Little-visited World Heritage Site

This riverside capital of the Lycians is rarely overrun; for your undisturbed time with these fascinating stones thank nearby Patara, the ancient site the coach tours prefer on account of its adjacent beach.

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If the citizens of Xanthos are remembered, it’s for their principled refusal to surrender to either the Persians or the Romans, preferring to slaughter their own and be wiped out in battle rather than endure subjection. This uncompromising resistance to assimilation finds an echo not only in the language – Xanthos is notable for its mysterious Lycian inscriptions – but also in the Lycians’ distinctive architecture. In many details Xanthos is quite unlike more Hellenised Anatolian cities such as Priene, Knidos or Miletus, having apparently taken its lead as much from Persia, Egypt or Assyria. From across the agora rise distinctive pillar tombs, monumental monoliths seemingly out of Susa or Babylon, whose friezes were removed to the British Museum in the nineteenth century; they have since been replaced with moulded replicas.

It is striking that many of these plinth-raised tombs are not contained within a necropolis but enjoy prominent positions all across the city. All over Lycia, but especially here in the regional capital, there’s an abiding sense that the locals were in thrall to death, even perhaps in denial of it, as the ancient Egyptians also were. Even dead Lycians, it seems, aspired to the best seat in the house, heaven being a prime view over events unfolding in the theatre or agora which their faculties, apparently unimpaired, could feast on through eternity.

The sunken remains of the Byzantine basilica may seem unexceptional by contrast, though the huge floor mosaic beneath the protective tarpaulin – see if the ticket seller will roll it back – is definitely worth admiring.

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