Patara is known as the capital of the ancient Lycian League and the birthplace of Saint Nicholas the ‘Santa Claus’. Nowadays, Patara Beach is also famous for being a nesting place of endangered Caretta Caretta or Loggerhead turtles.
We visited Patara Beach in early January. Thus, we did not see the turtles as their nesting period is between May and August. It is a beautiful wide sandy beach, stretching about twenty kilometres along the Mediterranean coast in Kas district, Antalya. Being wintertime, we had the beach almost all to ourselves. It was still warm enough to have a picnic on the beach and walk barefoot along the seashore. Every year, a team of volunteers comes to help the turtles hatch their young safely. During the nesting period, the beach is closed to the public between 8pm and 8am and the volunteers find and protect the nests by putting fences around them so that human beach visitors wouldn’t damage them during the daytime. These pristine waters and the white soft sands are favourite both among people as well as turtles so we must take care of not harming the turtles while enjoying the beach.
Patara and Lycian League
A short walk from the beach, we reached a large site of ancient Patara. Patara used to be the main port of Western Lycia. According to the information board on the site, “the ancient city of Patara was first founded by the Lycians, who called themselves Termilae or Tremilae and inhabited today’s Dirmil (Burdul) region. They were not some migrants from the island of Crete as the famous historian Herodotus had claimed. They called their homeland Trmis and themselves Trmili, meaning Lycian in their own language, a descendent of Luwian, which is one of the oldest Anatolian languages.” The earliest written inscription that refers to Patara is from the 13th century BC and was written in the hieroglyphic Luwian. In it, the Hittite King Tudhaliya IV mentions Mount Patar when telling about his military campaigns to the Lukka Land. Over the centuries, Patara was conquered by Persians, Alexander the Great, Egypt, Seleucids and given to be ruled by Rhodes by Romans. The Lycians, however, kept struggling for freedom and in 167 BC, the Roman Senate recognised their independence and the Lycian League was established. Patara became the capital of Lycia. In 43 AD, though, Lycia was annexed to the Roman Empire by Emperor Claudius. It became the Roman Province of Lycia. Emperor Hadrian and his wife Sabina visited Patara in 131 AD and were warmly welcomed here. Patara became one of the largest and wealthiest Lycian cities due to its sea commerce and oracle readings of Apollo, being the second most popular place for prophecy readings after the Delphi of Athens. When Emperor Constantine founded the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) with the capital Constantinople, Patara’s port maintained its importance by linking Constantinople through the Aegean Sea to the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea.
For me, the Harbour Sreet is one of the most remarkable sights of the ruins of Patara. It is one of the best-preserved streets in Lycia, even though the excavations suggest it hasn’t been used since the 7th AD. Various earthquakes flooded the street and so far only about 100 metres of it has been recovered. The street is over 12 metres wide and its pavement slabs have been smoothed by the feet of countless people walking up and down the street over the centuries. On one side of the street, there is a granite colonnade of Ionic order and on the other side, the marble colonnade. As no wheel marks have been found, we can assume that it was a main pedestrian street, lined with various shops and leading to the harbour. The earliest inscription found about the street dates back to the 1st century BC. There is a sewer system underneath the street. Various other streets and roads connected to Harbour Street, including the West Gate of the Agora and another gate – Propylon – to the Palaestra. Ancient streets always fascinate me as there are often signs of ordinary human activities, such as simple carvings of pictures or children’s games or other signs and writings. Here, we can get close to the everyday movements and activities of regular people if we look closely and use our imagination as well.
The Assembly Hall of the Lycian League
The Assembly Hall (Bouleterion) of the Lycian League was built in the early 1st century BC, in the late Hellenistic period. The cavea was extended after Patara became a part of the Roman Empire. The Bouleterion is overlooking the Theatre and the Agora. It has a semi-circular wall and it was built by using blocks of local limestone. The semi-circular cavea has 21 rows of seats for 1400 people in total. The seating for Lyciarchs or Governors is at the central section of the cavea. The building was also used as a concert hall (Odeon). According to the famous French thinker Montesquieu in his masterpiece ‘The Spirit of the Laws’ (1748), the Bouleterion of Patara housed “history’s earliest and perfect example of government”. He considered Lycia to be the model of an excellent confederate republic. It was an awe-inspiring experience to stand in the middle of the building of such significance. And to think that it has survived for so long, including numerous wars and earthquakes!
Patara and Saint Nicholas
Patara was a significant place during early Christianity as well. Saint Nicholas was born and raised in Patara and formed his creed here in the 4th century AD. He became known as the original Santa Claus as he was known to throw gold into the houses of the poor through the windows. One story in particular tells a tale of young girls who could not get married as they didn’t have money for dowry and were going to be sold for prostitution if it weren’t for St. Nicholas who helped them with money. We visited St Nicholas church nearby as well. The restorations were underway and we could see parts of the church, which was quite large but also quite modest in decorations. Another significant figure was Saint Methodius, the Bishop of Patara who was martyred in 312 AD. Additionally, the only authorised signatory of Lycia in the First Council of Constantinople (381 AD) was the Bishop Eudemus II of Patara.
The demise of Patara
The plague of 542 AD caused a huge loss of the population in Patara. In the 7th and 8th centuries, the Arabs kept raiding the city and many city residents escaped to the mountains. Patara remained an important port until the 10th century AD. Gradually, Patara lost its significance and was reduced to a medieval village. Lycia became under the Turk control in 1176 AD. The port silted up with sand carried here by the Esen River and from the 16th century AD, the city lost what remained of its earlier importance.
As we walked among the ruins of once such an important place, it was hard not to notice how quiet and rural it was now, in the 21st century. Beautiful flowers were lining the boardwalks, wildlife were going about their business as the sun was setting and the shadows of the walls of the ancient buildings grew longer and longer. Empires rise and fall and cities rise and fall as well. Patara was one such magnificent city that was way ahead of the times to come…