15 July 2011

Visiting Lycian rock tombs and searching the streets for sarcophagi

The Tomb of Amyntas, in the rock face above Fethiye (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The resorts of Hisaronou and Ovacik, halfway between Fethiye and Oludeniz, are packed with tourists in search of sun-and-sand holiday. With the temperatures in the high 30s, and hitting 40 at times, they have probably been getting more sun they expected.

A local restaurateur was dismissive of Hisaronou, referring to it in conversation as “Blackpool-in-Turkey.” Ovacik is a little more restrained, and in the Grand Ucel Hotel where I am staying in Ovacik, most of the guests and holiday-makers are Turkish families.

But Ovacik is also an important cultural centre as the starting point for the Lycian Way, a long-distance trail from Ovacik through Kas to Antalya, and running parallel to the Turquoise Coast in this part of south-west Turkey.

It is too hot at the height of summer to walk the Lycian Way, but this area abounds with reminders that this was once the centre of the great Lycian civilisation, which had its own language and customs and which has left a distinctive legacy in this part of Anatolia.

The Lycians were first mentioned in the Iliad, when Homer says they fought on the side of Troy in the Trojan Wars. They fiercely rejected Persian and Greek conquerors, but after Alexander the Great they were ruled by Ptolemies they gradually lost their Lycian language and customs, replacing them with Greek ways.

Under the Romans, they enjoyed a degree of autonomy, and so the Lycian civilisation continued to be an important impressive part of the classical world.

The great Lycian centres included Tlos and Xanthos, east of Fethiye, but Fethiye itself has a collection of some of the finest and most accessible Lycian tombs.

And so over the past week I have used the opportunity of being based near Fethiye to climb the cliffs to the rock tombs, and to wander the streets in search of sarcophagi.

Lycian rock tombs, clinging to the rock face of the cliffs above the harbour in Fethiye (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

High above the harbour, a collection of rock tombs clings to the cliff-face, some of them as if they are defying gravity, looking as if they were about tip down on the city below.

In a collection of three temple-like Lycian tombs carved out of the rock, the most note-worthy tomb is the Tomb of Amyntas. The tomb looks like an Ionic temple and was built in 350 BC. It is named after the inscription carved in Greek letters on the side: “Amyntou tou Ermagioiu” (Αμυντου του Ερμαγηοηυ), “Armyntas son of Hermagios.”

What makes the tomb unique from the other tombs is its size – most of the mountain-side tombs are the size of a small room, but the height of this tomb is equivalent to that of a full-sized temple.

The porch of the tomb displays two Ionic columns surmounted by a triangular pediment, carved like the façade of a temple. The details of this imitation of a temple are so perfect that they include imitation bronze nails as if they studded into the doorframes.

The tomb would have been entered through the bottom-right panel of the doorway, but this was broken through by robbers in the past.

A Lycian sarcophagus ... treated as a traffic island in the back streets of Fethiye (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Below, the streets are littered with a number of Lycian-type sarcophagi, many with epitaphs in Lycian script. One large tomb stands in the middle of a side-street, marked with graffiti and with bollards and a red light to protect it from motorists who drive by on either side. More lie beside one another behind iron railings, as if they were graves in an abandoned churchyard.

A vault-shaped Lycian sarcophagus carved with intricate images of warriors in battle and feasting friends, hidden beside the government offices near the harbour at Fethiye (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

But perhaps the most interesting is missed by tourists and visitors, tucked in beside the government house, a few metres back from the seafront. Yet this vault-shaped tomb dating from the 4th century BC is one of the best surviving examples of a Lycian sarcophagus. Its carved stonework imitates the construction of wooden buildings, with coffered decorations on the narrow facades and imitation wooden beams along the longer edges. The relief depicting warriors in battle and feasting friends, reflecting the high social status of the Lycian ruler buried here.

The ruins of the Hellenistic theatre of Telmessos in Fethiye (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

At the other end of the seafront stands the remains of the Hellenistic theatre, which waits to be excavated thoroughly and waits for archaeologists with vision for its restoration. Appropriately it stands opposite the boarding point for the ferry to Rhodes – it is impossible to separate the classical cultures that once thrived in this corner of Europe and that fed into each other. Sadly, much of the masonry was carted away after the earthquake in 1957 and used as building material.

On the acropolis above the harbour stands the mediaeval ruin known as the Knights’ Castle. Although the fortress is said to have been built by the Knights of Saint John, there is a variety of architectural styles in the ruins, showing that the Lycians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans valued and continued to use this site over the centuries.

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