For four years now a pair of enthusiastic young travelers has been exploring lesser-known sites in Turkey, a country they call “one of the historically and culturally richest lands in the world.”
Ayesha Bilal and Argun Konuk’s story is a unique one, as they like to seek out places that are far from the beaten path.
They promote these hidden gems online, writing in English for future visitors “with the hopes of giving these places some of the spotlight.”
Instead of drawing up an itinerary by looking at brochures or asking a travel agent, they try to discover places that are worth visiting but not commonly appreciated.
Konuk, 25, said he spends a lot of time on Google Maps exploring areas one by one, and going to websites of cities or archeological research papers to find new spots to explore.
For Bilal, also 25, a Pakistani-American, she loves tasting the culture.
“As a foreigner in Turkey, one of my strongest motivations is food,” she explained.
“Wherever we go, I like to research the unique cuisine of that area. Sometimes it’s the other way around. I discover a certain food or dessert and want to go to the city it’s famous for.”
However, the lack of appreciation that some places suffer from receive saddens the couple. While having fun, they also hope that their travels will spur beneficial consequences.
Travel through history, travel through time
“A considerable majority of the attractions in Turkey we visit do not get the attention they rightfully deserve,” said Konuk.
“Tourists visiting Turkey are largely unaware of the less popular historical and natural attractions that lie right under their noses. This is mainly due to the lack of promotion of these spots.”
He said he believes that if the locales draw enough attention, they will be protected by locals or national officials from treasure hunters or the ravages of nature.
“It saddens me that these places have so much history, people built them with their own hands and they were once people’s homes, and now they’re endangered,” he explained.
“The memories of the people who once inhabited these places should never be allowed to fade away,” she said.
“These places are a testament to the unique history of humankind, and they deserve protection and are certainly worth seeing for those who are interested in going off-path a bit.”
Scholars and archeological bodies will also help protect such sites, she added.
“Most of these sites have only been partially discovered, and the large majority of the places still remain buried underground. After all, Gobeklitepe was only a mere hill, under which lay something that changed our entire timeline of human history in a way,” she explained, referring to the UNSECO site widely hailed as the world’s oldest temple.
“So with the promotion of these places, they may catch the eye of archeologists somewhere who may decide to look into them further.”
The couple’s love of history is another motivation. Awed by the historical, cultural, and natural diversity of Turkey, they set a goal to explore the highlights and hidden gems it holds.
“Turkey is called the ‘cradle of civilizations’ for a good reason. Every nook and corner of the country is thriving with ancient cities, historical places, and remnants of archaic peoples who had inhabited these lands,” according to Konuk.
One of his main goals one day is to see the places gain popularity not only within Turkey but with a global audience.
“For me, it’s a lot about the amazing feeling of walking on the same path and entering through the same doorways as people did hundreds or thousands of years ago. I enjoy being inside history itself,” said Bilal.
Endless places to visit
The couple has lost count of how many places they have visited.
“We visit a lot of small, obscure places sometimes. A single dilapidated church dating back to Roman times in the middle of nowhere, or a small underground city in the center of an otherwise unremarkable village,” said Bilal. “It gets hard to keep count of then.”
Saying that they have been to every geographical region of the country multiple times, they add there are still many places they would like to visit, especially in eastern and southeastern Turkey.
Among Konuk’s favorite sites in Turkey is the city of Ani, a medieval Armenian city that is often called “the City of 1,001 Churches,” situated in the eastern Kars province on the Armenian border.
He also loves the eastern Black Sea region for its astounding nature and hospitable people.
Bilal is particularly interested in ancient Greek and Roman history and finds cities along and near the Mediterranean coast most exciting.
“There are so many small, hidden ruins of castles, cities, churches, that you keep stumbling on more and more,” she said.
Yet the region that fascinates her the most is the southeast. “They have delicious food, needless to say, and that region is the cradle of civilizations. The history there is some of the oldest in the world,” she said.
Traveling during the pandemic
Setting out on the road at every chance they find, the couple did not allow the coronavirus pandemic to hold them back.
Stressing that they work hard to avoiding crowds, Konuk said: “Since we’re usually visiting open-air places and luckily, these are very uncrowded during the pandemic, wearing a mask and keeping socially distant suffices.”
Ayesha said they are also careful about the places where they eat to protect against the risk of infection. “But I think it’s almost been easier to travel during a pandemic. Working from home has allowed me to find more time for traveling out of the city, and it’s sometimes great to have the whole place to yourself,” she said.
During their travels, they prioritize taking proper photos and shooting videos for their audience.
Apart from social media and a personal blog at fellowprimo.com, they are also starting a YouTube channel where they will provide further information about interesting historical events.
Their main sources of information are research by archeologists and historians at various universities in Turkey and abroad, websites of municipalities, and talking to locals.
“Locals, who also help protect and secure the places, often have the richest information, not only about the history of the place, but also hidden features and parts that have not been opened for the public. They can also help by directing us to other nearby places that aren’t on maps or any website,” said Konuk.
Ayesha urged other young people to save money for traveling by making “easy sacrifices” like not eating out or splurging on new things.
“Turkey is one of those countries where no matter where you go, you’ll find something to see, eat, and do. So be a little adventurous, and let the world decide where your next destination will be,” she said.