Excavations at ancient Kaunos began in 1967 and still take place each summer under the aegis of Başkent University. While the ruins are far from spectacular, they’re well labelled with CGI reconstructions, and the site is one of the more underrated minor attractions on this coast, alive with herons and storks in summer, flamingos in winter, plus terrapins, tortoises, snakes and lizards in all seasons.
Much of Kaunos is yet to be unearthed, despite the long-running excavations. North of the city extend well-preserved stretches of defensive wall, some constructed by Mausolus early in the fourth century BC. Just below the acropolis with its medieval and Hellenistic fortified area, the second-century BC theatre is the most impressive building here. Resting against the hillside to the southeast, in the Greek fashion it’s greater than a semicircle and retains two of its original arched entrances; in 2008 a nymphaeum was uncovered next to one archway. Between here and the Byzantine church, a temple to Apollo has been identified.
Northwest of the theatre and Apollo temple, closer to the upper ticket booth, the Byzantine basilica and the city’s Roman baths are also in excellent condition. A cobble-paved street leads downhill from the baths to an ancient Doric temple, consisting most obviously of an attractive circular structure, possibly an altar, sacred pool or podium, flanked by bits of re-erected colonnade. A path continues to the agora, on the lowest level, graced by a restored fountain-house at the end of a long stoa. The ancient harbour below is now the Sülüklü Gölü, or “Lake of the Leeches”; the entrance could be barred by a chain in times of danger.
Although Kaunos was a ninth-century BC Carian foundation, it exhibited Lycian cultural traits, not least the compulsion to adorn nearby cliffs with rock tombs. Kaunos was also closely allied to the principal Lycian city of Xanthos, and when the Persian Harpagos attempted to conquer the region in the sixth century BC, these two cities were the only ones to resist. Kaunos began to acquire a Greek character under the Hellenizing Carian ruler Mausolus. Subsequently, the city passed to the Ptolemies; then to the Rhodians; and finally, after fierce resistance to Rhodes, under indirect Roman imperial administration.
Besides its fish, Kaunos was noted for its figs, and the prevalence of malaria among its inhabitants; excessive fig consumption was erroneously deemed the cause, rather than the anopheles mosquitoes which, until 1948, infested the surrounding swamps. Another insidious problem was the silting up of its harbour, which continually threatened the city’s commerce. The Mediterranean originally came right up to the foot of the acropolis hill, surrounding Kaunos on all sides apart from an isthmus of land to the north. But the Dalyan Çayı has since deposited over 5km of silt, leaving an expanse of marshy delta in its wake.