One of the most varied and satisfying day outings for visitors exploring Turkey's sublimely beautiful southwest coast has to be that taking in spectacular Saklıkent Canyon and the nearby ruins of the ancient Lycian city of Tlos.
Carved over many millennia by crystal clear torrents tumbling down from Gömbe Akdağ at heights of 3,014 meters, Saklıkent Canyon is the third largest canyon in Europe. Tlos, perched enticingly high above the green, fertile valley of the Eşen river on the eastern flanks of the same mountain, boasts remains as substantial and intriguing as one would expect from what was once one of Lycia's most important settlements.
Into the canyon
Just 50 kilometers southeast of the popular tourist resort of Fethiye and about the same distance due north of the equally popular former Greek fishing village of Kalkan, Saklıkent (Hidden City) sees more than its fair share of visitors, most of whom are eager to forgo the beauties of the coast and explore the lush valleys and towering peaks of the Lycian hinterland -- at least for a day. So, a word of warning: If you come in the main summer season, don't expect the canyon to be a peaceful haven in the midst of the wilds as this is a regular stop on the Jeep safari circuit as well as a stock organized excursion touted by local hotels and travel agencies.
Yet despite any misgivings you may have about the number of tourists the canyon receives or the plethora of trout restaurants vying for your custom at its delightfully lush mouth, Saklıkent is topographically impressive enough to satisfy all but the most cynical of visitors. There's an entry fee of TL 5, which helps to pay for the upkeep of the metal and wooden walkway suspended a few meters above the floor of the gushing river below. Just follow the walkway into the narrow slash in the face of the limestone cliff rising imperiously above the sea of plane trees beneath it and you will soon find yourself in a different world.
Springs, swifts and warning signs
The walkway ends after 150 meters at a somewhat wide space, shaded by more plane trees, where a couple of springs surge out from the foot of the cliffs and cascade, white and foaming, into the main river. Swifts and crag martins swoop and glide between the lowering canyon walls, and wagtails bob on boulders cresting the stream bed. Assuming an early start to miss the tour groups, it's a peaceful spot, with just the low roar of all that racing water to disturb the silence. Signs tacked to a couple of plane trees request visitors not go beyond the end of the walkway without a guide (hirable at the mouth of the canyon, as are plastic shoes to wade in the stream) serve as warning that the canyon is not to be treated lightly. When full of winter snow melt from Akdağ or after a heavy thunderstorm, water levels and speeds can be dangerously high.
Remarkably, the canyon, which gropes its way some 18 kilometers into the mountain and has cliffs soaring some 300 meters above the river, wasn't discovered (in modern times at least) until 1986 by a local shepherd interested in setting up a trout farm in the area. Even today, only the first 3 kilometers are open to the ordinary visitor as the canyon is blocked by a rock slide; the remainder is the preserve of canyoneers with the requisite expertise and equipment. If you want to explore the depths of the canyon beyond the walkway and are prepared to wade through water refreshingly cool in the summer and autumn but still chillingly cool in the spring, hire a guide at the entrance. After your adventure, you might want to consider replenishing your strength and relaxing at one of the shady trout restaurants built on wooden platforms slung over the racing waters of the river issuing forth from the canyon. That decision may, however, depend on how busy it is -- avoid going on Sundays during the summer if at all possible.
Ascent to ancient Tlos
From the canyon a road weaves north, hugging the eastern side of the green valley, to the village of Güneşli, where you turn right and wind up the ever-steeper eastern flank of the Akdağ massif -- a drive of around half an hour. In 1838, the British gentleman-archaeologist Charles Fellows, the man later responsible for shipping a number of Lycian works of art from nearby Xanthos to the British Museum in London, approached Tlos by a similar route. Fellows was, of course, on horseback and described his journey thus, “The whole ride down this upper valley is beautiful and varies continually; its scenery, on approaching the bold, Greek-like situation of the ancient city of Tlos, is strikingly picturesque.” Despite odd patches of ugly development, the valley remains equally picturesque today.
The fortified hilltop (acropolis) of the ancient settlement comes into view first, topped by the substantial remains of a much later structure: the Kanlı Ali Paşa Konağı. This mansion house was built in the 19th century for the wealthy Ottoman warlord Kanlı (Bloody) Ali Paşa, a gentleman who, despite the disconcerting prefix to his given name, actually entertained Charles Fellows on his 1838 travels through Lycia. But rounding a corner, what first really strikes the visitor are the “windows” of the mock-temple, rock-cut tombs of the necropolis (literally “city of the dead”) staring blankly out across the hillside from the base of the acropolis hill.
A summit, sarcophagi and a winged horse
The remains of the settlement are cut in two by the modern road, with the ticket office (daily 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., TL 5) at the base of the acropolis, which dominates the western half of the ancient city. Walking up this hill first makes sense as from its summit (500 meters above sea level), reached by a number of time-worn steps carved from the bedrock, you get a panorama of virtually the entire site. En route to the top, you pass a honeycomb of rock-cut tombs and, in front of them, three weathered but remarkably well-preserved, freestanding Lycian-style sarcophagi, each with its distinctive “upturned boat” lid still in place.
Tucked away at the foot of the acropolis, around to the northeast and well worth seeking out, are more mock-temple, rock-cut tombs. Back in 1838, Fellows, with the help of some local kids, explored these multi-chambered tombs, writing of one: “A tomb, sculptured high up in the rock, in the form of an Ionic temple, we found to be of great interest, and I doubt not it will be appreciated by the antiquarian and lover of ancient history and poetry. ... On the left side, on entering the portico, was a spirited bas-relief of Bellerophon, and beneath his horse Pegasus the vanquished Chimaera.” This tomb and its carvings, dating back to the fourth century B.C., have survived intact until today and are one of the high points of a visit to the site.
Goats, washing and theatrical backdrops
Recent excavations mean that the agora or marketplace of the ancient city is no longer used as pasture land by local villagers (though we saw plenty of goats scrabbling around the rocky acropolis), but several village women have set up stalls selling attractive embroidery and lacework from roadside stalls -- and on the day we visited, one had hung her washing on a line strung between two trees. There's little of interest in the agora, though it is lined on the side of the acropolis by a long tier of stone seating once part of the stadium. Opposite this bank of seats and across the breadth of the marketplace are the substantial remains of the gymnasium and, south of this, a monumental bath house.
Little is known about the history of Tlos, but archaeological finds suggest it may have been in existence since the Hittite period. It was, like other similar settlements scattered across the mountainous peninsula that today forms southwestern Turkey, inhabited by the distinctive Lycian people, who gave the region its name in antiquity. The citizens of Tlos, like those elsewhere in Lycia, spoke their own language and had their own culture, though they were to be much influenced later by the civilizations of Greece and Rome. The city fell to the Persians in the sixth century; later, it became part of the greater Greek world and was then slowly absorbed into the Roman Empire. The substantial remains of a church, easily identified by its east-facing apse, shows that the city continued to be an important place in the Byzantine period as well. And, as we know from the ruins of “Bloody” Ali Paşa's residence, it was still inhabited in the 19th century.
Although currently fenced off, the ancient theatre, at the southwestern edge of the site, is perhaps the single-most impressive structure surviving at Tlos. Facing the horseshoe-shaped structure from below, one cannot help but marvel at its dramatic situation, set into (in spring, at least) a gloriously green hillside with, in the distance, a towering wall of snow-flecked peaks providing the ultimate theatrical backdrop.