Heading north from Olympos, there’s scant pretext to stop before Antalya. The overdeveloped, overpriced package resorts along this coast – Tekirova, Kemer, Göynük and Beldibi – leave much to be desired. Only ancient Phaselis, with its superb swimming opportunities, will tempt you off the main road.
The ruins of Phaselis flank three small bays, providing ample opportunity to contemplate antique monuments while lying on the beach. While they can’t compare with some sites east of Antalya, or nearby Arykanda, there’s certainly enough to see at Phaselis, where Jason and the Argonauts was filmed in 1999. The natural beauty and clear sea make for a rewarding half-day outing – bring a picnic if you don’t fancy the car-park snack-caravans.
The access road passes under a bluff that holds a fortified settlement enclosed by a Hellenistic wall, including a tower and three archery slits. The most obvious landmark, behind a helpful map placard and the first car park, is the substantial, elegant Roman aqueduct. Said to have been among the longest in the ancient world, it carried water from a spring inside the northern fortifications almost as far as the south harbour.
Arrayed around the promontory behind which most of the fan-shaped city stood, Phaselis’s three harbours are obvious, and ideal for orientation. The north harbour was too exposed to be used except in very favourable conditions, but traces of the ancient south quay remain. It made an easy landing point for aggressors, however, so was fortified with a 3m-wide wall – now submerged, but still intact. The middle harbour also had a strong sea wall, and its 18m-wide entrance could be closed off; today it’s a shallow cove wonderful for swimming (and snorkelling out to explore the Roman breakwater), with a small beach.
The largest, southwest port (with its own parking and ticket booth for boat arrivals) was protected by a 180m-long breakwater, now mostly submerged. It sheltered the largest trading vessels, and now sees numerous pleasure craft calling for the sake of its fine, large beach.
Between the harbours, the promontory acropolis is covered with overgrown ruins of dwellings and round cisterns. The city’s main axis is the paved avenue across the neck of the promontory, linking the south and middle harbours; a rectangular plaza partway along is thought to be the heart of the agora. At the southern-harbour end, only the foundations and tumbled marble masonry survive of the monumental gateway constructed to honour Hadrian’s visit.
The well-preserved theatre, dating from the second century AD, looks towards Tahtalı Dağ from between the acropolis and the main street, and held around 1500 people. Three large doors above what’s now ground level probably led to the stage; below these, five smaller doors would have opened into the orchestra, and may have been used to admit wild animals.
Founded by Rhodian colonists in 690 BC, Phaselis, almost in Pamphylia, was not always Lycian. The Phaselitans were great traders, sailing as far as Egypt, and their coins were decorated with ships. Along with most of Asia Minor, Phaselis was overrun by the Persians in the sixth century, and not freed until 469 BC, when Athenian general Kimon “liberated” them with some difficulty, enrolling the reluctant city in the Athenian maritime confederacy along with Olympos. A century later, Phaselis helped Mausolus, satrap of Caria, attempt to subdue Lycia, while in 333 BC Phaselitan sycophancy continued: not content with merely surrendering to Alexander the Great, the city also proffered a golden crown.
Phaselis finally became part of the Lycian Federation during the second century BC, but was soon, like Olympos, occupied by Zeniketes’ pirates. Although it rejoined the federation afterwards, the pirates had devastated the city. Under imperial Rome, Phaselis distinguished itself with yet more obsequiousness: when touring Emperor Hadrian visited in 129 AD, statues were erected, and a gateway dedicated to him.