A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
We glided past Uluburun, a rocky cape on Turkey's southern shore. Below us, 150 feet beneath the surface of the dark blue water, were the remains of a merchant vessel that sank here ca. 1400 B.C. Small wonder the shipwreck is here; the Mediterranean coast of Anatolia was a main communication route throughout antiquity, traveled by everyone from traders to caesars to saints. Our trip had begun a week before in Marmaris. With me on a 12-day cruise along the Lycian coast of southern Turkey were photographer Nicolas Sapieha and my fiance, now wife, Heather Goodchild.
Our cruise was, in some ways, similar to the trip described by John Steinbeck, who sailed the Sea of Cortez with biologist Ed Ricketts in 1940: "We stopped in many little harbors and near barren coasts to collect the marine invertebrates of the littoral." We also were stopping along the way and collecting, except our search was for the ruins of ancient Lycia rather than Steinbeck's crabs, sponges, and sea cucumbers. Instead of jars of formalin for preserving specimens we had Nick's tripod and cameras.
Lycia, not as well known as other classical lands, bordered Caria to the west, Pisidia to the north, and Pamphylia to the east. Greek and Roman historians and geographers mention the Lycians only in passing, and inscriptions and coins give the names of a few of their rulers, but nowhere do we have an ancient history of Lycia. Herodotus tells of the Persian defeat of the Lycians in the sixth century B.C. Strabo describes the Lycian League, a federation of cities with a representative assembly that was most prominent from 167 B.C., when Lycia was freed from the control of Rhodes, to A.D. 43, when the emperor Claudius joined Lycia with Pamphylia to form a Roman province. Later Lycia, tied to the fortunes of Rome, appears now and again in the annals of the Empire.
From Marmaris we sailed for the ruins of Caunus on the Lycian-Carian border, anchoring overnight in a cove west of the site. Before dawn--Nick much preferred the soft light, just before the sun actually crept over the horizon, for photography--we climbed aboard a small white-painted wooden boat, one of many that ferry visitors up the Dalyan River to the ruins. In the early morning light the city's rocky acropolis loomed above the reed covered plain through which the river meanders.
Caunus came under Persian rule in the mid-sixth century B.C. after a defiant resistance. It became Hellenized in the fourth century B.C. under the rule of Mausolus, the Persian satrap of Caria. In 190 B.C. Caunus' ruler, Ptolemy of Egypt, sold the city to Rhodes. Rhodian possession of Caunus, along with all of Lycia, was granted by the Roman Senate in 189 B.C. in return for assistance Rhodes had provided in Rome's war with Antiochus III of Syria. Caunus, along with Lycia, rebelled against the oppressive rule of Rhodes, and was freed by order of the Roman senate in 167 B.C. Included in the Roman province of Asia in 129 B.C., Caunus made the error of supporting Mithridates, the king of Pontus, in his war against Rome in 88 B.C. As punishment the victorious Romans handed Caunus back to the Rhodians. Under Diocletian, at the end of the third century A.D., the city was incorporated into the province of Lycia.
Because of its malarial marshes Caunus had a notorious reputation. In Lycian Turkey, classical archaeologist George Bean recounts an exchange between the fourth-century comic Stratonicus and the citizens of Caunus:
...observing the greenish complexion of the malaria-ridden inhabitants, he [Stratonicus] commented that he now understood what Homer meant when he said, 'As are the generations of leaves, so are the generations of men.' The Caunians protested that it was unkind of him to stigmatize their city as unhealthy. 'What!' said Stratonicus, 'how could I dare to call a city unhealthy where even dead men walk the streets?"
The foul climate is also referred to by the first-century A.D. orator and philosopher Dio Chrysostom in a scathing criticism of the city and its inhabitants:
These stupid Caunians, when did they ever produce a worthwhile citizen? ...Their misfortunes are due to their extreme folly and rascality, and if they are all but wiped out by fever, it is no more than they deserve.
Many ancient harbors like those at Caunus and Patara are now reedy marshes, while others, like Antalya's, are still use. Guidebooks merely state that some harbors have "silted up." While increased silting undoubtedly occurred in antiquity as forests were stripped and land that came under cultivation in prosperous times was later neglected, the explanation may not be straightforward for any given site. The Turkish coast is geologically active, and the filling in of a harbor or the submergence of ancient coastal buildings may also have resulted from the shifting of plates deep beneath the earth's surface. Since 1990 Turkish and German archaeologists and geologists have been studying the coastline at Caunus to determine how it changed over the millennia. Dating of the structures at the site indicates that the city was originally confined to a small hill adjacent to the harbor. It expanded to the west and onto the higher peak that became its acropolis in the fourth century under the Persian satraps of Caria. From the acropolis one looks out over the reed-choked harbor, a Roman theater cut into acropolis's west slope, partly standing walls of a church and Roman bath complex, and stretches of fourth-century and later Hellenistic city walls. Beyond the harbor the marsh plain extends to the south, and, in the distance, the Mediterranean is faintly visible.
After photographing the site, we reboarded our boat and proceeded farther up the Dalyan River to a series of fourth-century B.C. tombs cut into a cliff, passing an elaborate fish trap made of reed screens and nets. Dalyan is, in fact, the Turkish word for fish trap. Every spring sea bass and sea bream swim upstream into a large lake at the head of the river. Each fall they are caught as they return to the sea. An inscription at Caunus records that fish were among the city's exports, along with figs, salt, resin, and slaves.
From our anchorage near Caunus we sailed to Gemiler Island east of the Gulf of Fethiye, bypassing Fethiye, although many stop to visit the town and view a few rock-cut tombs there, especially the large well-preserved Tomb of Amyntas. Gemiler was the subject of an article by yachtsman and archaeological enthusiast Robert Carter in Archaeology more than a decade ago (May/June 1985). Carter had sailed this coast during the 1960s and 1970s, and returned in 1983 to revisit favorite sites, particularly Early Byzantine complexes including those on Gemiler. He had expressed concern for the preservation of the ancient monuments as tourism increased, and I wanted to see firsthand how the island was faring.
The coast here is dominated by Baba Dag (Turkish for Father Mountain), a massive 6,000-foot peak. Gemiler is a narrow limestone ridge, scarcely a mile long and a quarter mile wide. A few walls and the apse of a Byzantine church can be seen on its seaward side. The size of the ancient settlement becomes apparent only when you sail into the narrow channel that separates the island's north coast and the mainland. Numerous quays and the stone foundations of waterfront buildings line the western end of the island. Many are submerged up to a depth of six feet but are visible in the clear water. Stone walls and the remains of houses and other structures are visible on the hillside above the harbor.
The settlement must have been an important religious center; its most prominent ruins are a basilica linked to a church by a long covered walkway or cryptoporticus. Faint traces of Byzantine frescoes depicting saints or the apostles are visible on the walls of the basilica. A survey of the island's extensive ruins by Japanese archaeologists from 1991 to 1994 has documented at least five churches as well as pilgrimage centers, and necropolises. Nearby Karacaoren Island also has a large church.
Carter dated the ruins on Gemiler to the fourth-sixth centuries A.D. by analysis of painting style, architectural details, and surface coin finds. Since there are no earlier classical remains on the island, he suggests that the settlement was founded after Christianization of the Roman Empire. Its abandonment may be related to Arab raiding along the coast in the seventh century A.D. Carter believes earthquake and plague may also have been responsible.
How are the ruins faring? Efforts are being made to protect the remains. A mosaic pavement in the basilica had been recently fenced off with barbed wire. Unlike Carter's day, there is now a guard at Gemiler. It was, however, disheartening to see that a tavern owner had painted directions to his restaurant, for the benefit of passing boaters, on an ancient wall on Karacaoren.