Xanthos and Letoon, Ozlen Beach

Xanthos & Letoon

Both of these ancient cities have UNESCO World Heritage site status, which was granted in 1988, and are of great importance to the history of the area.

Xanthos was the capital city of the Lycian Federation, made famous by a British archaeologist back in the 19th Century, and many of the original finds can be found in the British Museum.

Xanthos and Letoon were closely connected, with Letoon being administered by Xanthos and Letoon being the sacred cult centre for Lycia.
The history of Xanthos is violent, with the Xanthosians twice demonstrating the fierce independence of the Lycian people.  Firstly was when they chose to commit mass suicide instead of surrendering to the Persian invaders; the men set the women, children, slaves and treasures on fire before facing the Persians  Xanthos was later repopulated but in 42BC Brutus attacked the city during the Roman civil war. The Lycians again committed suicide and Brutus was so shocked by it that he offered a reward to his soldiers if they managed to save a life, however, only about 150 Xanthosian lives were saved.

Perhaps the most beautiful thing taken from Xanthos was The Nereid Monument, a very large and elaborate Lycian tomb dating from about 380 BC, an interesting mix of Greek and Lycian styles. This tomb directly inspired the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus in Caria and is now in the British Museum.
Features of Xanthos include:

The pillar tombs are unique tombs in Lycia, and are actually two tombs in one - a normal Lycian sarcophagus stands upon a shorter-than-usual pillar tomb.

  • The Harpy Tomb is a 5th-century BC tomb that sits on a massive thick pillar with a grave chamber and crowning slabs, standing about 7.5 metres high. The chamber at the top was marble and decorated with splendid marble reliefs.  It is called the Harpy Tomb due to the winged women that are depicted in the frieze and believed to be Harpies (monsters from Greek mythology with the head of a woman and the body of a bird). The original reliefs are again in the British Museum and at the site there are replica casts.
  • The Xanthian Obelisk is a 5th century BC, tall pillar tomb covered with Greek and the longest Lycian inscription known to exist (250 lines) on all four sides.  This writing was instrumental in helping to begin to understand the riddle of the difficult Lycian language, though the writing on it is not completely understood.  This tomb sits at the northeast corner of what was the Roman Agora, built in the 2nd or 3rd century AD to replace the older agora. 
  • The Amphitheatre probably dates from the 2nd century AD and is thought to have been built on the same site as the earlier Hellenistic one. The upper rows of the auditorium are missing, having been used as construction material for the northern wall of the Acropolis. The stage building is still partially standing and was one of two storeys and decorated with columns.
  • Above the amphitheatre are ruins of a temple constructed in the 4th century BC. From here you get a great view of the entire valley and the Eşen River.
  • A Roman-Byzantine street was recently excavated, once lined with shops on both sides and probably spanned by an arched gate.  At the southeast of the excavated road are the remains of an arcade of shops and a Byzantine Basilica.  An agora was built on top of the shops in the Roman/Byzantine period.


Letoon, administered by Xanthos, was the spiritual heart of Lycia, and the centre of pagan cult activity until perhaps the 5th century AD when Lycia was ravaged by Arab attacks and the area started to silt up with sand brought by the Xanthos River.  It is believed to have been abandoned by the 7th century AD. 

Archaeological finds date back to the late 6th century BC. During the Archaic and Classical periods (7th -5th century BC) the site was probably sacred to the cult of an earlier mother goddess (Eni Mahanahi in Lycia), which was later superseded by the worship of Leto.  

During Roman Times, Emperor Hadrian founded an emperor worship cult at the site. Christianity later replaced pagan beliefs and in the 5th century AD, a church was built using stones from the old temples.

An inscription found at Letoon refers to the establishment of the cult as well as its rules for monthly and annual sacrifices - offenders against this were found guilty before Leto, her children and the Nymphs. The Lycian cult of Leto was one of the many forms of the widespread mother-goddess religion which originated in ancient Anatolia and spread throughout the ancient world. It is noteworthy that a woman was allowed to preside over the national assembly that was held each autumn at Letoon - perhaps a reminder of the ancient matriarchal customs in Anatolia.

The site extends further to the south, but this area has yet to be excavated.

 Features of Letoon include:

  • Temples - Remains of three temples, each dedicated to one of the three deities of Letoon are located side by side in the centre of the site.  All three temples were built around older temples, probably dating back to Classical times. The temples of Artemis and Apollo were burnt down to slaked lime, however, the temple of Leto was only destroyed in the end of Antiquity and so eighty per cent of the temple blocks have been preserved.
  • The Temple of Leto - is the largest and best-preserved temple, likely dating back to the 5th century BC.  The temple was built of very fine limestone, the clear colour of which created the illusion of marble. An ionic portico surrounded the cult room (cella), which was decorated with an elegant engaged Corinthian colonnade. Because of its dimensions and the quality of its sculptured decoration, this temple is one of the most exceptional examples of Greek architecture in Turkey and one of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world. 
  • Temple of Apollo - To the east of the Temple of Leto dates back to the 4th century BC. This temple was Doric, unlike the other two temples, both of which were Ionic. A gorgeous floor mosaic depicting his symbols - bow and arrow, and lyre are seen here.  
  • The Temple of Artemis – Lies between the other temples, also dating back to the 4th century BC. It is smaller with excellent masonry.
  • To the southwest of the temples is a nymphaeum connected to a sacred spring. It was perhaps used in a religious immersion ceremony and was built during the Hellenistic period with the Roman addition of a semi-circular pool. 
  • Remains of a Byzantine church with a nearby mosaic fragment. The church is believed to have been constructed in the 6th century AD and to have been destroyed around the mid-7th century. The nave and aisles were decorated with floor mosaics depicting geometric designs and animal figures (these can't be viewed - they are now either covered or have been removed). It is thought that there was a monastic community associated with the church and, due to the large number of drinking vessels found during excavation, and therefore dubbed its members "the Drunken Monks".   
  • Letoon's theatre (said to be one of the most beautiful of Hellenistic times) has vaulted passages leading to entrances on either side and is in a very good state of preservation. It was constructed in the 2nd century BC and was used for religious performances. The central part of the auditorium was carved from natural bedrock and the aisles were made from ashlars. The theatre was situated at the end of the road from Xanthos, which passed through a Lycian cemetery. The entrance on the south side has an interesting carving of a row of sixteen masks.
  • Tombs of the south side of the amphitheatre, including this sarcophagus with a relief of a reclining figure and decorated with lion heads.

This poem was found on a tablet in Xanthos and has been translated by Azra Erhat

We made our houses graves
And our graves are homes to us
Our houses burned down
And our graves were looted
We climbed to the summits
We went deep into the earth
We were drenched in water
They came and got us
They burned and destroyed us
They plundered us
And we,
For the sake of our mothers,
Our women,
And for the sake of our dead,
And we,
In the name of our honour,
And our freedom,
We, the people of this land,
Who sought mass suicide
We left a fire behind us,
Never to die out...