Part XXIX: Xanthos and the Saklikent Gorge, Turkey
Sarcophagus. Xanthos, Turkey
Sarcophagus. Xanthos, Turkey

It's a mosquito heat this morning, the kind of swelter that makes you want to throw open all the windows and let a cool, fresh breeze swirl through the house, sweeping all the dank, stagnant air out to sea. The only problem with this plan is that there isn't any breeze, fresh or otherwise. All that lurks on the other side of those shuttered windows is a swarm of mosquitoes, eager to whine inside and settle down for a blood feast.

Mosquito heat. Drives you mad after a while. It also raises a question: why, with such a large, ravenous population of mosquitoes about, do so few homes in this town have screens over their windows? It's a curious absence, one I've noted in a number of places around the Mediterranean. You'd almost think that screen technology hadn't reached these shores. Well, as soon as I move to Venice, screens are going to be one of the first additions to my palazzo.

The only way to beat a mosquito heat is to divert one's mind with an expedition. Today we have planned to travel to the ancient ruins of Xanthos, followed by a trip to a natural wonder, the Saklikent Gorge.

Xanthos, like Patara, was a member of the Lycian Federation, a group of ancient cities in this region that had banded together for security. Later, when the Romans took control of Greece, the Federation was allowed a considerable degree of autonomy. The city is ancient, with finds that date back to the eighth century BC. One of the more unusual fun facts about Xanthos is that twice during its long existence, besieged Xanthians committed self-immolation rather than surrender the city to enemy forces. The first time was in 540 BC, when the Persian general Harpagus surrounded the city. The people gathered their household goods and possessions and made a great funeral pyre in the center of the city. The women and children took their place among these objects and the men set them on fire. After the flames died down, the men attacked the Persians and died in battle. The only Xanthian survivors of the holocaust were those families who were away from the city at the time. History repeated itself centuries later when the Roman armies of Brutus (Julius Caesar's killer) sought support from the Xanthians. When he besieged their city, they again executed the holocaust maneuver.

The treasures of Xanthos were looted by a British explorer named Charles Fellows. It took him two months to box up everything that wasn't tied down and load it on a ship. Today these art objects live in the British Museum.

Travel to Xanthos required that we join a two stop mini-bus expedition that departs daily from Kalkan. I am going to label this an expedition rather than a “tour” as there was no tour guide blatting away at us. Just a bus ride to Xanthos, followed by a second excursion to the Saklikent Gorge. The only downside to this arrangement was the schedule: the driver only gave us one hour to explore Xanthos. Definitely not enough time. I felt bad for the girls, who have been aching to get at some fresh archaeological ruins. When they learned how short our time would be in Xanthos, I practically had to hold them down in their seats to keep them from leaping out of the bus before it stopped. Keen. That's what they were.

Xanthos, warns our guidebook, is unusually hot even for a town of this region. In this instance, the guidebook was spot on. Just scant steps away from the mini-bus, rivulets of sweat were beginning to link and flow down my back. Mary and I trooped off toward the ruins of a Byzantine church on the eastern flank of the site. It was reputed to have a marvelous mosaic floor (and it looks particularly fine in the photos), but upon reaching the church, we discovered that it had been fenced off and the mosaics were covered in gravel to protect them. I was not pleased.

Ruins of Byzantine Church. Xanthos, Turkey
Ruins of Byzantine Church. Xanthos, Turkey

What to do next? Our map signaled the existence of a Byzantine monastery atop the hill overlooking the site. The path was supposed to pass through a necropolis and I do love a good necropolis. I figured that since my shirt was already soaked in sweat there was little sense sparing myself in the shade. No one else in my party shared these sentiments, and so, with tears in my eyes, I separated from my teammates and began the ascent.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me just say that, aside from the heat, there was nothing particularly strenuous about the climb. It wasn't a huge hill, and the goat track that ascended it meandered so much that I never felt taxed. My eyebrows did turn into sponges for the second day in a row, and I had to stop from time to time to wipe the flow of sweat from my glasses.

Pillar Tomb. Xanthos, Turkey
Pillar Tomb. Xanthos, Turkey

The necropolis was interesting in that it showed the three types of Lycian burial arrangements: sarcophagi, pillar tombs (a sarcophagus placed on the top of a pillar), and rock tombs carved into the face of the hill. The rock tombs were easily the most interesting of the three, since I was able to go inside them. There, within the cool walls, I found a few minutes of blessed relief from the sun. Long niches had been carved in the stone, designed to accommodate three bodies. On the outer wall a lengthy statement, written in Lycian, had been carved in the wall. I couldn't read any of it. Probably a curse: sweaty eyebrows on one who would dare enter the tombs.

Rock Tomb. Xanthos, Turkey
Rock Tomb. Xanthos, Turkey

The Byzantine monastery at the top of the hill was a bit of a disappointment: a skeletal outline of weary stone walls, obscured in places by brush. I would have been inclined to make a fuller survey of the site had I not felt the pressure of time ticking away.

The center of the city, organized around the theater, contains a pair of notable objects. One is the famous “Harpy Monument,” a pillar tomb whose sarcophagus was decorated with images of harpies ― bird-like women ― carrying off the souls of the dead. The original marble tomb was carried off by Fellows to the British museum. A concrete replica of the tomb now stands on top of the pillar. The other object of note is the Xanthian Obelisk, a large stone tablet that once served as the base for another pillar tomb. This obelisk is inscribed with the longest surviving text written in Lycian. Although imperfectly understood, it apparently describes the exploits of a famous Lycian wrestler.

The Xanthian Obelisk. Xanthos, Turkey
The Xanthian Obelisk. Xanthos, Turkey

Well, our time went far too quickly, and despite the heat, I was unhappy to be leaving so soon. My vexation grew when, as we drove around the back side of the site, I saw a large collection of tombs carved into the hill. I had passed above them as I climbed to the monastery, missing them entirely. So little time for proper exploration.

But we were on our way to Saklikent Gorge, one of the great geological (and tourist) marvels of the region. A small stream has cut its way through massive limestone and marble cliffs, leaving an awe-inspiring spectacle in its wake. Mary had also read that the water was very cold, effectively air conditioning the gorge. I was looking forward to that.

Entering the gorge, we discovered that the first kilometer of the trail consisted of a wooden walkway, suspended above the tug and rush of the powerful water. The walkway terminated abruptly at a fork in the river. To the left, an incredible torrent of water blasted out of the face of a cliff; to the right was a dry canyon. To continue up the gorge, we were required to ford the swift, icy flow. The current tugged on my sandals each time I took a step, pulling me backward. I walked as carefully as possible, praying to avoid the misstep that would plunge me and my camera bag into the water. As we reached the other side of the stream, a Turkish lad popped off a shot of each of us with his camera, an entrepreneur whom we would encounter on our return journey.

Saklikent Gorge, Turkey
Saklikent Gorge, Turkey

We began to hike up the pebbled river bed of the dry canyon. Although crowded at the beginning of the trail, after a startlingly short amount of time, people began to turn back. Soon we were alone, admiring the water-carved sculpture of the Saklikent gorge. Thousands of years of relentless water has polished the interior marble of the canyon. The faces of the white stone are smooth and slick, burnished into flowing shapes that mirror the moving water that created them. Walking up the Gorge is amazing, with each twist of the canyon revealing a new landscape of carved stone. Occasionally we passed beneath great boulders, lodged in the pinch of the walls overhead.

To travel the entire length of the gorge requires rock climbing equipment. Four km from the entrance, we encountered the first rock fall and were forced to turn back. The first team to hike the entire length of the gorge did it in 1993. There was no possibility that we could go further in our sandals.

Saklikent Gorge, Turkey
Saklikent Gorge, Turkey

When we reached the ford that we had crossed on our way up, we discover that the young man who was snapping photos of people coming upstream has now printed the photos out and is selling postcards of us enjoying our gorge experience. Since I already have a full memory card of the team fording the rapids, we are able to resist his sales pitch and pass on with no purchases. It is a clever operation, however, and I'm sure he makes a fair bit of money out of it.

Altogether it was a satisfying expedition, a mix of the archaeological (to keep me happy), and water play (to pacify my young companions). Xanthos and Saklikent Gorge represent two types of antiquity, and both were well worth the trip.

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