Explore Turkey’s Best Ancient Archaeological Sites
Turkey is home to a bewildering number of ancient sites and each of them carries a historical clue to the country’s and the land’s past. Its archaeological sites indicate the rich cultural heritage and a multitude of beliefs, cultures, empires and people — a melting pot of civilizations.
Here we’ve listed just a few of the most important sites, but if you’re a history and archaeology buff, you know this list is not exhaustive at all. However, we’ve done our best to list and explain the best sites that you should visit to get a true appreciation of the breadth and magnitude of humanity’s past in Anatolia and in Turkey as a whole!
The existence of this ancient site dating back to 12,000 years ago makes Göbeklitepe the world’s oldest archaeological site. Discovered in 1963 by two professors, Dr. Halet Çambel and Dr. Robert Braidwood, it has since been excavated extensively with the help of many institutes and archaeologists, most notably from Germany. It’s located northeast of the Şanlıurfa in Southeast Anatolia.
After the 1994 excavations, it has been determined that the site is believed to be originally a temple from the Pre-pottery Neolithic Age, going all the way back to 10,000 B.C. Moreover, this was the age where humans first started settling and farming practices adopted along with animal husbandry and religious beliefs.
The findings at site include strange statues of stelas, reptile engravings, T-shaped pillars, totems and a variety of animal reliefs and around 20 round worship grounds. More importantly, this site is thought to be the birthplace of architecture and has challenged earlier findings of the birthplace in other places around the world. Furthermore, the change from hunter-gatherers to agriculture is usually believed to be about hunger and protection, but Göbeklitepe’s findings have highlighted that it could also be religious beliefs.
The site is still being excavated today and given a UNESCO World Heritage status. It has become quite more popular with each new finding, news and even used in fictional books and television shows (Netflix’s The Gift). Each year, the site sees more and more visitors. Nonetheless, while one could argue that it’s just stones, rocks and mud, its existence dating back to thousands of years certainly shines a new light into the history of humankind!
You can find some of the excavation displayed in the Şanlıurfa Museum along with other neolithic findings from nearby sites. One such find is the world’s oldest statue of a human, called “Urfa Man”.
OPENING HOURS: 10 AM TO 8 PM
ADDRESS: Örencik, 63290 Haliliye/Şanlıurfa/turkey
A 9500-year-old late neolithic site in present-day Konya province, Çatalhöyük is still being excavated today. It’s a legendary site for archaeologists and enthusiasts alike – it’s one of the oldest human settlements in the world!
It is divided into east and west mounds. The findings found artistic and cultural differences between the two and changes in cultural and settlement practices that are still being interpreted today. This has revealed that this place is probably one of the most complicated societies of its time! Obsidian, ceramics, decorated pottery, bone tools and clay figurines were found here, including wall paintings in the houses. Culturally, the people had religious rituals, feasts and even worshipped a mother goddess.
OPENING HOURS: 9 AM TO 5 PM
ADDRESS: Küçükköy, Çatalhöyük Yolu, 42500 Çumra/Konya/turkey
One of the most well-known ancient sites of the ancient Greek world is legendary Troy from Homer’s The Illiad. It now lies in ruins in Western Anatolia in present-day Turkey at a strategic spot at the Dardenelles. While we can’t vouch for the authenticity of the stories given oral traditions and that Homer’s tale dates all the way back to 750 B.C, it’s worth a look. If you’re ever in the area, do check it out! While not much remains, a stroll through the city and its ruined walls can help your imagination run wild as to what exactly happened here.
Various archaeologists have revealed the importance of the city and that it held an important place in the Bronze Age. Excavations in the 1930s under the mound revealed that there might indeed have been violence and destruction, perhaps substantiating the legends of the Trojan War.
opening hours: 10 am to 7 pm
ADDRESS: 17100 Kalafat/Çanakkale Merkez/Çanakkale/turkey
An ancient port city and considered one of the most important ancient Greek cities in the world, UNESCO World Heritage site Ephesus today lies an hour from another port city, Izmir in Western Turkey. While it’s no longer a port city, Ephesus was an important religious city in the Mediterranean from the 1st century A.D. onwards, even mentioned in the Old Testament. That is, early important Christian figures such as St. Paul and St. John who visited Ephesus. They challenged the cult of Artemis, for which Ephesus was known for – it had a gorgeous Temple of Artemis.
Today, the ruins are one of the most popular tourist attractions in Western Turkey. Today, you can roam the streets, explore the amphitheatre and the agora, see the ruins of the Temples of Artemis and Hadrian, for example. Also, take a look at the life of rich Ephesians via their intricately decorated terrace houses and imagine the splendour of this ancient city.
Nearby, you can also pay a pilgrimage to the last home of the Virgin Mary who was there with St. Paul. Next, visit the quaint city of Şirince in the mountains, with a St. Paul church. After Istanbul and its sights, Ephesus is one of the most well-known tourist spots in the country! Spend more than half a day here and plan to be here outside of summer to enjoy the sites at leisure.
OPENING HOURS: 10 AM TO 7 PM
ADDRESS: Acarlar, Efes Harabeleri, 35920 Selçuk/İzmir/TURKEY
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 2000 meters high Mount Nemrut is one of the highest peaks of the Taurus range and is considered a sacred place. Subsequently, it was found to be a tomb-sanctuary for the King of Commagene, an ancient Greco-Iranian Armenian kingdom, dating back to the 1st century BC.
The mountain and its tumulus are scattered with huge statues and reliefs of Greek, Zoroastrian mythological gods, an eagle and a lion, for example. The place is divided into the Western and Eastern terraces and is within a beautiful national park.
Plan to be there for sunrise or sunset to catch the statues and reliefs sparkling. It’s breathtaking for anyone to experience this for the first time! To sum up, you’ll need a car to get here and then hike up the mountain to get to the terraces. However, it’s totally worth it if you want to experience this mythical place.
OPENING HOURS: 24/7
ADDRESS: Nemrut Dağı Yolu, 02000 Kahta/Kâhta/Adıyaman/TURKEY
The capital of an important Anatolian Empire, Hattusa now lies in Boğazkale in north-central Turkey. A complicated history highlights that the Hittites go back to the Bronze Age. Soon after, their state was destroyed, and they didn’t particularly call themselves Hittites at that time but Neshians.
At its height, the empire — the Land of Hatti — included most of Anatolia. That is, it extended in the West to present-day Denizli and to the East to include a large part of southeastern Turkey, the Levant and northern Syria including the city of Aleppo.
As the area of the kingdom was so large, there are many excavated artefacts revealing the rich culture and the importance of the Hittites. Even Rameses II of ancient Egypt attacked one of the cities of this empire at one point, and they are mentioned in the Bible as well.
The empire eventually disintegrated into independent states eventually and Anatolia was reconquered, along with Syria and Babylon. As such, what survived in some form in Southeastern and Northern Syria is what remains of the Hittites today.
Visitors to the area won’t find a lot but a few impressive gates with lion and sphinx reliefs will impress. Next, you can head to the nearby museum of Boğazkale and Ankara’s Museum of Anatolian Civilisations to see the artefacts from the site. Cuneiform, written clay tablets and artistic objects have been found along with statues and reliefs of their many gods. It’s not so much impressive in person as it is for its history and its settings. If you’re a history lover, you’ll surely appreciate this place and neighbouring Yazılıkaya, their holy place.
OPENING HOURS: 10 AM TO 7 PM
ADDRESS: Hisar, 19310 Boğazkale/Çorum/turkey
Want to swim in an antique pool with marble columns underwater, possibly where Cleopatra has also taken a dip? You can do that in the spa town of Hierapolis, the old name for Pamukkale.
Take a stroll around the extensive area to find an ancient amphitheatre, the Apollo Temple and stone gates. A huge nature park with a natural wonder can be found here since ancient times with thermal pools and white limestone travertines.
Hieropolis was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1988. More importantly, its location near the thermal pools gives you access to an ancient site that’s still in use today. Amid the ancient ruins, there’s even a mysterious gateway to hell called Plutonium or the sacred site of Pluto with suffocating and deadly carbon dioxide.
The antique Roman bath is where you can take a dip in warm thermal water and relax. Today, it’s called the “antique pool” where you can admire the turquoise waters and huge marble columns underneath.
OPENING HOURS: 24/7 with limited hours for some sites
ADDRESS: 20280 Pamukkale/Denizli/turkey
Xanthos (or Ksantos in Turkish) was the centre and the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Lycia. It was a Mediterranean state and there are a vast number of ancient sites scattered across Turkey. With a wealth of archaeological finds, Lycian sites heavily feature rock-cut tombs throughout. The Lycians had their own language, were later influenced by the Greeks and Persian. They were mentioned by the Hittites and were present same time the Hittites were in Anatolia. However, very little is known about this mysterious state that was wedged between the expanding Greeks in the East and later, the Persians in the East.
Xanthos/Letoon is one such site where ancient texts in Lycian language was found. Today, it’s designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its acropolis, stelas and beautifully decorated tombs. The funerary art in the form of rock-cut tombs, pillar sarcophagy and pillar tombs are unique to the state. The art combines Greek influences and Lycian traditions. Moreover, the Lycian Way, a 520km (317mi) long hiking track runs through the region and is quite popular with enthusiasts!
OPENING HOURS: 24/7 with limited hours for some sites
ADDRESS: Kınık, Asar Cd., 07970 Kaş/Antalya/turkey
The city of Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love is the name of this sacred city of Aphrodisias or the city of Aphrodite or Venus as the Romans called her. The cult of Aphrodite was the most important cult of this city and the city boasted a huge Temple for the goddess which very little is found today.
The ancient city is also known for its marble structures and sculptures. The city and its streets have temples, a theatre, pools and an agora. The amphitheatre made entirely of marble is still intact, for instance. Onsite you’ll find a museum where you can find discovered pottery, inscriptions and wonderful marble sculptures on display.
Moreover, you can take a tour of the grounds and find a Tetrapylon, a monumental gate, an amphitheatre at one end of the acropolis, public baths decorated with marble columns and statues, tiled floors, an enormous stadium for 30,000 spectators, distinctive friezes and decorations.
OPENING HOURS: 10 AM TO 7 PM
ADDRESS: Geyre, Kuyucak Tavas Yolu, 09385 Karacasu/Aydın/turkey
Located in Central Anatolia, Gordion was the capital of ancient Phrygia and was first settled in the Early Bronze Age extending to Medieval times. Phrygia is thought to be an important ancient city politically and culturally. It’s also associated with the cursed king, Midas — yes, of “the Midas touch” legend, whose father was Gordios!
There are a large number of tumuli scattered in the area as well that can be seen from the huge Iron Age-era citadel ruins. The site was first excavated in the 1900s by German archaeologists. The culture, religion, language and anything else known about this ancient state are because of the excavations in Gordion. In the end, the state eventually changed hands with the domination of Lydians, Persia and eventually, even Alexander the Great. Today, it’s located today some 70 km south of Turkey’s capital city Ankara.
Unfortunately, there’s not much at the site itself except ruins. Furthermore, pottery and vessels from the Phrygian, Roman and Hellenistic periods were found here. Additionally, you can find these artefacts in the archaeological museums in Istanbul and Ankara. However, there’s also a separate but small museum in a nearby village.