A group of four men wade into the water of a lake in Turkey

With Ancient Ruins and Striking Landscapes, Turkey's Lakes Region Is a Hidden Gem

Between the big city bustle of Istanbul and the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea lies another Turkey — one of tradition, history, and divine landscapes.

The vertiginousview from Kremna, in the western fringe of Turkey's rugged Taurus Mountains, tumbles down steep slopes past pine forests to emerge onto fields of wheat, barley, and chickpeas far below. As I edged closer for a better look, it was clear to me how the ancient city had gotten its name: in Greek, the word "kremnos" means precipice. I hadn't seen a soul since greeting the solitary guard at the site entrance; as I picked my way uphill through the ruins, the only noises beside my own footsteps were the trill of birdsong and the skittering of lizards in the underbrush.

Near the highest point of the city, I paused to take in what was left: a handful of archways, walls, and columns poking up from the lichen-covered stones that had once formed libraries, fountains, churches, and homes. As I sat, the air began to fill with a sound, faint at first then growing in a crescendo: the ezan, or Islamic call to prayer, rising from mosques in the small farming villages in the valley.

The moment was a reminder of the many cultures that have taken root in this part of Turkey over the millennia — Greek, yes, but also Roman, Lydian, Persian, Macedonian, Seleucid, and Pergamene — and of how closely this area's contemporary rural populations live with the ancient ruins around them.

Tourists walk across the ruins of the Agora at Sagalassos, Turkey
Visitors crossing the agora at Sagalassos. Kerem Uzel

Turkey's Lakes Region, home to the country's two largest freshwater lakes and dozens of smaller ones, isn't on the radar of many international tourists. Known in antiquity as Pisidia, this agricultural area lies hundreds of miles inland from the famous sites of Ephesus and Pamukkale, and is separated from the sparkling Mediterranean by the western end of the Taurus range. But its historical artifacts, traditional rural practices, and diversity of landscapes provide a taste of the cultural and natural richness that can be found in the country's less-heralded corners.

"I have a tour-guiding license and have traveled all over Turkey, but I'd never heard about the ancient sites of Pisidia," researcher Işilay Gürsü admitted to me in a phone conversation before I set off on a 10-day tour of the area in April. I, too, had been surprised by what I found when I started digging. During the 14 years and counting that I've been living in Istanbul, I've explored many far-flung parts of Turkey, but my experience in Pisidia was limited to a few short stopovers en route to the coast. Then a museum exhibition in Istanbul piqued my interest in the Hellenistic and Roman ruins at Sagalassos, a millennia-old settlement an hour's drive north of Kremna.

Gürsü's own introduction to the region came after she started working with the British Institute at Ankara, which has conducted archaeological surveys of many of the sites in the area. (Artifacts from the region provide evidence of human settlement going back to the Neolithic era.) As a researcher at the institute, and now as its assistant director for cultural heritage management, Gürsü has spearheaded efforts to create the new Pisidia Heritage Trail, a 220-mile waymarked trekking and camping route connecting 12 ancient cities — including both Kremna and Sagalassos — which she describes as "monumental, well preserved, and in the middle of extremely beautiful nature." Many bear at least some traces of continual reoccupation.

Two photos from Turkey, one showing a sculpture at an ancient site, and one showing a river flowing through a canyon
From left: The Antonine Nymphaeum, or nymph shrine, at Sagalassos, an ancient mountain city in southwestern Turkey; Yazili Canyon, which follows the same route Paul the Apostle is said to have taken on his missionary journeys in Asia Minor. Kerem Uzel

Sources are scarce on the exact founding dates of many of the area's ancient cities, or even the identity of their founders. The majority of ruins date back to a long period of Roman rule, but Kremna, for example, was likely founded centuries earlier by a group named in ancient Greek sources as Pisidians. Alexander the Great swept through between 334 and 333 B.C., bringing much of the region under Hellenistic influence. It passed through the hands of various rulers before becoming part of the Roman Empire, and so it remained until Seljuk Turks took control from the Byzantines in the 11th century.

The more I researched, the longer grew the list of places I had never heard of before but now fervently wanted to see: ancient cities where gladiators fought, wooden mosques adorned with hand-painted murals, towering canyons and half-mile-long caves, Seljuk caravanserai and Ottoman mansions, lavender fields much photographed by Instagrammers, and Roman roads trod by the earliest Christian apostles.

A shelf of vintage curios at Eskiciler Konaği hotel in Turkey
A shelf of vintage curios at Eskiciler Konaği hotel. Kerem Uzel

A scant five flights a week connect Istanbul with Isparta, the largest city in the Lakes Region with a population of 220,000. Some 350 miles to the south of Istanbul, Isparta is the self-proclaimed "rose garden" of Turkey. Farmers in the surrounding province have been growing Rosa damascene since the late 1800s, and the city center is bedecked with oversize rose sculptures — on its lampposts, its traffic islands, and the exterior of its Ethnography & Carpet Museum. Inside the museum, the displays include century-old copper stills used for extracting the valuable oil from the petals to make soaps, colognes, and creams.

I had arrived too early for the rose harvest, which typically lasts for a month between mid-May and mid-June, but the roadsides to the east of Isparta, around the lake Eğirdir Gölü, were awash with delicate white apple blossoms. Isparta province accounts for nearly a quarter of all apple production in Turkey, and the lake's shoreline is dotted with apple-shaped kiosks selling bags of dried apple chips and chewy apple-flavored lokum (Turkish delight). At a municipality-run shop on the small harbor in the lakeside town of Eğirdir, I tasted two kinds of apple preserves — sweet and tart — and a buttery apple spread, which women make on site.

Another regional specialty is haşhaş helvasi (poppy-seed halvah), a paste of crushed seeds, molasses, butter, and flour, which appeared on the breakfast table at Eskiciler Konaği, a lovingly restored 1905 mansion in Eğirdir's tiny downtown. "We saw this beautiful konak that was going to be demolished. We thought it was too big for a house, but we could make it into a hotel," Cemreyaz Özdoğan, the daughter of the owners, told me as we sat on the broad terrace sipping Turkish coffee and nibbling on dried mulberries.

Two photos from Turkey, one showing the exterior of a hotel in an old mansion, and one showing the ruins of the amphitheater in Sagalassos
From left: Eskiciler Konaği occupies a 100-year-old konak, or mansion, in Eğirdir; the Roman amphitheater at Sagalassos. Kerem Uzel

The building was originally home to one large family, Özdoğan explained, where grown-up offspring would take up residence with their spouses and children in what are now the hotel's atmospheric guest rooms. She and her parents scoured antiques shops all around the region for period-appropriate furniture, and brought in craftspeople and restoration experts to painstakingly refurbish the carved wooden doors and wall niches, beamed ceilings, stone walls, and brick hearths.

Some 350 miles to the south of Istanbul, Isparta is the self-proclaimed "rose garden" of Turkey. Farmers in the surrounding province have been growing Rosa damascene since the late 1800s, and the city center is bedecked with oversize rose sculptures.

Most hotels in Eğirdir are simpler affairs. You'll find them among the small beaches, leafy parks, and casual fish restaurants serving fried fillets of göl levreği (lake perch) that run along the causeway behind what's left of the town's Byzantine-era castle, which connects the mainland to the islets of Yeşilada and Can Ada. On Thursdays, the streets below the fortifications fill with the umbrella-shaded stalls of the local pazar, a weekly market that draws residents from surrounding villages and farmsteads to buy and sell everything from rototillers to skeins of yarn, juicy olives to fresh green almonds still in their fuzzy shells.

The harbor town of Egirdir, in Turkey
The harbor town of Eğirdir, on the lake of the same name. Kerem Uzel

The road south of Eğirdir passes the site of another well-known market, the Pinar Pazari, which has purportedly been operating since Turkmen from Central Asia arrived in the region some 800 years ago. A dwindling number of their descendants, nomadic herders known as Yörük, still come to this pazar on Sundays from the end of July to mid-October to sell the sheep and goats they raise, as well as their traditionally made cheeses.

Historically, Yörük families have carried out seasonal migrations — wintering in warmer climes, such as the Mediterranean coast, and then leading their flocks up to cooler high pastures like those of the Lakes Region during the hot summer months. The decline of this kind of nomadic pastoralism has gone hand in hand with increased threats to the environment, according to Engin Yilmaz, director of the Yolda Initiative, a Turkish NGO focused on the relationship between traditional cultural practices and conservation.

"The Taurus Mountains are one of the most important biodiversity areas in the Mediterranean basin," Yilmaz told me. He explained that the range's varied ecosystems evolved with the grazing of wild herbivores, which helped spread plant seeds while also controlling the vegetation. The animals herded by the Yörük filled this ecological niche — but the expansion of Turkey's road network and the conversion of rangelands to agriculture have disrupted most of their old migration routes. This has led to a decline in biodiversity and left natural landscapes vulnerable to more severe wildfires, like those that ravaged much of southern Turkey last summer.

A couple harvesting roses waterside in Turkey
Harvesting roses in the fields of Sorkuncak, a village on Eğirdir Gölü. Kerem Uzel

The bare and blackened hillsides outside the entrance to Yazili Canyon Nature Park farther south are testament to that devastation. But once I ventured inside the canyon, everything was green and cool, with tall pines rising above the path and turquoise water cascading through the ravine below. A smooth path meandering above and across the river led me to the millennia-old inscriptions (yazi) carved into the rock walls that give the canyon its name: carefully etched lines from a verse by the Greek philosopher Epictetus, who was born around 150 miles away in Hierapolis, the ancient settlement next to the travertine cliffs of Pamukkale.

"Travelers lit candles here and prayed for safety on their journey," Soner Karakuzu, my driver from Eskiciler Konaği, told me as he pointed to altar niches next to the inscriptions. In ancient times, caravans followed the river through this part of the Taurus Mountains. Saint Paul is believed to have walked through the canyon as he spread Christianity around Asia Minor and Europe in the first century A.D., after Pisidia had become part of the Roman Empire.

Once I ventured inside the canyon, everything was green and cool, with tall pines rising above the path and turquoise water cascading through the ravine below.

The apostle's travels were the inspiration for the Saint Paul Trail: a 300-mile trekking route that runs north from Perge, near the coastal city of Antalya, to the town of Yalvaç, east of Eğirdir Gölü. "Most of the trail follows classic early Pisidian and Roman roads," the route's cocreator, Kate Clow, told me. "They're a real treasure, probably the best preserved in Turkey." A British expat who has lived in Turkey since 1989, Clow is the force behind many of the country's long-distance hiking trails, including the Lycian Way, which runs along the Mediterranean coast. The passage of time had left many of these roads obscured; Clow spent months talking to locals and scouring the countryside in search of them. "The majority were covered with brush, partly used by shepherds, or completely unknown," she said. "It's important to keep them open. Otherwise, they're going to be lost again" — forgotten or, worse, erased by one of the growing number of marble quarrying operations in the region.

Two photos from Turkey, including the ruins of a stone gate at Kremna, and painted detail of a ceiling in a historic mansion
From left: Ruins of a gate at the ancient city of Kremna; detail of the ceiling of Taş Oda Konağı, a 17th-century mansion open to visitors in Burdur. Kerem Uzel

A couple of days' walk from Yazili Canyon, hikers on the Saint Paul Trail pass through the ancient city of Adada, which Karakuzu and I reached in a 20-minute drive on undulating roads. Like many others in the Lakes Region, this rocky site is exposed to the elements but still unexcavated, and little is known about its early history — though written sources from the second century B.C. suggest it was an independent Pisidian city before coming under Roman rule. Karakuzu pointed out temples, basilicas, a small theater, and an ancient stone path running alongside the modern road. "There are a lot more remains in the forest," he said.

From Eğirdir, I took the bus to Yalvaç, an agricultural town on the far side of the lake and the site of ancient Antioch of Pisidia, the terminus of the Saint Paul Trail. The city is believed to have been founded in the Hellenistic period, but later became one of the most important Roman cities in Anatolia. A few young Turkish couples strolled hand in hand through the remains of the city's monumental gate, adorned with carvings of animal masks and figures holding large bunches of grapes. In the ruins of a temple honoring the first Roman emperor Augustus, a white-haired man played sentimental Turkish ballads over a portable speaker as he leaned against one of the last columns standing, drinking a beer.

Many artifacts from Antioch of Pisidia are now displayed at the Yalvaç Museum: Bronze Age stamp seals, Byzantine baptismal pools, a perfectly wrought statuette of a seated dog, and a teeny-tiny gold cup awarded to a victorious gladiator. There were also stelae from a site in the hills a few miles away: a temple to Men, a local Anatolian moon god that I'd first heard about from the taxi driver that picked me up at the Yalvaç bus station. ("Do you know about 'Men hill'?" he asked. "It's even older than Antioch of Pisidia — look it up on the Internet.")

Two photos from Turkey, including a man selling fruit at a market, and four wheeled bikes in a line beside a lake
From left: Fruits for sale at Eğirdir’s local market; four-wheeled bikes available for rent lakeside at Burdur Gölü. Kerem Uzel

From Yalvaç I traveled the 90 miles to Burdur, a small city near the lake of the same name. About half the size of Isparta, it's worth a stop for the Burdur Museum alone, which holds spectacular finds from Kremna, Sagalassos, and the gladiator city of Kibyra. There, I read about how successive conquerors had slowly supplanted indigenous deities with their own gods. The moon god Men, it turns out, hung around for a while, inscribed in the pantheon at Sagalassos along with Apollo — before such temples were turned into places to venerate the Roman emperor, and then into Christian churches.

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Burdur's old town also boasts a handful of restored Ottoman mansions, and the lavender fields around the lake are a popular spot for photo ops during the summer harvest season. Lavender is relatively new to this region, having been produced commercially for only around a decade, but locals hope growing the drought-resistant plant will help reduce pressure on the lakes. Water levels have been declining because of climate change and the high irrigation needs of thirsty crops like roses and tobacco — a serious environmental and cultural threat to a region long known for its ample water resources.

Carpets on display at the Ethnography and Carpet Museum, in Isparta, Turkey
Carpets on display at the Ethnography and Carpet Museum, in Isparta. Kerem Uzel

"In my wholelife I never saw a place where there were so many springs as here; even at their beginnings they form sizable streams that bring fertility and freshness everywhere," the French traveler Paul Lucas wrote upon visiting Sagalassos in 1706. The most fully excavated and best restored ancient city in the region, Sagalassos is believed to have been founded by Pisidians in the fifth century B.C. and has a dramatic hilltop perch above the green and tranquil farming village of Ağlasun. In town, a pair of storks nest on the dome of the local mosque, and a thousand-year-old plane tree spreads over the café in the village square. That's where I met elected neighborhood headman Özkan Taştekin for a cup of Ağlasun herbal tea: a bracing mix of rose hips, mint, and lemon, garnished with a sprig of wild thyme from the surrounding hills.

Starting at age 17, Taştekin worked with a team from K. U. Leuven, a university in Belgium, which has been leading the excavations at Sagalassos since 1990. He learned the craft of stone-carving and the assembly techniques used to restore landmarks such as the Antonine Nymphaeum, a lavishly decorated, 30-foot-​tall fountain that once again flows with water from the area's springs.

The Sagalassos dig has been an important source of employment and training in Ağlasun, but jobs remain limited in the village, where the population is aging as the younger generation seeks work in larger cities. Taştekin has been working with K. U. Leuven and others to develop Ağlasun's tourism potential, securing funds to create walking routes, restore some of the village's traditional mud-brick houses, and help locals set up their homes to host travelers. But it's been slow going.

"Ağlasun is not really seeing any benefit from tourism right now," Taştekin said. "People just come on day trips to the site. At most they stop in town for a tea, take a photo with the plane tree, and then they go."

Staying for a few nights gave me time to follow the leisurely walking route from Ağlasun to Sagalassos instead of taking a car up the winding road to the site. I climbed through rocky pastures where villagers grazed small herds of sheep and goats among scattered chunks of carved stone, then behind Alexander's Hill — said to have been the site of the pitched battle in which the Macedonian king conquered the city — and through Sagalassos's southern necropolis, where carved faces gaze out from crumbling sarcophagi. Hiking to an ancient site always emphasizes its full magnificence: the effort it must have taken to cart building materials up the steep slopes, the sense of security people must have felt in such a remote and protected location, the awe that must have been inspired by worshipping in temples placed so close to the heavens.

Pide bread stuffed with cheese and walnuts at a restaurant in Turkey
Pide stuffed with cheese and crushed walnuts at Toros Lokantasi, in Burdur. Kerem Uzel

On another of the days that I spent in Ağlasun, I walked a gentle path through blossoming orchards to the neighboring village of Yeşilbaşköy, where many of the limestone blocks used to build Sagalassos were quarried. (Some of these blocks can be spotted in use as spolia, or repurposed building stone, in the walls of Ağlasun's contemporary homes.) So many springs lined the path that there was scarcely any need to have filled my bottle with water before setting out.

At one point along the way, an older woman waved me over to the gate of the small stone-walled field where she had been weeding her garden. We walked slowly together as she peppered me with questions about my origins and marital status. She seemed surprised that I was all alone — "No husband? No brother? No relative?" — but mostly that I was there at all.

"An American came all this way to walk around here?" she asked incredulously. I tried to explain that I actually lived in Istanbul, but in truth, that didn't really matter. The beauty of the mountains and fields around us, the millennia of history woven into the landscape, the sense of discovery around every corner — it all would have been worth a trip of any distance.

Diners at Toros Lokantasi restaurant in Burdur, Turkey
Diners at Toros Lokantasi, a family-owned restaurant in Burdur. Kerem Uzel

Dipping a Toe Into the Turkish Lakes

Getting there

Turkish Airlines flies nonstop from 12 U.S. cities to Istanbul. It's a one-hour connecting flight from there to Isparta. Both Pegasus Airlines and Turkish Airlines' regional service, AnadoluJet, offer frequent flights from Istanbul to Denizli or Antalya, both of which are about a two-hour drive from Isparta.

Where to Stay

Eskiciler Konaği: The beautifully restored mansion is one of the most atmospheric places to stay in the region and makes a good base for visiting Yalvaç, Isparta, Adada, and Yazili Canyon, each of which is about an hour away. Doubles from $60.

Sagalassos Lodge & Spa: This comfortable 54-room property in Ağlasun, near the ruins of Sagalassos, has a pool surrounded by pine trees. Burdur and Kremna are both less than an hour away by car. Doubles from $62.

Where to Eat

Kroisos: In Eğirdir, a fish dinner with a view of the water is a must. Pair yours with wine or raki at this pleasant lakeside restaurant linked to a small hotel. 1 Yeşilada Mahalleri Cami Sk.; 90-246-311-5006; entrées $7–$10.

Toros Lokantasi: A quick, casual, and popular place in Burdur to try dishes like Burdur şiş (grilled kofta) and the house flatbread, Toros pide. Entrées $2–$5.

What to Do

Pisidia Heritage Trail: This 220-mile walking path goes through Kremna, Sagalassos, and many other ancient sites. Tour company Equinox Travel offers guided trips in collaboration with the British Institute at Ankara, with hotel stays in nearby towns. Eight-day trips from $800 per person.

Saint Paul Trail: Follow the apostle's 300-mile route through the Taurus Mountains from the coast to the lakes. Turkish companies Mithra Travel (seven-day trips from $529) and Middle Earth Travel (10-day trips from $929) both offer guided treks that cover a section of the journey.

How to Book

Engin Kadaster: A Turkey specialist on the T+L A-List, Kadaster holds a degree in archaeology and can organize an itinerary that combines the Lakes Region with Istanbul and more popular ancient sites on the Mediterranean coast. Contact her at: engin@turkey​atitsbest.net or 949-717-6784.

A version of this story first appeared in the August 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Sacred Waters.

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