Looking for the Lycians: 10 best Lycian sites of the Mediterranean

Looking for the Lycians: 10 best Lycian sites of the Mediterranean

Lycian monuments at Xanthos. (Photo: Sunday's Zaman, Pat Yale)

February 17, 2013, Sunday/ 12:06:00/ PAT YALE

Beside a car park in the center of Fethiye, a huge Lycian sarcophagus goes largely ignored by the hundreds of people who pass by every day.

 Look at it more closely, however, and you’ll see that its lid is carved with neat little soldiers, a decorative touch unusual for such tombs. But if that is unusual what is not is its casual presence in the midst of modern life. It’s the same in Kaş too -- reminders of a people who inhabited this part of the Mediterranean coast as long ago as the Bronze Age cropping up casually amid the hurly-burly of the modern shopping center.

The Phrygians gave us King Midas, the Lydians King Croesus and the Carians King Mausolus. The Ionians nurtured a succession of philosophers whose names have echoed down the ages. In contrast, the Lycians are for the most part an anonymous bunch who left us no big names to conjure with. On the other hand, the physical reminders of their civilization turned out to have greater staying power than those of most of the other people that first settled the Anatolian coast. Substantial Lycian remains can be seen today all the way along the Mediterranean from Fethiye in the west to Myra in the east.

The first Luwian-speaking Lycians appeared on the scene in the 13th century B.C. Like most of the coastal peoples their independence was threatened in the sixth century by the Persians under Cyrus the Great. By then they appear to have been speaking true Lycian to judge from the inscriptions found at their first capital, Xanthos. Their history then collapses into the usual chaos of occupation after occupation; at different times this part of Anatolia was governed by Persians, Athenians, Egyptians, Macedonians, and Rhodians before eventually succumbing to the Romans, first as a series of city-states linked together in the largely self-governing Lycian League (formed c. 167 B.C.), then as a mere province. Their language appears to have died out in the fourth century, by which time most Lycians seem to have been speaking Greek.

The Lycians were masters of the funerary arts, leaving their mark on the landscape in the form of dramatic and picturesque rock-cut tombs carved to look like wooden houses or even miniature temples. Such tombs were the preserve of the nobility, but even lesser mortals got a grand send-off in the huge sarcophagi with pitched lids that litter the ground especially at Patara and Kaleköy, near Kaş.

At its height the Lycian League seems to have consisted of 26 separate city-states, and traces of most of them survive to this day, albeit sometimes in hard-to-access locations; to find them all you’ll need a copy of Cevdet Bayburtluoğlu’s excellent Lycia guidebook. As usual, visitors to the Lycian sites need to remember that much of what they will see dates from the later Roman period.

Xanthos and the Letoon

The extensive ruins of Xanthos on the hillside above Kınık now form part of a world heritage site together with the neighboring Letoon. Xanthos was the first capital of Lycia, and in 546 B.C. its inhabitants supposedly incinerated themselves on the acropolis rather than surrender to a Persian army led by Harpagos. According to Herodotus, some 80 families were away from home at the time and returned to rebuild the city later.

Xanthos appears to have suffered another devastating fire in the fifth century. However, today it’s still possible to examine several reminders of the Lycians in among the later Roman ruins. Parts of the wall supporting the acropolis, for example, date back to Lycian times as do many of the rock-cut tombs in the sprawling necropolis.

Unfortunately, most of the finest monuments were removed by the British explorer Charles Fellows between 1838 and 1842. Distressingly, then, one has to trek to the British Museum in London to admire the Nereids Monument, probably built for the fourth-century dynast (governor), Arbinas, in a style that is clearly Greek although with Persian and Lycian twists. Also in the British Museum is the fourth-century Payava Monument which is quintessentially Lycian in shape but which also shows signs of Persian and Athenian influence. Still partly in situ, however, is the distinctive Harpy Tomb, a tall, square structure with carvings only towards the top; it’s one of the few true relics of the Persian occupation to survive in Turkey.

Arbinas is believed to have paid for the Temple of Leto in nearby Kumluova. Here, too, were major shrines to her twin offspring, Apollo and Artemis, the trio providing the focus for religious belief among the Lycians. There may have been a temple to the Mother Goddess here as early as the seventh-century B.C., and Baykurtluoğlu compares the site’s relationship with Xanthos to that of the oracle at Didyma to Miletus. Today this lovely site is all the more beautiful for being partially submerged in water.


Patara succeded Xanthos as the capital of Lycia although evidence of the Lycians is less obvious here because the city went on to flourish under the Romans. The most conspicuous reminders are the huge tumbled sarcophagi dotting the inland side of the site, suggesting that the necropolis extended towards the modern village of Gelemiş. All have been broken open by treasure-seekers.

Fethiye (Telmessos)

Telmessos does not seem to have become part of Lycia until the fourth century B.C., but it was still home, in the shape of the Tomb of Amyntas, to one of the most spectacular of all Lycian rock-cut tombs. Designed to imitate a miniature temple adorned with Ionic capitals, this one closely resembles the tombs at the nearby Carian settlement of Dalyan/Kaunos. The hefty sarcophagi dotted about town are, however, stereotypically Lycian. Fethiye museum houses the Rosetta Stone of Lycian archeology in the form of a trilingual Greek, Aramaic and Lycian stele that was brought here from the Letoon and helped with the partial translation of the Lycian language.


Isolated on the mountainside above Eşen, Pınara was once the Lycian Pinale, a city powerful enough to wield the maximum three votes at meetings of the Lycian League. It is thought to have been established by colonists from Xanthos, but its residents seem to have been a more malleable bunch who submitted to Alexander the Great in the fourth century without resistance. Today the site is wonderfully peaceful and romantic, lost amid woodland and hard to reach by public transport. The most conspicuous survivals from Lycian days are the many rock-cut tombs, including the royal tomb that sports carvings of a banquet.


Sited on a dramatic plug of rock high above Fethiye, Tlava, as it was known to the Lycians, appears to have been one of their first cities and, like Pınara, it held three votes in the Lycian League. Unlike Pınara, however, it was badly damaged by a major earthquake in 141 B.C. Once again, the most obvious Lycian survivors are the rock-cut tombs in the extensive necropolis, including the so-called Grave of Bellerophon, which is carved with an image of Bellerophon riding the winged horse Pegasus. Parts of the city walls are also thought to date back to Lycian times. Unusually, Tlos continued in occupation right through until the 19th century when it became the stronghold of an Ottoman chief called Ali Ağa.


The great wall of rock-cut tombs that looms up above the second-century A.D. theater at Myra (Demre/Kale) is one of the most picturesque and best-known examples of Lycian funerary art, the tombs carved to resemble wooden houses and often adorned with carvings.

Kaş (Antiphellos)

Visitors to Kaş could be forgiven for failing to recognize that it was once the Lycian city of  Habesos since the most conspicuous reminder of ancient times is a much later (and newly restored) theater. But shoppers in the pretty Uzun Çarşı can hardly miss the magnificent two-storey Lion Tomb sarcophagus at the end of the street and as you wander around town you may spot other similar tombs.

Kaleköy (Simena)

Kaleköy is one of Turkey’s most beautiful villages. Contributing to that beauty are the many Lycian sarcophagi, some of them standing in the shallows of the sea, others tumbling down the hillside behind the castle, which confirm that this too was an important Lycian settlement.


Just inland from Finike Lycian, sarcophagi can be seen beside the road close to the remains of ancient Limyra. The actual necropolis here contains some 400, mainly rock-cut, graves all of them neatly labeled with the names of their Lycian occupants, making this “the richest city of Lycia when it comes to rock graves,” according to Bayburtluoğlu.

Tomb of Amyntas, Fethiye

Lycian monuments at Xanthos

Lion tomb, Kas

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