Channel your inner Indian Jones with a two-day road trip to three of the most intriguing archaeological sites in Turkey! Travel back in time to the top of the Fertile Crescent, a biodiverse region connecting Africa and Eurasia which led to the emergence of agriculture over 11,000 years ago.
The enigmatic sister sites of Göbekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe offer more questions than answers, but visitors can feel the spiritual magnetism left behind in extraordinary animal reliefs and towering monoliths organized in circular structures.
Make the winding pilgrimage to Mount Nemrut and stand before the beheaded Greek-Persian gods, eagles, and lions guarding the tomb of King Antiochus I of Commagene who reigned during the 1st Century BC.
Brad and I flew into Sanlıurfa from Istanbul and rented a car at the airport for two days to explore these enchanting sites. Below I cover everything you need to know to prepare for a rural off-the-beaten-path adventure in southeastern Turkey!
The conservative city of Sanlıurfa, also known as Urfa, is approximately 35 mi (56 km) north of the Syrian border. Despite the complicated relationship between the two countries, ongoing terrorism concerns, and earthquake activity, we felt completely safe and didn't have any issues. Before heading to the region, check travel advisories and keep up to date with current affairs.
Even though Sanlıurfa isn't as picturesque as Istanbul or Cappadocia, it does provide an authentic taste of Turkish culture. The rustic bazaars, stone alleyways, meat-heavy cuisine, and ethereal calls to prayer will delight any traveler for a few days. Be sure to try a traditional Turkish breakfast with eggs, cheese, olives, vegetables, bread, herbs, and çay (tea) or Turkish coffee!
Admire the beautiful architecture of the Mevlid-I Halil Mosque before heading to the eastern courtyard to see the small cave where the Prophet Abraham was born. Take a peek inside some of the 133 rock tombs carved over 2,000 years ago in the Kizilkoyun Necropolis when the city was known as Edessa.
Across the street from the grand burial site you'll find in situ Roman mosaics portraying mythological scenes in the Haleplibahçe Mosaic Museum. The Sanlıurfa Archaeological Museum has over 10,000 artifacts including some recovered from Göbekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe. Unfortunately, both museums were closed at the time of our visit (May 2023) due to recent earthquakes.
There are plenty of charming hotels to pick from in Sanlıurfa. Brad and I stayed at the Kaliruha Boutique Hotel for five nights. Our suite included a personal hamman (Turkish bath), hearty breakfast, and parking spot at a nearby lot. I highly recommend the hotel for its friendly staff, comfortable bed, and excellent location.
Turkish Airlines offers multiple direct flights per day from Istanbul to Sanlıurfa. The flight lasts approximately two hours and one way tickets are typically less than $50 USD per person. The small Sanlıurfa GAP Airport is about 22 mi (36 km) north of the city. Taking a bus is also possible from Istanbul, but the 18-hour ride isn't justifiable with the comparable cost.
A few days before our arrival, we made an online reservation for an automatic vehicle with Enterprise Rent-A-Car at the Sanlıurfa GAP Airport location. Although the online process was seamless, our vehicle wasn't ready for pickup at the scheduled time due to a partial double booking. The employee offered us an available manual vehicle, but neither of us knew how to operate that transmission.
After waiting five hours for the previous customer to return the car, we noticed the gas tank was empty. Our first order of business was driving to a gas station at night, which was a bit nerve-racking. Hindsight is always 20/20! The car made it to all three archaeological sites without any issues. Taking a leisurely road trip through southeastern Turkey was absolutely worth the hassle.
Keep in mind manual vehicles are plentiful and automatic vehicles are scarce. Luckily there are several car rental agencies in Sanlıurfa and a few kiosks in the airport to consider. We paid $75 USD per day. I recommend making a reservation if you need an automatic vehicle and confirming multiple times with the agency.
After we returned the rental car, we boarded a Havas public bus heading to Sanlıurfa in front of the airport terminal. The ride back was only 50 Turkish Lira (TL) per person. The bus dropped us off at a station within walking distance of our hotel.
Driving in Turkey
Similar to the United States, Turkey drives on the right side. One interesting road aspect is that traffic signals are placed before an intersection, not after, so it can be difficult to see when the lights change if you are at the front. Don't worry, you'll hear several honks urging you to proceed if you can't see!
Speed limits are displayed in kilometers and rarely observed. As a foreigner, it's best to follow the rules even if most Turks don't. Avoid lingering in the fast lane unless you are trying to pass. Roads are well-maintained and gas stations are plentiful along busy highways.
Download Google Maps offline beforehand since cellular service is unreliable in certain areas, especially on the way to Mount Nemrut. Keep plenty of water, snacks, and cash with you in case of an emergency. If you want to be extra safe, share your route with a family member or friend and set up a timeframe to touch base.
Be sure to carry your driver's license, passport, and visa with you at all times. Brad and I came across a few road checkpoints on the way to Mount Nemrut. Most of the time we were waved through, but we were briefly stopped at one rural checkpoint and needed to present our passports. Stay calm, be respectful, and answer questions with a smile.
Perhaps the most important part of any road trip is to enjoy the breathtaking scenery! Keep an eye out for grazing sheep, epic castles, turquoise rivers, red poppies, villages, and rolling farm fields. Aim for an early start to beat the crowds at Göbekli Tepe and budget enough time to take in the countryside along the way to Mount Nemrut. Driving in Turkey at night can be a bit hectic and stressful!
Day 1 Route: Göbekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe
The pace of my heart quickened with anticipation as I walked up the path towards Göbekli Tepe. As I surveyed the surrounding golden hills, I couldn't help but wonder how the topography looked over 11,500 years ago when humans on the brink of agriculture gathered to create this masterpiece.
This Pre-Pottery Neolithic Period site contains some of the world's oldest known megaliths. Let that sink in for a moment. Grasping the significance of such an impressive structure is mind-boggling, especially when evidence shows it was deliberately backfilled sometime after 8000 BC to preserve its legacy.
Even though only 5% of the site has been excavated, archaeologists and scholars are eagerly trying to understand the purpose of Göbekli Tepe. The current consensus is a ritualistic temple, but another theory is an astronomical observatory. Attempting to decipher prehistoric symbology is highly interpretive, but there is no denying the vital connection between mankind and nature.
Human skull fragments, animal bones, stone tools, and arrowheads provide clues alongside T-shaped limestone pillars decorated with intricate animal reliefs and pictograms. Although some monoliths are blank, most have fantastic carvings such as snakes, scorpions, foxes, boars, lions, gazelles, and vultures.
Göbekli Tepe required hundreds of workers to carve and transport pillars, weighing between 7-10 tons, from neighboring quarries into organized concentric stone circles on the hilltop. Two of the biggest feature bent human arms converging above a decorative belt with an animal skin loincloth. Whether these slender monoliths represent deities, worshippers, rulers, ancestors, or shamans remains a mystery.
There are four main enclosures (A-D) viewable from the 360-degree platform, but ground-penetrating radar has revealed at least 16 more hidden beneath the surface nearby. As you make your way around them, look at the pillars from multiple angles and ponder the meaning of Göbekli Tepe for yourself.
Your ticket to Göbekli Tepe also includes entry to a small exhibit featuring artifact replicas, dioramas, informative placards, and an immersive animation hall. Supplement your visit with a trip to the Sanlıurfa Archaeological Museum to see recovered sculptures including a totem pole!
TIP: Göbekli Tepe is closed on Mondays. Opening hours are 9:00 AM-7:00 PM. Tickets cost 230 TL per person and can be purchased via cash or credit card. The complex has bathrooms, cafés, and souvenir shops. Shuttles are available if you don't want to walk the path up to the dome.
Several other Pre-Pottery Neolithic Period sites have been identified in the area surrounding Göbekli Tepe. Most of these feature the iconic T-shaped pillars, but one in particular has a few unique design characteristics.
Located approximately 20 mi (32 km) southeast of Göbekli Tepe, Karahan Tepe features a deep pit with 10 phallic pillars carved from the limestone bedrock. The 11th pillar resembles a serpent and faces a square entryway. The curved monolith was placed inside after being carved somewhere else.
The protruding human head seems to guard the chamber with recessed eyes formed by a heavy brow line. The open mouth suggests life and perhaps an utterance of sacred words or sounds. Staring into this mesmerizing face was a hypnotic experience.
Archaeologists have only begun to scratch the surface at Karahan Tepe. Some say the site predates Göbekli Tepe, but there are no conclusive radiocarbon dating results to back the theory yet.
There is a monolith with bent human arms similar to the two found at Göbekli Tepe, but a peculiar detail is the number of fingers. At Karahan Tepe there are eight fingers and at Göbekli Tepe there are five fingers. Adjacent to the cistern is a snake etched along a stone bench.
Karahan Tepe exudes a hint of magic best absorbed with quiet contemplation. Brad and I shared the site with only a handful of local visitors. Although currently in the shadow of Göbekli Tepe, Karahan Tepe is arguably more appealing since the site holds an unexploited obscurity.
TIP: Karahan Tepe is open everyday, 9:00 AM-7:00 PM. Entry is free. Bathrooms are available at the modest visitor center.
Day 2 Route: Mount Nemrut
Is a seven-hour round-trip expedition from Sanlıurfa to a remote archaeological site worth the effort? You bet!
Mount Nemrut's grandeur is enhanced by its elevation of 7,001 ft (2,134 m) on the highest peak east of the Taurus Mountains. The journey isn’t for the faint of heart. You'll encounter steep switchbacks and narrow gravel roads, but the rewarding grand prize includes spectacular vistas and a royal tomb!
In 62 BC, King Antiochus I of Commagene commissioned his hierothesion (monument or royal tomb) with several huge statues flanking the east and west sides of the summit. The stone guardians sit before the tumulus made up of jagged pieces of loose rock. The central tumulus measures 161 ft (49 m) tall and 499 ft (152 m) in diameter.
The figures include King Antiochus I, goddess Commagene, composite Greek-Persian gods (Zeus-Oromasdes, Apollo-Mithras-Helios-Hermes, and Heracles-Artagnes-Ares), eagles, and lions. The faces have Greek traits with Persian clothing and hairstyles. The ruler's place among the gods reinforces his ancestral dynasty and religious traditions.
For unknown reasons, the heads of the statues were detached from their bodies and haphazardly placed throughout the site. The deliberately damaged noses indicate signs of an iconoclasm taking place sometime in the region.
Multiple lions around the site signify the supremacy of the Kingdom of Commagene on Earth while the eagles represent dominion over the skies. Exquisite bas-relief figures depict the Greek and Persian ancestors of King Antiochus I. The sandstone stelae possibly formed a continuous frieze.
Mount Nemrut is a jaw-dropping beacon of power. Making the trek was a memorable quest. Brad and I battled frigid rain and wind at the top, but had the glorious monument all to ourselves! Our beaming smiles brightly shined beneath the grey skies.
TIP: Mount Nemrut is open every day, 8:00 AM-5:00 PM. Tickets cost 100 TL per person. Cash only. The visitor center has a café and restrooms. Road conditions are optimal between April-October. Bring plenty of warm layers and a jacket. The employees had a good laugh once they saw us in shorts!
The Finish Line
One of my most anticipated attractions in Turkey was Göbekli Tepe. I simply couldn't leave the country without seeing one of the oldest known archaeological sites on the planet! If you have enough gas in the itinerary tank, consider adding Karahan Tepe and Mount Nemrut for an unforgettable two-day crusade.
A DIY road trip isn't the only way to see these historical sites. Private tours with guides are readily available, but come with a hefty price tag. Whatever your budget and preferred mode of travel, visiting this triad is a marvelous bucket list opportunity!