The 10 best castles in Turkey
What you don't very often get, however, is any idea that this is also a country that is littered with the remains of battered castles, castles that bear silent witness to Anatolia's often turbulent past.
Yet, there are parts of Turkey where almost every hilltop is crowned with shattered masonry, often placed there in defiance of any obvious means of reaching it. Castles are always the mainstays of frontier regions and it's no different in Turkey; you'll find the majority of the castles fringing the perimeters of the country, along the Aegean coast, for example, and in its fiercely contested southeastern and northeastern corners.
There are so many ruined castles in Turkey that homing in on just 10 of them is tricky. Everyone will have their own favorite. A word of warning for castle lovers, though: Over the last decade castles have proved particularly susceptible to the sort of slapdash “restoration” that robs them of their precious sense of the past. Two particular victims are the huge castle that crowns the hill above Bayburt and the once-fairytale castle hidden in the forests of Zil, near Çamlıhemşin.
Castle of St. Peter (Museum of Underwater Archaeology)
Pressed to name the very finest castle in Turkey I'd have to plump for the enormous one that looms over the harbor in Bodrum. Not only is this an impressive piece of multi-towered engineering but it has a fascinating story to tell as well, since much of the masonry from which it was built was pilfered from the ruins of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the great tomb of the Carian king Mausolus that had been one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The castle was built in the early 15th century by the Christian Knights Hospitaller, who wanted it to protect their holdings on the nearby island of Rhodes. They continued to reinforce it right up until 1522, when Sultan Süleyman I "the Magnificent" seized both Rhodes and Bodrum and promptly built a mosque inside the castle.
The castle was restored in the 1960s. Since 1986, it has housed a museum of underwater archeology that is one of the finest museums in all of Turkey. Highlights include the remains of the Uluburun, the earliest shipwreck ever excavated -- which is believed to have sunk as long ago as the 14th century B.C. -- and the bones of a Carian princess whose features have been painstakingly reconstructed by experts from Manchester University. The views from the ramparts are simply spectacular.
Even if your travels never take you further than İstanbul you can still visit one truly remarkable castle with a particularly venerable history: the “Fortress of Europe” that stands on the shores of the Bosporus in the suburb named after it. Constructed in 1452, Sultan Mehmed II “the Conqueror” used this castle as his base for his successful assault on Constantinople in 1453. It was built at the narrowest point on the strait immediately across from the older “Fortress of Asia” at Anadolu Hisarı, which was constructed in 1394 by his great-grandfather, Sultan Bayezid I, as a base for his own unsuccessful assault on the city. Together the two castles enabled Mehmed to control traffic along the strait and thus prevent food and reinforcements from reaching the besieged Byzantines.
Rumeli Hisarı was restored in 1953 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Mehmed's achievement. You can take a look around the interior, although there's little in the way of interpretation -- a missed opportunity in terms of telling the story of the siege.
Just as the Castle of St. Peter dominates Bodrum's harbor, so the magnificent castle at Bozcaada dominates the island's much smaller harbor, greeting visitors as they step ashore after crossing with the ferry. There the comparison ends, however, because you can normally only admire this castle from the outside -- except perhaps on school holidays when the gates may reluctantly swing open.
The story of Bozcaada Castle could be that of virtually any castle in Turkey, with its origins trailing back to early Byzantine times. Later, Venetian and then Genoese traders were permitted to reinforce it, before finally in the 16th century when the Ottomans moved in to make it their own.
Originally built by the Genoese then rebuilt by Sultan Bayezid II in 1508, the castle at Çeşme, beyond İzmir, also faces the harbor, although its erstwhile dominance of its surroundings is not as obvious as in Bodrum or Bozcaada because it is more hemmed in by modern development. This is another castle that has been turned into a museum and as you wander round the ramparts admiring the views you will also be able to take a look at the finds from the archeological site of Erythrae on the Karaburun Peninsula, as well as in an exhibition devoted to the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774, during the course of which almost the entire Ottoman fleet was destroyed off the coast of Çeşme.
Currently closed for restoration, the massive castle at Mamure is a splendid edifice with 39 towers and a vast moat sitting right on the seashore east of Anamur on the Mediterranean coast. It owes its 13th-century origins to the rulers of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, but the site had probably been fortified since Roman times. In 1308, it was seized by Mehmet I of Karaman, who stamped his mark on the building by adding a mosque to it.
Visitors to the seaside resort of Kızkalesi, near Silifke on the Mediterranean coast, can have the pleasure of sunbathing in the shadow of one enormous castle while gazing out over the sea to another smaller one, Maiden's Castle. Maiden's Castle gave its name to the town and stands in splendid isolation on an offshore island. Originally, the two castles were linked by a causeway, parts of which still survive underwater.
The Kızkalesi castles were originally the handiwork of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who had them built in the late 11th century as protection against the Crusaders. Needless to say, there's a fanciful story about a princess marooned on the castle on the island for her own protection, who is nonetheless killed by a bite from a snake delivered in a basket of fruit. Sound familiar? It's the same story told about Kızkulesi (Maiden's Tower) in İstanbul.
Heading north and east from Adana, you move into what might well be branded "Castle Country," with every hilltop bristling with fortifications. Right beside the main highway from Adana to Osmaniye, you'll see the impressive remains of Toprakkale (Earth Castle), which dates back to the 13th century. Unfortunately, the main road makes it hard to access this castle. Luckily the almost identical Yılankale (Snake Castle), just off the road to Kadırlı, is much easier to get to with a road running right up to the castle. Surprise, surprise -- it's currently closed for restoration.
Northeast of Adana, the forgotten town of Kozan was once Sis, the capital of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. Here the rulers built a castle so high up on a craggy rock that it's almost impossible to imagine how one is to get up to it -- let alone how it could ever have been built there. Fortunately, a new road runs right up to the foot of the castle. To be honest, there's not a great deal to see inside and climbing around in the ruins is potentially dangerous so you might want to save yourself the effort and just admire it in awe-struck wonder from a distance.
These days Gaziantep may be best known for the wonderful mosaics in the Zeugma Museum -- and for its baklava, of course -- but it also boasts another treasure in the shape of its magnificent castle, a cut-down version of the one in Aleppo that stands on an artificial mound immediately behind the old bazaar. The site is believed to have been fortified since Roman times, with the Byzantine Emperor Justinian rebuilding a castle on the site. The Seljuks are thought to have constructed the current version with its monumental walls. Theoretically, you can go inside to visit the Panorama Museum, which celebrates the city's fight against French occupation in 1920. Unfortunately, the drawbridge into the castle collapsed last year, so it's currently closed for restoration.
These days many people visit Antep and admire its imposing castle. The same can hardly be said of Şebinkarahisar, a forgotten small town inland from Giresun on the Black Sea where an enormous castle with walls almost 1,000 meters long straggles along a plateau high above the houses. By now, you won't be surprised to learn that it owes its genesis to Emperor Justinian; its ruinous condition is largely due to an earthquake of 1939. The castle was probably given its name -- which means Alum Black Castle -- to distinguish it from Opium Black Castle (Afyonkarahisar) way over to the west.
Also worth visiting: Hoşap Kalesi, Afyonkarahisar, Silifke Kalesi, Softa Kalesi, Ardanuç Kalesi.