The Xanthos valley
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The heart of Lycia, east of Fethiye, is home to several archeological sites, including the ancient citadel-cities of Tlos and Pınara, on opposite sides of the Xanthos 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 more remote 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 the nearby religious sanctuary of Letoön and the naval fortress of Pydnae unmolested.
Mostly following the valley of the ancient Xanthos River (now the Eşen Çayı), the road between Fethiye and Kalkan threads through an immensely fertile area that’s known for its cotton, tomatoes and other market-garden crops. The fact that plans for a local airport have never materialized, in tandem with archeological restrictions, means that has growth at Patara, the main resort, has remained 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. Fans of isolated ruins can instead visit the unpromoted, unspoiled Lycian city of Oenoanda, high in the mountains north of Tlos.
Ancient Oenoanda was among the northernmost and highest (1350–1450m elevation) of the Lycian cities. Set in wild, forested countryside, it’s almost unpublicized. As an example of how all local sites used to be before tourism, however, it thoroughly rewards the effort that’s required to reach 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. First surveyed by British archeologists in 1996, Oenoanda is set for more vigorous future excavations. With luck, these 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.
Patara was the principal port of Lycia, famed for its oracle of Apollo, and as the birthplace in the fourth century AD of St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (aka Santa Claus). Today, however, the area is better known for its huge sandy beach, a turtle-nesting area in summer that’s off-limits after dark (May–Oct), while in winter the lagoon behind attracts considerable birdlife. 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.
A gate and ticket booth controls vehicle access to both the beach at Patara and the archeological site beyond. Although the ruins are unfenced, visitors are not allowed in outside the official opening times.
Despite ongoing digs, much of Patara remains unexcavated, and only a few paths link the individual ruins. There are no facilities or shade – bring water, stout shoes and a head covering during summer.
The city’s entrance is marked by a triple-arched, first-century AD Roman gateway, almost completely intact. A head of Apollo has been found on a little hill just west, prompting speculation that his temple was nearby. Outside the gate, a necropolis is being excavated by a team from Antalya’s Akdeniz University.
Patara’s fine white-sand beach ranks as one of the longest continuous strands in the Mediterranean: it measures 9km from the access road to the mouth of the Eşen Çayı, and then another 6km to the end. Rather than making the hot, half-hour stroll out from the centre of Gelemiş in summer, most visitors take a beach dolmuş or transport laid on by the hotels. Parking (free) at the road’s end is limited, as the archeological authorities have refused permission to expand the space. The sole café is run by the owner (and local mayor) of the Golden Lighthouse and Golden Pension and is no more expensive than the places in the village. Local youth are employed and all proceeds go into the village community chest.
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 body-surfable waves.
Myra’s prestige was greatly enhanced by the reputation of one of its citizens, namely St Nicholas, born in Patara in 270 AD and later appointed local bishop. The Orthodox patron saint of sailors, merchants, students, prisoners, virgins and children, his Western identity as a genial old present-giver is perhaps more familiar, based on the story of the three daughters of a poor man who were left without dowries. Nicholas is credited with throwing three purses of gold coins into the house by night, enabling them to find husbands instead of prostituting themselves. Many posthumous miracles were attributed to the saint, but little is actually known about the man. However, after his death he was probably buried in the church in Demre that’s now dedicated to him, and it is also widely believed that in 1087 his bones were carried off to Italy by a group of devout raiders from Bari.
Demre still banks heavily on its connection with St Nicholas (Noel Baba or “Father Christmas” in Turkish); a special Mass is held here on his main feast day, December 6, attracting Orthodox and Catholic pilgrims, while others take place on random Sundays throughout the year.
Almost nothing is known about the ancient city of PINARA except 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.
Approaching the site, the cliff on which the city was first founded all but 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 imagine how they were originally cut.
Most of the ruins of Pınara are on the lower acropolis hill, east of the cliff, where the city was relocated after defence became less critical. The access track reaches a point almost level with the lower acropolis itself, but it’s densely overgrown with pines, and most of the buildings are unidentifiable.
Sited halfway up the ancient Mount Kragos – the modern coastal peak of Avlankara Tepesi – Sidyma is the remotest of the Xanthos valley’s ancient cities. Indeed, it’s scarcely in the valley at all. Set in a striking landscape astride the Lycian Way, it’s a rewarding, understated site that was only “rediscovered” by Europeans during the mid-nineteenth century, and has never been properly excavated.
Sidyma is one of many ancient sites in this part of the world to have been reoccupied at a much later date by local people, who have used the remains as a handy depository of ready-hewn stone blocks to build their own homes. Today’s settlement is known as Dudurga, and the village mosque not only occupies the site of the baths but 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 courtyards next to satellite dishes. An exceedingly ruined castle, garrisoned in Byzantine times, sits on a hill to the north; scattered in the fields to the east, and requiring some scrambling over walls to reach, the necropolis holds various 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 one tomb with two storeys, covers the low ridge beyond the fields.
The enormous, fairly intact, square structure in the middle of the necropolis is probably a Roman imperial heroön or temple-tomb. There’s a walled-up doorway on its 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. Christianized following the demise of the federation, it was only abandoned after the Arab raids of the seventh century. The Letoön was initially rediscovered by Charles Fellows in 1840, although French-conducted digs didn’t begin until 1962, since when it has been systematically uncovered and labelled.
Excavations of the Letoön have uncovered the remains of three temples and a nymphaeum, 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.
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 by wolves to drink at the Xanthos River, 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, may have been worshipped at this same site previously. Another similarity between the two goddesses is a link with incestuous mother-son unions, thought to have been common in Lycian society. The most famous of all the prophecies supposedly delivered at the Letoön predicted that Alexander the Great would destroy the Persian Empire.
Among the most ancient and important Lycian cities, TLOS stands beside modern Asarkale village. Hittite records from the fourteenth century BC 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 is undeniably impressive, a high rocky promontory giving excellent views of the Xanthos valley. The acropolis bluff is dominated by an Ottoman Turkish fortress, home during the nineteenth century to the 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 at Tlos 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 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. A relief on the left wall of the porch represents the mythical hero Bellerophon (from whom one of Tlos’ ancient ruling families claimed descent), riding Pegasus, while facing them over the door a lion symbolically stands 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, a large, seasonally cultivated open space is 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 that aim to uncover the fine marble floor and have also revealed a large, possibly Christian, cemetery.
Just north of the modern through-road, 34 rows of seats remain intact in a magnificent second-century AD theatre. The stage building holds several 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.
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 one of several items now in the British Museum. 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.