Explore The Turquoise Coast
East of Fethiye lies the heart of Lycia, home to several archeological sites, including the ancient citadel-cities of Tlos and Pınara, on opposite sides of the Xanthos river valley. Tlos had the geographical advantage, lying above a rich, open flood plain and sheltered to the east by the Massikytos range (today’s Akdağ); Pınara’s surrounding hilly terrain was difficult to cultivate. Even remoter and less fertile is mysterious Sidyma, up on the ridge separating the valley from the Mediterranean. All these cities were unearthed by the English traveller Charles Fellows between 1838 and 1842, contemporaneous with his work – or rather pillaging – at Xanthos, though he seems to have left unmolested the nearby religious sanctuary of Letoön and the naval fortress of Pydnae.
The road between Fethiye and Kalkan, mostly following the valley of the ancient Xanthos River (now the Eşen Çayı), threads an immensely fertile area, known for its cotton, tomatoes and other market-garden crops. Plans for a local airport have never been realized and this, in tandem with archeological restrictions, has kept growth at Patara, the main resort here, modest by Turkish coastal standards. Between Tlos and Patara, the magnificent river gorge of Saklıkent is easily reached by dolmuş or with your own vehicle, though it’s become something of a tourist circus. Isolated-ruins buffs can instead visit the unpromoted, unspoilt Lycian city of Oenoanda, high in the mountains north of Tlos.Read More
Among the most ancient and important Lycian cities, Tlos stands beside modern Asarkale village. Fourteenth-century BC Hittite records refer to it as “Dalawa in the Lukka lands”, and the local discovery of a bronze hatchet dating from the second millennium BC confirms the long heritage of the place. However, little else is known about its history.
The ruins themselves, while reasonably abundant, are often densely overgrown or even farmed, so precise identification of buildings is debatable. The setting beside modern Asarkale village is undeniably impressive, a high rocky promontory giving excellent views of the Xanthos valley. The acropolis bluff is dominated by an Ottoman Turkish fortress, once home to a nineteenth-century brigand and local chieftain, Kanlı (“Bloody”) Ali Ağa, who killed his own wayward daughter to uphold the family’s honour. Now used as a football pitch and pasture, it has obliterated all earlier remains on the summit. On its northeast side, the acropolis ends in almost sheer cliffs; the eastern slope bears traces of the Lycian city wall.
Entry to the main site is via the still intact northeastern city gate, next to the guard’s portakabin. Cobbled stairs climb to the main necropolis with its freestanding sarcophagi and complex of rock-cut house-tombs, one of which was discovered intact in October 2005 yielding treasure kept at the Fethiye museum. If, however, you walk along a lower, level path from the gate, outside the city walls, you reach a second group of rock tombs; dip below and right of these along a zigzagging trail to reach the temple-style Tomb of Bellerophon, at the hill’s northern base. Its facade was hewn with columns supporting a pediment, and three carved doors. On the porch’s left wall is a relief representing mythical hero Bellerophon (from whom one of Tlos’ ancient ruling families claimed descent), riding Pegasus, while facing them over the door is a lion symbolically standing guard. It’s a fifteen-minute scramble down requiring good shoes, with a ladder ascent at the end, and both figures have been worn down by vandals and the elements.
Between the east slope of the acropolis hill and the curving onward road is a large, seasonally cultivated open space, thought to be the agora. Close to the base of the hill are traces of seats, part of a stadium which lay parallel to the marketplace. The opposite side of the agora is flanked by a long, arcaded building identified as the market hall.
Well beyond this, reached by a broad path off the eastbound road, lie the baths, where the sound of running water in nearby ditches lends credence to its identification. This atmospheric vantage point is perhaps the best bit of Tlos: three complete chambers, one with an apsidal projection known as Yedi Kapı (Seven Gates), after its seven intact windows, which provide a romantic view of the Xanthos valley. Sadly, it’s closed indefinitely for excavations meant to uncover the fine marble floor, which have also revealed a large, possibly Christian, cemetery.
Just north of the modern through-road stands a magnificent second-century AD theatre, with 34 rows of seats remaining. The stage building has a number of finely carved blocks – including one with an eagle beside a garlanded youth – and its northern section still stands to nearly full height, vying with the backdrop of mountains.
Ancient Oenoanda, about 50km northeast of Tlos, was among the northernmost and highest (1350–1450m elevation) of the Lycian cities. Set in wild, forested countryside, it’s almost unpublicized but, as an example of how all local sites were before tourism, thoroughly rewards the effort involved in reaching it (own transport essential).
Oenoanda was the birthplace of Diogenes the second-century AD Epicurean philosopher; to him is attributed antiquity’s longest inscriptionary discourse, scattered in fragments across the site. Oenoanda was first surveyed by British archeologists in 1996 and is set for more vigorous future excavations. With luck, digs will reassemble Diogenes’ text to its full estimated length of 60m, and firmly identify structures. Until then, the site remains a romantic, overgrown maze of tumbled lintels, statue bases, columns, cistern mouths and buried arches, frequented only by squirrels and the occasional hunter or shepherd.
To reach Oenoanda, leave Highway 400 at the Kemer river bridge, keeping straight onto Highway 350, signed for Korkuteli. Some 34km later, bear right (east) onto a side road marked for Seki and Elmalı; a fine Ottoman bridge in the Seki Çayı by the modern asphalt is the most durable indicator. Turn south after 1100m onto a more minor road (the sign is rusted over); 800m down this, veer right at an unmarked fork to proceed 1.5km further to İncealiler village. Turn right at the phone box and standard archeological-service sign – do not follow the river further upstream – and park by the coffeehouse. Head up the main pedestrian thoroughfare among village houses, then near the top of the grade, bear right at heaped boulders onto a narrower track which soon dwindles to a path. Continue west towards the escarpment in front of you, where the first freestanding tombs poke up. The path describes a broad arc south around the top of a stream valley, forging through low scrub.
Some 45 minutes from the coffeehouse, the trail fizzles out at polygonal masonry of the massive south-to-north aqueduct that supplied the city, whose site-bluff inclines gently to the south but is quite sheer on all other sides. Slip through a gap in the aqueduct, with necropolis tombs flung about on every side, and veer right along the ridge towards Oenoanda’s massive Hellenistic city wall, with an arched window; the way through is left of this, by a strong hexagonal tower with archers’ loopholes. Some fifteen minutes’ walk north from here, keeping just east of the ridge line, brings you to the large flat paved agora; just beyond stand tentatively identified baths, with a surviving apse and dividing arch. Just northeast, a gate in the Roman wall, longer but much lower than the Hellenistic one, opens onto a vast flat area, provisionally dubbed an “esplanade”, flanked by traces of stoas. Northwest of the presumed baths, a nymphaeum or small palace with a three-arched facade precedes the partly preserved theatre, its fifteen or so rows of seats taking in fine views of Akdağ.
Some 46km southeast of Fethiye on Highway 400, you’ll see the well-marked turning west (right) for ancient Pınara. Practically nothing is known about this city other than that it may have been founded as an annexe of Xanthos. Later, however, Pınara – meaning “something round” in Lycian, presumably because of the shape of the original, upper acropolis – became one of the region’s larger cities, minting its own coins and earning three votes in the Federation.
It’s just over 3km along the side road to the edge of Minare village (one café, one restaurant, no public transport), from where 2.2km more of signposted but steep track leads to the edge of the ruins. Approaching the site, the cliff on which the city was first founded practically blocks out the horizon – indeed it’s worth the trip up just to see this towering mass, its east face covered in rectangular openings, either tombs or food-storage cubicles. These can now only be reached by experienced rock-climbers and it’s hard to fathom how they were originally cut.
Most of Pınara’s ruins are on the lower acropolis hill, east of the cliff, where the city was relocated after defence became less critical. The lower acropolis is densely overgrown with pines and most buildings unidentifiable, though the access track reaches a point almost level with it.
Pınara’s tombs are its most interesting feature, especially a group on the west bank of the seasonal stream that passes the site. On the east side of the lower acropolis hill (follow arrows on metal signs), the so-called Royal Tomb sports detailed if well-worn carvings on its porch of walled cities with battlements, gates, houses and tombs; a frieze survives above, showing people and animals in a peaceable scene – perhaps a religious festival. Inside is a single bench set high off the ground, suggesting that this was the tomb of just one, probably royal, person.
On the same side of this hill but higher up, reached by a direct path north from the Royal Tomb, there’s a house-tomb with an arched roof topped by a pair of stone ox horns for warding off evil spirits. This stands near the summit of the lower acropolis, at the eastern edge of the presumed agora. Just north of the horned tomb, the massive foundations of a temple to an unknown god overlook the theatre. Hairpinning back south, a level path threads between the pigeonholed cliff and the lower acropolis, first past a ruinous but engaging odeion, then through a chaos of walls, uprights, heart-shaped column sections and tombs clogging the flattish heart of the city.
At the far south end of this little plateau, two sarcophagi flank a man-made terrace and a sharp drop to the stream valley. Above an apsed church here juts a strange tower, probably a guardhouse intended to control access to the upper citadel, and a fine vantage point for making sense of the jumbled town. From the terrace, the path descends sharply to the canyon floor, passing more tombs and a permanent spring – which moves downstream as the year progresses – en route to the car park.
Northeast of the town, accessible along a marked side track from the main track passing the base of the lower acropolis, is the well-preserved theatre, backing into a hill and looking towards the “Swiss cheese” cliff; small but handsome, and never modified by the Romans (on-site signage to the contrary), it gives an idea of Pınara’s modest population.
Sidyma is the remotest of the area’s ancient cities – indeed, sited halfway up the ancient Mount Kragos (the modern coastal peak of Avlankara Tepesi), scarcely in the Xanthos valley at all. It’s a rewarding, understated site in a striking landscape astride the Lycian Way. Like most local sites, Sidyma was only “rediscovered” by Europeans during the mid-nineteenth century, and has never been properly excavated.
From Highway 400 take the turning marked for Eşen and “Sidyma, 13km”, just north of a side road for Kumlova and Letoön. Proceed 6km to a junction, and turn left (south); it’s just over 2km to the first buildings of Dodurga village, and another 3km to the road’s end in Dodurga’s Asar Mahallesi, where two mulberry trees flank the ruins of the agora and a Lycian Way metal signpost. Trekking southeast on the Lycian Way, it’s a day and a half’s march from Kabak to Sidyma, via Alınca.
Asar Mahallesi’s mosque occupies the site of the baths, and reuses pillars from the agora’s stoa. Indeed the principal charm of Sidyma is how ancient masonry crops up everywhere: incorporated into house corners, used as livestock troughs, sprouting incongruously in dooryards next to satellite dishes. An exceedingly ruined castle, garrisoned into Byzantine times, sits on a hill to the north; scattered in the fields to the east, and requiring some scrambling over walls to reach, lies the necropolis, comprising a variety of tomb types, though most have angular gabled roofs rather than the “Gothic” vaulted ones seen elsewhere. Near the centre of the agricultural plain is a group of remarkable, contiguous tombs: one has ceiling panels carved with rosettes and human faces, while the adjacent tomb sports a relief of Eros on its lid and Medusas at the ends (a motif repeated elsewhere). Another spectacular cluster, including a two-storeyed one, covers the low ridge beyond the fields. In the middle of the necropolis stands an enormous, fairly intact, square structure – probably a Roman imperial heroön or temple-tomb – with a walled-up doorway on the north side.
The Letoön, shrine of the goddess Leto, was the official religious sanctuary, oracle and festival venue of the Lycian Federation, and extensive remaining ruins attest its importance. The site lies 16km south of Pınara along the old road (less on the new highway), the turning marked with a “Kumluova, Karadere, Letoön 10” sign. Driving from Patara, leave Highway 400 at the Kınık/Xanthos exit; clear Kınık and cross the Eşençay bridge; then descend into pines and take a hairpin left at a “Letoön 4” marker. There’s a dolmuş from Fethiye to Kumluova, the village beside the site; from the village centre it’s 500m to the Letoön.
In legend, the nymph Leto was loved by Zeus and thus jealously pursued by his wife Hera. Wandering in search of a place to give birth to her divine twins Apollo and Artemis, Leto approached a fountain to slake her thirst, only to be driven away by local herdsmen. Leto was then led to drink at the Xanthos River by wolves, and so changed the name of the country to Lycia, lykos being Greek for wolf. After giving birth, she returned to the spring – on the site of the existing Letoön, and forever after sacred to the goddess – to punish the insolent herdsmen by transforming them into frogs.
The name Leto may derive from the Lycian lada (woman), and the Anatolian mother-goddess, Cybele, was conceivably worshipped here previously. Another similarity between the two goddesses is a link with incestuous mother-son unions, thought to have been common in Lycian society. Most famous of all the prophecies supposedly delivered at the Letoön was that Alexander the Great would destroy the Persian Empire. Following the demise of the Lycian Federation, the sanctuary became Christianized, and wasn’t abandoned until the Arab raids of the seventh century. The Letoön was initially rediscovered by Fellows in 1840, although French-conducted digs didn’t begin until 1962, since when it has been systematically uncovered and labelled. The latest phase of excavations has partially reconstructed the main temple here, but lack of official cooperation means that little work has taken place since 2006.
Since excavations of the site began, the remains of three temples and a nymphaeum have been uncovered, as well as various inscriptions. One stipulates conditions of entry to the sanctuary, including a strict dress-code prohibiting rich jewellery, ostentatious clothing or elaborate hairstyles.
The low ruins of three temples occupy the centre of the site, beyond the relatively uninteresting (and waterlogged) agora. The westernmost temple, straight ahead coming from the site gate, bears a dedication to Leto. Once surrounded by a single Doric colonnade with decorative half-columns around the interior walls, it’s of third-century BC vintage. Three columns on the north side of the structure plus the cella walls have been reconstructed; though the masonry seems jarringly garish it was, in fact, sourced from the original marble quarry near modern Finike. The central temple, partly carved out of the rock, is a fourth-century BC structure, identified by a dedication to Artemis. The easternmost temple was similar to the Leto temple; the reproduction mosaic on the floor – the original is now in the Fethiye museum – depicts a lyre, bow and quiver with a stylized flower in the centre. This suggests a joint dedication to Artemis and Apollo, the region’s most revered deities, since the bow and quiver symbolized Artemis, and the lyre Apollo. The architecture and mosaic technique date the temple to the second and first centuries BC.
Southwest beyond the temples extends a rectangular nymphaeum flanked by two semicircular recesses with statue niches. This is abutted by another semicircular paved basin 27m in diameter, now permanently flooded by the high local water-table and full of ducks, terrapins and Leto’s croaking victims. A church was built over the nymphaeum in the fourth century, but destroyed by Arab invaders in the seventh, so that only its foundations and apse are now discernible. The notable stork mosaic on its floor is, alas, headless, though currently exposed to view.
Returning towards the car park, you’ll reach a large, well-preserved Hellenistic theatre, entered through a vaulted passage. Sixteen plaques, adorned by comic and tragic relief masks, decorate the perilously collapsing northeast entrance to this passage; nearby sits an interesting Roman tomb with a carved representation of its toga-clad occupant.
The remains of hilltop Xanthos, with their breathtaking views of the Xanthos River – now the Eşen Çayı – and its valley, are among the most fascinating in Lycia. The city was first made familiar in 1842, when Charles Fellows carried off the majority of its art works, just four decades after the Elgin marbles had been similarly pillaged. It took two months to strip the site and load the loot onto the HMS Beacon for shipment to London. The most important artefact, the fourth-century Nereid Monument, a beautifully decorated Ionic temple on a high podium, is now in the British Museum, along with other items. However, enough was left behind here to still require a two-hour visit. Afternoons are scorchingly hot even by Lycian standards – go earlier or later in the day.
Xanthos is linked in legend with Bellerophon and Pegasus; King Iobates – who initially set impossible tasks for Bellerophon and later offered him a share in his kingdom – ruled here, and Xanthos was the birthplace of Bellerophon’s grandson, Glaukos, cited in the Iliad as “from the whirling waters of the Xanthos”.
The earliest archeological finds here date to the eighth century BC, but the city enters history in 540 BC during the conquest of Lycia by the Persian Harpagos, who besieged Xanthos. The Xanthians’ response was the first local holocaust, making a funeral pyre of their families with their household goods. The women and children died in the flames while the men perished fighting, the only survivors being out of town at the time.
Xanthos subsequently shared the fate of all Lycia, with Alexander following the Persians, in turn succeeded by his general Antigonos and then by Antiokhos III. After Antiokhos’s defeat, Xanthos was given to Rhodes along with the rest of Lycia. The second Xanthian holocaust occurred in 42 BC during the Roman civil war, when Brutus’s forces surrounded the city, prompting the citizens again to make funeral pyres of their possessions and immolate themselves. Xanthos prospered anew in Roman imperial times, and under Byzantine rule the city walls were renovated and a monastery built.
The site is unfenced (except for the theatre area), but officially open 8am to 7.30pm in summer, 8.30am to 5pm in winter; the warden at the car-park café/souvenir stall will collect 6TL admission, plus parking fees.
Beside the access road from Kınık stand the monumental Arch of Vespasian and an adjoining Hellenistic gateway, the latter bearing an inscription of Antiokhos III dedicating the city to Leto, Apollo and Artemis. East of the road, the former location of the Nereid Monument is marked by a plaque.
The Roman theatre, near the summit of the access road, was built on the site of an earlier Greek structure and is pretty complete, missing only the upper seats, which were incorporated into the Byzantine city wall. Behind the theatre, overlooking the valley, lies the Lycian acropolis, in whose far southeastern corner are the square remains of what’s probably an early Xanthian royal palace destroyed by Harpagos. Beneath protective sand, patches of sophisticated mosaic indicate Roman or Byzantine use of the acropolis; there are also water channels everywhere underfoot plus a huge cistern, suggesting an advanced plumbing system and a preoccupation with outlasting sieges.
In front of the theatre to the north looms the Harpy Tomb, once topped with a marble chamber removed by Fellows, now replaced by a cement cast reproduction. The paired bird-women figures on the north and south sides are identified as harpies, or – more likely – sirens, carrying the souls of the dead (represented as children) to the Isles of the Blessed. Other reliefs portray unidentified seated figures receiving gifts, except for the west face where they are regarding opium poppies. Beside the Harpy Tomb a third-century BC Lycian sarcophagus stands on a pillar; traces of a corpse and pottery were found inside, along with a sixth-century BC relief – brought from elsewhere – depicting funeral games.
Just northeast of the Roman agora, the so-called Xanthian Obelisk is in fact another pillar tomb, labelled as the “Inscribed Pillar” and covered on all four sides by the longest known Lycian inscription, 250 lines including twelve lines of Greek verse. Since the Lycian language hasn’t been completely deciphered, interpretation of the inscription is based on this verse, which glorifies a champion local wrestler.
East of the car park, then south through the “late” agora lies a Byzantine basilica, fenced off but easy enough to enter – beware unauthorized guides offering incomprehensible and overpriced “tours”. The basilica features extensive abstract mosaics – the best in western Turkey – and a synthronon in the semicircular apse. On the Roman acropolis to the north are various freestanding sarcophagi, and above, cut into the hillside, picturesque tombs mainly of the Lycian house (as opposed to temple) type. A well-preserved early Byzantine monastery, with washbasins along one side of its courtyard, stands further north.
Patara was the principal port of Lycia, famed for its oracle of Apollo, and as the fourth-century AD birthplace of St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (aka Santa Claus). Today, however, the area is better known for its fine white-sand beach (one of the longest continuous strands in the Mediterranean), served by pansiyons, bars and restaurants in the village of Gelemiş over 2km inland. In season the immediate vicinity of the beach entrance gets crowded, but walking northwest past the dunes brings you to plenty of solitary spots – and a few unharassed colonies of nudists. Spring and autumn swimming is delightful, but in summer the exposed shoreline can be battered by a considerable surf (at least by Mediterranean standards).
The beach is a summertime turtle-nesting area, off-limits after dark (May–Oct), while in winter the lagoon behind attracts considerable bird life. Conservationists backed by the Ministry of the Environment have managed to exclude villas from the cape at the southeast end of the strand, while the area’s protected archeological status has halted most new building at Gelemiş. Horseriding and walking in the hills to the east are now promoted, using both the Lycian Way and other trails, as well as canoeing on the Eşen Çayı.
At the southern edge of Gelemiş village, a gate and ticket booth controls vehicle access to both beach and archeological site beyond. Although the ruins are unfenced, you are not allowed in outside the official opening times. Much of Patara – especially numerous badly overgrown, polygonal-masonry walls – remains unexcavated (though this is slowly changing). Just a few paths link individual ruins, and there are no facilities or shade – bring water, stout shoes and a head covering during summer.
Legend ascribes Greek origins to Patara, but in fact the city was originally Lycian, borne out by coins and inscriptions sporting an un-Hellenic PTTRA. The city was famous for its temple and oracle of Apollo, supposedly rivalling Delphi’s for accuracy, because Apollo supposedly spent the winter months in the Xanthos valley. However, no verifiable traces of this temple have ever been found.
Patara served as a naval base during the wars between Alexander’s successors. Later, in 42 BC, Brutus threatened the Patarans with a fate similar to that of the Xanthians if they didn’t submit, giving them a day to decide. He released the women hostages in the hope that they would lessen the resolve of their menfolk. When this didn’t work, Brutus freed all the remaining hostages, thereby endearing himself to the Patarans, who subsequently surrendered. Whatever his tactics, his chief motive was suggested by the fact that he exacted no other punishments, but merely confiscated the city’s gold and silver.