Anatolia is home to the world’s first temple at Göbeklitepe, and countless religious figures, from Abraham to Saint Nicholas, have lived in the region. But alongside the official histories, there is also a wealth of unwritten stories that blend fact and fantasy. Some of these are based on events in Jewish and Islamic texts, while others come from folklore and the supernatural. Their common point is an ability to fill us with wonder, even today.
Where the Noah’s ark rest
It is widely accepted in Christianity that Noah’s Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, close to Turkey’s border with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. The Koran, however, states that the ark stopped on Mount Judi, close to the border with Syria and Iraq. Archaeologists have been trying to locate the ark’s remains since the 19th century. The most recent expedition ended in 2010 when Scottish man Donald Mackenzie went missing on the mountain.
Turkish boogeyman: gulyabani in Sakarya
The gulyabani is described in Turkish lore as a furry, man-like creature that snatches people from roads and graveyards. Its name literally means “wild ghoul.” The comedy film Süt Kardeşler made fun of the monster back in 1976, but it made headlines most recently in 2014. During this time, a gulyabani lookalike in Sakarya province banged on people’s doors and hung around the village at night. Neither the villagers nor the local police managed to catch it.
Under the water: lake monsters in Van
The lore of the Loch Ness Monster is widely known, but what of its cousin in Lake Van? This creature became famous after eye-witness reports in 1993, and since then more than 1,000 people have claimed to have seen it. In fact, the first recorded story on the monster appeared in the Ottoman newspaper Saadet in 1889. The president of the local municipality stated that he has seen it four times, saying that it is like a very large snake.
Entrance of the underworld: infernal gas in Hierapolis
In the ancient city of Hierapolis, close to the famous terraces of Pamukkale, lie the remains of a terrifying cave. This site lay forgotten for centuries until it was rediscovered by archaeologists in 2013. The Greeks believed it to be the entrance to the underworld because anyone who entered it fell down dead. Priests used to sell birds that visitors would throw into the cave to test its effect. However, it was later discovered that the deadly secret lies in the carbon dioxide gas released by rocks underground. But don’t worry, there is no danger to tourists—the gas is only dangerous in high concentrations. Time and earthquakes have largely destroyed the cave, meaning the gas is no longer concentrated and floats harmlessly into the air.
Secret city: Istanbul underground
Istanbul has been rebuilt over the ruins of older civilizations for thousands of years. The sunken cistern of Yerebatan is a major tourist attraction, but most of the city’s underground structures remain unknown to most. Amateur adventurers could easily get lost in the labyrinthine darkness, so entrances to this dark underworld are a closely guarded secret. But in the early years of the Turkish Republic, there are stories that the military published a book, given only to approved officers, which describes the entrances and tunnels in detail. The intention was to use these tunnels for defense in case of foreign invasion.
Israelites in Istanbul: Hill of Joshua
On the Asian side of the Bosphorus, close to the Black Sea, is a hill known in English as the Giant’s Grave. The Turkish name is Yuşa Tepesi, meaning Hill of Joshua. Both names are correct, because according to a local Muslim belief the top of this hill is home to Joshua’s giant grave. The story goes that Joshua followed the prophet Moses into battle near Istanbul. When an enemy cut Joshua in two, he left his legs at the bottom of the hill and dragged his upper body to the top, where his grave now stands. But even this half-grave is seventeen meters long, suggesting that Joshua was incredibly tall.
Stone romance: Mihrimah Sultan mosques
Hopeless romantics, this story is for you. It is said that Ottoman master architect Mimar Sinan was hopelessly in love with Mihrimah Sultan, daughter to Sultan Suleiman and wife to the Diyarbakır governor. But the romance was never to be. To express his undying devotion, Sinan encoded this love in two mosques, both called Mihrimah Sultan. One is on the Asian shore, reportedly designed with few windows to represent the moon. The other is on the European side, near the Old City wall, and said to have only one minaret to represent Sinan’s loneliness. On Mihrimah Sultan’s birthday, March 21, you can watch the sun set behind the European mosque’s minaret while the moon rises behind the Asian mosque. It is no coincidence that the name Mihrimah means “sun and moon.”