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BLOG Xanthos and Letoon: Ancient Treasures of Turkey

9 August 2023 / Travel


Xanthos and Letoon: Ancient Treasures of Turkey

Hidden amidst the breathtaking landscapes of Fethiye, Turkey, lie two ancient archaeological sites steeped in history and legend; Xanthos and Letoon. These historical sites reflect the Lycian civilization that once thrived in this area, leaving behind awe-inspiring ruins that captivate visitors from around the globe.

The Lycians lived in this region, called Lycia, on the southwestern coast of modern-day Turkey from around the 14th century BC. Lycia was bordered by western Caria and eastern Pamphylia, and the territory encompassed approximately 160 kilometres along the Mediterranean Sea. They had their own language, known as Lycian, which was part of the Luwian branch of the Anatolian language family.

They are also known for their rock-cut tombs, sea trading routes, and trilingual inscriptions, where the exact text would be written in Lycian, Greek, and Aramaic. Throughout history, they also interacted with neighbouring civilizations, including the Greeks, Persians, and Egyptians.

Eventually, Lycia was incorporated into the Roman Empire in the 1st century BCE. The civilization gradually declined over time, and with the advent of Christianity, their distinctive culture and language faded away. Today, archaeological remains of Lycia in Xanthos ancient city and Letoon reminds us of this ancient and fascinating civilization.

                                 About Xanthos and Letoon UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Archaeological Excavations of Xanthos and Letoon Sites

Xanthos and Letoon's ancient ruins were first discovered by British archaeologist Charles Fellows in the mid-19th century. Charles Fellows explored various regions of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) in search of ancient archaeological sites. In 1838, Fellows arrived in the area and visited Xanthos, where he made significant archaeological discoveries, including the famous Nereid Monument.

In 1841, he discovered Letoon's ruins. Fellows's discoveries were groundbreaking. He documented his findings and shared them with academic communities sparking further interest in more extensive archaeological investigations. Scholars and historians have highly regarded and appreciated Fellows' contributions to archaeology in Turkey and Lycian history.

But, understanding these ancient cities begins with delving into their mythical legends. In Greek mythology, Xanthos was the name of a young prince who ended his life after witnessing the downfall of his beloved city. This self-sacrifice is said to have led to the founding of Xanthos city in his memory.

Letoon ancient city, on the other hand, was a religious centre dedicated to the goddess Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis. Legends say Leto sought refuge in this area after being persecuted by the jealous goddess Hera.

Xanthos Fethiye

Exploring Xanthos Ancient City - The Lycian Capital

Xanthos City was situated on the southern banks of the Xanthos River, which was the primary water source for the inhabitants. The Xanthos River, known as "Eşen Çayı" in modern times, is a major river flowing from the Taurus Mountains to the Mediterranean Sea. The river provided consistent fresh water for agriculture, domestic use, and survival. Additionally, Xanthos had access to underground water sources, such as springs and wells, which further supported the needs of residents. These springs and wells likely provided water during drought or when the river's flow was reduced.

Xanthos was once the Lycian Federation capital. Established in the 8th century BCE, Xanthos served as an essential cultural and political centre for centuries. The city witnessed various historical events and underwent the rule of different civilizations, including the Persians, Greeks, and Romans. One notable feature of Xanthos is funerary architecture. The Lycians had strict approaches to burial practices, as evident from imposing rock-cut tombs that dot the landscape around the city. These elaborate tomb facades showcase intricate carvings and reliefs.

The trilingual inscription found at Xanthos represents the multi-lingual and multi-cultural nature. As the most critical inscription found in Lycia, reflecting linguistic diversity and historical context, the trilingual inscription is written in three languages: Lycian, Greek, and Aramaic. The inscription was discovered on a large pillar, known as the "Pillar Tomb." The 4th century BCE inscription provided valuable insights into Lycian history, language, and culture.

The trilingual inscription's content varies between the three languages. Still, the general theme is the dedication to a ruler or king. The content primarily praises the ruler for his accomplishments and his significance. Unfortunately, some parts are damaged and remain undeciphered, leaving gaps in our understanding. This trilingual inscription holds immense historical value as it showcases linguistic and cultural diversity and provides valuable links between the Lycian language and other contemporary languages.

Letoon Ancient City - The Sanctuary of Leto

Letoon cult centre sat near the Xanthos River and benefited from the same water source as Xanthos. The sanctuary's proximity to the river provided reliable water supplies for religious rituals and ceremonies. The 7th century BCE sanctuary played a crucial role in Lycian religious practices. The Letoon ruins feature a grand temple complex of three temples dedicated to Leto, Apollo, and Artemis. These temples once housed magnificent statues and offerings to gods, signifying the importance of Letoon as a significant religious centre. Visitors to Letoon can witness the remarkable remnants of temples and the ancient theatre hosting performances and gatherings.

Letoon Mugla

Lycian Rock Tombs at Xanthos and Letoon Ancient Cities

Xanthos, the capital of the Lycian Federation, boasts an impressive collection of rock-cut tombs that dot the city's landscape. These tombs date back to various periods in Lycian history, reflecting the evolving architectural styles and burial practices. Sadly, two of the most prominent tombs sits in the British museum. They are the Nereid Monument and the Tomb of Payava.

British archaeologist Charles Fellows discovered the most notable and renowned tomb, the Nereid Monument, in the mid-19th century. The Nereid Monument, dedicated to the Lycian royal family, signifies Lycian funerary art, characterized by intricately carved reliefs depicting mythological scenes and guardian figures. The Tomb of Payava, discovered in the early 20th century, is another remarkable example, adorned with detailed reliefs depicting the deceased in a dynamic pose, indicating his military status.

Letoon, a sacred sanctuary rather than a residential city, also features Lycian rock-cut tombs. These tombs were near the refuge and were burial sites for prominent individuals associated with the religious community. While the tombs at Letoon are not as numerous or as elaborate as those at Xanthos, they still showcase the distinctive Lycian architectural style.

Some tombs at Letoon are simple chamber tombs with a facade. In contrast, others are more modest in size and decoration compared to royal tombs found at Xanthos. The Lycian rock-cut tombs hold immense historical and cultural significance. These tombs, carved into natural rock formations, have withstood the test of time, preserving the memory of inhabitants and their beliefs.

Lycian Heritage and UNESCO Recognition

In 1988, the historic sites were collectively inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognizing exceptional cultural significance and preservation. The Lycian heritage represents fused Lycian traditions with Greek, Persian, and Roman influences. The UNESCO inscription has led to increased awareness and conservation efforts, ensuring future generations can explore and learn from the exceptional heritage of these historical sites.

Excavations and Modern Tourism

Preserving the UNESCO World Heritage sites is a joint effort between the Turkish government, local communities, and international organizations. Conservation projects aim to safeguard the ruins, stabilize structures, and protect delicate artefacts from natural decay and human impact. In recent years, the tourism industry in Fethiye has flourished, attracting visitors who seek to explore the rich history and culture.

Also, Visit Patara Beach and Ancient City

Sitting 17 kilometres from Xanthos, Patara emerges from the pages of history as an enigmatic and culturally significant site. Established around the 8th century BCE, Patara quickly rose to prominence due to its location on the crossroads of ancient trade routes. The accessible harbour and sea proximity granted Patara the title of a key port city, facilitating extensive commerce with neighbouring lands.

Legend says Apollo, the Greek god of light and prophecy, founded Patara. In Greek mythology, Apollo's priests were believed to have an oracle in Patara where they would divine the future and impart their wisdom to travellers and inhabitants alike.

The archaeological remains at Patara are nothing short of breathtaking. Among the most notable structures is the Patara Theatre, an impressive Roman-era amphitheatre capable of accommodating thousands of spectators. The theatre's well-preserved seats and stage transport visitors to an era of artistic and cultural vibrancy.

Beyond archaeological wonders, Patara's allure extends to natural landscapes. The city is renowned for its expansive sandy beach, stretching over 18 kilometres. The juxtaposition of ancient ruins against Patara Beach creates mesmerizing scenes that enchant visitors and photographers alike.

Today, Patara boasts cultural and historical significance, drawing curious travellers worldwide. The Turkish government and various organizations have made concerted efforts to preserve and protect the ancient city's archaeological treasures. Educational tours, guided walks, and interpretive centres offer visitors a deeper understanding of Patara's rich heritage.

Xanthos and Patara as Part of the Lycian League

The Lycian League of Cities, also known as the Lycian Confederation, was a union of independent city-states. The League, established in the 2nd century BCE, was characterized by unique political structures and the spirit of cooperation among member cities. The League responded to growing threats and pressures from external powers, notably the neighbouring Seleucid Empire and Ptolemaic Egypt. Recognizing unity and collective defence, Lycian cities formed a confederation to pool resources and coordinate efforts for mutual protection and prosperity.

The member cities elected representatives to a central council, responsible for making collective decisions, resolving disputes, and managing external affairs. The committee met regularly at designated locations, often at Patara or Xanthos. Each member city enjoyed an equal voice regardless of size or population. This notion of political equality was uncommon, as most societies were governed by monarchs or oligarchies.

While the League had a central council, it did not have a leader. Instead, the league rotated federal structures, with different cities taking turns to hold leadership positions. This rotation ensured no city gained excessive dominance or control over others, reinforcing the principles of fairness and equality.

The membership offered several advantages to member cities. These benefits included protecting against external threats, resolving internal conflicts through peaceful arbitration, and accessing shared resources for various projects and endeavours. Additionally, the cities likely benefited from increased trade and economic opportunities through cooperation and mutual support.

The League thrived during the Hellenistic period and into the Roman era. However, with the gradual Roman expansion and political transformation, the confederation's significance waned. By the 1st century CE, the League's autonomy diminished as the Roman administration took more direct control over the region.

Although the League eventually lost political autonomy, its legacy as an early example of democratic governance and cooperation among ancient city-states continues to be celebrated and admired by historians and scholars. While the list of member cities may have varied over time, some major cities were Xanthos, Patara, Myra, Tlos, Pinara, Olympos, Arycanda, Phaselis, Sidyma and Telmessos.

Further Reading of Interest

The Lycian Way: Steeped in history and with breathtaking scenery at every turn, the Lycian Way stretches along Turkey's Mediterranean coastline. Some 540km long, it's one of Turkey's best-known trails and attracts hikers worldwide each year.

More Lycian History in Fethiye: Those who know Fethiye well will also learn about Lycian history. Of course, traces of Ottoman history can be found, but ideally, for that era, visit Istanbul. Instead, Fethiye's ancient civilization and forward thinkers were the Lycians. Exploring Fethiye and the rest of Mediterranean Turkey opens up their world.

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