A Visit to the Ancient City of Patara

Over the past few years I have visited the site of the ancient City of Patara on numerous occasions often whilst out with the Kalkan Tuesday Walking Club.  And on these walks we have passed the Bouleuterion which, in the early days, was essentially a pile of rubble mostly covered in sand and scrub.

Recently however, after a long period of renovation overseen by Antalya University Archaeology Department, the ancient Bouleuterion that housed the Lycian Parliament was reopened in a grand ceremony.  The Lycian League that met in the Parliament, is the first known democratic union in history.  The Lycians always had an instinct for collaboration with a strong regional-cultural identity and Lycia is famous for its tradition of independent city-states that joined in the strong Lycian League that was in many ways a model political organization.  This was established in about 500 BC. [Ref. www.lycianturkey.com]

[Note :- The spellings ‘Lycia’ and ‘Lykia’ are used interchangeably but the pronunciation of either spelling is with the sound of a hard ‘k’ not a soft ‘c’.]

Whilst recently in Kalkan and with an afternoon to spare, I decided to go and see the results of the restoration project.  The road to Patara is signposted from the Kalkan traffic lights.  You take the main D400 in the direction of Fethiye.  The road quickly takes you over the hill and down to the valley of the River Eşen famous for its hundreds of poly-tunnels growing tomatoes, courgettes, aubergine, rocket, etc, etc.   It’s hard to imagine, but less than twenty years ago, this was just open marshland with only the occasional small-holding and the odd greenhouse.  How things change.

About 2 km beyond the turning on your right to Yeşilkőy, the left turn to Patara is clearly signposted.  You are now on a brand new road built specifically to give easier access to the Patara site.  This replaces a narrow, pot-holed road with barely enough width for two vehicles to pass, winding past ancient cottages with dogs, sheep, goats, chickens and a few children spilling out into the path of on-coming traffic – a bit of a test of driving skills and the brakes!!

The road surface changes from tarmac to a cobbled street (with road humps) through the village of Gelemiş (often called Patara Village).  Keep straight ahead until the village is behind you and you come to the gates to the Patara historical site.  An entrance fee of 5TL per person is charged.  If you plan to make several visits to the site and to the world-famous beach, you can buy a weekly ticket which is heavily discounted.  Whichever way, it is excellent value for the sights you are about to experience.

Driving through the barrier and into the site, the roadside is littered with ruins, some in a remarkably good state of repair whilst others are just piles of stones or tumbles of sarcophagi.  On the right there is the workers’ access road followed shortly by the visitors’ access road signposted to the Theather (sic) referring to  the impressive amphitheatre next to the Bouleuterion.  Take this road and on the left you will find a large car park.  [Note at the end of May 2012 this was not actually open but the surface was being laid.]

If you want to avoid driving the 15 or so kilometres yourself, a regular dolmus (minibus) to Patara runs from the Kalkan Otogar (bus station) situated between the Thursday market and the main traffic lights and petrol station.  This dolmus will take you to the site and onwards to the beach for a few lira.

There are many guide books that cover the history and specific details of this large site.  You can buy a selection at the Patara museum shop on the site or in shops such as Desti in Kalkan, but one of the most comprehensive and easy to read descriptions, can be found at http://www.lycianturkey.com/lycian_sites/patara.htm.

What follows is an account of my ambles around the city.  It is not intended to be a comprehensive guide.  Nor am I an archaeologist or historian so you won’t get loads of facts and figures just a personal account.  The background is easy to research elsewhere.

The first structure you reach is the amphitheatre.  It is essentially un-restored and, as well as providing a fine example of its kind, if you climb up about 15 – 20 tiers you get a magnificent view of the Bouleuterion.  The first impression is of a brand new structure – this is deceptive.  Over the years that I have watched the restoration work in progress, I have seen the restoration team carefully identify the original building blocks of local white limestone and have seen them being cleaned before being installed in their original spot in the structure.  Of course, they haven’t found every stone, some have just got lost whilst others have been scavenged over the years to make other buildings including farm houses.  To replace the missing stones a painstaking process of carving new stones has taken place.  The end result is that it is difficult to tell the original stones from the new ones.

Once you’ve had a good survey from the amphitheatre you can either climb back down or climb to the top and walk down the back.  Amphitheatres were almost always carved into natural hillsides so there is no big drop at the back.  Moving across to the Bouleuterion, which incidentally could hold up to 1,400 people, you pass in front of the building and pass a number of large stone plaques bearing inscriptions that praise the great and the good of ancient Lycia.  The entrance is at the far end and you quickly find yourself on the stage.  At the far end of the stage, down a few steps there is an excellent exhibition room that, through the use of descriptive wall panels and models, explains about the building, its history and the reconstruction process.

Once you’ve had a good scramble around the Bouleuterion, including climbing to the top and viewing the site – plus sitting in the “Royal Box” in the dead centre of the auditorium – it’s time to move on.

Turning left you are now on the main avenue of the city.  The columns that lined this street are gradually being restored and it is going to be a magnificent sight.  Towards the end of the street most of the columns are in place and the ruins of shops line the street.  One of these ‘shops’ was clearly the brothel.  The entrance is marked by a large stone with a well-endowed phallus carved in relief.

The very end of the street, as visible today, is actually underwater, an indication of land settlement over the ages.  At this point turn left onto a dirt road with assorted ruins to the right.  A short walk takes you over a slight rise and down to a large expanse of marshland and open water.  This was the main harbour of the city.  On the far side, and to the right, you can see some large buildings that were the warehouses and granaries of a thriving commercial port in Lycian times and later.

Look out for birds.  Amongst the largest by size are members of the Egret family whilst the most colourful is the Kingfisher.  There are also large numbers of toads who can be quite noisy depending on the time of year.   There are many lizards and, if you are lucky, you might see a chameleon.  There are usually plenty of tortoises around here.

Follow the dirt road beyond the end of the marshland where the road veers to the left through some sandy scrub.  Before you are the ruins of the world’s oldest lighthouse!!  It was built in 64-65AD and stood some 20 metres high.  It was assumed that it had been destroyed by a tsunami but recent reconstruction work has high-lighted a fault through the base that may have been caused by an earthquake.  Whichever proves to be the correct theory, it really is a wonder to behold.  As with much of the ancient City of Patara, the lighthouse has been buried under sand for centuries and was only discovered very recently.  A massive effort is underway to catalogue all the stones in the area and to reconstruct the original building.  Great effort is being made to piece together the jigsaw by gluing together pieces of stone that originally were part of larger blocks.  This is painstaking work.  The workmen will very happily take a break from their labours to explain what they are doing and show you how they create the original building blocks.  It was thought that this work would take one or two years but they have been working at it for some six years and only now is it beginning to take shape.  So much for builders estimates!!!

From the lighthouse you can either continue onwards through the scrub and sand to reach the beach or you can retrace your steps.  Today I chose the latter but on other days the sea has called.

Walking back along the road, I stopped to look at the views and take in the atmosphere.  Whilst I was sitting on a rock a farm lady came along leading a large, well-fed cow by a tether.  When she reached the edge of the marshland, instead of continuing along the road, she dived into the tall reeds and, along with the cow, disappeared from view.   A few minutes later she re-appeared out of the reeds with a different cow in tow.  Clearly this was the Turkish equivalent of a cow pasture and, by the healthy condition of the cattle, it provided excellent fodder.  By the size of its udder, the second cow was obviously being taken for milking.  As someone who spent many a happy day as a farmer’s lad during my teenage years, this provided a fascinating vignette of Turkish farming life.

There’s a lot more to see at Patara and you could easily spend a few days exploring.  The interesting thing is that 20 years ago when I first visited Patara the old city was largely covered in sand and, with a very few exceptions, there was nothing to see.  The transformation has been incredible and the plans for the future will turn the exciting visit of today into a truly remarkable visit for both the enthusiast and the curious.

Finally let me end with a word of warning.  If you visit in the summer months of June through to September, treat the visit as you would a beach day.  Wear plenty of protective sun-cream and a hat – there is little natural cover.  And do enjoy.

[For details of the opening event follow the link to the KTLN news pages  http://kalkan.turkishlocalnews.com/portal/kalkan-news/226501-renovated-patara-site-officially-opened]

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About Clashgour

With my wife Margaret I am spending a happy retirement divided between our flat in Richmond, London, our villa in Kalkan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast and travelling mostly in the UK, Turkey and the US. When travelling we use public transport where possible, resorting to a car when it is the only viable option. This blog is an occasional diary of our travels.
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One Response to A Visit to the Ancient City of Patara

  1. Pingback: Paddling in November | trains and boats and planes …..

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