‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ exploring Tokat’s historic backyard
With its mouth-watering kebab, its myriad historic buildings and its long history in the textile business, the Central Anatolian town of Tokat makes a wonderful place to hang out for a few days.
But you could well find those few days stretching into a week if you use it as a base for visiting some of the other attractions in the surrounding area, some of them surprisingly little known.
Foremost amongst those attractions is probably the Ballıca Mağarası, a show cave near Pazar, itself home to one of the many caravanserais (kervansaray) that once criss-crossed the country. Those who’ve visited Tokat’s fine new museum in the old Arastalı Bedesten and seen the finds from the site might be inspired to take a bus to Sulusaray, the site of the old Sebastopolis, with some Roman remains hunkered down amid the old houses. You could also pay a visit to Zile, the town forever associated with Julius Caesar’s “I came, I saw, I conquered” comment, stopping briefly at the riverside town of Turhal on the way. Finally you could head out to Niksar, a forgotten town that was nonetheless briefly the capital of one of Turkey’s many small emirates and that has so many sights up its sleeve that it merits a whole article to itself.
Due west of Tokat the Ballıca Mağarası show cave is cut into the foothills of Akdağ (the White Mountain) above the small town of Pazar and was only opened to the public in 1997. The cave complex penetrates some 680 meters into the mountainside although visitors are only allowed to explore the first 75 meters and then only under close supervision (no photography is allowed). The path is slippery and the guardrails too low to be of much help but none of that matters when the stalactite and stalagmite formations are so spectacular. The guides point out the ones that make them think of onions and mushrooms although those blessed with more vivid imaginations will also see slings full of shot, Chinese figurines, a rhino’s head, and much ebru (marbling). The cave’s name means “honeyish” which makes sense when the guide presses a torch against one of the rocks causing it to glow a translucent honey color.
At busy times you may have to wait for a guide to become available, but that doesn’t matter as the cafe outside is perfectly poised to soak up the gorgeous wooded scenery of the valley below.
To get to the cave you need to pick up a minibus to Pazar and then hire a taxi, agreeing a return fare to include waiting time at the cave.
After visiting the cave you might want to pause in Pazar itself to visit the newly restored Selçuk-era Mahperi Hatun Kervansarayı that dates right back to 1239. Although this caravanserai came equipped with the same basic set of amenities as all the others that traversed the various trade routes, this one is long and thin rather than square like the others so that it feels more like a medrese (seminary). The courtyard was originally flanked by platforms on two levels where traders could sleep above their animals in the summer. Then in the winter they migrated into the warmth of the cavernous stable area at the rear of the building. Originally there would have been a mescid in the center of the courtyard but that has now been replaced by a fountain. It makes a great place to stop for refreshment before hailing the minibus back to Tokat.
Almost 70 kilometers south of Tokat, Sulusaray is a small rural settlement that sits on top of the remains of the Roman Sebastopolis, believed to have been founded in the first century B.C. Today there’s not a great deal left to see bar the remains of a large bathhouse and a church although the small unsignposted museum does contain an impressive mosaic as well as tombstones that attest to a Jewish population in the past.
The ruins at Sulusaray are probably of most interest to serious archaeologists but most people will enjoy taking a turn round the older part of the village beyond the ruins where rustic houses, hung with necklaces of peppers and eggplants, look out on unmade roads in which puppies, kittens and chickens stroll without a care in the world. Visit on a Tuesday and you’ll be able to see the local market in full swing too.
It takes a change of bus to get from Tokat to Zile, which is enough to deter most people. Those that do make it here, however, will quickly discover that there is much more to this small town than the “I came, I saw, I conquered” business. Those immortal words that guaranteed Julius Caesar a place in every dictionary of quotations were apparently said in 47 B.C. when he had just defeated Pharnaces, the son of Mithridates VI Eupator. Pharnaces had been foolhardy enough to lead an uprising against the Romans, hoping to avenge his father who had committed suicide after his own defeat at the hands of the Romans in 63 B.C. Instead it took Caesar just five hours to crush his army, and it was in reporting his victory to the Senate in Rome that he used the famous words.
Once you get to Zile, however, there’s little to show for Caesar. Instead what there is, is an unexpected late-Ottoman townscape that survives intact in a way that is rarely the case elsewhere in Turkey. We’re not talking here about grand mansions such as the Latıfoğlu Konağı that is open to the public in Tokat. Instead, we’re talking about street upon street of small two-storey family homes with jutting upper storeys that were built well enough to continue in use until today. There are so many of these streets that you can wander in almost any direction from the central bus stop and still be impressed.
The Ottoman houses aside, Zile has a few specific attractions that include a castle said to date back to Pontic times but rebuilt under the Ottomans and restored again recently to provide the framework for a set of tea gardens. Soaring over the entrance is a clock tower created in 1875 from the remnants of a minaret dating back to 1336, a time when Zile fell within the territory of the particularly obscure Eretna Beylik (1328-81).
Dotted about town there are several other small medieval mosques including the picturesque Taceddin İbrahim Paşa complex dating back to 1494. The finest mosque, however, is out on a limb on the outskirts of town and so easy to miss. The 19th-century Elbaşoğlu Camii doesn’t look especially exciting from the outside but as soon as you step across the threshold you’ll be wowed by its stunning painted woodwork.
A boutique hotel is shaping up in Zile town center and should eventually offer a great place to spend a night far from the madding crowd.
To get to Zile from Tokat you need to change bus in Turhal, a small town with a pretty location on the banks of the Yeşilırmak (Green River) and overlooked by a craggy rock on top of which perch the remains of a castle. There’s not much to see here and even the Ulu Camii is fairly run-of-the-mill despite dating back to 1544. There are, however, a couple of pleasant, gender-segregated tea gardens by the river so you might want to factor in a break of an hour or so here en route to Zile.
How to get there
There are regular buses from Ankara, Sivas and Amasya to Tokat. Visiting from İstanbul you might want to fly to Ankara and then take a bus. To visit the surrounding attractions requires spending a lot of time in Tokat’s local bus station, a grim underground bunker but conveniently located in the town center behind the bazaar area.
Where to stay
For the time being, most visitors will be better off staying in Tokat itself rather than in one of the outlying towns.
Büyük Tokat Oteli.
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Otel Yeni Çınar.
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