TRAVEL / Through the gates of Turkey's past: Hittites, Phrygians, Greeks, Romans - one great civilisation after another has left its traces in Anatolia. Michael Leapman does some archaeological exploring

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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE many good reasons for travelling from Istanbul to Ankara by train. It is comfortable, cheap (pounds 6 one way first class, if you buy your ticket in Turkey) and reasonably reliable. The middle section, through the valley of Sakarya and the Bithynian hills, is in parts spectacular. Tea costs 10p a glass from the trolley, and you can get a good plain meal in the dining-car, with ice-cold beer, for about pounds 3 a head. The best reason of all, though, is that the journey takes rather more than eight hours - and you need all that time to mug up on the complicated history of Turkey before tackling the rigours of its archaeological sites.

Ankara is the right place to begin a tour of Turkish heritage, because it has the unsurpassed Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, remarkable not only for the quality of its exhibits but for its cogent layout and compact size. It begins with a few palaeolithic or Stone Age exhibits - the familiar axes and tools - but starts to get interesting with the neolithic finds from around 6000BC, mainly from Catal Huyuk, near Konya in central Anatolia. They include many small statues of the plump, seated women, resembling female Buddhas, assumed to be goddesses and known as Anatolian mother figures: popular symbols of Turkish prehistory.

In the next 4,000 years came the first use of metal, including elaborate jewellery, and much more sophisticated stonework and pottery, until the start of the Hittite era around 1750BC, with the introduction of writing on decipherable stone tablets. The museum has dozens of these, as well as a central gallery packed with monumental late Hittite sculpture and reliefs. The final gallery is devoted to Greek and Roman objects from around 300BC to AD300.

A half-day in the museum prepares you to visit the archaeological sites themselves. For the non-specialist, the very early ones are seldom rewarding, because nearly everything of interest and quality has been taken away to museums, leaving what are essentially mounds of rubble.

To some extent this has happened at Bogazkale, site of the Hittite capital of Hattusas, a three-hour drive east of Ankara. Some of the most dramatic large sculptures at the Ankara museum are from here, but enough remains to make it well worth the visit.

You start at the ruins of the enormous temple, where some of the outer buildings still have huge amphorae for oil, grain and wine sunk into the floor. Then you climb or drive up to the ornamental gates in the city walls, flanked with imposing stone figures of lions, sphinxes and gods - mostly copies of originals that have found their way into Turkish and European museums. From the remains of the King's palace, the view reveals the impressive extent of the settlement.

A few kilometres from the old city is Yesilkoy, where some marvellously spirited reliefs on what are presumed to be the walls of a temple have survived more than 3,000 years - no doubt because, carved into the rock, it is hard to cart them off to museums. They represent gods and goddesses with animals and marching warriors, the intricate details of their dress still identifiable.

We used Ankara as a base for a weekend excursion to Cappadocia, with its extraordinary Byzantine churches carved into rocks, adorned with frescoes. After that we rented a car to drive west, towards the classical Greek and Roman sites that are mainly clustered on the Aegean coast, before flying home from Istanbul. About 100 kilometres out of Ankara we stopped at Gordium, where in 330BC Alexander the Great cut the knot that confirmed his destiny as Lord of Asia. It was the capital of the Phrygians, who came between the Hittites and the Greeks, and is thought to have been ruled in the eighth century BC by King Midas, he of the golden touch.

It is not a leading tourist site: no charge for admission, no hawkers selling souvenirs, just a windswept mound fenced off in a field near the village. But quite a lot of the Phrygian city is being excavated, notably the great gateway giving on to what was the main east-west road across Anatolia.

From Gordium it is an afternoon's drive to Pamukkale, a popular tourist centre best known for its brilliant white limestone cliffs, formed by deposits from the water tumbling from the warm spring at the top of the hill. The spring feeds a pool, regarded as sacred by the Greeks, now filled with broken classical columns and masonry. It is enclosed, as the world's most unusual hotel bathing pool, within the Pamukkale Motel, whose cabins have been built around it. Although this is a distinct blot on the landscape, it is certainly the place to stay in Pamukkale.

The unusual physical attributes of the town have meant that its impressive Roman remains are often overlooked. The Greeks called it Hierapolis when it was founded in the second century BC, but most of what is now visible dates from the Roman era a few centuries later. Most spectacular is the theatre on the hill behind the sacred pool, with many of its backstage columns put back in place and some fine friezes above them. Part of the Roman baths has been adapted as a museum. North-east of the city is a well-preserved section of the old main street, lined with columns and ending in an elaborate gateway built in AD85. Beyond is the extensive necropolis, with its ruined tombs.

Less than two hours' drive from Pamukkale is Aphrodisias, once one of the most splendid Graeco-Roman cities, rich in magnificent statuary, some of it now displayed in the museum at the entrance. The site is still being excavated, but much has been uncovered already, including another fine theatre, a double entrance gate, an odeon (a small indoor auditorium) and a 30,000-seater stadium for chariot racing and other sporting contests.

After breaking our cultural odyssey to spend a couple of days by the sea on the Bodrum peninsula, we resumed it at Ephesus, the best-known and most complete of the classical sites in Turkey. We arrived on a night when the chamber ensemble of the Berlin Philharmonic was giving a concert in the restored open-air theatre, which dates from the third century BC. This was a breathtaking curtain-raiser to our visit next day to a site so extensively excavated and restored that you get a real sense of what it was like in Greek and Roman times, when sailors and travellers would walk up the colonnaded street from the harbour (the sea has since receded several miles) into the main street, with its grand houses, public baths, temples, shops and markets, teeming today not with merchants but with international tourists.

From there it is a day's drive north, past the evil-smelling harbour of Izmir, to Pergamum, or Bergama, which again had its origins in the third century BC. It has been less comprehensively restored than Ephesus, but excels it in terms of its spectacular location - on a high hill above the modern town, where a cool breeze moderates the hottest days. Geography dictated a uniquely steep and narrow theatre, with the topmost seats a dizzying height above the stage. The most important monument, the Temple of Zeus, is without its reliefs depicting the battle between the giants and the gods: these are in Berlin, the object of a sustained campaign for their return.

The most northerly of the principal sites on this coast is Troy, the entrance marked by a giant wooden horse into which visitors can climb to be photographed. This provides a suitable climax to an archaeological tour, since there are remnants of nine settlements, dating from around 3600BC to the Roman era in AD300. The city described in Homer's Iliad is thought to have been Troy VI or VII, flourishing in the 13th century BC.

The site was identified in 1868 by Heinrich Schliemann, a German amateur archaeologist, now an object of disapproval among scholars because his digging methods destroyed valuable material and he took some precious finds back to Germany. Descriptive signboards have all been altered with a new, politically correct denunciation of Schliemann pasted over what were presumably friendlier references.

Although there is not much visible at Troy compared with other large sites, this is made up for in part by a visitor-friendly sightseeing trail, dotted with explanatory notices about what one is looking at, as well as a video describing the archaeological aims of the digs. The key to appreciating a historic site is not necessarily how much you can see, but whether you can understand what you are looking at.

We were in Turkey in late June and early July. By mid-July the weather was starting to get too hot for sightseeing in the middle of the day, but most of the sites open early for that very reason. We were among the first half-dozen visitors to Ephesus at 8am and were leaving by 11, when sweltering coach parties were just arriving: one reason why independent transport is a boon. Old Turkey hands recommend going in spring or autumn rather than high summer.

Since Turkish tourism has yet to recover from the double whammy of the Gulf war and the Yugoslav conflict, accommodation is never a problem, and we made no advance bookings. Yet the sites themselves were busy enough - suggesting that once the visitors start going back in their former numbers, they could get uncomfortably crowded. The best advice, then, is to go to Turkey soon - and start reading the history now.-

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE

British Airways (081-897 4000) SuperApex fares to Istanbul start at pounds 260 (maximum stay 2 months, to include at least one Saturday night). SuperApex fares to Ankara start at pounds 432 (maximum stay is 3 months, which must include at least one Saturday night).

Turkish Airlines (071-499 4499) fares to Istanbul start at pounds 265 return (plus pounds 6 airport tax; maximum stay 3 months). Return fare to Ankara pounds 295 (plus pounds 6 airport tax; maximum stay 3 months).

GETTING AROUND

British Rail Credit Card Sales (071-828 0892) can book tickets for internal rail travel in Turkey. They quote Ankara to Istanbul as pounds 15.22 first class, pounds 10.14 second class. There is a pounds 5 booking fee. For groups of six or more they offer a 20 per cent reduction on single tickets, 30 per cent on return tickets. For groups of people aged 26 or under, 50 per cent reduction on all tickets.

Budget Rent A Car (0800 181181) from pounds 49 a day (unlimited mileage, must pre-book but pay on arrival). Hertz Rent A Car (081-679 1799) from pounds 46 per day (unlimited mileage, minimum 3 days' hire, must book at least 7 days in advance). Avis Rent A Car (081- 848 8733) from pounds 216 for 7 days (minimum hire 2 days, with unlimited mileage).

Coach travel inside Turkey is very cheap. The Turkish Information Office quotes average prices from Istanbul to Ankara as pounds 6-8; Bodrum to Ankara pounds 10-12. Ask on arrival at mainline train stations or airports for directions to coach company bureaux.

STAYING THERE

The Turkish Information Office, First Floor, 170-173 Piccadilly, London W1B 9DD (071-734 8681) will send you a free Travel Guide to Turkey with a comprehensive list of hotels and a regional guide. It also gives travel information.

Accommodation in Turkey is moderately priced. For budget travellers, spartan rooms in unrated hotels can be easily found for pounds 5 a night for a double room. A comfortable double room in a 2- or 3-star hotel can cost on average dollars 12-22 ( pounds 6-11). This price will often include a private bathroom. Five-star hotels can cost between dollars 75 and dollars 150. The Rough Guide to Turkey (Penguin pounds 8.99) recommends accommodation in each price range. Fodor's Turkey 1992 ( pounds 10.99) also lists a broad range of hotels.

(Photographs omitted)

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