20 September 2023
Aurora was shy this morning, not peeking above the mountains until almost 8. Apollo, as is his want, continues to blast down upon us from a cloudless sky.
I disembark my gulet Nemesis at Fethiye. My journey moves inland into countryside shadowed by the Taurus Mountains to the east. I leave Achilles and his Greek friends behind to arrive in the province of the Lycians, cousins of the inhabitants of Kaunos. And in the very southern region of Antalya is one of Lycia’s capitals – Xanthos.
Xanthos, named Arna by the Lycians, was once the grandest city in all Lycia. Its ruins are atop a rocky hill above the banks of the Xanthos River near the village of Kinik. In its hay-day, Xanthos was a center of culture for the Lycians. Later Persians, Romans and Greeks conquered the region. Sending soldiers to support King Priam and Troy, the Lycians also faced defeat in the Trojan War.
City of the Rich and Famous
Sarpedon and his cousin Glaucus were Lycian heroes who led warriors from their distant land some 400 miles north to fight Agamemnon’s warriors at Troy. Wearing the armor of Achilles in battle, Patroclus killed Sarpedon, son of Zeus (amid speculation that Achilles and Patroclus were “more than close friends”).
Supposedly, Apollo rescued Sarpedon’s body and returned it to Lycia. Later, squabbling over who would get Achilles’ corpse, Ajax killed Glaucus. His body was also whisked away by Apollo for funeral rites in Lycia. The Temple of Sarpedon in Xanthos is perhaps associated with their burials.
Stories also say that Alexander the Great and his armies arrived in Xanthos. After Alex’s departure, spurred on probably by typhoid in 356 BCE, Ptolemy captured the city. In 42 BCE, Brutus came through representing Rome, supposedly killing most of the Lycian men. Then, Mark Anthony rebuilt the city. Considering there are a bunch of beaches and bays named for Cleo, one can imagine she also slept in Xanthos.
Rock-hewn tombs of Xanthos
There are several surviving tombs above the waters of the river. The Lycians honored their deceased ancestors as a link to the afterlife. Rock-hewn tombs were designed to protect the souls of the deceased, allowing them to maintain their status and wealth, even after death. The more important and wealthy, the more ornate the tomb. These tombs were usually in high in the sandstone cliffs. And as with life, the elite got the best views.
Combining these beliefs and traditions with the Lycian’s expert stonemasonry allowed for the creation of impressive rock-cut tombs and monuments. All over Lycia and the southern regions of Antalya, these fascinating funerary monuments are scattered. The most recent count is over 1100 remaining tombs. The number and quality of the tombs in Lycia are the reasons why, together with the nearby ancient site of Letoon, Xanthos gained UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.
Both the Harpy Tomb and the Tomb of Payava were carved during the Persian reign, between about 470 and 360 BCE.
Unfortunately, two of the most ornate tombs unearthed at Xanthos remain only in spirit as the originals are in the British Museum. Also packed off and reconstructed in the British Museum is the Nereid Monument. Probably constructed around 380 BCE, this monumental tomb was to honor King Arbinas who ruled the Persian Empire until about 400 BCE. So beautiful, the monument inspired the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus in Bodrum, reknowned as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
So, what remains of this once magnificent city is rocks and memories. For the rest one needs to visit the British Museum. Still standing in Xanthos is the ubiquitous theater, agora, pillars, obelisks and bases. More excavations are in Letoon on the other side of the River Esen in the Mugla Province.
Temple of Leto
It is a short drive from Xanthos to its UNESCO sister site of Letoon. The pièce de résistance here is the temple dedicated to the goddess Leto. Leto was a Titan who became a goddess after her marriage to Zeus. She is known as the the “mother goddess” and honored as the goddess of modesty, motherhood, kindness, childbirth, fertility, and protection of children.
Unfortunately, as a lover of Zeus, she was not loved by Zeus’ main wife, and sister, Hera. Leto and Hera were once very close friends, until Hera discovered that Zeus was having an affair with Leto. Furious about the betrayal, Hera banished Leto and condemned Leto to be childless. This seems unusual conduct and vindictiveness fir Hers, purportedly the goddess of marriage, women and family, and the protector of women during childbirth.
When Leto was pregnant, she was pursued relentlessly by Hera, who drove her from land to land preventing Leto from finding a place to rest and give birth. The floating island of Delos eventually provided her needed refuge. In Delos, Leto gave birth to the twins Apollo and Artemis.
There is little remaining of the Temple of Leto. We pay our respects to this mother goddess and travel on with the lesson that it is never wise to anger a more powerful god, especially a female.
Kaş and Myra
For lunch, we return to the shores of the Aegean and the seaside village of Kaş. The village is full of motorbikes and tourists. Food is good, served in a shaded garden.
We pass through Myra, another old capital of Lycia. There, we visit the ancient Lycian site of some excellent rock tombs. The tombs are stacked along the face of a cliff which is accessible to view closeup. One open tomb allows me to see its interior and depth. Myra also has ruins from the Roman era. Especially well-preserved is the amphitheater.
After lunch, we drive about 100 miles along a scenic seaside route. Aegean is on the right with cliffs and mountains on the left. Our driver appears to be a frustrated chariot driver as he speeds down the twists and turns.
The valley, as one can see, is covered with long greenhouses – thousands and thousands of the for miles and miles. This is an important agricultural center for Turkey. Every vegetable known or desired is grown here in greenhouses – greenhouses even hotter and more humid than the torturously hot and humid outdoor climate.
Many citrus, olive and fruit trees dot the landscape. But the stars of the valley are the greenhouses. They almost engulf the ancient treasures which lay among them.
Demre and St. Nicholas
Driving into Demre, we visit the St. Nicholas Church. St. Nicholas was bishop in Myra during the reign of Constantine I. He died in Myra.
Saint Nicholas of Myra, 270 – 343), also known as Nicholas of Bari, was of Greek descent and born in Patara, just south of Xanthos. He was an early Christian bishop of the maritime city of Myra during the time of the Roman Empire. He s known for his miracles and as the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people. He is also the saint who has forever been identified as Father Christmas. Seemingly, St. Nick is a jack of all trades.
St. Nicholas never preached, or even saw, the St. Nicholas Church. The church was built in AD 520, supposedly over tne tomb of St. Nicholas, and on the foundations of an older Christian church where Saint Nicholas had served as a bishop. It was in a state of disrepair when in 1862 it was restored by Russian Emperor Nicholas I who also added a tower and changed some of the original Byzantine architecture. Some frescoes remain.
In the spring of 1087, Italian sailors from Bari took part of St. Nicholas’ remains from his tomb in Myra and transported the, to Bari. It was described by one historian as “essentially a holy robbery.” The thieves were not only afraid of being caught by the locals, but also the power of Saint Nicholas himself. They returned to Bari with the holy relics. In 1089, Pope Urban II inaugurated the new Basilica di San Nicola and placed Nicholas’s relics into the tomb beneath the altar of the new church.
Seaside Drive to Antalya
Our drive from Demre to Antalya is another two hours. If driven slowly, the views of mountains, gorges, Aegean, beaches and forests would rank among the top spectacular drives of the world. Turks drive as if it is a matter of honor and Turkish manhood is at stake. They do not drive slowly. It is one hair pin after another.
The Taurus Mountains are always in a distant haze to the east. We hug the blue Aegean to our right. We arrive alive into Antalya and our hotel, the Ninova. It is in the heart of old town but not too far from a Burger King and McDonalds if you so choose to offend the gods.
“Soft slumberous shades his drooping eyelids close,
Till on her eastern throne Aurora glows.”Homer, The Odyssey