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Ancient Cultures of Lycia and Its Neighbors

Turkey's Mediterranean coast is steeped in 5,000 years of history—so much so that in Side the hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs are literally built into the ruins of the Greco-Roman city.

Broadly speaking, the geographic divisions of ancient times survive today. The westernmost area from Datça to Dalyan was part of Caria, an ancient Hellenistic kingdom based in nearby Bodrum/Halicarnassus. Caria reached the height of its power in the 4th century BC, and the tomb of its most famous ruler, Mausolus, was such a wonder of the world that it coined the word mausoleum. From Dalyan to Phaselis the coast is thought of as Lycia, after a people of very ancient but uncertain origin, some of whom possibly colonized this section of Anatolia from Crete. It now hosts small-scale hotels and harmonious yachting ports. From Antalya to Alanya is the area called Pamphilia, thought to mean "the land of all the tribes," much of which is now quite built up and commercial.

Caria, Lycia, and Pamphilia share much the same rather obscure history, and museums (the best is in Antalya) exhibit relics from Bronze Age settlements that date back to 3000 BC. Our knowledge of indigenous cultures is patchy, but notable in many ways. In Homer's epic, Lycia's Sarpedon memorably declaims that the privileges of the elite must be earned through a readiness to fight for their people; and, although not a matriarchal society, Lycians are thought to have been matrilineal and gave women a more equal place than, say, ancient Greeks. Some locals were fiercely independent. The people of Xanthos, for example, committed mass suicide rather than submit to the first Persian conquest; later they burned their city (again) rather than pay extra taxes to Rome's Brutus. In addition, the democratic, federal basis of the Lycian League is acknowledged as one source of the U.S. constitution.

Overall, the population of this whole area has long been a mixture of waves of new arrivals—whether Greek colonists, Persian administrators, retired Roman legionaries, Turkic shepherds, or today's sun seekers. Despite wars, plagues, and population exchanges, however, there is some degree of continuity: genetic tests discovered that all two dozen of the local workers on a site north of Antalya were distantly related to the bones that they had just dug out from 1,300-year-old graves.

Updated: 2014-04-03

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