The ancient city of Kaunos, famous for its temple-tombs, lies opposite the fishing village of Dalyan on the border between Lycia and Caria.
Kaunos (Caunus) is perhaps one of the most spellbinding of ancient cities for its landscape as well as its history with roots in the remote past. Situated in a mysterious landscape formed by the Dalyan river (Calbis), which connects Lake Köyceğiz with the Mediterranean, the Dalyan delta and Mt. Ölemez (Imbros), it is a city that does not yield up its secrets readily. And the astonishing findings that are being recovered almost every year in the archaeological excavations that have been under way here since 1966 are generating increasingly more unknowns out of the city’s stony silence.
The story of Kaunos’s eponymous founder as related by the Roman poet Ovid is helpful in acquainting us with this mysterious city like a quiet stranger with a secret. Kaunos, the son of Apollo’s son Miletos and the water nymph Kyanee, was in love with his twin sister Byblis. Running away from home in an attempt to flee this extraordinary yet illicit passion, he founds a city in a faraway place.
Byblis meanwhile sets out in search of her twin brother and is transformed into a spring by water nymphs while she lies stretched out prone on the earth in tears of desperation and exhaustion. Another source of detailed information about the natives of Kaunos is the ancient historian Herodotus, who lived in the
5th century B.C. We can conclude from his account that Kaunos was the capital of the region between Caria and Lycia, which was home to several cities. According to Herodotus, the natives of Kaunos, who believed they came from Crete like the Lycians and Carians, were actually an Anatolian people. Moreover, their language, which was entirely unique to them, had in all probability influenced that of Caria.
A HARBOR THAT BECAME A LAKE
The man-made terrace, temple, circular structure and columned gallery that dominate the city’s agora, which underwent a series of reconstructions and restorations starting from the 5th century B.C., are believed to have been dedicated to Basileos Kaunos, hero and eponymous founder of the city, with whom we are already familiar from Ovid’s account. At the center of the ruins lies the harbor which, although it has silted up completely forming the lake known today as the Sülüklü Göl, was a vital port in antiquity when Kaunos was a thriving marketplace. It is thought to have been a target of several military and commercial powers until it gradually fell out of use after silting up due to its sheltered geographical position. The ten Talents of tax paid by Kaunos, a member of the Attic-Delian League that ruled the western shores of Anatolia after the defeat of the Persians is an indication of the wealth this busy port brought to the city.
Believed to have been built in the mid-4th century B.C. when the city again reverted to Persian rule, the magnificent defense walls that completely encircle it are further evidence of its importance during this period. The ‘temple-tombs’ that have become a virtual symbol of Kaunos also date from this period. Reminiscent of Hellenic temples of the Ionic order, these tombs are distinguished from their Lycian counterparts by being independent, almost free-standing masses carved out of the bedrock.
The buildings surviving from the period make it easy for us to appreciate the economic power of Kaunos, which fell into the hands of Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. and, after his death, under the rule first of Rhodes and later of the Ptolemies and then the Seleucids. One of them is the stoa, a roofed structure situated on the agora and supported by a row of columns in front and a wall at the back. Finds recovered in a chamber opening onto the middle of the rear wall of this structure, which was a covered promenade, show that it was dedicated to the cult of Aphrodite Euploia, patron goddess of sailors. Before setting out to sea, sailors would make offerings here to the goddess and pray that their voyage might go well. Another prominent structure from this period, again on the agora, is the fountain on the avenue leading to the port. One of our most fascinating discoveries in Kaunos was to read, from the traces left behind on its walls by the water that accumulated in the basin, about the transformations undergone up to the end of the Roman era by this building, which was built at the end of the 3rd century B.C. and has been well-preserved up to the present. The inscription, which covers most of the wall facing the port, is extremely interesting since it is one of only a handful of examples of its kind. Apparently written during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, it enumerates the customs regulations that were revised as an inducement to sailors and merchants in order to revive the trade that had declined after the harbor silted up. It is thanks to this inscription that we now have important information concerning the city’s economy during this time of troubles.
Some statue bases recovered on the agora and the inscriptions on the monuments reflect efforts to liberate Kaunos from the domination of Rhodes throughout the 2nd century B.C. But the city that was founded through an alliance with the Pontic King Mithridates against the Romans was penalized when the Romans again granted Rhodes hegemony over it. Immediately afterwards it was incorporated into the Roman province of Asia.
ONLY KNOWN EXAMPLE OF ITS KIND TODAY
Two other structures dating to the 2nd century B.C. are the theater, which is situated on the highest terrace and, immediately adjacent to it, the so-called ‘measuring platform’ which is circular in shape. The theater, capable of seating five thousand people, is well preserved with the exception of the stage building itself, which has been largely destroyed. Just beyond the theater is the measuring platform, which made it possible for the city’s streets and avenues to be planned in line with the direction of the prevailing winds. Conspicuous on the podium, which consists of two circular steps, are some fine incisions and, on faces of the two steps, the names of the tribes and, immediately in front of them, rings where sacrificial animals were tethered. All these features indicate that what we have here is the only known example today of such a ‘measuring platform’, an important element in urban planning which is specifically mentioned in the ancient sources. In a prominent position on the other side of the upper terrace is a well-preserved Roman bath. By its plan it constitutes one of the best examples of the Imperial Age. But the most important structure from the Byzantine period is the church on the upper terrace where the bath and theater are located. This church thought to have been built towards the end of the 5th century when Kaunos, then known as Haghia, was the seat of a bishopric, remains in quite sound condition.
Meanwhile, standing in the shade of an enormous terebinth tree next to the bath, and commanding a view of the entire city, is a monument to Prof. Dr. Baki Öğün, the initiator of the Kaunos project, who died in 2001. Far more than a mere symbol, this monument, which was erected at the spot where Prof. Öğün came to draw a breath of fresh air every time he visited the site, gives us the feeling that he is still among us. Another important area connected with the city are the ruins of a small settlement at the Sultaniye thermal springs on the shores of Lake Köyceğiz not far away. Based on inscriptions both here and in the city, this settlement, most of which is preserved underwater, was healing center and a sacred site dedicated to Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis, both important divinities of Anatolia. The intense interest that not only foreign tourists but also the local people take in the site is proof that it preserves its original function even today. The underwater excavations that were launched in 2005 at this site, where archaeological evidence can be preserved almost completely intact under the water, are on the way towards becoming a leading school today with a mission to train a new generation of underwater archaeologists.