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The bridge connecting east and west for millennia, Turkey’s Marmara region represents the original crossroads of civilization. It was across the Dardanelles Straits that Persian King Xerxes built his famed bridge of boats that would carry him over the waterway on his campaign to conquer Europe. The Bosphorus Straits, bisecting Istanbul into two continents, has been navigated since mythological times, when Jason and his Argonauts challenged its traitorous currents. Mehmet the Conqueror ultimately defeated the last Byzantine Emperor in Istanbul, the Jewel in the Crown of East and West.
As capital of three of the world’s great empires, Istanbul is home to rich layers of ancient civilizations, masterful craftsmanship, artistic greatness and culinary inventiveness. Indeed Istanbul is a city of extremes: it preserves the most important art relics from the Byzantine era, hosts the largest collection of Islamic relics in the world, offers some of the best shopping experiences anywhere and even houses the largest aquarium in Europe.
As for monumental construction, the city preserves Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman palaces, ancient sea walls and awe-inspiring churches and mosques. The Hagia Sophia, Justinian’s ode to the Almighty, stood as the largest church in Christendom for more than a thousand years. For the subsequent 500 years, Ottoman Sultans ruled an empire from within the mysterious walls of Topkapi Palace, all the while constructing magnificent monuments of their own such as the Blue Mosque, Süleymaniye, and Dolmabahçe Palace.
When the sun begins to warm the ancient marble and modern cobblestones, lively groups of city dwellers head to the Princes Islands, an archipelago of seven islands within the greater city limits of Istanbul. Once a place of exile for Byzantine and Ottoman princes, today, the islands preserve the more recent past of horse-drawn phaetons, clapboard mansions and stunning beaches to create a living snapshot of Istanbul’s 19th century elite lifestyle.
While Istanbul beats at the heart of the Marmara Region, the surrounding provinces contain a life force that for centuries has fed this great city. Bursa was the first capital city of the Ottoman Empire and birthplace of modern Turkish culture. Architecturally inspired mosques, like Yesil Cami and Ulu Cami, are some of the most inspired in the country. The nearby, lakefront town of Iznik, built atop the ancient city of Nicaea, was home to the Byzantine Empire’s home-in-exile and site of two of Christianity’s earliest Ecumenical Councils.
Bursa and its surroundings are also famous for its healing thermal springs, bubbling up into soothing hotel pools or magnificent, 700-year old hamams. The country’s first ski resort was built on the mountain of Uludag, lying to the south of the city. Bursa is also an important textile center, producer of some of the world’s finest silks and of the country’s celebrated Turkish towels.
As the Ottoman Empire’s second capital, Edirne, which lies close to the borders of Greece and Bulgaria, also has some wonderful Ottoman masterpieces. The best known is the Süleymaniye Mosque, built by the great Ottoman master architect, Mimar Sinan. Edirne is also famous for its lush rolling fields of sunflowers, grown for their seeds and oil, and sprawling vineyards. The most celebrated of Turkey’s traditional oil wrestling festivals is held in the village of Kirkpinar every year in June.
South of Edirne, in the province of Çanakkale, Turkey borders the Marmara Sea at the Gallipoli Peninsula, coveted throughout history as a strategic gateway into and out of the Mediterranean Sea. It was from Troy where Helen launched a thousand ships and at Gallipoli where ANZAC forces were defeated by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey’s first major victory against enemy forces in World War I. The war graves and battlegrounds of Gallipoli are visited by thousands of tourists every year on the fated anniversary of the landing of Australian and British forces at Anzac Cove.
Where the Marmara Region meets the Aegean are clusters of alluring offshore islands and typical seaside villages. The island of Bozcaada is an increasingly popular weekend getaway thanks to its pastoral landscapes, sweeping seaside vistas and long tradition of winemaking, for which the island celebrates an annual wine festival. Back on the mainland is the irresistible fishing enclave of Behramkale, which shares the rocky and mountainous seafront with the ancient remnants of the great Hellenistic city of Assos.
To be sure, with such geographical, geological and, natural value, it’s no wonder that the wealthiest citizens of former empires and modern enterprise have built their stately seaside retreats here. And all along the shores of Istanbul, the Princes Islands, the Marmara shores and offshore islands are a collection of beautiful beaches and holiday resorts, of 19th century Ottoman architecture and traditional seaside mansions called yalis.