Around 60km northeast of Demre, a spectacular wooded cleft, the Olympos valley, runs down to a shingle beach and the sea. This valley is home to the atmospheric ruins of the ancient Lycian city of Olympos, virtually lost in thick scrub by a reed-fringed river, along with a veritable “village” of wooden huts and treehouses that has become a staple on Turkey’s backpacking circuit. As well as backpackers, summer weekends see the place busy with young folk from Antalya escaping the heat; major holidays with groups of university students from elsewhere in the country; and the period around ANZAC day is often bristling with Australians and New Zealanders. Throw in an increasing number of Russian tourists seeking a break from the all-inclusive hotels down the coast, and it’s easy to see why Olympos enjoys a reputation as the liveliest “alternative” resort on the Turkish coast.
Although nothing is known about the origins of Olympos, the city presumably took its name from Mount Olympos, present-day Tahtalı Dağ, 16km north – one of over twenty mountains in the ancient world that bore the name Olympos. The city made its historical debut during the second century BC, minting its own coins; within a few decades Olympos was one of six cities in the Lycian Federation to possess three votes, confirming its importance.
The principal deity of Olympos – Hephaestos (the Roman Vulcan), god of fire and of blacksmiths – was considered native to this region, and traces of a temple dedicated to him exist near the Chimaera. During the first century BC, the importance of his cult diminished when pirates led by Zeniketes overran both Olympos and nearby Phaselis, and introduced the worship of the Indo-European god Mithras. Zeniketes made Olympos his headquarters, but in 78 BC he was defeated by the local Roman governor, and again in 67 BC by Pompey, after which Olympos became public property. The city’s fortunes revived after it was absorbed into the Roman Empire in 43 AD, and Christianity became prominent. Olympos was later used as a trading base by the Venetians and Genoese – hence Ceneviz Limanı (Genoese Harbour) just south – but was abandoned after the Ottomans dominated the Mediterranean.