18-19 September 2023

Ancient City of Kaunos

A relaxing morning finds us sailing south along the Anatolian coast to a strip of beach at Iztuzu. Caretta sea turtles come here to lay their eggs, thus the name Turtle Beach. Turtles are currently absent.

Here, also, is the mouth of the Dalyan Stream. We change boats to travel upstream weaving a meandering path northeast through the delta. The delta banks are thick with reeds, enough to hide a thousand babies. There is the occasional resort, many summer homes, and dockside restaurants. Mountains rise in the distance. I note a noticeable lack of bird life.

As hillsides turn to rocky cliffs, we reach our destination, the ancient city of Kaunos/Caunos. Everything about this approach is mysterious and awesome. There, above the water, is a city carved atop the rocks and close by is the Lycian Rock Tombs of the Kings.

Lycians were an independent people with their own language and written script, and developed their own democratic system. They inhabited areas of the Teke Peninsula of Southern Anatolia. (One of their capitals was Xanthos which we visit later.) Lycians were seafaring and fiercely resisted any invaders. They flourished from the 15–14th centuries BCE until their assimilation by the Greeks and the Romans around 546 BC. After being conquered by Alexander the Great, Lycia was rapidly Hellenized under the influence of the Macedonians.

Kaunos’ rugged terrain, with its bays and harbors and general isolation within the western edges of the Taurus Mountains, ideally suited the Lycians. Life in this port city dates back to the tenth century BCE. Around 1500 CE, the site was abandoned. However, Kaunos is just one of over 380 such ancient Lycian settlements.

Lycians were democratic, skilled builders, and polytheistic. They also honored their own local gods, such as the mountain god Sandas and the goddess Kubaba. Religious practices included temple worship, animal sacrifices, and elaborate burial rituals that included the building of elaborate rock-hewn tombs.

Legend of Caunus and Byblis

As was common with the Greeks, a legend was born around Kaunos. There are different versions but all have to do with the incestuous love of Caunus and his twin sister, Byblis. Caunus and his sister were the children of Miletus and Eidothea, daughter of the Carian king, Eurytus. Byblis fell in love with her twin brother. When she declared her love, Caunus rejected her. He ran to what he called the land of Kaunos. In her desperation, Byblis sought her brother but failed to change his heart. She wept many tears of despair that became the Dalyan River (the river we sailed to arrive here).

Kaunos thrived for centuries until large quantities of silt from the Dalyan Delta closed the ports. Easy access to the sea was lost over the centuries. After the Turkish invasion in the fifteenth century, swamps caused a malaria epidemic, and Kaunos was abandoned for good. The city fell victim to the forces of time, erosion, and destructive earthquakes. Nothing much happened until 1842 when a British naval officer spotted the cliff tombs.

There is an entire city at Kaunos. It includes a theater, acropolis, basilica, agora, baths, temples and more. The Lesser Acropolis was built overlooking both harbors. It served as a religious site with a church and two temples. It was designed for the cult worship of the female fertility goddess Demeter. Every year, Kaunian women would meet for a fertility festival in the hope that the goddess would grant them a child. There was also a temple dedicated to Zeus from the first century BCE and an area dedicated to Apollo. But perhaps for me the pièce de résistance of Kaunos are the hand-hewed tombs. 

Hand-hewn Rock Tombs

Like sentinals along the Dalyan River, rock-cut tombs are carved directly into the sheer cliff faces, combining the natural beauty of the landscape with human artistry. These tombs come in various styles, reflecting the architectural diversity of the Lycian civilization. Between Dalyan River and Kaunos there are over 150 of these tombs. Many have temple-style facades with distinct pediments and columns. Slabs of rocks served as doors to inner chambers. Elaborately carved facades hide the spaces of different sizes designed to house the remains of families. Undoubtedly, the tombs with the best real estate facing the Dalyan River were for the elite, possibly their kings.

We return to our gulet and a toast to sunset and the cooling of temperatures across the Aegean. What great scenic views the Achaeans had as Agamemnon sailed his armada of ships to wage war against Troy. But then, boys being boys, they probably didn’t notice.

Modern Ruins of Kayaköy

Kayaköy, an old Greek village known to its citizens as Livissi,is today an abandoned village about 5 miles south Fethiye in southwestern Turkey. Over its long history, Kayaköy has been populated by Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines. It is known to have been continually inhabited since at least the 13th century. Kayaköy was home to happy Greek villagers up until their final evacuation in 1923.

In late antiquity the inhabitants of Kayaköy and this region of Lycia were Christian and became followers of the Pope in Rome by 1054 CE. They were Greek-speaking while their Turkish- speaking Muslim neighbors followed Ottoman rulers. Both entities lived in relative harmony from the Ottoman conquest of the region in the 14th century until the early 20th century. Then all went to hell in a hand basket.

Massacres of Greeks and Christian minorities during World War One led to the total depopulation of Kayaköy’s 6,500 Greek inhabitants by 1918. These former inhabitants were deprived of their properties and became refugees in Greece, or they died in Ottoman forced labor camps.

Poor Decisions but Lasting Tragedy

Then, poor decisions, meddling and lack of common sense stirred the hive. What emerged was distrust, turbulence and civil wars. And the question remains: how did the Allies think this was a solution?

After the end of World War One, Allied forces allowed the Greek occupation of Smyrna in 1919. This led to the Greco-Turkish War which lasted until 1922. Greece was defeated and the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne was signed in 1923.

That treaty contained a protocol requiring a population exchange between Greece and Turkey that barred permanently the return of any Greek Orthodox refugees to their homes in Turkey (this included all prior Livissi refugees). Further, the treaty and that any remaining Orthodox Christian citizens of Turkey leave their homes for Greece (with an exception for Greeks living in Istanbul).

All western Anatolia suffered such forced relocation involving possibly thousands of villages. Upwards of one and. Half million people were displaced. Though the Anatolian Greeks may have been moved to the Greek mainland, the cultures were different. Many were treated as second class citizens and outsiders. The same occurred for many displaced Turks.

The treaty also required that Greece’s Muslim citizens permanently leave Greece for Turkey (with an exception for Muslims living in Greek Thrace). Attempts by the Turkish government to get Turks deported from Greece to inhabit the village failed.

Livissi/Kayaköy is an excellent example of this policy’s failure. Turks/Muslims from Greece did not want to settle in Livissi due to rumors of ghosts of the Greeks killed there. Today, the once-thriving city is a ghost town of empty, roofless, windowless homes spread across the mountainside.

Kayaköy village is now preserved as a museum village and modern historical monument. The city consists of over 500 rundown Greek-style houses and two Greek Orthodox churches and a school. One can climb its streets and cobblestone paths, explore its ruins and imagine that ghosts do inhabit its lonely homes and look from its blank windows.

While roofs have long ago been used for removed or used for firewood, chimneys stand, fireplaces remain intact. Bright blue paint and splashes of orange still color walls here and there. The Lycian Road for trekking cuts through the deathly quiet houses. Huge fig trees now grow where families once celebrating birthdays and Easter.

On 9 September 2014, the Turkish government announced plans to develop the village. It plans to offer a 49-year lease that will “partially open Kayaköy’s archeological site to construction” and anticipated “construction of a hotel, as well as tourist facilities that will encompass one-third of the village.” Thankfully, I saw no such effort.

Birds Without Wings

“Man is a bird without wings, and a bird is a man without sorrows.”

Iskander the Potter

Birds Without Wings was written by Louis de Bernières in 2004. The novel relates the love story of Philothei and Ibrahim, two young Greeks living in a small fictional village in southwestern coastal Anatolia during the early 1900s. Their story unfolds in a backdrop of historical events including the rise of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the horrors of fighting in the trenches of Gallipoli.

Historically, Turks and Greeks had lived together in this region of Anatolia for centuries, the Turks worked as farmers in the valley while the Greeks living on the hillside dealing in crafts and trades. The theme of de Bernières’ story vividly describes the impact of religious intolerance, overzealous Turkish nationalism, and a brutal civil war on the innocent lives of others.

Walking the deserted streets, I can understand the aversion to repopulate this village. It is best left as an example of human failing and lack of common sense.

Louis de Bernières’ book title originated from his character, Iskander the Potter. It also refers to the young children of the village who found joy and safety running thru the streets and calling to each other on their bird whistles. Though no such sounds can be heard today, an old woman at the entrance to the site will sell you a bird whistle. It would seem a sacrilege to sound a peep in this village today.

However, if one listens, at night in the surrounding forests, while our boat lies placidly in the bay, one may hear the owls screeching in loneliness to those lives who once graced these lovey villages.


Retired. Have time for the things I love: travel, my cat, reading, good food, travel, genealogy, walking, and of course travel.


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