The Way of the Lycians

Our neighbor

Our neighbor

If I could rank civilizations in terms of how important and interesting they are divided by how much I know about them, Lycia would be near the top. Of course, that works only if I leave out the many I know nothing about.

Lycia is a region along Turkey’s Mediterranean coast between Antalya and Koycegiz. Its rivers, including Xanthos and Alakir drain the Anatolian plateau and are among the largest in the country. The entire region is mountainous, with some peaks rising over 10,000 feet. The mountain ranges encroach on the sea, pausing only enough to allow for beautiful beaches.

Barley in the Bezirgan yayla

Barley in the Bezirgan yayla

Our B&B is in a yayla (summer pasture) about 3000 feet above the sea. Nearby, the Kaputaş beach provides a good example of the topography.

It’s at the base of Kaputaş canyon, a narrow cleft at the foot of the Taurus mountains. The beach is 200′ wide and 70′ deep, with a scarp rising 80′ straight up behind. You can reach the beach by boat or by a staircase with 187 steps (seemed like more to me). Off its eastern end the sea has eroded the Blue Cave, nearly 200′ across, and a favorite of small tour boats and inner tube riders.

Kapitaş beach at the base of the canyon

Kapitaş beach at the base of the canyon

The Lycian civilization developed within this region. They probably came from Crete around 1400 BC. They had their own language and unique script, still not fully understood. They had unique customs and funerary architecture.

Even though they lived in mountainous terrain with seemingly inaccessible villages, the Lycians formed a union while the rest of the Greek world was warring city states. They had representative government when Greek cities still had rule of the whole body of citizens. In the later Lycian League, they had a bicameral legislature, panels of judges, and other complex civic structures.

Lycians used matrilineal lineage: People identify themselves by their mother and their mother’s mother, not the father. Moreover, offspring of a Lycian woman are automatically legitimate, whereas those born to a Lycian man and a foreigner are illegitimate. Herodotus thought that this was unique, but many other cultures employ a similar system. Our B&B host cites it as evidence that the Celts derive from Lycia.



The Lycians resisted domination, being the last in Asia Minor to become a province of the Roman empire. They won some of their battles, either by force or diplomacy, but the losses were dramatic and tragic.

In 540 BC, the Persian commander Harpagos attacked Xanthos, the largest and most prominent city. Finally succumbing to a blockade, the Xanthians gathered all the women, children, slaves, and household goods and set fire to them, then fought on until every Xanthian had been killed or committed suicide. Every item of value had thus been destroyed. Later, 80 Xanthian families who had been elsewhere during the fighting returned and rebuilt the city. The poem below, found at the Xanthos site, describes this event:

We made our houses graves
And our graves are homes to us
Our houses burned down
And our graves were looted
We climbed to the summits
We went deep into the earth
We were drenched in water
They came and got us
They burned and destroyed us
They plundered us
And we,
For the sake of our mothers,
Our women,
And for the sake of our dead,
And we,
In the name of our honor,
And our freedom,
We, the people of this land,
Who sought mass suicide
We left a fire behind us,
Never to die out…

Poem found on a tablet in the Xanthos excavations, translated by Azra Erhat

Keçiler (goats) on Lycian Way

Keçiler (goats) on Lycian Way

This scene was repeated when Brutus sacked the city in 42 BC. He offered a reward to any Roman soldier who could save a Xanthosian by preventing his suicide. But only 150 survived.

Despite these tragedies, in most cases the Xanthians succeeded against plunderers, until their artifacts were finally conquered by the British Museum in 1838.

Much evidence of the Lycian civilization still remains, as do, I suppose, descendants of those early peoples. The 300 mile long Lycian Way, which runs through our village, near Kaputaş beach and Xanthos, is Turkey’s first long-distance, waymarked path. Along the way one can see endless structures from the Lycian era and imagine its history stretching back 3400 years.

Kemal Hakki Tor’s Lycia is a good introduction to the area.

2 thoughts on “The Way of the Lycians

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