In the 1850s, a wave of English adventure tourists followed the lead of their upper class and crossed the Mediterranean – drawn by reports of lost civilizations, strange peoples and even stranger customs in North Africa and the Middle East. And it is for these same compelling reasons that travellers today depart Europe for the lands of myth and mystery that lie beyond — the final destinations on the 19th-centry Grand Tour… Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey.
So much is gone. So much is underfoot. Civilizations reduced to looted tombs; conquerors to legend. Generations of passing traders reduced to this vague scrawled signature: this 3,000-year-old mountainside path. Only the goat herders remain, then as now, walking stick in hand, a pocketful of stones to encourage the dawdlers, keeping pace with the clong-clonging of bells as the flock moves down-slope beneath the oak and olive trees toward Sidyma.
An elderly woman – dressed in voluminous, paisley pantaloons and a loose cardigan – appears from a farmhouse and gestures that I follow her into the fields surrounding this Turkish village of 80. “Tombs,” she says in English, and I nod. She leads the way along a poppy-lined trail until the first one appears, then two more – then more after that. The bizarre stone structures stand amid the barley like three-metre-high loaves of bread: colossal, lichen-covered sarcophagi, a few of the dozens in Sidyma and the thousands found elsewhere in this coastal region of southwestern Turkey. Combined, these ancient Lycian tombs, like the sections of the equally ancient, 500-km-long Lycian Way I’m hiking, are memento mori to a civilization lost to time.
Just over the forested ridge to the south – and 1,000 metres down – lie the waters of the eastern Mediterranean, where once Odysseus sailed in the Homeric epic The Odyssey and where today adventurers cruise the Turquoise Coast in kayaks and on sailboats, tracking myths and enjoying modern amenities here on the quiet edge of the Middle East.
For three millennia, this Turkish peninsula has, in fact, sat in the crosshairs of events: Mark Anthony passed on his way toward Cleopatra and Alexander the Great on his way toward conquering the known world. On hillsides along this historic path are collapsed Greek temples, overgrown Roman amphitheatres and battle-scarred Crusader castles. When young 19th-century British travellers learned how central this place was in history, they abandoned their all-too-predictable Grand Tours of Europe for the mysterious world to the east. And with the recent re-opening of this newly restored and signposted Lycian Way, thousands of 21st-century adventurers can now follow the footsteps of those from centuries past.
When I’ve done clambering around the tombs, the woman hands me a grey-green leaf picked from an overhanging tree and indicates I should smell it. “Defne,” she says in Turkish as I inhale the strangely familiar aroma. She sees my confusion and, in accented English, says, “Bay. Bay laurel.” And, as if by magic, a mythic world is reborn in my imagination at the word “defne” – in English, daphne – and the smell of bay.
For here on the Mediterranean’s eastern shores, so the story goes, the Greek god of the sun, Apollo, glimpsed the forest nymph Daphne and pursued her across the hills. But, protective of the nymph’s virginity, other gods turned the fleeing Daphne into a bay laurel tree, which the love-struck Apollo then worshipped and his followers later wove into honorific, laurel crowns. And thus: the English words baccalaureate and poet laureate. These kinds of unexpected connections regularly happen in this overlooked corner of the world, where many of the fundamental principles of western philosophy, politics, science and art were born more than 2,500 years ago.
Fethiye is a town of 60,000 that crowds a harbour in the southwestern corner of Turkey, where it provides travellers with a starting point for an exploration of the pine-covered, 300-km-long coast that stretches eastward to the major city of Antalya. Unlike much of the European Mediterranean – where it borders Spain, France, Italy and Greece – Turkey’s Lycian coast, lying beyond the Bosphorus in Asia Minor, is less developed and little known. A half-dozen ocean-side villages, linked by a vertiginous highway, a popular ocean-cruising route and the challenging terrain of the Lycian Way, are all that exist for those wanting to glimpse a world where – in rural places, at least – time appears to have stopped a century ago.
Just after dawn on a warm April morning, I climb with two companions above Fethiye on my initial encounter with the Lycian Way. Marked by red-and-white trail flashings, the path ascends amid boulders and blooming euphorbia to a bluff 500 metres above the appropriately named Turquoise Coast. To my right and left, silhouetted mountain ridges drop abruptly into the sea; far below, alongside an uninhabited islet, a sailboat, no bigger than a grain of salt, is moored in a cove. As the trail descends toward the ocean, I notice the stone cribbing that lines these switchbacks and that has probably existed since Roman legions passed this way 2,000 years ago. Ahead, I can make out the huge parabola of beach at Ölüdeniz – packed with sun worshippers in summer when temperatures in southern Turkey reach 40°C, but on this spring day, nearly deserted.
The sky above the ocean is full of circling tandem paragliders who have launched from the 2,000-metre summit of a seaside peak. I give thought (very briefly) to joining them but am content watching their aerial peregrinations from a beer-cooled, beachside vantage point, knowing well how Icarus’s doomed effort at flying across the nearby ocean turned out.
Rudolf Leijtens, a newly retired Dutch psychologist, tells me he left Fethiye a week earlier, carrying a 16-kilogram backpack for a five-week solo trek along this meandering, 500-km coastal path. He has already passed through Sidyma and marvelled at the (blank)-and-death juxtaposition of winged figures of Eros on a Lycian burial tomb, camped with gypsies, been fed by shepherds and gotten lost in the hills above the 12-km beach at Patara, the longest on the Mediterranean’s northern coast. On his iPhone he displays a few images from these travels: welcoming Turkish farmers; forest-engulfed Roman amphitheatres; even Holland’s 12-storey Haarlem office tower, where he worked until recently and where others his age wonder about his sanity – leaving a secure job early to hike, at age 60, as many of the world’s great long-distance trails as time will allow. The Inca Trail in Peru. The West Coast Trail in British Columbia. The 750-km Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. The Lycian Way.
“I like hiking,” he tells me as we study his high-scale map on a sunny Kalkan rooftop, high above the Mediterranean. “You have the time to absorb things. And if you get lost, you learn to look for the smallest clues. You have to figure things out. That’s what life’s about: trying to find your route amid the confusion.” He laughs, embarrassed by his own philosophizing. I drop him off from my rental car the next morning at the eastbound Lycian Way trailhead, where he heads off with his MP3 earbuds in, destined for the seaside village of Kas, humming Schubert.
The 26-km coastline I drive in my short journey from Kalkan to Kas takes Leijtens three days by foot, I later learn – on the higher, ridgetop Lycian trail. The land along the Turkish Mediterranean is torturous: ravines, snow-capped 3,000-metre summits and a lot of limestone precipices that once served the Lycians as burial sites. The mountains are, in fact, full of tombs. Some are the bread-loaf variety, such as the sarcophagi in Sidyma. But most are cut into sheer cliff-faces – ancient, vertical, high-rise cemeteries, a honeycomb of unassailable apertures, often 100 metres above the ground. And below the road: the azure sea, with an occasional sailboat, stretches southward toward Egypt.
No place along the Lycian coast has been more altered by the recent arrival of tourism than whitewashed, narrow-laned Kas, population 8,000. Its harbourfront is lined with moored touring yachts and dive boats, the cobbled streets with restaurants, carpet shops, adventure outfitters, bars and Internet cafés. I feel compelled to continue eastward and set out overland toward the underwater city of Kekova. The fields are a tapestry of olive trees and daisies. Goats crowd grassy roadside verges. Men turn the soil with mattocks. Women lug enormous loads of freshly cut fodder. Loudspeakers from village mosques call the faithful to prayer. And above this, the Apollonian sun shines relentlessly on Lycia, which means the Land of Light.
Launched in a kayak onto the bay across from Kekova Island, it soon becomes apparent that the ruins lining this shoreline are remnants of a larger city that lies below. Underwater walls, foundations, stairs, streets and toppled amphora are all that’s left of a seaside city that dropped seven metres during a massive earthquake in 200 A.D. Here a half-submerged Lycian necropolis, over there an underwater Roman-era mosaic floor, over there a Byzantine shipyard and shoreline Christian church, and on a hilltop above, a 13th-century Crusader fortress. Looking around and down into a lapis-lazuli blueness, I become a voyager between eras. Layers of civilizations, one atop another: the ruins of three millennia of ambition and labour reduced to an almost undecipherable script written in toppled stone.
To become acquainted with history’s duration, to sit at the exact place where one of humankind’s legends originated, is to glimpse one’s link to the fundamentals: to fire, earth, myth and time. I’ve known since arriving in Turkey two weeks earlier that the culmination of this journey would be the seaside village of Çirali, which lies directly below 2,388-metre Mount Olympos. It’s the home of the fire-breathing Chimaera, first described 2,700 years ago in Homer’s epic tale The Iliad. It is the place, historically, where fire enters myth and where, for millennia, oracles were sought and the future foretold. It is holy.
I climb above Çirali on a steep, forested trail in the evening’s evanescent light, my flashlight’s beam my only companion. I know, from long experience, it is best to confront the gods unaccompanied. Then, ahead, near the foundation of a ruined Greek temple, the flames appear.
Unique in the world, unexplained to this day, the slope beneath Mount Olympos issues two dozen jets of gas-fed, blue-orange fire – some flames three metres high – from blackened fissures in the rock. Scientists say the site’s otherworldly and inextinguishable fires have burned unceasingly since the beginning of recorded history. But myth says this is the home of the Chimaera, a fearsome, underworld demon – part lion, part goat, part snake. The creature is, in a word, chimaerical – a fantastical, imaginative invention. I sit beside one of the Chimaera’s fires, where once oracular visions were announced by priests, trying to conjure how this natural phenomenon must have awed people thousands of years ago.
But a family of four suddenly appears from the darkness, Americans by their accent, chatting, delighted by the pyrotechnics. We exchange greetings. Then, while the father goes hunting for some long sticks beneath the trees nearby, the two boys and their mother sit beside one of the larger flames and extract from their backpack a bundle of . . . hot dogs. Yes, here I am contemplating the divine, and my new companions at the Chimaera are preparing a wiener roast. It’s all too perfect, too funny: the metaphysical and mundane collide. The gods, I tell myself, have a wicked sense of humour. The older boy, Max, age eight, soon discovers he can write with the tip of his glowing hot-dog stick on the night sky. He’s Luke Skywalker. He’s Harry Potter. It could be the 21st-century A.D. or 21st-century B.C. The more he flourishes the burning stick, the brighter the tip glows. His family watches, amused – as other families probably did on similar occasions thousands of years ago. Time past is time present. The oracle has, I realize, spoken. Max inscribes his calligraphy on the blackness, trying – as writers always do – to give substance to the ephemeral: words written in the air with fire.
Feb 2010 / Leg one of the Grand Tour covers Egypt and Tunisia