Actually, the two Aksarays turn out to be linked by more than the freak chance of a common name. In the years following the Ottoman conquest of İstanbul in 1453 the capital city was pathetically under-populated, with perhaps no more than 60,000 people living there. So one of Mehmed II’s first acts as conqueror was to bring settlers in from the Anatolian Aksaray to help build up the population.
Most visitors are in such a rush to explore Cappadocia that they only hop off the bus in Aksaray in order to hop into another one for Ihlara. That’s a great shame because this is one of those small Turkish towns that has made great strides over the last few years and is now very much more pleasant to visit than it used to be.
The best place to start your exploration is in the main square, an extraordinarily attractive space which evokes unexpected memories of some of the great squares of northern Europe. This impression is created not just by the spaciousness of the square but also by the trio of fine buildings lined up along the northern side. Housing the belediye (municipality) and associated offices, they are impressive examples of First National Architecture, the style of building that was in vogue around the time that the Turkish Republic came into being and that mixed panels of Kütahya tiles with motifs drawn from Selçuk and Ottoman architecture to create something entirely new. The finest of the three is the central building that looks like a miniature opera house. Look closely and you’ll see that attention was paid even to the details of metal stair rails that incorporate the Turkish star and crescent symbol, amazing to anyone brought up in an era when architecture has been stripped of almost every decorative feature.
The main square has been enlivened with a sculpture that adds to the vaguely Parisian feel. There’s a handy tourist office tucked away in the streets to the southwest where you can pick up a map to help you explore the rest of the center. Then it’s just a short walk to the town’s pride and joy, which is the Ulu Cami, or main mosque. Also known as the Ramazanoğlu Cami, it was built in 1408-9 by an architect called Firuz Bey for Karamanoğlu Mehmet Bey, one of the lords who had carved out a principality for himself as the Selçuks’ grip on power loosened. It was extensively restored by his son İbrahim in 1482-3 but although the sign describes it as typical of the Selçuk-Beylik style the entire façade was rebuilt at a later date so that today only the lower part of the grand portal is truly Selçuk in appearance. Inside, however, the mosque retains the rather barn-like pre-Ottoman appearance that can also be seen in the Ulu Cami in Kayseri. The minaret was added in 1925.
Just beside the mosque the cute little public library is another work belonging to the First National period, as is the Aksaray Lisesi (high school) nearby. From there you can walk north in search of the Eğri Minare (Crooked Minaret), otherwise known as the Leaning Tower of Aksaray on account of its dangerous deviation from the perpendicular. Dating back to 1236, the brick minaret is detached from the adjacent mosque and is anchored in place by cables. At one time the zigzag patterns adorning its façade would have been picked out in turquoise tiles, making it a stunning sight.
The Eğri Minare stands beside a storm drain that is gradually being turned into an attractive feature of the town with a walkway running alongside it. If you follow it north you will bypass an enormous stone mansion that dates back to the days before the 1923 Turco-Greek population exchange when Aksaray had grown fat on remittances sent back by Greek locals who had gone to work in İstanbul. Today it’s boarded up and its lovely garden has been turned into a nursery, but it’s a poignant reminder -- like several other examples around town -- of the beautiful architecture that once thrived here. If you keep heading north past the mansion and then cut inland to the east you will stumble upon what is now little more than a pile of medieval bricks but was once the Selçuk-era Melik Mahmud Gazi dervish lodge dating back to 1210. Finds from excavations carried out here between 1994 and 2003 can be seen in Aksaray Museum; they include pieces of pottery bearing human imagery, a reminder that the Selçuks felt less constrained than the Ottomans by the Islamic ban on figurative representation.
Turning back towards the Eğri Minare you will come to a stretch of the storm drain that has been decorated with colorful sculptures as part of the expanding Kılıçaslan Park, If you keep following the drain you will bypass several ancient stone bridges and come eventually to the westerly neighborhood called Küçük Bölcek where the old Valı Konağı (governor’s mansion) has been opened to the public as an ethnography museum in all but name. Built between 1927 and 1930, this is yet another fine example of First National Architecture, its façade pleasingly adorned with tiles. Inside rooms have been furnished to show men and women making and repairing carpets (a specialty of nearby Sultanhanı), a henna night, a man reading the old Aksaray Gazetesi newspaper and the last valı (governor) hard at work in his office. If you think you’ve seen enough of wonky mannequins in Turkish museums, fear not because these are well-made models. Besides, it’s worth popping in just to see the photographs of Aksaray as it used to be before the high-rise apartment blocks took over.
Across the bridge stand the ruins of the Paşa Hamamı (Turkish bath) which is currently being restored. Right beside it stands the Zinciriye Medresesi, once a beautiful theological school dating back to 1338, and now the Taş Sarayı (Stone Palace), a rather shambolic café-restaurant. Like the Ulu Cami, the medrese was built in the period when the Karamanoğlus held sway in these parts, and the poet John Ash has described it as a masterpiece in particular because of the quality of the carvings around the eyvans (vaulted halls). That’s it for the main attractions of Aksaray, apart from the museum which used to be housed in the medrese but has now been relocated to a site close only to the bus terminal, which hardly guarantees it a steady flow of visitors. Still, if you’ve got time to fill before your bus leaves you might want to drop by to see the finds from surrounding sites like the Acem and Aşıklı Höyüks (tumuli) and the Çanlı Kilise (church), south of Aksaray at Akhisar. The most conspicuous finds from the church are a collection of mummified human and feline remains. You may well think that they’re long overdue for reburial.
WHERE TO STAY
Most visitors will want to press on to Güzelyurt for Ihlara, or to Göreme, Uçhisar, Ürgüp and the other Cappadocian hotspots.
Grand Eras Hotel, Aksaray. Tel: 0382-212 0808
Grand Saatçioğlu Otel, Aksaray. Tel: 0382-214 2020
Otel Vadim, Aksaray. Tel: 0382-212 8200
HOW TO GET THERE
There are frequent buses from Ankara to Aksaray. Local buses head on to Güzelyurt and there are comfortable intercity buses to Nevşehir.