Ankara Stories and Tips

Kayseri: As Turkish As It Gets

Kayseri Photo, Ankara, Turkey

As you drive east out of Cappadoccia, make sure to wave to the tour buses as they pass by, as this is the last you will see of them for a long time. Cappadoccia marks the Eastern frontier of tourist-market Turkey, a borderland between the tourist-oriented destinations of western Turkey and the tourist-neglected area of eastern Turkey. From now on, don’t expect fancy hotels or package tours offering to show you "traditional Turkish life," because you are about to enter it. To Turks, the Anatolian heartland, the area east of Ankara, is the home to the real Turks, the ones who fought for independence in 1921, the ones who still herd their sheep, work the land, and value family and blood above all else. This is the symbolic heart of Turkey, a place where the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Islam-tinged Peace and Justice Party (AKP) compete for the hearts, minds, and votes of the Turkish masses. Just as any American politician must appeal and win over the South if he wants to be president, so must any aspiring Turkish Prime Minister carry the Anatolian heartland if he wants to stand a chance. Keep this in mind as you head out from Cappadoccia towards such symbolic Turkish towns as Sivas, Kayseri, and Malatya. Istanbul may be Turkey’s face to the world, but Anatolia is its heart.

Upon leaving Cappadoccia to the east, the first city you will stumble upon is the venerable Kayseri, an old Selçuk stronghold with an old city dating back to the 11th century, when the Selçuk army, fresh off a victory of the Byzantines at Manzikert, overran the crumbling Empire and began the long processes of Turkifying Anatolia.

Coming into Kayseri from Ankara, the first thing you will notice is that the city immediately has a much more conservative feel that the secular capital. Kayseri and the surrounding area is the most devoutly Muslim part of Turkey. The majority of women will be kapali (wearing a headscarf), and the city will seem slightly more disorganized and chaotic than the rest of Turkey. This is the beginning of a trend as you head to the southeast, in which you will slowly feel more like you are in the Middle East than western Turkey.

Without a doubt, you will immediately notice that you will get a few more stares or curious glances as you make your way around Kayseri, and it may make you feel uncomfortable at first, but you shouldn’t pay too much attention to it. You have to understand that they don’t get a lot of tourists around these parts. I would say that 90% of tourists to Turkey don’t make it past Cappadoccia, and the other 9.99% will skip over this region of Turkey and head for the slightly more traveled parts of the southeast. Thus, tourists are an extreme novelty in this part of central Turkey. The one nice thing you will discover, however, is that since there is no tourist industry, you won’t have the hordes of touts chasing after you like in Istanbul or Ephesus. If someone does try to talk to you, it’ll be out of mere curiosity than anything else.

In terms of sights, Kayseri is a veritable heaven for those (like me) fascinated by medieval Islamic empires and architecture, but if that’s not exactly your cup of tea (as I’m sure it isn’t for most of you), the city should still manage to impress you enough to make a 2-hour stop worthwhile. Kayseri is home to some of the oldest mosques in Anatolia, the mother of them all being the 11th-century Ulu Camii, a perfect model of Selçuk architecture with its low arched ceilings, black basalt walls, and grand entrance way. This was before the Ottomans revolutionized the dome and mosques were held up by a gauntlet of arches and pillars. Most likely, one of the caretakers will escort you along and do his best to explain things, although if you don’t know Turkish, you may not learn much. Still, the mosque will impress upon you an air of quiet reflection, and it will be hard not to notice the maze of pillars designed to impress upon worshippers the infiniteness of God.

Beyond the mosque, Kayseri is home to a large bazaar that winds its way along the walls of the old city. While not immediately impressive as Kapalçar in Istanbul, it isn’t as museum-like and has the chaotic feel more reminiscent of those found in the Arab world. There isn’t much their that you’ll probably want to buy, but it’s definitely worth a look.

Kayseri in general is a chaotic maze of stone and metal, not exactly the most picturesque of towns, but there is one haven of peace and quiet in town and that is the central park. The park is a haven of green in Kayseris urban landscape and home to various pools and bridges full of young couples seeking a few moments of privacy. The park is also home to a small museum on Islamic medicine. Housed inside a medieval hospital, the museum displays works by Muslim scientists and doctors who were advancing the understanding of the human body while Europe was still relying on leeches to cure diseases. There are also a few instruments and dioramas that make the museum worth a visit.

Beyond that, there is not much else to see in do in Kayseri, but if you are driving East from Ankara or Cappadoccia, it is definitely worth a stop not just for its Selçuk monuments, but because it will give you a taste of Turkey’s conservative Turkish heartland, something most tourists skip. And although I don’t recommend you spend the night, if you have to, Kayseri is now home to (inexplicably) a sparkling new Hilton Hotel, and of course, there are plenty of small hotels where you can get rooms on the cheap.

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