The impressive ruins of ancient Kaunos are a major highlight on our cruises in Caria, as well as on many of our private gulet charters in Turkey. Guests booked on our Lycian cruises also often visit the site as an add-on before or after they travel with us.
Turkey is, of course, very rich in fascinating and well-preserved archaeological sites standing witness to the many cultures that have thrived here over the millennia, but even among those, Kaunos is one of a kind in many regards. In spite of its great interest, the site has not yet become a household name on the list of dream destinations for aspiring cultural travellers, except those familiar with its region.
Kaunos (some prefer the Latin spelling Caunus) is located just outside the modern resort town of Dalyan, separated from it by the river of the same name (its ancient name was Kalbys). As it is only a short distance from Dalaman airport, and in driving distance from major tourist destinations like Marmaris and Olüdeniz, one might expect large crowds to visit the extensive archaeological site – but that is not so far the case.
Kaunos was probably founded as early as the 9th or 8th century BC, most likely by local Carians. From the 5th century BC onwards, it gradually took on the characteristics of a Greek city, before becoming romanised along with all of Asia Minor. Its existence as a settlement lasted at least until the 7th century AD. Located in Anatolia, displaying strong Greek influence and set on a major international naval trade route, Kaunos had a complex history: between the 5th century BC and the Roman age, it underwent frequent changes of alignment or domination: over the centuries it belonged to the Persian Empire, the Athenian (Delian) League, Sparta, Caria, Rhodes, Ptolemaic Egypt, Macedon, Rhodes again, Pontus and eventually Rome. It can certainly be said that Kaunos was a place on the edge, set between different cultural spheres, in this respect not unlike Morgantina on Sicily.
There are many reasons to visit Kaunos. Here are my Top Seven:
1. Obvious: the Temple Tombs
If there is one feature of Kaunos that has gained a semblance of international fame, it must be its stunning and nearly unique rock-cut temple tombs. Cut high into a cliff-side above what used to be the approach to one of the city’s ancient harbours, they are among the most memorable sights in Turkey, therefore often depicted on guidebook covers, in travel brochures (including our own) or in TV documentaries.
These remarkable structures are in fact only a small proportion of the 170 or more rock-cut graves of various shapes, making up the Kaunian necropolis. The temple tombs, clustered in two main groups, are the most elaborate graves of the city. They date to the mid-4th century BC and must be the burial places of local royalty or aristocracy (lacking original inscriptions, we cannot be sure of their occupants).
Their shape is in many ways a reflection of the mixed cultural character of Kaunos: rock-cut graves are an Anatolian standard and monumental ones betray a Persian influence. The creators of the Temple Tombs, however, chose to execute them as imitations of small Greek temples in the Ionic order (there is one example in the Doric one). Of special interest is the second grave from the right, conceived as the largest of the group, but clearly never completed. What remains of it clearly illustrates how they were hewn out of the cliff from the top down, first as a rough shape, with details to be finished later. Why this one remains unfinished is unknown.
Although the Temple Tombs cannot be accessed at this time, their imposing sight, best seen from across the river or even better from a boat in it, is simply unforgettable.
2. Unexpected: the Dalyan River Wetlands
In antiquity, Kaunos was a port town set by the side of a large open bay. It had two harbours, one enclosed, the other more open. That setting is now unrecognisable: already in antiquity, the ongoing deposition of sediment by the Dalyan River led to a gradual silting-up of the bay and the formation of a delta, eventually making the harbours inaccessible to any but the most shallow-bottomed boats.
That same process is better-known from Turkey’s western coast, where it has famously cut major cities like like Ephesus and Miletus off from the sea, leading to their abandonment. Both are now several kilometres inland, separated from the sea by dry land. At Kaunos, the silting-up is still ongoing, and can thus be appreciated as a natural process. What used to be Kaunos Bay is a vast swamp, a sea of reeds, traversed by multiple branches of the Dalyan River and set off from the sea by a pristine sandy beach known to be a nesting place of the caretta caretta (loggerhead sea turtle).
The Dalyan Delta is an important natural biotope with rich avian and marine fauna as well as typical wetland flora. Moreover, it is an important staging post for migratory birds. One of the highlights of a visit is a trip on a river boat (which is what we use to transfer from our seaborne gulet to the site itself), through the beautiful and fascinating riverine landscape, an unexpected sight in the Mediterranean summer, gazing at the site itself and the Temple Tombs in the distance and watching herons and other birds among the reeds or overhead, or the venerable turtles darting about near the beach.
3. Beautiful: the city’s setting
The physical setting of ancient Kaunos is quite simply stunning. The ruins are located on two limestone outcrops, known as the Upper and Lower Acropolis, and the saddle linking them with their more mountainous hinterland.
The Upper Acropolis is tall and steep, dominating the surrounding landscape especially when approached by road or river. It served as the city’s main citadel and last refuge in case of attack. It may also have contained one of the city’s key shrines, as is common for such sites. Today, it is crowned by an imposing medieval fortress, incorporating much building material from its ancient predecessor. The well-fortified Lower Acropolis is less striking visually , but was vital in controlling access to the main harbour.
Most of the excavated part of the ancient city, essentially its centre, is set upon a saddle to the northwest of the citadel. The street grid appears to indicate an organised rectilinear city plan, perhaps the result of an urban reorganisation in the 4th century BC. Here, the terrain slopes down quite steeply to what was once the main harbour and is know a lake. Starting with the large Roman bathhouse and large open square on top, the remains of Kaunos are cascading down that slope on a series of built terraces, intersected by stepped laneways where you can still walk on the same pavings our predecessors did two millennia ago.
Approached through lush plantations of oranges and especially pomegranates, Kaunos is very much defined by that grandiose setting, with sweeping views across the site itself and further across the wetlands to the sea beyond – simply beautiful.
4. Mysterious: ancient Kaunos and its people
Although Kaunos was rediscovered in the 19th century and has been subject to systematic archaeological excavations since the 1960s, the city is still at best partially understood in most regards, as only parts have been exposed so far and much of its history remains quite hazy. For example, it is not yet clear where the various public institutions necessary for running a community and typical of ancient cities (a great example being Priene) were housed. So, it is certainly a place of mystery, a site that raises many unanswered questions, and where ongoing research will answer some and raise some more.
Those questions actually started already in antiquity. Herodotus himself, the “Father of History”, who hailed from Halikarnassos (modern Bodrum) some 110km (70mi) to the west, clearly considered the Kaunians’ identity an issue worthy of discussion. In Book 1 of his Histories, he refers to the fact that they thought themselves of Cretan descent, whereas he considers them Carians like their neighbours. He also mentions their religious beliefs as being unusual.
In fact, he may be onto something there. Multiple inscriptions from Kaunos and elsewhere refer to an entity named “Basileus Kaunion” (“King of the Kaunians”). Rather than representing an actual ruler, this appears to be the city’s chief deity, a male god whose exact character remains unclear, although he may have eventually been conflated with the more conventional cult of Zeus. A large shrine excavated halfway down the slope, with a small temple and an enormous elaborate altar, may just be his sanctuary (one of several found at Kaunos).
Herodotus may also be right on the Kaunian’s origins. Archaeologists have found a number of inscriptions, mostly in Greek, but in some cases in Carian, an Indo-European language of the Anatolian family. The city’s original name appears to have been Kbid.
5. Splendid: The Greek theatre
Many of Turkey’s ancient sites include well-preserved theatres and we visit quite a number of those on our tours. The theatre is, of course, a typical feature of Greek cities, used for the performance of plays, and perhaps occasionally for assemblies. In Caria it becomes widespread during the period of Hellenisation from the 4th century BC onwards, when Greek cultural traits come to increasingly dominate local communities.
The theatre of Kaunos, typically built into a natural hollow in the upper part of the city, is an especially fine and near-complete example, with a well-preserved auditorium that once fitted 5,000 people or more. The foundations of the stage structure can also be made out. Particularly impressive is the enormous vaulted staircase that gives access to the theatre from the heart of the city.
The theatre is the second-most-photographed part of Kaunos. No wonder: overgrown with wild olive trees and commanding a wonderful view across the Dalyan wetlands, and not having been subjected to any major reconstruction (hardly necessary in any case), the theatre of Kaunos is immensely atmospheric, a place out of time.
6. Revealing: monuments in the harbour area
The lowermost part of the site, on the banks of the lake that was once the main harbour, is especially remarkable for a whole series of highly instructive monuments. As Kaunos was a city living on maritime trade, it was this part of town that most visitors would see first. Thus, it was endowed over time with an array of impressive monuments, expressing the city’s wealth, prestige, connections and so on. Here, I will mention just two of them, because they are of particular interest.
One of the main access points to the city is marked by a monumental marble fountain house, built in the 4th or 3rd century BC and restored in the 1st century AD. Such structures are not uncommon, as they were a convenient way for benefactors to show their generosity while providing an actual service to the city and visitors. In a busy harbour like Kaunos, probably with an adjacent market place, people would have need of water for many reasons.
What makes the Kaunos fountain house unusual is the enormous inscription carved into its seaward side. The complex text is basically a list of regulations regarding harbour fees and customs, focusing especially on a detailed list of exemptions from certain costs bestowed on visitors. Its prominent position and content suggest that it illustrated the city’s increasingly desperate attempt to counter the gradual silting-up of its harbours, making approach more dangerous for seafarers, by offering especially favourable conditions. The document offers an insight into ancient economies, as well as into the specific fate of Kaunos itself.
There are many more such monuments, especially inscriptions, from which experts can puzzle together much of the city’s history.
7. Overlooked: the Early Byzantine basilica church
The most popular monuments at Kaunos are clearly the Temple Tombs and the theatre, the former for their monumental glamour, the latter for its romantic atmosphere and setting. There is also a very imposing set of Roman baths (isn’t there one everywhere?), visible from afar, but currently inaccessible. But there is another highly memorable and important structure on the site, deserving more attention than it usually gets: the Early Byzantine church.
It occupies a large terraced square in the upper part of the site, located very much at its centre and probably originally the site of a pagan shrine. Today that area is dominated by the remarkably complete remains of a typical tripe-aisled basilica, lacking little more than its roofs and dome, and including a transversal narthex and a side chapel with mosaics. Scholars suggest a date a little before 500 AD.
Such basilicas were a very typical element of religious architecture in the recently Christianised Roman/Byzantine Empire. We find their remains nearly everywhere, e.g. at Priene, Miletus, Ephesus or Knidos in Turkey, and all over Greece, for example on Kalymnos or. Kos. They are an architectural standard of their age, playing a central role in the dissemination of Christian liturgy and architecture. That said, we usually encounter their remains preserved to the height of our ankles, sometimes our knees, rarely our shoulders.
The Kaunos basilica is not well-known, but it should be. It is a true treasure, giving us a vivid visual and spatial impression of an all-important and highly influential type of building.
Seven reasons to visit Kaunos – and more can easily be found. If you have not been there before, why not come to see Kaunos on one of our cruises in Caria? It will be just one of a whole string of highlights on your trip.