Turkey has a richly layered history. From ancient civilizations to the Romans, the Ottomans and to more modern times, palaces and fortresses have been a key feature of the development of many cities. Exploring the stories of the people that built, altered and lived in these buildings is sure to delight and inspire travellers from all backgrounds. Join us as we look at some of Turkey’s most beautiful and interesting historical palaces and fortresses.
Ishak Pasha Palace, Agri
Agri is a province in eastern Turkey, bordering modern-day Iran to the east, and surrounded by the easternmost Turkish provinces of Van, Kars and Erzurum. The Ishak Pasha Palace is a fascinating combination of Ottoman, Turkish and Persian architecture, reflecting its origins. The Palace’s construction began in 1685 under Colak Abdi Pasha, additional sections were added by his son Ishak Pasha, until eventual completion by his grandson Mehmet Pasha in 1784.
This stunning palace features beautiful tile and mosaic work, features an Ottoman style dome and minaret structure. The palace is built on a promontory overlooking the valley below.
Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul
The Dolmabahce Palace is hard to miss. It is one of the icons of Istanbul and the largest palace in Turkey. Its construction started under Ottoman rule in 1843 and was completed in 1856. It was the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire, home to 6 Sultans over its life and is most notably the place that the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, spent his final days before passing away.
The palace blends Ottoman style architecture with a heady mix of Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical styles for a truly opulent experience spread across its 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 hammam baths and 68 toilets. Located on the shores of the Bosphorus, a visit to the Palace is most definitely recommended but don’t miss the spectacle that is approaching via ferry. The ornately decorated marble exterior, gates and lush gardens are illuminated at night in true royal fashion.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace is a must-see in most visitors' agenda. Perched on the Seraglio Point (Sarayburnu) overlooking the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara, Gulhane Park and Sultanahmet, Topkapi Palace is a sprawling palace complex (now museum) and UNESCO Heritage Site.
The palace’s construction was commissioned in 1459 by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. Subsequent sultans added additional sections and courtyards and renovations were undertaken following an earthquake in 1509 and a fire in 1665. The palace was in use until Sultan Abdulmejid transferred the royal residences to the newly built Dolmabahce Palace in 1856.
Today, visitors can tour through the most important courtyards and rooms, including the harem, the treasury, private bedrooms, privy chambers, kitchens, gardens and grounds. On display are Ottoman era clothing, jewellery and artefacts from the daily life of the illustrious court.
Ciragan Palace, Istanbul
The Ciragan Palace has a rather fascinating history. Built by Sultan Abdulaziz and designed by the Armenian palace architect Nigoğayos Balyan, the palace was built between 1863 and 1867. Abdulaziz was the last Sultan who built his own palace, rather than inheriting from his predecessor. The Palace has gone through fire, been home to parliament meetings and used as a football stadium.
In the late 1980s the palace was bought by an international firm and restored to its previous glory. The complex now operates as a luxury hotel, a wedding venue and home of 2 upscale restaurants, the Ciragan Palace is presently enjoying an updated life of luxury.
Anadoluhisari (Anatolian Fortress), Istanbul
Anadoluhisari was built by the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I from 1393-1394. Built in preparation for the Ottoman takeover of Constantinople. (Remember: the Conquest of Istanbul occurred in 1453 at the hands of Sultan Mehmed II, grandson of Bayezid - the Ottomans were nothing if not determined.)
Now, a historical site Anadoluhisari is located in the upmarket neighbourhood of the same name on the shores of the Bosphorus. Though not open to the public, it’s role as a strategic naval blockade is easy to see, located as it is at one of the narrowest points of the Bosphorus. Visitors to the area can enjoy strolling along the shore, dine at nearby restaurants and cafes or jump aboard a ferry to take a sneak peek at the beautiful historical yalis (mansions) that line the seashore.
Istanbul, Rumelihisari (Rumeli Fortress)
Now one of the most beautiful lookout points in the city, Rumelihisari played a key role in the Ottoman’s success in capturing Constantinople from the Byzantines. Built in 1451-1452 at the command of Sultan Mehmed II, Rumeli Fortress was used partially as a naval blockade - across the water you’ll notice Anadolu Fortress, built 2 generations earlier in 1393-1393. The two fortresses at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus helped to target and block supplies and naval ships intended to aid the Byzantines.
Used throughout the ages as a blockade, a sometimes prison and a customs house, Rumeli Hisari is now a museum and hosts open air art and music events. Strolling along you’ll see fishermen, ferries, boats, cyclists, locals and tourists alike taking in the beauty of the Bosphorus and the city.
Bodrum Castle, Mugla
Located close to the port and the bustling shops, restaurants and bazaars of Bodrum Town, lies Bodrum’s Castle of St. Peter, more commonly called Bodrum Castle. Initially built to shore up the defenses of the Knights Hospitaller, Bodrum Castle survived several attempts at a takeover until the forces of Süleyman the Magnificent broke through the defenses in 1523.
The castle has been rebuilt and restored and is now the home of the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, a museum dedicated to various shipwrecks that have occurred in the region, some dating back to the 5th Century BC. Young and old will delight at the glass hallway, an aquarium that opens onto the harbour, giving a glimpse into the sea life of the marina.
Alanya Castle, Antalya
Most visitors to Alanya are eager to enjoy the sun, sea, water sports and magnificent caves that dot the coastline. However, Alanya Castle should not be overlooked! Jutting out on a headland, looking high over the city, beach and sea below, the castle was originally designed as a defensive outpost. Encircled by 6.5 km long walls, interspersed with 140 towers, this 13th Century castle is now an open air museum with stunning views out over the Mediterranean.
Diyarbakır Fortress, Diyarbakir
Diyarbakir Fortress, in Turkey’s Southeast dates back to 297 AD, when Romans built the first incarnation of the castle. The walls and interior buildings were heavily reinforced and expanded first at the orders of Emperor Constantius II in 349 AD and then by successive rulers over a period of 1500 years. The wall eventually became so thick and strong they became the most complete section of a defensive wall, next to the Great Wall of China. The walls have been measured at 3 miles in circumference, with 82 watch towers, reaching a height of over 33 feet and a thickness varying from 10-16 feet.
Within the fortress walls are two distinct areas, the bailey and the citadel. The citadel includes the first settlement inside Diyarbakir proper, while the bailey houses a tower and the city walls.
The fortress, its walls and nearby Hevsel Gardens were added to UNESCO's World Heritage List on July 4th 2015.
Zil Castle, Rize
Zil Castle or Zilkale lies to the northeast of Turkey, in the lush greenery of the Black Sea region. This medieval castle is one of the most important historical structures in the Camlihemsin district. Believed to have been built in the 14-15th Century, the castle is built at an elevation of 1,130m, sitting at the edge of the Firtina creek.
The castle features outer and inner walls and ramparts, a garrison, an inner castle and the remains of what was perhaps a chapel. The castle itself is a spectacular prospect, rising as it does out of the surrounding greenery. Keen hikers and photographers should make note.
Van Castle, Van
Van Castle and Fortress lies just east of Lake Van, in Turkey’s eastern province with the same name. Built by the ancient kingdom of Urartu during the 9th-7th Centuries BC, this massive stone fortification overlooks the ruins of Tushpa the ancient Urartian capital and the valley below.
The ruins are still standing today in no large part because they were carved into the rockface. It’s believed the Castle was an independent fortification intended to impose and exert regional control, rather than function as a strategic defense point. While exploring Van Castle, Lake Van, its surrounding areas, churches and monasteries are certainly worth some time as well.
Maiden's Castle (Kızkalesi), Mersin
Located rather securely (one would think) on a small island approximately 300m out to sea from the town of the same name: Kizkalesi (Maiden’s Tower). The Maiden’s Tower (as others) is steeped in myth and history, the story goes:
“A fortune teller informed a wealthy man his daughter would be poisoned by a snake. To save her, he builds a castle where no snakes live and moves her there permanently. However, she’s not safe, a snake hidden in a basket of fruit bites and kills her. All was in vain.”
Many stories of isolated towers, such as Istanbul’s Maiden’s Tower share the same story. In this case, the castle was most likely built by Alexios I Komnenos of the Byzantine Empire sometime after the First Crusade - that’s somewhere in the period 1096-1099. Though extensively rebuilt and expanded in the 13th Century by the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, the Byzantine plan has endured through the ages. The castle was captured by Ibrahim II of Karaman in 1448 and by Gedik Ahmet Pasha of the Ottoman Empire in 1471, when the name was changed to Kizkalesi.
Being on an island almost within swimming distance of the shore, visitors enjoying the summer in the warm Mediterranean waters of Mersin can access the castle easily. Visitors can explore the walls, ramparts, towers and remains of a church whilst looking out to sea or back to shore.
Zerzevan Castle, Diyarbakir - Mardin
Zerzevan Castle between Mardin and Diyabakir in Turkey’s southeast is a ruined 4th Century Eastern Roman castle, that is only partially open to tourists. Excavation only began as recently as 2014, with an expected 30 years work still to go!
Built on a mountain overlooking the valley, because of its strategic position, the castle is believed to have been a garrison structure, focused on controlling movement in the region. There are significant structures above and below ground, with evidence of an underground temple of Mithraism, a relatively unknown religion and additional underground temple structures having been discovered as excavation continues.
What makes this castle all the more interesting (aside from its complex above and below ground structures) is the fact that some of the castle structures were still inhabited and in use until the 1960s when it was eventually abandoned.