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 among the least deservedly overlooked archeological sites on the Mediterranean coast. It’s alive with herons and storks in summer, flamingos in winter, plus terrapins, tortoises, snakes and lizards in all seasons.
Passengers arriving by tour boat disembark either at the fish weir (dalyan means weir) or at another jetty at the base of the outcrop supporting Kaunos’s acropolis. The fish caught are mostly grey mullet and bass, and a Kaunos ancient inscription suggests they’ve been part of the local diet since ancient times. From either landing point it’s a seven-minute walk up to the fenced site.
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; 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, it came under indirect Roman imperial administration. Besides its fish, Kaunos was noted both for its figs, and the prevalence of malaria; 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.