Artistic Splendours of Byzantine Turkey

Istanbul and Turkey are synonymous with what today we call the Byzantine Empire. An empire known for its strikingly beautiful religious and imperial artistic and architectural traditions. From the majestic Hagia Sophia with its massive dome and richly decorated with mosaics, to the Göreme Valley and the more modest but no less evocative rock cut churches decorated with exquisite early Christian frescoes, this two week, small group tour is a perfect introduction to some of the finest sites of Byzantine Art in Turkey. After exploring a handful of the early Christian churches in Istanbul we travel to central Turkey and the volcanic landscape of Cappadoccia with the extraordinary rock cut churches in and around Göreme and the Ihlara Valley. Heading west we visit sites and attractions in the Pamukkale and Kusadasi areas before heading back to Istanbul and the end of the tour.

Dates: 1 to 14 October 2017, with a maximum of 15 participants.

Introduction | Itinerary | Details | Reservation

Christ Pantocrator mosaic in Chora Church, Istanbul.

A close up of the Christ Pantocrator mosaic in Chora Church, one of the best preserved Byzantine churches in Istanbul.



Shortly after Constantine the Great officially brought an end to the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, he founded Constantinopolis as the capital of that empire. From 330 AD until 1453 (with a break between 1204 and 1261) Constantinople specifically and Turkey more generally, was at the political and cultural heart of the Eastern Roman Empire, also now called the Byzantine Empire. The various creative and religious traditions developed did much to define what it is we understand by Byzantine art, as well as influencing artistic traditions across Medieval Europe and Asia.

As the Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire was the political continuation of the Roman Empire so too was Byzantine art a continuation of Classical art; Roman art itself developed out of Greek art. Although Byzantine art never lost sight of its origins in ancient Greece and Rome, artistic traditions of the Byzantine Empire came to stand out through the development of a new way of doing things. As Classical art was naturalistic, Byzantine art was abstract adopting a much more symbolic approach. The foundation of Byzantine art is the impersonal expression of church theology into artistic media. This is best seen in beautifully painted frescoes and richly coloured mosaics that covered the interiors of walls, vaults and domes of churches.

Archaeology Travel has partnered with specialist tour providers in Istanbul to offer this introductory tour of Early Christian/Byzantine Art in three main regions of Turkey: Istanbul, Cappadocia and southwestern Anatolia.



Day One: Arriving at Ataturk Airport we are greeted by our partners on the ground and accompanied to the Divan Istanbul Hotel, where we will staying for the first three nights. For our first evening as a group we enjoy a welcome dinner, sampling Turkish cuisine in one of Istanbul’s finest restaurants of Istanbul.

THe Byzantine Chora Church in Istanbul has exquisite frescoes and mosaics.

Chora Church is well known for its Byzantine frescoes and mosaics.

Day Two: We begin our tour of Byzantine Istanbul at the spectacular Basilica Cistern, the largest of the underground cisterns built during the time of Emperor Justinian I. Nearby is the Hagia Sophia, considered by many to the be the epitome of Byzantine architecture. On to the Hippodrome, an ancient Greek stadium used for horse and chariot racing that was significantly improved by Constantine the Great after Constantinople became the capital city of the Empire. After lunch we will explore Archaeology Museum, which contains over one million artefacts from all periods of Turkey’s past. Our final two stops for the day are two lessor known Byzantine churches, Hagia Irene and the Little Hagia Sophia (also known as the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus). Although built above a pre-Christian temple, Hagia Irene was the first Christian church to be built in Constantinople. Because of the quality of architecture and sumptuousness of the decoration, Little Hagia Sophia is thought by many scholars to be second only to Hagia Sophia.

Day Three: Today we explore some of the finest decorated churches in Istanbul, starting with the Patriarchal Church of St George. Besides Byzantine mosaics, religious relics and a wood-and-inlay patriarchal throne, the most stunning feature of this church is the ornately carved wooden iconostasis, which was restored and lavishly guilded in 1994. We move on to the Church of the Pantocrator – a typical late Byzantine cross-in-square style church and the second largest Byzantine church still standing in Istanbul; Pammakaristos Church, which one of the most famous Byzantine churches in Istanbul as it has the largest collection of Byzantine mosaics in the city, ending at Chora Church, known for its exquisite Byzantine era mosaics and frescoes. In the afternoon we take a cruise on the Bosphorus, during which we will have spectacular views of the nineteenth century Dolmabahce and Beylerbeyi Palaces, the latter of which is on the Asian side of Istanbul.

Day Four: In the morning we fly to Cappadocia, where we shall be based for four nights – at the Tafoni Houses Cave Hotel. We head straight to the Ihlara Valley in which Early Christians constructed houses and temples by carving into volcanic tufa. Our first stop is Belisirma Village, on the Melendiz River down the Ilhara Valley, to visit the Byzantine Churches of Ala and Direkli.

The 'Dark Church', one of many rock-cut churches in Göreme Open Air Museum, Cappadocia.

The ‘Dark Church’ in Göreme Open Air Museum, Cappadocia.

Day Five: For those ready for an early start, there is the option to float over the deep canyons and lush fertile valleys of Cappadocia in a hot air balloon. A gentle breeze carries us over places that could never be reached except by balloon. After breakfast we visit the local municipality carpet cooperation, where we observe a more contemporary aspect of the region’s culture, that is rug weaving. After this we explore Göreme Open Air Museum, a lunar-like landscape that is both eerie and beautiful. Over thousands of years, rain has eroded this volcanic landscape resulting in the much-photographed rock formations called ‘Fairy Chimneys’. Many of these have homes and churches carved into them. The various churches, Apple Church or Snake Church, etc., come from the art work inside.

Day Six: We start the day at Gulludere (St. Agathangelus) Church, the main structure of which dates back to the 6th century. An apse was added around the 10th and 11th centuries, and has up to three layers of frescoes. Unusually, the nave has a flat ceiling that is decorated with imagery thought to belong to the Iconoclastic period. While in the Avonos area we visit a pottery workshop that dates dates back to the Hittites, some four thousand years ago. After lunch we explore the village of Cavusin. Of particular interest here is the great basilica dedicated to St. John the Baptist, which dates to the 5th century making this one of the oldest and biggest cave churches in the region and Cavusin (Nicephorus Phocas) Church, that commemorates the visit of the Cappadocian Emperor Nicephorus Phocas. We end the day in the Zelve Valley, the site of the region’s earliest seminaries.

Day Seven: After a short stop at the Eskigumusler Monastery, known for its striking and unique fresco of a smiling Theotokos we head to the picturesque and much less visited Soganli Valley before heading on to the Kaymakli Underground City. Around the sixth century the Christian inhabitants of this region created a vast network of tunnels into the soft volcanic rock. These tunnels extend as deep as 275 feet on eight different levels, in which several thousands of people lived.

Day Eight: After a morning flight to Izmir we spend the day visiting three of the ancient cities mentioned by John in the Book of Revelations as having one of the seven churches of Asia. First up is Sardis, which suffered great destruction in AD 17 but went on to become one of the great Byzantine cities in Asia Minor. Philadelphia, thought to be the first city so named, in the 6th century AD was known as ‘little Athens because of the numerous festival and temples. And finally Laodicia known today for its extensive and evocative ruins. We overnight at the five star Colossae Spa Hotel.

Day Nine: In the morning we explore the geological and archaeological landscapes of Hierapolis. Calcium rich water from an underground thermal spring flowing down the mountainside has created a series of cascading shallow pools, seen no where else on earth. These hot springs have been used since at least the 2nd century BC. Hierapolis was an important Roman city. In the 6th century AD the Roman baths were converted into a Christian basilica, and the city became an important centre for Christianity. In the afternoon we, we visit Aphrodisias, named after Aphrodite – the Greek goddess of love. Because of the local presence of high quality marble, the city was known for its fine sculpture and architecture. In the Byzantine era the city was renamed ‘Stauropoli’, or ‘the city of the cross’. The archaeological site is known for its largest (seating 30,000) and best-preserved stadium of the Classical world. The Dalyan Resort is our overnight hotel.

A paved street in Hierapolis, Turkey.

A street running through the ancient city of Hierapolis.

Day Ten: Today we take a boat trip to the magnificent Caunos Tombs carved high into the rock cliff face above the fascinating ancient Harbour City of Caunos. Caunos was one of the earliest cities in the area to be Christianised following the official adoption of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Besides typical Hellenistic and Roman features, the archaeology here includes what is said to be the best example of a 5th century church in Anatolia. We witness more breathtaking scenery as we travel by road to Kusadasi, and the Doubletree Hilton Hotel for three nights.

Day Eleven: No tour to southwestern Anatolia would be complete without a visit to Ephesus, the largest ancient city ever uncovered – once populated by an estimated 300,000 people. It was here that the Apostle Paul was based for more than two years while travelling throughout Asia Minor on missionary work. Besides many of the well-known features, including an enormous amphitheatre that still holds about 24,000 spectators, we visit the less visited terrace Houses, which are finely decorated with mosaics and frescoes, and the 6th century Basilica of Saint John. We have special access to visit St Paul’s Grotto to see the well preserved Early Christian frescoes and inscriptions.

Day Twelve: Today we have a private boat to take us to Patmos Island where we get to explore the fortress style Monastery of St. John founded in 1088 AD by St. Christodoulos the Blessed. We have plenty of time to visit the Monastery’s museum as well as the Cave of the Apocalypse.

Day Thirteen: Today we visit the ancient city Pergamum, just North of the present day city of Bergama. Although the city reached its height under Roman Imperial rule, when it was home to some 200,000 inhabitants, the city went on to become an important, early seat of Christianity – being granted a bishopric in the 2nd century AD. While in Bergama we can not but visit the nearby Asclepion, a 4th century BC shrine to the healing God Asclepiops. From Bergama we drive to Izmir Airport for our scheduled flight to Istanbul, where we will return to the Divan Istanbul Hotel for the final night of the tour.

Day Fourteen: After a farewell breakfast a transfer from the hotel to Ataturk Airport is provided for those with departures today. Of course, you are free to extend your stay in Istanbul. Should you require our partners in Turkey to be of assistance in this regards, indicate this in your enquiry.

Blue pointers mark the hotels for the tour, while the green markers indicate the sites and attractions included in the itinerary.



1 to 14 October 2017

£3950 per person
£3150 per person, sharing

INCLUDED in the price is a guidebook to the sites included on the tour, hotel accommodation for thirteen nights (including baggage handling), all meals (which are: 13 evening dinners, 13 breakfasts, 12 lunches), domestic flights and all group transfers in modern air conditioned vehicle, boat trip to Patmos Island, local English speaking guides, entrances to all museums and sites including special access to St Paul in Ephesus, all applicable taxes.

EXCLUDED in the price is your travel to and from Istanbul, hot air ballooning in Capadoccia, beverages during meals, tips and gratuities

30% Deposit secures your reservation. The balance is required 12 weeks before the start of the tour.

This is a small group tour, which will go ahead with a minimum of 10 people, and a maximum of 15.

Food & Accommodation
Links to the hotel websites can be found in the itinerary above. Our breakfasts are taken in these hotels, and are buffet style meals that usually include the following: kashar cheese, white cheese, butter, jam, black and green olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs, an assortment of traditional Turkish pastries, as well as tea and coffee. For lunch and evening meals we eat traditional food in local restaurants or the hotel, as appropriate for the itinerary. Our meals range from buffets to set menus (starter, hot dish and fruit or dessert), and you can expect the following, Turkish mezes, salads, chicken, beef or fish and many types of fruit and desserts.

Turkish cuisine today has mostly been handed down from the Ottomans, which is a fusion of Central Asian, Middle Eastern and Balkan cuisines. Olive oil is a major ingredient, particularly in the western parts of Turkey, where olive trees are abundant. The cuisines in the Aegean, Marmara and Mediterranean regions share many similarities with Mediterranean cuisine with a variety of vegetables, herbs, and fish. Central Anatolia is well known for dishes based on pasta, such as keskek, manti and gözleme.

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