Explore The Turquoise Coast
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.