Ancient civilization that inspired democracy in the United States (and it’s not Athens)

A 540 km trail. along Turkey’s Mediterranean coast introduces hikers to the rich heritage of Lycia, an ancient maritime republic recognized as the world’s first democratic union.

«The Lycians? “But who were they?” Iskender asked. “When we Turks arrived here, the only thing we saw were ruins and… what is the name of where the dead lay?” added the old shipbuilder, leaving his bottle of Efes beer on the table and making a horizontal gesture with his hands. .

“Tombs?” I said. He adjusted his dirty captain’s cap and nodded.

It was barely May, but the afternoon heat was already weighing heavily on Simena, a remote village on the Teke Peninsula on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, a region historically known as Lycia. I had been walking the Lycian Way, a 540-kilometre trail linking the cities of Fethiye and Antalya, for two weeks and met Iskender after looking for a snack at a roadside cafe near a shipyard.

He gestured toward the crenellated walls of Simena Castle, atop a steep ridge. “Those tombs you saw near the castle… How did they move those huge stones thousands of years ago?” he asked. “Not even five men could carry the lids of those tombs.” Iskender shook his head, as if he were struggling to come to terms with an impossible idea.

From the fortress he had seen the Lycian sarcophagi with their Gothic domed lids, scattered by the dozens on the hillside.

Earlier, in nearby Kaleüçağız, I had climbed a knoll overlooking the marina to find a vast necropolis of overgrown tombs while, just meters away, merchants noisily set up their stalls.

The Turkish presence seemed fragile next to these eerie relics, a reminder that others had once called this land home.

«The most perfect constitution

of antiquity”

The circumstances surrounding the creation of the league are unclear, but it was probably a response to the tyranny of Rhodes, to which Rome briefly assigned control of Lycia in 190 BC. C. The League could not determine foreign policy, but elected a ruling executive, a licaarch, as well as local judges, and collected taxes.

The 18th-century French philosopher Montesquieu called it “the most perfect constitution of antiquity.”

Professor Anthony Keen, a Lycian expert at the University of Notre Dame, describes the system as “a meeting of Greek ideas about democracy with pre-existing Lycian ideas about how a community of individual urban settlements functions together.”

Many of the trails he was traveling had once been roads, ancient arteries connecting the cities of Lycia, whose history ended after the Roman emperor Claudius annexed the region in 43 BC. It was interest in these ancient roads that prompted British Kate Clow to create the Via Licia in the 1990s, after moving to the region.

«I was not motivated to create a trail; “I was motivated to collect old roads,” he said.

Clow continues to expand the route and support local communities: this year a group of volunteers transformed a building in the village of Sidyma into a cultural centre.

Hikers were few on the Lycian Way, but the trail was full of life: shaggy-haired goats, lumbering tortoises, and, most alarmingly, the black snakes that occasionally crossed the path.

In mountain villages dotted with poppies and wildflowers, women in baggy şalvar pants brought me goat cheese, fresh honey, and gozleme bread cakes, washed down with glasses of tea.

During the hottest hours I would submerge myself in the sea, take refuge in wooded canyons or lie down in thyme-scented oak, wild olive and dogwood forests.

After dark, a thick silence enveloped the land and my campfire trembled beneath the whispering pines, as if urging me to remember the people who built these roads.

In fact, on the Lycian Way, memory is such an omnipresent presence that you walk, rest and sleep in the company of ghosts. Because despite its dramatic beauty, this is a land of ghosts.

In “The Lycian Shore,” an account of a sea voyage along the peninsula in the 1950s, explorer Freya Stark called it “the most haunted shore in the world.”

Empty graves lie in every thicket and grove, like mute envoys from a vanished embassy.

An ostentatious part of the urban fabric of Lycia, the tombs were an expression of the central role played by ancestor worship and the afterlife.

The strangest of all are the tombs with tower-shaped pillars found in the ruins of Xanthus, capital of Lycia under the Persians.

The Via Licia detours inland to this place, which sits on a rocky outcropping surrounded by greenhouses and orange groves.

Two pillared tombs dominate the acropolis: the Tomb of the Harpy, adorned with reliefs of winged female figures; and the Xanthus Obelisk, a giant stele covered in Lycian writing that has not yet been completely deciphered.

The largest pillar tomb at Xanthus, the Payava Tomb, with its Lycian bas-reliefs and inscriptions, was removed in 1841 by the British archaeologist Sir Charles Fellows, who took everything he could back to London on the HMS Beacon.

Today the tomb is in the British Museum, along with the original friezes from the Tomb of the Harpy and the Nereid Monument, a spectacular tomb sculpted in the shape of a Greek temple.
Elaborate funeral rituals

From the 4th century BC. C., the Lycians built tombs in the form of rock-cut ‘houses’, often burial chambers carved into cliffs, with the rock wall around the entrance carved to imitate the façade of a Lycian wooden house, complete with protuberant “beams” and “joists.”

More common are sarcophagi, rectangular tombs carved from Lycian limestone, usually found above a lower tomb.

Archaeologist Catherine Draycott, from the University of Durham, explains that, in Lycian tombs, the deceased were buried in the upper sarcophagus, while relatives or slaves were buried in the lower chamber:

“In Lycia there is the idea of ​​literally elevating important people after death,” he says. “So, in that sense, they are heroicizing whoever is put there.”

While the ubiquitous tombs have allowed archaeologists to understand the elaborate funerary rituals of the Lycians, the picture of everyday life is scarce: finds of personal items or jewelry are incredibly rare.

«The difficulty is that many of the material remains are Roman. There are very few from earlier periods,” notes Draycott. The tombs, looted long ago, are inevitably empty: even the bones have disappeared.

Two days’ walk from Xanthus, the path took me back to the coast next to the ruins of Patara, capital of the Lycian League. Patara, once a prosperous port, was gradually abandoned after its river silted up.

The colonnaded main street now disappears into a puddle, and the walls of the shops that once lined the avenue have long since collapsed.

The most important building here is the Council Chamber, or bouleterion. This recently restored assembly house, containing a semicircular auditorium with 20 rows of stone benches, was the political center of the Lycian League.

Seated atop the bouleterion, it was not difficult to imagine hundreds of robed delegates discussing public matters while the lyciaarch conducted the proceedings, and my thoughts wandered from Patara to distant Philadelphia, and to Madison’s invocation of the Lycian League.