I am writing this post on a gulet, just off the coast of Caria, the historical region that forms the southwest corner of Turkey.
Caria is mentioned quite frequently in this blog. During the last 15 months, we have described one of its most appealing ancient sites, Stratonikeia, mused about the archaeological mysteries of the unexplored ancient harbour at Myndos, have spoken about one of Caria’s most famous sons, Herodotus, the “father of history”, have described the experience of visiting the region’s shipyards, where the gulets we use are being handcrafted and maintained, and have thrown a covetous eye at the newly inaugurated Carian Trail.
So, are we obsessed with Caria? One might think so. Caria is the venue of no less than ten escorted tours we are running in 2013, and additionally acts as the starting or ending point of another two.
Caria is in a pivotal position for us. The Carian Coast includes some of the most beautiful, varied and unspoilt maritime scenery in Turkey, gives easy access to the nearby Greek islands of the Dodecanese and beyond and is the true home – both physically and spiritually – of the gulet-building tradition and the gulet cruises known as the “Blue Cruise”. Moreover, Caria has a very rich history and accordingly contains a vast multitude of fascinating and appealing archaeological sites.
The geographic position and complex topography of Caria have contributed much to that history. On the map, Caria sticks out of the Turkish coast: it looks as if whatever god designed it was suffering from the shakes: its coastline is an extraordinarily convoluted one, defined by deep inlets and bays and an innumerable succession of peninsulas sprouting headlands that project further peninsulas. It thus provided much shelter, but also much danger, for passing seafarers, of which there must have been many: since ancient shipping tended to be coastal, nearly every trader travelling between Egypt or the Levantine coast and the Aegean, the Central Mediterranean or the Black Sea must have passed along the Carian Coast. As a result, Caria became an interface between the different peoples and cultures active in the area.
The Carians themselves, a local Anatolian people, remain a little mysterious. We know little of their early history (Homer mentions their wealth and according to Thucydides, they had originally settled many of the Aegean islands) or their language, and find them difficult to grasp archaeologically, with the exception of their distinctive rock-cut tombs. They are visible primarily through their contact with Greek culture, as Greek colonies sprang up near the Carian Coast on islands such as Kos and Rhodes, and now and then also on the mainland, e.g. at Knidos. From an archaeological point of view, it appears that the inhabitants of Caria adopted (and adapted) aspects of Greek cultural expression quite early on and continued to do so even when the region was under Persian domination from the mid-6th to the late 4th centuries BC.
At the 480BC battle of Salamis, Queen Artemisia I of Caria fought bravely on the Persian side, but later in the 5th century, many of the area’s coastal cities were tribute-paying members of the Athenian/Delian League. Between the 370s and 350s BC, the area’s leading figure was Mausollos. From the Persian empire’s point of view, he was a satrap, a local governor of sorts, but internally he presented himself as a sovereign ruler, refounding the city of Halicarnassus as a Carian capital and commemorating himself through the erection of the enormous monumental tomb that was counted as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and gave us the word “mausoleum”.
Later again, Caria was conquered by Alexander the Great, fought over by his successors and by the island state of Rhodes, and eventually ended up as part of the Roman and Byzantine empires. In medieval times, it saw a localised incursion by the Crusader Knights of St. John before ending up under the rule of Turkish dynasties (first Mentese, then Seljuk and eventually Ottoman). In more recent history, key events include the departure of its remaining Greek populations between 1919 and 1922 and the advent of tourism as a major economic factor in the last few decades.
All of these peoples and events have left their traces in the landscapes of Caria, making the Carian Coast of Turkey an archaeological wonderland, densely scattered with a great variety of wonderful sites.
Caria’s ancient cities, each different from the others, offer a unique experience of exploration: The grand vista of the city of Herakleia, scattered amongst huge granite domes like some set of ancient toys, or Euromos, with its unusually well-preserved Roman temple of Zeus, hidden amongst olive groves, are sights to be seen. The ancient port town of Iasos, with Roman houses beautifully set on a coastal promontory, or that of Myndos, still awaiting exploration, cannot fail to impress. Nor can Halicarnassus, now the resort of Bodrum, with its grand castle that the crusaders built from the blocks of the Mausoleum and that now houses the extraordinary museum of underwater archaeology, or Mylasa, now a busy country town with a great farmers’ market and a fully preserved Roman miniature copy of the Mausoleum.
Knidos, set at the end of a long and narrow peninsula and surrounded by Greek islands, is one the most enticing sites in Turkey, along with Stratonikeia far inland, where new antiquities are being revealed year by year, whereas Phoenix, overgrown and wild, remains a conundrum. Kaunos, its great theatre looming on a rocky slope above the harbour-turned-swamp, is graced by its extraordinary temple tombs.
Apart from those centres of past settlement, there are the major sanctuaries of ancient Caria: grand Labraunda, sacred to Zeus and set on a hilltop soaring far above the inhabited plains, and numinous Lagina, centre of worship for Hekate, the goddess of witchcraft, crossroads and the moon. A further highlight is the grand Rhodian fortification at Loryma, built to protect a strategic bay, one of the best examples of Hellenistic military architecture to survive and only reachable by boat.
So many reasons to visit Caria, and nearly all of them along the enormously varied, green and peaceful Carian shore! The best way to do so is a cruise, especially our Cruising the Carian Coast!