narrowest point on the strait and immediately across from the older Anadolu Hisarı, or “Fortress of Anatolia.”
It was part of Sultan Mehmed's plans of controlling the traffic on the Bosporus, thus enabling him to prevent reinforcements from reaching the Byzantines once he laid siege to Constantinople. It was a successful endeavor, as Sultan Mehmed conquered the city in 1453 and began an entirely new age in world history.
The castle's historical significance is amplified by its architectural beauty and the fact that it was completed in only 90 days.
One of the most unique looking castles on this list, Rumkale, meaning “Roman Castle,” was once a powerful fortress overlooking the river Euphrates in southeastern Turkey's Şanlıurfa province. And one does feel the fallen majesty of ancient empires and kingdoms upon seeing it.
The fortress was largely constructed during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, though it has traces of Assyrian influence as well. It is also a sacred Christian site as it is believed that John, one of the apostles of Jesus, lived in Rumkale during Roman times and hid the Bible in the fortress.
Throughout its history, it served many religious institutions, until it was captured by the Mamluks of Egypt in 1293.
The fortress now rests across a peninsula created by the reservoir of Birecik Dam. It is accessible by boat from the neighboring site of the ancient Greek city of Zeugma, or from the town of Halfeti.
The castle has been taken under restoration with rebuilding ongoing inside it and on the external walls. Unfortunately, much of its surrounding area has been flooded, and it is unclear how much of its lower parts remain undamaged by the rising waters.
However, it is certainly worth a visit with its unique architecture and magnificent environment and is sure to provide wonderful photo opportunities.
The majestic ruins of a once Eastern Roman castle ... Home to exciting archaeological excavations, Zerzevan Castle is a site on the UNESCO Tentative World Heritage List in southeastern Turkey's Diyarbakır province.
The castle houses numerous military and civilian structures. Its history dates back to the Assyrian period, between 882 and 611 B.C.
Throughout excavations observation and defense towers, a church, an administration building, residential houses, grain and weapons warehouses, underground sanctuaries, each able to hold 400 people, rock tombs, water channels and 54 cisterns have been discovered.
It certainly is a historical beauty, though wounded it lies. It takes its name from the Kurdish word “zer” which means “gold.” A team of 60 people is working on the excavations at the ancient site, and it is so rich in artifacts that some expect the archaeological work at the site to continue for around 30 more years.
Recently, in 2020, the castle's entrance was discovered. The discovery of a subterranean temple, devoted to Mithraism, a Roman mystery religion centered on the god Mithras, was the brightest highlight of the excavations as it attracted international attention to the site.
Located in the Çamlıhemşin district of northeastern Turkey's Rize province, the Zilkale castle stands at a dizzying height. The castle is built at the edge of a cliff, at an altitude of 1,130 meters (3,710 feet), so it certainly is not for the faint-hearted.
At such a height, the medieval castle offers a breathtaking view of the Fırtına Valley, the eponymous river and the surrounding Kuzey Anadolu Mountains, or the Pontic Mountains.
Yes, the height is scary but awe at the beautiful nature quickly overpowers your fear. As you stand on its walls, a peaceful sensation fills you with the green forests around contributing to the magnificent scene.
The stronghold is believed to have been built between the 14th and 15th centuries. It houses an inner castle, garrison quarters and a structure believed to be a chapel and a head tower. The chapel is thought to have been built by the Empire of Trebizond, one of three successor states of the Byzantine Empire that flourished during the 13th through 15th centuries.
The castle's name “Zilkale” means “bell castle” in Turkish.
This time to the south, on the Mediterranean coast, the Kızkalesi offers a unique sight to behold. Built on an island that was once home to pirates in ancient times, in the Silifke town of southern Turkey's Mersin province, Kızkalesi shares the same Turkish legend as the Maiden Tower located in Istanbul.
With its name meaning “Maiden's Castle,” the structure was built by Alexios I Komnenos of the Byzantine Empire after the First Crusade in the 11th century.
Legend has it, a fortune teller had warned the king that his daughter would be poisoned by a snake and that he would not be able to alter that fate. Grieved and shocked, the king had a castle built on an island where no snakes live or can reach, and sent his daughter to the castle. On her 18th birthday, he decided to send her a basket of fruit from the mainland, not realizing that a snake was hidden among the grapes. Once it reaches the island, the snake bit and killed the princess.
No one can be sure if the legend is based on a historical account, as many locales in Turkey share the same legend, but one thing is certain: Kızkalesi is one of the most beautiful castles to claim that story.
Uçhisar is a settlement in the ever-beautiful Cappadocia in central Turkey, and the castle that bears the same name provides the highest point in the area offering breathtaking panoramas of the region.
The incredible centuries-old citadel perched on a rock spur has a commanding view of Cappadocia from the top. Climbing to the top and basking in the scenery is certainly exhilarating. Many rooms hollowed out into the rock are connected to each other with stairs, tunnels and passages.
The castle, like the famous fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, once served as a residential area, originally housing around 1,000 people.
Today, it is not used as a settlement but offers one of the best vantage points in town.
Built in the 11th century under the Byzantine Empire, the Alara Castle, in the Alanya district of southern Turkey's Antalya province, was once a western outpost of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. In later times, it served to protect caravans from robberies as they prepared to stop at Alarahan, the last caravanserai, a roadside inn where travelers rest, on the historical Silk Road to the sea.
Like many, it stands at the top of a massive rocky hill and overlooks the river with the same name. It houses a citadel where a palace, accommodation facilities for the garrison, a mosque and a bath can be found among the ruins.
It is a chore to get to, as one needs to climb 180 steps in a stairway that is tunneled in the rock. So, like Zilkale, it can be dizzying.
But one can't argue with such beautiful views.
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