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Broken inscriptions and statuary are everywhere - this is the upper torso of a statue, the open neck of a garment, with the statue head missing

The city of Lydae, one of the westernmost of the Lycian region, is still a riddle for most scholars.

Located in the middle of a peninsula, in a basin surrounded by mountains, the site is reachable only from the sea. Being well hidden by the natural landscape, the town remains outside the usual tours and is rarely visited, even by specialists.

Theodore and Mabel Bent (via )

We owe its discovery to an English adventurer, J. Theodore Bent, who visited the ruins in the winter of 1887/88 as part of their extraordinarily wide-ranging travels. The archaeologist, who explored the coasts of Asia Minor from 1885 to 1888, was stunned not only by the majestic remains of monumental Roman tombs, but also by the large amount of the fragmented remains which revealed that the place was once a mighty city. As his wife and fellow-adventurer Mabel puts it in her excellent and detailed travel diaries, they found there

a paradise for archaeologists and tortoises, a smooth carpet of clover with ruins sticking up and inscriptions and broken statues lying round

View from the ancient road

a situation that is not much changed since. After spending a few days on-site, and conducting localized excavations, Bent was able to draw a first map of the site and identify it with the city mentioned some two thousand years ago by the geographer Ptolemy.

Since then, the site has never been further investigated by scholars and everything we know comes from the information gathered by these nineteenth century travellers… and during the trips with our guests.

The site is still wild and silent but for the occasional sound of goat bells

The journey there is a lovely one, and not only because of the chance of a delightful swim in the beautiful isolated cove before or after the visit, but also because we’re retracing the steps of these previous explorers. First by dinghy, from the gulet to the shore, and then by foot when we climb the gentle slope of the peninsula, following the ancient road paved of large slabs or directly carved in the bedrock through the old and dense pine forest.

The barrel-vaulted heroon at Lydai

We reach the site at its highest point, where two commanding Roman monumental tombs (heroa) built in the first century AD stand like guardians of this sleeping beauty, which is otherwise lacking in any kind of fortification walls. Although partly destroyed, these monumental tombs which once belonged to distinguished citizens of the community still stand over twenty feet in height. They offer some of the finest architectural remains scattered among the ruins, some of them carrying the name of the owners, such as Diophantus, son of Heliodorus, whose family members are mentioned many times on the inscriptions lying on the site. These once lavish buildings are a testimony of the wealth and social organisation of the community which inhabited the area, and rare still-standing witnesses of the scale of the funerary practices of the city’s Roman elite at the beginning of the Christian era. The existence and state of preservation of those tombs are all the more surprising since the remains of the rest of the city seem comparatively scarce.

A fragment of the sarcophagus of Diophantus son of Heliodorus

Keep in mind, though, that this site has barely been scratched on the surface by archaeologists. This is therefore a unique opportunity for you to get a sense of an archaeologist’s experience, while we go down the slope from the heroa and reach the city centre, look at the scattered ruins, read the ancient inscriptions, try to identify this or that piece of marble statue and to understand the shape of the settlement. The wealth of inscriptions is also an incredible source of information about the make-up and order of the community, as well as of its most important cults - they mention dedications and offerings of statues and monuments to many of the local gods (Zeus, Asclepius, Apollo, etc), or their priests emphasizing the lively religious activity of the city.

A statue base or pedestal erected by Gaius Julius Heliodorus

One particular group of inscriptions offers an insight into a long period of Lydae's history and its wider relations by allowing us to follow a single family over eight generations and three centuries. It's that of Diophantus, whom we’ve already met, which was particularly prominent in Lydae and its surroundings: we discover from the inscriptions strewn around our feet that it owned notably large estates in the city’s territory. At least one of the two heroa belonged to them and many members of the same family were offered honorific buildings, either as civic rewards or by relatives who sought to celebrate their memory.

A chamber tomb at Lydae

The founder, Heliodorus, carried the initials C. J. for Caius (Gaius) Julius, just like Caesar himself. His name suggests that he was in fact probably a slave freed under Caesar’s will in the first century BC. Once he was freed, his family flourished until we find another Heliodorus, who belonged to the sixth generation and is clearly by far the most important member. He filled a number of offices in the city and the wider Roman province, obtaining Roman citizenship as well as the citizenship of many Lycian towns (all of these could co-exist under the Roman Empire). His wealth seem to have been particularly significant since at Lydae itself he first built a tomb for his parents, then set up a statue for his sister, another for his son and finally erected a monumental tomb for himself. The inscription carved on the latter tells us about his impressive career as high priest for the worship of the Caesars and secretary of the Lycian League (around AD 140), benevolent ambassador for the Lycians in Rome, promoter of festivals and so on. Some of his descendants are known to have been Roman senators. After his death, his grandsons would also raise a statue in his memory at Lydae.

With the help of our trained archaeologists, you will be able to identify the ancient market place (the agora) surrounded by inscribed statue bases, investigate the remains of a large and enigmatic tripartite Roman building, and fathom the successive occupations on site, from the late fourth century BC through to the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods.

Ottoman cistern at Lydae
A gulet off Lydae

During the visit, we also have the chance to meet with Mutlu, his wife and his daughter, a semi-nomadic Yörük family that we have known for a couple of decades who live right in the heart of the ancient city. They have woven themselves into the ruins, making the most of them as, for example, they still use the historic Ottoman cisterns to water their goats. Mutlu and his wife know the entire peninsula by heart, as the still collect wild herbs (brewing wonderful wild sage tea) growing all over Lydae’s territory, look after their beehive (to produce delicious local honey) and their olive trees, milling olives in the ancient traditional manner by hand!

Although largely unknown to the general public and most scholars, the site of Lydae really offers a unique example of a rural Roman settlement at the fringes of the Empire; its surroundings and Mutlu’s hospitality make it a real highlight.

You can visit Lydae on our cruises along the Carian Coast, during the family tour or during the gastronomic Gulet cruise.

For more on the Bents, you can read about their Arabian journeys here.

2 responses to “Finding Lydae: a remote Roman city off the beaten track”

  1. Paul Jewkes says:

    Good article. We walked the ancient town, seems a series of bombs must have exploded as ruins are so spread around 😃. Very difficult to make out what each set of ruins could have been, other than the two mausoleums and cisterns. Incredible really how people could have lived in such a desolate place. Perhaps the climate back then had much more rainfall.

  2. Heinrich Hall says:

    You are right. The site is certainly a challenging one, and one that would require a lot more systematic archaeological study to be understood better.

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