Turkey’s southwest coastal town of Dalyan is one of the few places where the visitor will not see an increasing number of luxury hotels towering over the natural wonders. The town owes the relatively restrained development of hotels around the area to its oldest residents, the loggerhead sea turtles. Thanks to conservation campaigns, running for more than two decades now, and the subsequent beach usage regulations, nature and history continue to run hand in hand in this small coastal town.
Dalyan is situated on the banks of the Dalyan River, where the mouth of the delta meets the sea. A fleet of boats takes the curious tourists from the Dalyan Harbour to the sandy beaches which the sea turtles have chosen as their ideal location for nesting. The delta is a national conservation site for not only at least three varieties of turtles, but for over 100 species of birds as well.
What makes the boat trip, or a long stroll along the river, an unprecedented experience is the majestic site of the rock tombs carved on the cliffs right next to the river. The ancient tombs, dating back to around 400 BC, are a sight for sore eyes, especially during the sunset.
The tombs are the resting places of the kings of the ancient city of Kaunos. “There are two types of tombs carved in the style of the Lycians,” says Buket Coşkuner, PhD, an art historian specialising in ancient cities and early Byzantine art: “Simple chambers and more complex temple tombs.” Each tomb once had false walls to hide the treasures buried with the kings. But a string of treasure hunters throughout history have looted the tombs. The Lycian Coast along the Mediterranean may be home to many similar rock tombs, but for many, the tombs on the cliffs next to the Dalyan River are the most breathtaking.
A boat trip over Bybylis’s tears
“Rock tombs, rock-cut tombs and chamber tombs for the kings were a long-running tradition in Anatolian civilizations,” says Coşkuner. “There are tens of king tombs throughout Anatolia, going back as early as the Bronze Age with the Hittites, and the ancient kingdom of Urartu in eastern Turkey.”
Coşkuner tells one of the many mythological stories on the origin of the ancient trading city of Kaunos, all a different version of an ancient love story: “The city was founded by Caunus, the son of Miletos and Kyane. Caunus had a twin sister Byblis, whom he fell in love with. When their father found out about it, he sent Caunus away from the country. Later, Caunus founded a city across Dalyan, while his sister cried herself to death, forming the Dalyan Delta with her tears.” Another legend about the city is not much unlike a disaster movie: “The city was abandoned as the mosquitoes became unbearable for the residents.”
The ruins of the city of Kaunos sprawl across the river, overlooking the sea. The first excavations began three decades ago, led by professors Baki Öğün and Ümit Serdaroğlu. “There are the remnants of an acropolis surrounded by the city walls, an agora, a theatre, temples, a harbour, baths and an underground cistern. However, the only parts of the city that have been revealed through the excavations are the theatre, some of the baths, a temple and a Byzantine church,” says Coşkuner.
The city was located right on the border of Caria and Lycia, two ancient Greek federations of cities. Coşkuner refers to ancient Greek historian Herodotus, and how he writes about how different the Kaunians were from both the Carians and Lycians as far as the customs, traditions and language go. “The city is also mentioned as distinctively separate by Strabo, the famous Greek historian and geographer who lived around two millennia ago,” says Coşkuner.
The most famous resident of the ancient city of Kaunos was probably the painter and sculpture Protegenes, who is known not through any of his surviving work but only through literary references. Dalyan never seems to fail to fascinate Coşkuner however many times she visits the small town: “A boat trip over the tears of Byblis, overlooking the remains of the city founded by her brother, sends chills down your spine each time.”