One half of an ancient Lycian site: Xanthos

A combined Unesco World Heritage Site, the ruins of Xanthos and Letoon are two Lycian sites that were a short day trip from Fethiye. We did the two of them together on the way to our next destination of Kas, further to the east. We had to get up early to leave Fethiye as we wanted to get to Kas before dark, mainly because the winding coastal drive is beautiful in the daytime but dangerous at night. So we got up early, checked out of our hotel in Fethiye and off we went.

The two sites lie on the border between two Turkish provinces, Antalya and Mugla. It was an easy drive down the D400 highway until we reached a well-marked exit to Xanthos. There was also an exit to Letoon further down the road, but we took the village roads between the two sites. It was a bit more adventurous, but the distance was short.

Xanthos is listed under an alternate spelling (Ksantos) and Letoon is circled to the left. We drove south from Fethiye
We didn’t see much as we approached Xanthos from the farmers’ fields
Some of the ruins could be seen in the distance on the hill

From the UNESCO site:

Made up of two neighboring settlements located in the southwestern part of Anatolia, respectively within the boundaries of Antalya and Muğla Provinces, Xanthos-Letoon is a remarkable archaeological complex. It represents the most unique extant architectural example of the ancient Lycian Civilization, which was one of the most important cultures of the Iron Age in Anatolia.

Xanthos, which was the capital of ancient Lycia, illustrates the blending of Lycian traditions with the Hellenic influence, especially in its funerary art. The rock-cut tombs, pillar tombs and pillar-mounted sarcophagi in Xanthos are unique examples of ancient funerary architecture. Their value was already recognized in Antiquity and they influenced the art of neighboring provinces: the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus is for instance directly influenced by the Xanthos Nereid Monument. The fact that some architectural and sculptural pieces of the sites were taken to England in the 19th century, including the Monument of Harpy, the Tomb of Payava and the Nereid Monument, led to their word-wide recognition, and consequently the Xanthos marbles became an important part of the history of ancient art and architecture.

Ancient places can be named in a variety of ways

Noted as the largest city in Lycia by ancient historians, the acropolis of Xanthos dates from the 8th century BC. In his writings, Homer mentions Sarpedon, founder of Xanthos, as an ally of the Trojans during the Trojan War. In later times, during the war with Cyrus the Great and the Persians the city was surrounded. With no chance of victory, the men of Xanthos burned up their possessions, women, children and slaves on the acropolis and then charged in a suicidal attack to kill as many Persians as possible. The entire population of Xanthos perished except for 80 families who happened to be absent. After they returned the city slowly began to grow again.

Lycian architecture and sculpture depicts skills similar to the Greeks, but to the Greeks, the Lycians, along with other non-Greek peoples of southwestern Anatolia, were often viewed as barbarians.

To the west of the road stands the 2nd century AD Roman theatre, originally with seats for 2200 spectators.

One of the most famous objects in Xanthos is the Harpy Tomb located near the theatre. While the original pillar is still on the Harpy Tomb, the inscriptions were removed and taken to the British Museum. The ones at the top of the tomb are reproductions. Originally constructed for an Iranian prince or governor who ruled the area, the tomb is decorated in an archaic Greek style.

“The original of these embossments surrounding the burial chamber was abducted to the British Museum…”

Behind the theatre was a series of low ruins and views of the valley. Much of it was covered in greenhouses. This made sense as the summer heat seemed to be trapped within the valley. It was good for the vegetables, but bad for our exploring!

So many greenhouses

A modern road runs through the two separate parts of Xanthos. After walking to the end of the street, there was option to see the ruins of an ancient church to the right or circle around the hill for more tombs on the left. We chose the tombs.

Part of the city wall

As we made our way around, we saw more tombs as well as piles of ruins and broken sections of walls. It took some hopping and stepping as we made our way along the simple path.

A number of the tombs had inscriptions on them

After making our way half way up the hill, the trail was getting rougher. We were mostly seeing more tombs and we were running out of time. With the intense heat bearing down and another site to visit, we decided to make our way back down the hill and head back to the entrance.

One the way back

By now it was lunch time so we ate the simple packed lunch we brought and had some fresh orange juice from a stand next to the Xanthos entrance. After that it was a quick drive over to the second part of the heritage site: Letoon.

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