History unfolding -- Milas, Beçin and Labranda
Excavations around Temple of Zeus, Milas (Photos: Pat Yale)
Tucked away in a quiet corner of Milas where old men while away their days in a pretty little park stands a rather unlikely monument.
A two-storied Roman tomb dating back to the second century, the Gümüşkesen (“Silver-Cutting”) is believed by some to have been modeled on the much more famous Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, once one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, now little more than a hole in the ground.
If that is indeed the case, it would probably have to do with a slice of Milas' most distant history. As the Carian city of Mylasa, it was the original seat of the Hecatomnid family, who ruled the area on behalf of the Persians and carried on the practice of marrying their own brothers and sisters. The most famous king to arise from the dynasty was Mausolus, who made the decision to relocate Mylasa west to Halicarnassus (now Bodrum). On his death his sister-wife had the enormous tomb built in his honor. It stood almost 43 meters high and could be seen from far out to sea.
The Gümüşkesen has none of that grandeur; indeed, it's really rather a small monument. Still, it does stand as a reminder of a time when Milas was not as much of a backwater as it has become since Bodrum rose up to steal its limelight.
Like its neighbor Muğla, Milas struggles to attract attention in the face of the overwhelming pull of the beach resorts at Bodrum and Marmaris. For many years it barely saw an outside visitor except on Tuesdays when its street market was a fixture on the Bodrum tour calendar. Currently, though, the authorities are working hard to make more of the town's other rather underrated attractions. In the town center, for example, a major archeological dig is uncovering what must have been the Roman center spreading out around a large temple to Zeus. What looks like the marble-paved agora (marketplace) is already coming to light and it looks as if there's much more waiting to be uncovered.
Near the remains of the temple a single gate, the Baltalı Kapı (Axe Gate) so named from a carved axe visible above the keystone, survives from the old city walls. It all adds up to a picture of a town that continued to flourish even after it was eclipsed by Halicarnassus. Slowly, though, Mylasa appears to have declined in importance until the period following the collapse of the Selçuk Sultanate of Rum when the Menteşe Beylik (or mini-state) was established at Beçin high up on a rocky plateau overlooking old Mylasa.
In the period from 1260 to 1424 the Menteşes may have focused their attentions on their capital, but Mylasa still benefited from the trickle-down effect, with several smart new mosques going up in the town center, shamelessly reusing stones from the old Roman and Byzantine ruins. The most magnificent of Milas' Menteşe-era mosques is the Firuz Bey (Kurşunlu) Cami, built in 1394 in spectacular style. The Ulu Cami of 1378 is more obviously dependent on the reuse of older materials.
Once the Ottomans saw off the Menteşes, however, poor old Milas fell into another decline, only really emerging from it in the late 18th century as trade in cotton and tobacco gave it a new lease of life. At that time the mainly Greek, Jewish and Armenian traders built themselves impressive stone houses, many of which still stand around the ruins of the temple of Zeus. At the same time, the lovely Çöllühanı was built to provide a place for traveling salesmen to put up for the night and store their goods. It's currently under restoration.
Its own low-key charms aside, Milas makes a great base for exploring the many archeological sites in the surrounding area. Two of these sites, Beçin and Labranda, have particularly close links with its own history. You can visit both of them on an afternoon trip out of Milas.
As you drive into Milas from Muğla you will see, rising up on the left-hand side of the road, a lofty plateau on which perched Beçin Kalesi. Although the earliest settlement in this area also appears to have been up on the Beçin plateau, the castle itself is a Byzantine work completely rebuilt when the Menteşes swept to power. Its defensive possibilities are immediately obvious. From here the occupants would have had a sweeping view right out over old Mylasa and beyond.
Today's visitors can share in those views as they stroll round the walls and poke about in the ruins of houses that were built inside them once its military function was lost. Afterwards they can explore what are the extensive remains of an abandoned city with many hamams, hans and other barely identifiable ruins scattered about fields where locals still tend their sheep and goats.
The most clearly identifiable structure is the Ahmed Gazi Medrese, a once-romantic ruin with four iwans overlooking a courtyard that was the burial site of the Menteşe emir, Ahmed Gazi, and his wife. Sadly, restoration has led to the site being locked up so that you can no longer see it. To make matters worse, a picnic area has been created right beside it so that litter and graffiti have been introduced into what was once a pristine beauty spot.
No matter. If you press on across the plateau you start to leave the dead hand of the restorer behind and come to the more romantically abandoned parts of the site. Your efforts will be rewarded when you come first to the old Menteşe cemetery and then, beyond that, to the ruins of the large Yelli Cami and Karapaşa Medrese.
Beçin offers a link to Milas' medieval history but Labranda, slightly further away along an atrocious road used by trucks, is tied to its more ancient past. Even before the founding of Mylasa there may have been a temple here although the cult mainly associated with the site, that of Zeus Labrayndus (Axe-Wielding), really took off under the reign of the Hecatomnids in Mylasa.
High up on the mountainside this is a beautiful, deserted but particularly mysterious site, home to a number of austere-looking structures that are described as “androns.” These appear to have been the ancient equivalent of teahouses, places where men got together to feast and pray.
Two of the androns bear the names of Mausolus and his brother İdrieus who succeeded him as king. In B.C. 355 Mausolus is even believed to have survived an assassination attempt while visiting Labranda.
Pliny tells a curious story about the fish oracle that existed here. The priests supposedly kept fish that were decked out like the pigeons of modern Urfa in necklaces and earrings. Those looking to find the answer to a question would throw food to the fish. If they ate it the answer was positive, if they didn't it was not.
Just as the temple of Hecate at nearby Lagina was connected to Stratonikeia by a Sacred Way, so a 12-kilometer-long path led all the way down the mountain from the Temple of Zeus to the town of Mylasa. Those of an energetic disposition might want to emulate the worshippers and walk back down the hill today. Anything to avoid the ruts in the road, basically.
WHERE TO STAY
There's a much better choice of places to stay in Bodrum.
Milashan Hotel. Tel: 0252-513 7901
Sürücü Hotel. Tel: 0252-512 4001
HOW TO GET THERE
Milas is actually closer to Bodrum International Airport than to Bodrum, although most people whiz past on a transfer bus. Otherwise you can easily get here by bus from Bodrum or Muğla. Local buses run to the foot of Beçin Kalesi but not right up to it. You'll need private transport or a taxi with a driver who's not too worried about his axles to get to Labranda.