Standing under the burning sun, it is hard to grasp the ancient history of Tarsus when you first set foot in the region. Dating back 6,000 years, Tarsus, a city in the south-central province of Mersin, is one of the "Cindrellas" of Turkey in a tourist sense. The city center of Tarsus is like no other and incomparable to other Mediterranean towns in Turkey; yet, with every step you take, you can see traces of ancient civilizations that ruled the region for thousands of years. Ruins in the center of town are exciting for visitors who come to the region, intrigued by sights that compel them to wander around and explore the city to its fullest.
The word "tarsus," also known as "tarsos" according to ancient texts, is believed to be derived from the Hittite word "tarsa," which comes from the name of the pagan god Tarku. First settled by the Hittites, the region was later ruled by the ancient Assyrians and then the Persian Empire, before later becoming the center of the Cilician civilization. Throughout history, Tarsus continued to play an important role in the Hellenistic period and the Seljuk, Byzantine and Ottoman eras. The city has maintained traces of these ancient civilizations for centuries, bearing witness to the history of Tarsus that dates back to the Bronze Age. Some ancient Greek myths were inspired by Tarsus, and the legendary traveler and geographer Strabon visited the town and mentioned it in his writings. Further, the lovers Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen, and Roman General Mark Antony all traveled through Tarsus on their journey through the ancient Roman lands. Ottoman Admiral Piri Reis also mentioned Tarsus in his "captain's log." In short, Tarsus has long been considered the epicenter of ancient civilizations throughout the history of mankind.The Mediterranean climate rules over Tarsus; however, if you travel inland away from the coast, you will experience the heat that is true to the continent. Visiting Tarsus during summer is not ideal due to the extreme heat that blankets the region. However, during the spring and winter months, the town boasts a mild climate that attracts travelers from across Turkey and worldwide. Nearly 80 percent of annual rainfall in the town occurs between November and March.
Located along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Tarsus is accessible by land, railway or air. It is situated 29 kilometers from Mersin, 500 kilometers from the capital Ankara and about 950 kilometers from Istanbul. If you travel by plane, the closest airport to Tarsus is in neighboring Adana province, where Adana Airport sits approximately 35 kilometers from the town center.
In addition to its extensive history, Tarsus also boasts many natural wonders that are worth seeing. The Tarsus Waterfalls, another hidden gem in the ancient city, offer a quick getaway for both locals and tourists during hot summer months. There are several ancient myths about Tarsus that claim that the waters of the falls are cursed; according to a myth about Alexander the Great, he once bathed in the waterfall after one of his campaigns, catching pneumonia and never recovering. He is believed to have died in Syria immediately after. Despite the myth, the waters of this waterfall are thought to have healing powers, and the waterfall is actually a man-made wonder. Byzantine Emperor Justinian decided to change the course of the river that flowed through the lands of the Roman necropolis in the 6th century. The Tarsus Falls are 15 meters long and offer a beautiful view for visitors. Tourists and locals alike can catch their breath and even enjoy a picnic near the waterfall.
The town of Tarsus is also considered an attractive hub for religious tourism. The tombs of the Biblical Daniel and Caliph Al-Ma'mun (786-833) are both in Tarsus. This ancient city is also one of the few centers from which Christianity spread throughout Roman lands. The Apostle Paul, commonly known as Saint Paul and by his native name Saul, was an apostle (though not one of the Twelve Apostles) who taught the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world in the first century. Born and raised in Tarsus, Paul was a Jew who later converted to Christianity and followed the teachings of Christ. He is generally considered one of the most important figures of the Apostolic Age. In mid-30 A.D. and mid-50 A.D. he founded several churches in Asia Minor and Europe. A church in his hometown of Tarsus still bears his name. Built in the 12th century and reconstructed towards the end of the 18th century, Saint Paul's Church is a top destination for Christian pilgrims from around the world. The church has a simple architectural style, and the interior of the church is decorated with frescoes of Jesus Christ as well as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If you happen to find yourself near the church, do not forget to visit the Well of St. Paul, which is believed to have healing powers. The well is believed to be located in the courtyard of St. Paul's home in Tarsus. Although the house is no longer standing, you can learn more about the life of St. Paul from information boards in the area.
Top 5 things to do in Tarsus
1) Walk the Roman Road: Discovered by chance during an excavation, the ancient Roman road in Tarsus takes visitors some 2,000 years back in time. The road, which was used by St. Paul, Cicero, Hadrian and Cleopatra, is six meters wide and 60 meters long. The remains of columns on both sides of the road suggest that the road once reflected the grandeur of the city of Tarsus. Towards the western end of the road, the remains of an ancient Roman mansion can be seen, most of which is still underground, waiting to be unearthed.
2) Pass through Cleopatra Gate: Surrounded by the city walls, Tarsus once had three main gates. In 1835, İbrahim Pasha of Egypt, who used to govern the region, had the gates destroyed except for the one that opens on to the coast. To honor the legacy of Cleopatra in Tarsus, the gate came to be known as the Cleopatra Gate among the locals. It is believed that when she reached the city by sea, she used this gate to enter. Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and her lover Roman General Marcus Antonius lived in Tarsus for a while. The couple had two girls.
3) Visit the Cave of the Seven Sleepers: "Eshab-ı Kehf," explained in both Islam and Christianity, is also known as "Cave of the Seven Sleepers" among locals. It is one of the most frequently visited spots in Tarsus. Though there are various speculations regarding the actual location of the cave, for instance some believe that the cave is located near Ephesus.
Islamic scholars, however, agree that the cave is located in Tarsus. One can enter the cave, which is sacred to both Muslims and Christians, by descending the stairs consisting of 15-20 steps.
The legend of the Seven Sleepers dates back to early Christianity. According to legends, a group of seven youths escaped the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Decius.
Yemliha, Mekselina, Mislina, Mernuş, Sazenuş, Tebernuş and Kefeştetayuş, who escaped torture, hid inside a cave and fell into a deep sleep along with their dog.
The people of the area, who eventually realized that they were in the cave, closed the cave's mouth, leaving them to die. One day, they woke up and the group sent Yemliha to Tarsus to buy food. Upon arriving in the city, Yemliha was shocked to find that the city had changed beyond imagination. When he wanted to buy bread, the baker said the coins he had were not valid anymore. Yemliha immediately turned back to the cave and told it to his friends. They eventually understood that they actually slept for 309 years. Not knowing what to do, the Seven Sleepers finally fell into an eternal sleep.
4) Shop at Kırk Kaşık Bedesteni: Throughout history, Tarsus was always a junction for trade and civilization. Hence, it is no surprise that the city has a "bedesten"(covered bazaar) in the town center. The Kırık Kaşık Bedesten was built in 1579 by İbrahim Bey, the son of Piri Pasha from the Ramadanid dynasty during Turkic Beylics' era of in Anatolia. The bazaar has 21 rooms and covered with seven domes. The bazaar still operates so feel free to buy some local products as souvenirs.
5) Minelayer Nusret: Ottoman minelayer Nusret is one of the few battleships in the world that has changed the course of history. Commissioned into the Ottoman Navy in 1913, Nusret became a legend for its services in the naval part of the Battle of Gallipoli. The ship laid a total of 26 mines in positions that the Allies faialed to anticipate and eventually sunk British battleship "HMS Irresistible." Built in a German shipyard, Nusret continued to serve in the Turkish naval forces until 1955. The minelayer ship was later sold to the private sector in 1962 and operated as dry cargo vessel, due to heavy services; the ship sank off the shore of Mersin in 1990. After a detailed and careful salvage operation, the shipwreck of Nusret was recovered and brought to Tarsus in 2002 for restoration. Currently, it is on display at the Battle of Gallipoli Martyrs Park.