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Barry's Blog # 64 - Patara the 3,000 year old Lycian city

'Hidden in plain sight' is the expression that comes to my mind when I think about how many of the Turkish people regard the hundreds of ancient artefacts that surround them in everyday life. I guess that if you've grown up always seeing Lycian stone tombs that are thousands of years old just dotted around your town then it's really not such a big deal.

Lycian Tomb

Personally I've always had a fascination for ancient ruins and old buildings. I think it all started when my grandfather would take me on long walks through the Welsh countryside as a young boy. In particular I remember one game that we used to play was to see who could find the oldest dated headstone in the many old graveyards we'd wander around whilst visiting ancient churches. Reading some of the epitaphs on the headstones always had me wondering about the person who was buried there. What was their daily life like, what was their job, where did they live?

These thoughts and more have been racing through my mind recently as we spent some time checking out quite a few of the ancient Lycian ruins within close driving proximity to Kaş town. We'd needed to hire a car to be able to attend our Turkish residency application appointment in the town of Kemer a 2.5 hour drive to the south east of Kaş. So we decided to hire the car for a week and do the whole tourist sightseeing thing.

The ancient Lycian ruins at Patara

Lycian ruins at Patara

The history of Patara, located at the mouth of the Xanthos River on the south-west coast of Lycia on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey in Antalya Province, dates back to 1,300 BC. It was a very wealthy city due to it being Lycia's major naval and trading port and was one of the six principal cities of the Lycian League.

Patara’s oracle at the renown temple of Apollo was said to rival that at Delphi and the temple equalled the reputation of the famous temple on the island of Delos. It was believed that Apollo lived at Delos during the summer but spent his winters at Patara. Omens were interpreted in these two towns during the respective seasons. A large bust of Apollo, discovered on the hill beyond the City Gate, indicates the existence of an Apollo Temple which has not been yet found.

Patara is famous in Christian history for being a place Saint Paul visited en route to Jerusalem during his third missionary journey. Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus), the future bishop of Myra (now called Demre) was born at Patara in 270 AD.

Piracy and looting had started in the late Roman age and by the mid-7th century the Arabs had built a fleet that challenged Byzantine naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean. Their raids eventually pretty much finished off Lycia. Patara, still held out but was eventually reduced to a mere village. The townspeople were forced to retreat to a small area on the edge of the harbor and to build walls to create a protected inner port; by this time the city was very much shrunken. Written records of the 9th century show that while Patara was still an important place, it was no longer the great city it had been. In the 10th century it became a naval base of the Byzantine Empire. Its port is reported to have been used through to at least the 15th century and the Sultan Cem signed a treaty there in 1478/9. Church and chapel excavations point towards further greater shrinkage of the village and an increase in poverty. Eventually, with too little manpower to keep the sand out of the harbor, it silted up and turned into a malaria-plagued marsh and that was the final nail in the coffin for Patara.

Much of Patara remains undiscovered, buried in the shifting sands. However, some very exciting excavations have been going on revealing many structures previously hidden by the dunes. Among them, liberated from the many hundreds of truckloads of sand that covered it, is the parliament building where the elected representatives of the Lycian League met. It has rows of stone seats arranged in a semicircle. Its stone-vaulted main entrances are intact and so is the throne like perch where the elected Lyciarch, the effective president of the Lycian League would sit. Another recent discovery are the remains of what may be the oldest lighthouse in the world. It seems that many secrets of Patara are yet to be uncovered.

Who were the Lycians?

The Lycians were an ancient people who inhabited the area of present day Turkey between the bays of Antalya and Fethiye, a compact and mountainous area. The ancient Greeks knew and admired the Lycians, for the Lycians had solved a problem which baffled the ancient world: how to reconcile free government in the city-state with the needs of a larger political unity. The Lycians had a fierce desire for freedom and independence and this found its expression in their sense of unity and federation. The institutions of the democratic Lycian Federation (the first democratic union known) were studied and envied by most classical writers. While Greek city-states were constantly at war with each other, the Lycian cities enjoyed peace amongst themselves.

The Lycians were also one of the few non-Hellenistic nations of antiquity which could not be called ‘barbarians’. In fact, their image in antiquity was much like that of today's Swiss: a hard-working and wealthy people, neutral in world affairs but fierce in the defence of their freedom and conservative in their attachment to ancestral tradition. Lycia was the last region on the entire Mediterranean coast to be incorporated as a province in the Roman Empire and even then the Lycian Union continued to function independently. The Lycians spoke a language of their own, with their own unique alphabet, before adopting Greek around the 3rd century BC. Their many monuments, especially their beautiful tombs which embody their ancestor cult, still dot the entire landscape of the southwest coast of Turkey between the Gulf of Fethiye and Phaselis.

Patara beach

Just a couple of kilometres from the Lycian ruins is Patara beach, an absolute gem that remains unspoiled by development. The beach is Anatolia’s longest beach stretching over 18 kilometres (11 miles) and it's also a protected area because it is a major turtle nesting beach for the endangered loggerhead turtle (caretta caretta). Turtles have been returning annually to this beach to lay their eggs for 40 million years. The beach is closed after sunset from May to October to give the turtles peace and quiet in which to come ashore and lay their eggs. It is the second most important turtle nesting beach in Turkey.

The day we visited we were, as usual, the only tourists in town and we were very much reminded of some of the beaches of Queensland, Australia. Lots of open sand and not a single person in sight.

During the summer season Patara beach gets quite busy and there are plenty of activities to keep visitors occupied including a horse safari tour that gives you the opportunity to ride a horse along the beach. Of course there are plenty of water sports too including canoeing, paragliding, kayaking, surfing and scuba diving.

An entrance fee of 15 Lira (AU$3.90) per person is charged in order to visit the beach and the ruins which is good value in my opinion. But it gets even better because for that one off fee they issue you with a card that allows 10 entrances over a 10 day period. Great value.

There are heaps of other ancient sites we visited while we had the hire car and I'll tell you all about them in future blogs.

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