A Tale in Red: The river, an ancient city, the teenager girl, and the turtles.

On a cold morning, we took the route to Dalyan, a town in Muğla Province, located between the districts of Marmaris and Fethiye on the south-west coast of Turkey. The town is an independent municipality, within the administrative district of Ortaca.

We got to Dalyan at about 10 am, and, of course, the first stop was a coffee shop for a drink. Fırat asked my preference, I chose fresh orange juice – I had been really missing the flavour of fresh oranges, recently squeezed. They are too expensive in winter in most European countries, and so, if you order orange juice, they don’t serve freshly squeezed, only concentrate.

However, this being Turkey, my thirst was indulged with a delicious glass of the sweet orange liquid while my eyes feasted on the surrounding mountains. Life in Dalyan revolves around the Dalyan Çayı river that flows through the town. The boats plying up and down the river, navigating the maze of reeds, are the transportation of first choice for all the local people. Dalyan is a major tourist destination in summer, especially for German and Turkish people. Because of the river’s maze of channels and branches, Dalyan has become known as the Turkish ‘Venice’. Now, in winter, it was a delight for the local population to be able to enjoy the river and the beaches in relative peace.

“Let’s see if I can find a boat to take us to Kaunos.” Fırat’s voice wasn’t optimistic, the boatmen were having their çay while chatting about politics, football, or the city life. Fırat talked with one of them, middle aged man, not a tall man. The conversation took only a couple of minutes, and Fırat returned a bit disappointed, and somewhat annoyed. “They’re asking 130 Turkish Lyra to take us. If it were summer the price should be 20!!!” There was indignation in his voice. After he complained a bit more about the greed of his countrymen, I said we could afford pay 130 Lyra – after all, it was winter, and normally the boat would have more than 10 people in it, so it was fair that we should pay for those who weren’t there. Although still a bit aggrieved, Fırat agreed.

The boat took us first to Kaunos. Kaunos was a Caria city, one of the civilisations that occupied Anatolia. This town located about 8km form the coast. in what one day was the Dalyan Bay. The first thing I saw was the rock-carved tombs. Hewn from the stone of the slopes of the mountainside, they were impressive both in their beauty, and because nobody knows for sure to whom they belonged. Probably, the tombs were the last home to the most influential people in Kaunos. The boatman fulfilled the tourist obligation to stop in front the tombs, allowing us to take pictures. Imagination is a powerful tool when you are travelling in Turkey. You picture how the place you are visiting appeared in the past, and wonder about each detail, for example how the graves were made, who made them, and what kind of ceremonial was involved in the burial of the each illustrious individual. All those questions danced on my mind while the wind blew my hair, and the motor of the boat marked the rhythm, as if a soundtrack to the past.

Continuing our journey on the river waters, we docked near the Kaunos harbour entrance. In an abandoned pier, a girl was fishing. The girl, almost a teenager, had brown hair that shone in the sunlight, reminding me of chocolate. Her smile was captivating and when she answered the boatman’s question, her sweet voice emerging from childhood, made me think about my own son. I’d always wished to have a daughter, and considering her looks, that girl could almost have been my daughter. That was the first day in my entire life, that I had actually admitted to myself that I wanted a daughter too.

When we reached the site entrance, there was nobody around to sell us a ticket; worse still, the gate was closed and locked. Fırat rapidly came up with a solution: jump the fence! We did, but not before I tried to convince him to wait a couple more minutes.

Following a path, we came across cows, sheep and goats, peacefully eating or having sunbaths around the site. The site itself was well preserved, and there were some people working in the ruins. I don’t know if they were archaeologists, students, or some other kind of specialist.

Kaunos was founded, probably in the 9th century BC, situated between the kingdoms of Lydia and Caria. A mix of cultures can be felt in the town. There you will find the city walls built by Mausolus, the tombs in Lydian style, the medieval walls around the Acropolis, the Roman fountains. The theatre in Kaunos is from the 2nd century BC, but there are also still temples and Roman baths and a Byzantine basilica from the 5th or 8th century AD.

The archaeological site is beautiful, and the natural beauty surrounding it could conquer even the coldest heart. My own heart had begun that day dull, almost dark, now was being transformed. I could feel all the magnificence and power coming from the past – could ‘hear’ the footsteps of the original inhabitants as they walked to shops where herbs, fish, bread were sold; fervent whispers of the faithful as they  prayed in the temple where they offered food, small sculptures, or jewellery to the gods.

Returning to the boat, our next stop was the turtle beach. Like many other projects around the word to protect beaches where turtles deposit their eggs, the Turks have something similar here where the Caretta caretta females come, especially in June, to lay their eggs at night on the soft sands.

It was those beaches that gave Dalyan international fame in 1987 when developers wanted to build a luxury hotel on the nearby İztuzu Beach, also a breeding ground for these endangered loggerhead sea turtle species. The incident created a major international storm when David Bellamy championed the cause of conservationists such as June Haimoff, Peter Günther, Nergis Yazgan, Lily Venizelos and Keith Corbett. The development project was temporarily stopped after Prince Philip called for a moratorium and in 1988 the beach and its hinterland were declared a protected area.

The beach is immensely beautiful, the wind bringing the smell of the sea, and with the sun there too. However, the wind was too cold, and so we didn’t stay too long. What I wouldn’t give to be there when those giants come ashore to the sand. Another secret desire I will probably never fulfil.

Returning to the boat, we crossed back to Dalyan –  a hotel was needed for the night. Fırat quizzedthe boatman about hotels, my guide wanted one facing the river, preferably with a view of the tombs on the mountain. Suddenly, the man said something to Fırat, then he came to me and asked, “Want to eat blue crab?” Crabs and I are close friends – of course, I wanted! But I couldn’t see any restaurant near us. A couple of minutes later, another boat stopped near to ours. The man had a barbeque grill where he was cooking the crabs. Fırat ordered four crabs. One for him (he had never tasted one before), another for the boatman and two for me. The boatman offered a beer, but I chose coke. It was unbelievable to eat fresh soft crabs, on a boat in the middle of the river.

Leaving the boat behind, we found the hotel the boatman had referred to, and Fırat had his room facing the ancient tombs. A couple of hours to rest, and research a bit more about the city, the river, and, above all, about the civilisation that had lived there.

It was 6 pm when Fırat invited me to dinner at a restaurant on the river shore, and later, we walked along the riverbank. I sat facing the ancient tombs, listening to the river’s song, and to the stories Fırat was telling me. One day, I would like to study archaeology properly, simply to understand, better, all the ups and downs humanity has faced since we began our experiment of ‘civilisation’.

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