One thing I noticed that day, Firat’s driving was improving, and least when we were out on the open road; in the city centre he was still a disaster. That was how I felt even though the sinuous road itself was turning my stomach upside down, making me feel sick.
“You’re gonna see a very interesting place, it’s a sunken city.” Sunken cities are especially interesting to explore, but would there still be people living there? Or would the place be abandoned to its terrible destiny; its remains struggling between two worlds: the ethereal atmosphere and the liquid sea. My mind was lost in such speculation when we arrived at the next village, Kalekoy, how is known in Turkish the ancient Lycian city of Simena
Kalekoy is located in the Demre district of Antalya, facing the island of Kekova just off the Mediterranean coast. I looked around and could see a castle on the top of a hill. The Byzantine castle that dominates the village was built in the Middle Ages. Kalekoy means “castle village”, did you know that?” Of course, I didn’t.
“No, but where is Simena?”
“You read the sign! Simena is here…and there.” Said Firat, pointing to the island on the other side of the pier we had walked to after leaving the car.
Simena, an ancient Lycian city, was divided into two parts – some on an island and the other on the mainland coast opposite. The island was called Kekova, and today is uninhabited. After the Lycian period, the Byzantine had built a castle there to protect the region from pirates. In the second century AD, an earthquake destroyed part of the city, sinking it into the green sea. The city was rebuilt, but when the Arab invasion came, the island was abandoned.
At the site you can find Lycian tombs, many of them partially submerged, giving the landscape a mystical appearance. There was also a theatre to seat 300 people, and the castle, itself,
The day was a mix between grey and blue. Firat hired a boat to take us near the island to see part of the sunken city. While waiting for the boat to leave, we sat in a restaurant to have a çay. The tea was a good excuse to have a conversation about the village, and the people living there. I made the observation that the place looked like a rustic fishing village, but was probably full of life in the summer. “Yes, in summer there are many boats anchored here. It’s a world renowned place for swimming, fishing, and diving.”
“Interesting. How much does the community benefit from all this tourism?”
“Summer is a good time, the restaurants are full, as are the hotels – there are many luxury resort hotels around here – and the boats are always coming and going from the port as it’s crowded with tourists all wanting to jump into the crystal clear water around the island.”
“But it looks as if the people here are poor.”
“No more than in the other villages of this type. In the winter life is more of a challenge, but they enjoy themselves with what they can make in the summer season. Many go back to homes inland, or go to Istanbul or other big cities to find temporary work in the winter.”
When we embarked, I was surprised that it was such a big boat for just Firat and me as paying passengers. The boat approached the underwater ruins which we could see through the glass installed in the bottom of the hull. Some people might have found it difficult to image the city as it was before the earthquake, now able to see only its remains, but, to me, was this was an exercise in observation and imagination. I could see the amphoras that had been used to store olive oil, wine, or water for the people who lived there; the steps leading up from an unseen origin to a mound on which a now-destroyed house probably once stood… “You’re imagining the people, aren’t you?” Firat’s voice brought me back from my daydreams.
“Yes, I was. Can you visualise the city as it was before? Women cooking, children playing, boats coming and going from the shore?”
“I can, but it’s not too different from today, is it?” Just as Firat said these words the boat turned to enter an improvised harbour where children were jumping happily in the water. Saying something to the boatman as he went, I saw Firat disappear into the cabin. A few minutes later he returned wearing swimming shorts.
“Gonna swim? I guess the water is cold.”
“I want to try.”
He jumped from the boat into the blue-green water; I heard his gasp as his body touched the cold water. His swim didn’t last long, and he retuned to the boat shivering, but insisted I should take some photos of his adventure, and so he jumped into the sea again. Later, when we were driving to our next destination, he told me about his fear of water, and how he normally avoided diving.
“I always have a sensation that I won’t return to the surface. It is like being separated from the world… alone.” I wondered if wasn’t, perhaps, his fear of being alone, rather than fear of water, that made Firat so afraid.
While returning to the pier in Kalekoy, we passed the Lycian tombs appearing to float in the sea, even though they were made of rock. Here, past rulers, important people, names today unknown to the world, now having their last resting place becoming a tourist attraction. Myself, I was intrigued by them, appreciating the effect the tombs added to that landscape. It was a sunken necropolis from a lost civilisation, sharing space with the people living there centuries, millennia after the deaths of their occupants.
Our next destination was to the almost unknown and unimportant archaeological site of Kyneai (Cyaneai). Leaving the main road, we took a very sinuous unsurfaced secondary road. Firat drove as if we were on a perfect German Autohban, fast and furious, I kept asking him take care as we approached each bend. “On an abandoned track like this you never know if there’ll be a cow just round the corner, or a big hole, or even the end of the road!” Why would he never listen to me? In the end, we made it without any harm, but I was shaking when I got out of the car.
The view form the top was magnificent!
Cyaneai or Cynae is a Greek name meaning “dark blue”, the reason this name was given to the city is unknown, as is much of its history. The city is situated atop a steep hill rising to the north of today’s village of Yalu. Enclosed on three sides by walls, only the south side is protected by natural barriers that made it seem unnecessary to build a wall there. At the summit there is what can be called the acropolis, hidden amongst trees and bushes. The Roman baths, consisting of compartments which functions are not yet understood, is on the south-east section of the hill. Further down, a fourth century sarcophagus still lies partially buried, with a relief-carved lid while the main part bear inscriptions in Lycian
The best preserved structure in Cyaneai is the theatre. Located to the west of the acropolis, and set on a natural slope; it’s possible to see the cavea rising on small polygonal blocks, and the eleven tiers of seats. The stage is in poor condition, so we are left without a clear indication of how it actually appeared. Between the theatre and the acropolis is the necropolis, an area containing hundreds of sarcophagi. Simply by standing in this place, you immediately feel as if you have returned to an ancient era, one when people walked in courts, carefully practising the rituals required to honour their loved ones during burial.
“Did you like that?” Firat looked at me curiously, probably because for almost ten minutes I had not spoken, or asked any questions.
“Yes, I did.”
Our next stop was a surprise. We entered the city of Demre
Our first stop in Demre was at a church located in the centre, and constructed in the name of St Nicholas.
It’s known that St Nicholas, who was born in Patara at the beginning of the fourth century, established a bishopric at Myra (actual Demre). During his life, he worked hard to improve the religious organisation and social welfare of Myra and its surrounding area. Nicholas was a religious man who took a close interest in all the problems of the people around him. It was his character, his care for the poor and especially the orphans, his patronage of labourers, sailors, and students that drove him to stand up against injustice in all its forms.
The spirit of St Nicholas is alive today in Santa Claus (Father Christmas), the white-bearded, loveable old man dressed in red who dispenses gifts at Christmas. The idea originated in the happiness St Nicholas provided to the children of Myra by secretly throwing bags of gold into the houses of the poor residents – those who were otherwise unable to provide dowries so their daughters could marry. There is a story that once, when Myra was suffering a famine as a result of drought, Nicholas, with great difficulty, persuaded the captains of ships carrying wheat from Egypt to Byzantium to stop, on their way, at Myra’s port, Andriace, to lend 100 kilo of wheat to each person in Myra. Yet, when the ships reached Byzantium they found the holds were still overflowing with wheat.
The church we visited wasn’t the original built to hold the saint’s remains, but a sixth century construction on the same site. More than 1000 years ago, Myra was beside the sea, and therefore frequently subject to attacks from both Arab and Christian forces. In the course of each, the church and tomb of Nicholas were damaged. In 808 AD, the Abbasid navy appeared at Myra and destroyed a tomb they mistook for that of Nicholas. In another incident in 1087, Italian merchants from Bari discovered the saint’s tomb and carried off his bones to Italy. Each of those events ended with the church being destroyed. In the eleventh century the church was restored and enlarged. The mosaic you can see in it today dates from this time.
Nicholas was particularly venerated in Russia, so, in 1862, a Russian prince, had the church restored again. The architect added a bell tower and replaced the original dome with a cross-vault totally unsuited to the architecture of the original. Of course, when they found another sarcophagus containing bones, the prince proclaimed that those were the Saint’s real bones and transported them to Saint Petersburg. The sarcophagus can be seen in the church, on the south-side, but there is no evidence it is the actual tomb of St Nicholas.
One more observation that Firat and I made there was that Saint Claus (the American version) and Father Christmas (the European) show us a old chubby, joyful white man, but Nicholas probably had a darker skin, as do most of the Anatolian people.
We left Demre, heading for ruins of the ancient Myra.
According to the Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian, Strabo, Myra was one of the largest cities of the Lycian League. The city was so important that it had the right to three votes. The earliest reference to the city can be found on coins dated from the third century BC.
However, if we look amongst the ruins that spread over a wide area of a hill to the east of the plain of the Myron river (Demre Çay), the tombs and Lycian inscriptions there, lead us to conclude the city is actually much older, going back at least as far as the fifth century BC.
I never thought I would describe a Necropolis as beautiful, but the tombs carved into the rock covering the hillside were the finest examples of such architecture I have ever seen, with a great variety of different tombs. One of the most notable is a house-type tomb on the lower level next to the theatre; carved at the centre of its pediment are two running warriors carrying a child. A little higher, in the middle of the group is a tomb decorated with a relief of a family, with the tomb’s owner reclining on a couch in the centre. There are many others, with reliefs telling stories about war, strength, family and courage.
Myra’s theatre was Roman in style having been built between 200 – 225 AD. The theatre is the largest in the Lycian region: the cavea is 11 metres wide, while the diameter of the orchestra is 30 metres. The seating capacity was 11 – 13 thousand. The double-vaulted corridor to……….. is still preserved while an inscription on a stall space reads, “place of the vendor Gelasius” – the location of an ancient concessions stand! The theatre façade is richly decorated with theatrical masks and mythological scenes.
It was at the theatre that I gained another moment of silence, while Firat went off to take some photos of the surroundings, I seated myself in the top row and observed people wandering between the columns and statues, touching them and trying to picture how the place was in the second century.
I didn’t leave Myrna without a good selection of books and souvenirs. I was very tired, but we had another 28 km to go to get to our hotel in Finike. I recall it had a pleasant view over the marina, but all I really wanted was a bed and some rest…