A Nation That Spans Europe and Asia Teems with History along Every Path Where Saints, Sinners, Prophets Trod Legendary Turkey

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ISTANBUL -- Vacation here and prepare to be asked, "Why Turkey?" by friends at home.

The answer is simple: More for less. No other country spans two continents, contains the remains of countless civilizations, and is so much the meeting place for East and West that contradictions are a way of life.

Start with age. Turkey is simultaneously young -- a republic and language that just celebrated its 75th anniversary -- and old. When speaking of millenniums here, you must designate A.D. or B.C.

To the Arabs it is European, to the Europeans it is Eastern and to the Turks it is theirs, the land they wrested from the major powers following the fall of the Ottoman Empire and World War I.

To tourists it is a revelation, an exotic delight and sometimes a challenge, but never dull.

Have faith and you'll find it in Turkey: Pagan, Jewish, Christian and Muslim. Gods and goddesses, saints, sinners, prophets and apostles walked, talked and in the case of dervishes, whirled in one another's wake. This is the breeding ground of earth mothers and oracles.

Turkey is where it happened, the stuff of legends and myths. Jason and the Argonauts found the golden fleece near Izmir (lanolin-rich sheepskins were used to collect gold particles from the rivers and streams around Sardis, home of King Croesus).

Amazons ruled the Black Sea coast.

Paris brought Helen home to Troy, launching thousands of ships, that infamous wooden horse and the epics of Homer, another native son.

Alexander the Great and his army frolicked and fathered from Istanbul (Constantinople} to Antakya (Antioch), undoing the Gordian knot and the troops of the Persian empire.

Sappho penned her poetry off the coast on the Island of Lesbos and Diogenes took lantern in hand and went looking for an honest man here. (We found them driving cabs, waiting tables, even selling souvenirs.)

This was the powerhouse of the Roman Empire, the honeymoon haven for Anthony and Cleopatra, the stomping ground of camel caravans, Marco Polo, the Virgin Mary, senior Saints John and Paul, sultans' harems and World War I troops dug in to the death at Gallipoli.

A WORLDLY WALK

World history is within walking distance in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. Christendom's first cathedral and still its fourth largest, Aya Sofya, is across the street from the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, better known to Westerners as the Blue Mosque.

Walk the length of the Hippodrome between them, where the real Ben Hurs of Rome raced chariots, and you'll pass the obelisk of Thutmose III, the balcony of the Grand Vizier, the University of Marmaris and probably a drug-sniffing dog. Underground is the Roman cistern that provided water for Byzantium until the Ottomans swept in.

Tucked at one side of the Blue Mosque is the Mosaic Museum covering the mosaics from the floor of the Emperor Justinian's Palace.

Keep ambling down hill and you reach Topkapi, the principal palace of the Ottomans, with its amazing collections. The harem is empty, but there is the world's third largest collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelain, an eye-popping accumulation of jewels, some of the world's finest calligraphy and the Pavilion of Holy Relics, which houses the staff of Moses, hairs from Mohammed's beard, the Prophet's swords, bow and cloak plus a letter he penned. Echoing over the revered artifacts, a muezzin recites verses from the Koran.

Within the Topkapi complex is the not-to-be-missed Archeology Museum featuring a children's section in addition to the beautifully carved and preserved Alexander's Tomb, part of the Sidon Sarcophagi, considered one of archeology's most important finds.

Inspect the Classical and Hellenistic art, statuary as fine as that in the British Museum, and the Ancient Turkey exhibits to see why this was a winner of the European Museum award.

If you haven't succumbed to sensory overload and exhaustion, look around at the Ottoman buildings, many of them restored and renovated into pensions, hotels and restaurants, or the carpet shops. …