Where was Lycia?
Lycia was a geopolitical region in what is now Antalya and Mugla, on Turkey's south coast. References to Lycia have been found in records of ancient Egypt as well as the Hittite Empire in the late Bronze Age. In short: this is a very old civilisation. These ancient sources make references to around 70 Lycian settlements. Most are found either by the coast or nestled into the sides of mountains. Some of them are difficult to access, which is of course a defensive measure, while the coastal port settlements were heavily fortified and defended against the marauding Lycian pirate fleets.
The chief cities of ancient Lycia were Xanthos, Patara, Myra, Pinara, Tlos and Olympos. Incredibly, you can still see the well preserved ruins of most of these cities.
So who were the Lycians?
The Lycian people inhabited present day Turkey between Antalya and Fethiye. Their desire for freedom and autonomy led to the world's first democratic government (see below), inspiring admiration from the ancient Greeks and even modern-day political scholars (Lycia's government was studied as a possible model for US government at one time. While Greece's states were constantly battling each other, Lycia's cities enjoyed long periods of peacetime, which allowed the citizens to concentrate on art and culture.
Located at a juncture where Greek culture met the Near East, Lycia developed a unique culture and styles of art. They were hard working and prosperous, and held fast to their traditional values and customs. They had their own language and a unique alphabet, until they adopted the Greek language around 3BC.
Other customs that set them apart included using their mother's name instead of their fathers; and allowing a woman to preside over the national assembly held annually at Patara.
Groundbreaking democratic government
The Lycian League is unique in that it's the first known democratic union in history. Despite divisions across geography and outsider attempts to gain power, Lycia's independent city states were firmly united within the league.
The Lycian League operated by sending representatives from each member city to assemblies held once a year in Patara (you can still see Patara's ruins today if you visit the beach). Cities were taxed according to their size. The League controlled communal land, trade rights and marital rights. The right to vote (for men, of course) for your elected assembly representative was staunchly upheld.
Lycia's strong union of cities, cemented by its democratic union, is a chief reason why the cities survived so long against occupiers and marauders. Even during the Roman period when Lycia ceded its ultimate government to Rome the League was still responsible for Lycia's religious, economic and legal matters.
Today you can still see around 20 principal Lycian sites. This is an incredible feat, and more down to accident than design: partly due to the secluded nature of some of the sites, and also because successive civilisations didn’t seem to “recycle” materials from the ruins as has been seen in other comparable sites around the world.
The chief sites to visit include Xanthos, a World Heritage Site and an ex Lycian capital. This can be found 27 kilometres from Kalkan. Letoon was the mystical centre of Lycia, where three temples were built to Leto, Artemis and Apollo, the chief deities of Lycia. Letoon is located near Xanthos. Kekova is an archaeological site with a difference: most of the ruins are located underwater, and surrounded by incredible scenery. This island site near Demre is popular with Blue Cruises. Tlos was one of Lycia’s six principal cities. It’s relatively isolated but worth the day trip from Fethiye to see its incredibly well preserved acropolis with its 360 degree panoramic views. Myra was another principal city, and today is known for its rock tombs and the largest Lycian amphitheatre in existence. Nearby you’ll find the Church of St Nicholas, where the famous saint’s remains once lay. Patara’s ruins get extra points for being on the edge of one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Once a major Lycian sea port, this large city had many buildings and what is thought to be the world’s oldest lighthouse. An incredible site.
Another of the six principal cities of Lycia, the major naval and trading port of Lycia. An extensive city with many ancient structures, including what may be the world's oldest lighthouse. Located right next to Patara Beach, voted one of the best beaches in the world.
The Lycian Way: an unexpected legacy
Lycia’s founders would have approved of the Lycian Way. The former region’s settlements were divided by geography, but united by a common goal and purpose. In the same way, the 510 kilometre walk along the Lycian coast links the ancient sites and the varied geography, allowing modern-day walkers a small glimpse into the ancient civilisation that once thrived here.
The long-distance footpath stretches from Oludeniz, near Fethiye, to Hisarcandir, just short of Antalya. Listed as one of the world’s great walks, the landscape is varied and spectacular, while the walk itself varies in terms of difficulty from medium to difficult.
Walkers can choose to stay in pensions along the way or, in more remote spots, stay in village houses or camp under the stars.
The best time to walk the route is in spring or autumn, otherwise it’s just too hot - there are few shaded sections on the trail.
Lycia’s ancient sites are more popular than ever as more and more visitors begin to discover Turkey, and more overseas residents settle here in Turkish real estate. It’s crucial that Lycia’s legacy is protected in the face of growing tourism, so future generations of visitors can appreciate the enormous impact Lycia had on modern day Turkish society and culture.