A Tale in Red: First, I visited Father Christmas’ birthplace.

Have you ever been living without knowing where the next day will carry you? Ever since I began this trip in Turkey, all my ‘next’ days had been like that. Going to bed at night, after visiting exquisite places full of history, mysteries, and legends, then waking up in the morning taking the road, and waiting for Anatolia to open her heart for me.

“I’m sure you’ll love this place.” Fırat’s voice was excited…a promising beginning. “Pinara is one my favourite archaeological sites. You’ll see why…” Fırat’s words awakened my curiosity. “Tell me more,” I asked, almost begging. He just looked at me, then put his fingers to his lips as if he were tasting something delicious, and said: “Bellissima…”

The secondary road we took was irregular and dusty, while the vegetation around seemed lost in its summer dreams of winter sleep. Just after a bend in the road, we stopped. On our right, was a small wood cabin, where the man who guards the site was sheltering from the cold wind and having a çay. I left the car, breathing the clean, clear air while observing the rounded mountain in front of me.

Pinara was there, silently waiting for someone to bring her to life again. The tombs in the necropolis; the theatre aching for reunions…to watch a play or discuss a new law; the Acropolis, the Agora, the Odeon and a church. All there, waiting, hoping…

Pinara was founded as an outpost of another Lycian city, Xanthos. However, the city grew and attracted the wealthy, thus becoming an important city of the Lycian League in its own right. However, although there aren’t many mentions of Pinara in ancient documents, the few sources that do reference it, point to the city being one of the biggest and most important ports in Lycia.

In 334 BCE, Pinara surrendered to Alexander the Great, and after his death it fell to the kingdom of Pergamum. It was under Roman rule that Pinara returned to prosperity, until it was severely damaged by earthquakes between 141 and 240 CE. The city was abandoned in the 9th century, and was soon covered by vegetation.

Sir Charles Fellows identified the city when on a British Museum Expedition to Lycia. He described a place rising like a single round rocky cliff with numerous tombs spread across it. When you look at the cliff the extensive and magnificent ruins of the ancient city appear. Sir Charles was overwhelmed by the beauty of Pinara, as was I. With every step in the direction of the tombs, the more seduced I became by the place. Crossing a limpid stream, I reached one of the rock carved tombs. I needed to touch it, to feel the cold, hard material beneath my hand, following the reliefs with my fingers, trying to recreate the art, now deformed by the millennia.

I stayed there for a long time while Fırat drank water from the stream, played with pebbles he found nearby, and sang. From a distance, his voice echoed between mountains with never a challenge from another sound. The winter had silenced the animals, the tourists, and me.

After closely examining the tombs, trying to read the inscriptions and to determine the meaning of some of the paintings inside and outside of them, I moved to a cliff from where the theatre was visible. How important these semi-circular tiers must have been…the audience facing the stage, and both, surrounded by mountains! When Pinara was a lively, vibrant city, houses, and shops had been erected all along the pathto the theatre.

I was immersed in a day dream, picturing traders passing through the city gates to sell their wares; women traversing the commercial street, buying bread, or vegetables, sometimes stopping at one particularly stand to appreciate a jewel. How fragile is life, how quickly civilisations rise and fall, while we still can’t even fully understand the reasons why. “Come on Heleny. Time to go.” Fırat’s voice brought me back from the past. I wondered what would be our next stop, but decided not ask. A surprise…I wanted to be surprised!

However, after two hours’ driving, with just one stop for a çay and Firat’s cigarette, I was becoming impatient. “Where are we going?” He smiled at me, his eyes revealed how he was deciding whether to tell me, or to sustain the suspense. “Let me ask you one thing,” he began. “What do you know about Leto?”

Here he, was asking me about Greek mythology–one of my passions. I began to answer. Leto, the daughter of Coeus and Phoebe (both the offspring of Uranus and Gaia) was worshipped as a Lycian goddess, and there are many references to her in sites throughout Lycia, but her greatest significance was in relation to Zeus.

I always think what drove Zeus, even though he knew Hera was a jealous and vindictive goddess, to his his numerous affairs. The supreme god kept relationships with mortals, other goddess, nymphs. One of those relationships, if we can call it that, was with Leto,

Leto had been born on the island of Kos, and was a goddess of extreme beauty. To protect herself from the other gods, she disguised her beauty under a veil. Zeus, however, noticed Leto and was captivated by her. From their liaison, the twins Artemis and Apollo were born.

The legend continues…after giving birth to Artemis and Apollo, Leto was passing Lycia and decided she needed a drink of water. Her request was denied. Angry, and struggling against tiredness, in her fury, she turned all the men into frogs. In that place, the local inhabitants built a temple to Leto: Letoon.

Now, I was there! In Letoon. Walking through the ruins of the temple supposedly erected in the place where Leto had asked for water. The main temple was surrounded by a shallow, watery mirror where tadpoles were swimming. Could they be the ultimate heirs of the men that Leto had transformed in frogs?

Returning to the road, there was a new challenge. We needed to find the way to Xanthos. First, we drove in circles, then up and down in an avenue where a ‘Pazar’ was taking place. I could see people selling fruit, vegetables, grain, clothes, candy-floss (cotton candy), and ranges of kitchen utensils. Firat stopped to take some photos while I waited in the car. I was tired, and I knew there was much more to come.

We didn’t actually find our way to Xanthos, but arrived in Patara, a large site near the sea.

Entering Patara, we were greeted by many sarcophaguses placed along the road side. They were empty, but we could see some inspiration (even if we were unable to translate the language). Piercing the city walls (there are many sections still visible) a kind of arched portal dating back to 100 BCE allowed us entry to the city.

Mythology claims the city was founded at Apollo’s birthplace, by Patarus, Apollo’s son. Patara became a flourishing maritime and commercial city on the south-west coast of Lycia and on the south-east side of the mouth of the river Xanthos.

But it wasn’t just on this commerce that the city thrived. Patara was also the location of the temple to Apollo second only to the famous Oracle in Delphi. It’s said the oracle here was delivered by a priestess during the six winter months. Patara was Lycia primary port, and therefore one of the most important cities, a leading light in the Lycian League.

Every summer, a team of Turkish archaeologist works in Patara, revealing the beauty and grandiosity of the city. When we visited, they had completed excavations of the theatre and were working in the commercial centre of the city. Firat led us to the nearby beach, but not without crossing another part of the excavations. This time it was a lighthouse that Firat claimed was the oldest-known lighthouse in the world.

When we reached the beach, it was easy to understand the reasons for the decline of Patara. The geography had changed, and the sea was now far from the city.

Patara was the birthplace of Saint Nicholas who inspired  Father Christmas (Santa Klaus).

The road was calling us again. This time we had to find our way to Xanthos; the city would be our last visit for that day. After getting directions from a lady in the small museum shop in Patara, Firat was confident he could find the way.

He did, but not before we, again, passed by that village where the Pazar was still in progress. He asked several more people although he had always said that asking Turkish people for directions was a waste of time. The Turks never give straightforward directions, and sometimes they pretend to know the way but say something totally wrong. They simply refuse to say they don’t know!

After some tries, we found a sign indicating the way to Xanthos.

Xanthos was an ancient city of Lycia. It has connections to Letoon, and the city lies on the banks of the river that mythology says was created by the birth pangs of Leto. Maybe, the legend came from the yellow colour of the river (‘xanthos’ in Greek).

We visited the necropolis with its famous Lycian carved tombs, on the slopes of a hill near the Acropolis. The Theatre was magnificent, and I was able to sit there for a moment, appreciating the stage from above. There had been a multitude of archaeological objects found on the stage, and, to my surprise, I discovered that two of the most exquisite pieces: The Nereid Monument and the Tomb of Payava were now in the British Museum.

Another curiosity about Xanthos, revealed by the excavations, was that it was a trilingual city: Lycian, Greek, and Milyan were all used. Not only that, but archaeologist had also found other documents written in Aramaic.

Firat took me to see a replica of Payava’s tomb, and while we were walking amongst the ruins he told me the legend of the proud and courageous people of Xanthos.

The story is about their resistance and sacrifice, rather than surrender. Xanthos had tried to halt the Persian invasion of Lycia. However, the Persian army was superior numerically and in strategy. In a last attempt to defeat the Persians, all the men and boys were called to fight. They knew that to win was an impossibility, and probably after their defeat, that the women would be raped, killed or become slaves. To avoid this, all the women and girls were locked in the Theatre. When the news of defeat came they set fire to themselves. They preferred to die than to become subservient to the Persian army. This story appears in several texts in which Xanthos is referenced. Could this really have happened? For some time, scholars believed it was simply an allegory about the bravery and the extermination the population that was suffered during the Persian invasion. However, excavations and later analyses of the material showed that the city had been covered in ashes, not once but three times.

I’ve been thinking about how it would be to sacrifice your life to prevent yourself becoming a slave to conquerors. Fırat asked me how I would feel–I certainly would do the same. Freedom is too precious for me to give myself up to a conqueror.

I spent some time on daydreams in Xanthos, too. I sat there at the theatre, imagining what life was like back in those times, or in better times: for people had lived, built, destroyed, fought and died here over several centuries. Individuals who, in reality, have the same needs, same desires and dreams we have today. We have not changed much over the centuries.

After the Xanthos it was time to move to Kaş, a coastal town where we intended to stay overnight. The road was magnificent. On one side the mountains, on the other, the Aegean Sea. What more could I want? Sun, a gorgeous, cold sunny day with a blue sky. All this Nature had offered to me for free!.

We made a quick stop at a beach. It was a beach for Turkey, but for me, it felt more like a terrace in the sea, something small and difficult to access,, but just beautiful, and perfect with small islands set against a whole lot of sea and mountains.

We arrived in Kaş, and Fırat decided we should eat something near the marina. This time a toast and ayran, just a snack. Then we went looking for a hotel. We couldn’t find anything that we liked–in winter most of hotels were closed. So we drove to the next city, but we didn’t find anything suitable there, either. Finally, we ended up in Finike, which would be our stay for two days. At least, this time, the hotel was not bad.

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