A Short History of Ancient Lycia, the Home of Liberty
in a collection of travel writing about The Turkish Coast to be published May 2008
History begins with the Flood. For at the end of the last Ice Age Northern Asia, North America and Europe was released from the grip of a vast glacial super-continent, releasing torrential rivers, changing the weather for the wetter which produced a dramatic rise in sea level. This was the period when such islands as Britain, Cyprus, Sicily and Sardinia were cut off from the mainland and 'foam-born from the sea. It was also the time when the surging waters of the Mediterranean cut their way through the mountains of Spain and Morocco to meet the Atlantic in the far west. In the East they sliced a passage through Anatolia, cutting the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus channels so that a floodtide of water drowned a vast agricultural plateau to create the Black Sea. This environmental catastrophe was repeated in the south, where the rains, monster-rivers and rising sea drowned another fertile, low-lying coastal plateau to create the Persian Gulf. Civilization seems to have been kick-started by this double catastrophe as the refugees fled inland and were forced to rapidly create new forms of subsistence. So that in the highlands of Turkish Anatolia a worldwide revolution was fostered, as the old wild grasses gleaned by hunter-gatherers were now farmed as crops of wheat and barley. The wild animals of these hills were gradually domesticated by gifts of fodder and transformed into meek herds of sheep and goats. The fact that grain could be safely stored for many years allowed this agricultural revolution to endure and prosper. Porridge and pottery were soon followed by bread and beer. There could be not turning of the clock back once these inventions became widespread.
The process by which these inventions were spread is still not fully understood though each new archaeological dig into the early settlements of central Anatolia seems to extend by another thousand years the chronicle of our Neolithic civilization. From these excavations we can however watch mankind's cultural evolution as the crude circular huts of the first hamlets grow into tightly packed villages of rectangular houses out of which emerge the first walled cities. Courtyard-like house-shrines evolve into temples and palaces, the architectural mirror to the advance of high-priests into a form of Kingship. By the time that Bronze was being smelted the first Empires had been formed. They were at first based on the triumph of a single city which sat beside one the ever-flowing great rivers which watered an agricultural hinterland be it in China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, India or Anatolia.
The Empire that ruled over central Anatolia from around 2000 to 1000 BC is known as the Hittite. Their walled fortresses and sanctuaries have been well excavated, and so we can now look at the faces of many of their Kings and their deities which were carved from an enduring - if undeniably abrasive - black volcanic stone. The Hittites like most agricultural Empire-builders, worshipped an all-powerful mother-goddess, ruler of the earth, life and death who was associated with a number of male consorts. Tow of the most important of her sacrifical lovers were Tesub and Habat who were envisaged as sky gods, associated with the sun, moon and the storm-clouds, whose role was to fertilise the great mother with rain, semen and sacrifical blood. We see these Gods depicted as warrior-monarchs, bearing thunderbolts, war-axes and spears, as they stand on the backs of sacrifical bulls. Nothing of the Hittite language survives (though it is known to have been Indo-Aryan) but we can yet read much about them for they were locked in a super-power rivalry with their neighbours, the Assyrian Empire of Mesopotamia and that Empire of Egypt which was ruled by Rameses II. From the writings of their enemies we know that the Hittites managed to extend their authority over south-west Turkey. The Lukka, as the people of Lycia were known, were conquered by the Hittite King Suppiluliamus but it seems clear that they subsequently rebelled and recovered their liberty. Later the ships of the Lycians began to raid the Syrian and Egyptian coasts. For they are listed amongst the component elements of the sea-peoples (that international fleet of pirate-settlers) that very nearly brought down the old Bronze Age Empires around 1200 BC. This was the period when the sea peoples were established on the coast of Palestine - as the Philistines- while other sea-peoples were planted in central Italy where they created the Etruscan federation.
Their spiritual capital of the Lycians, where they worshipped the mother goddess and her consorts was Tlos, whose ruins can still be found tucked away in a high mountain valley through which the sacred Xanthus river flows. The ancient Lycians were an extraordinary enlightened people. For they governed themselves in federations of twelve cities that met to elect a leader (the Lycian Lysiarch), a federal treasurer, lesser officials and a board of judges. The number twelve has a strong relationship to the sacred, for not only are the hours of the day assessed into units of twelve but so is the solar year. This allowed for an easy division of responsibilities, for each unit within a twelve strong federation could take responsibility for a central shrine and exercise the priestly powers for a lunar month before passing both the power and the expense onto a neighbour. But not all cities can be equal so the Lycian Federation later created a constitutional adaption which ranked their influence into either one, two or three votes at the Federal assembly depending on their wealth and population. Local magistrates and officials were elected by each individual city who continued to govern their own affairs but agreed to abide with the decision of the federal assembly on all matters to do with peace, war and foreign affairs. The formal name they gave themselves was the Termilae even though the rest of the world knew them as Lycia. But they were clearly used to double standards, for in something of a similar manner, they continued to trace their ancestry, names and cousin-age through their mothers and grandmothers but also maintained a separate paternal identity for political life and formal inscriptions. The Lycians had their own language and their own alphabet which seems to have been a halfway house between Greek and the original Phoenician alphabet. They tolerated, and even welcomed, the presence of foreigners in their land. Though the bustling trading ports that were established on the Lycian shore such as Miletus (with had a strong connection to Crete) and Pheaselis (which had an even stronger link with nearby Rhodes) were treated as independent city-states allied to Lycia rather than as intimate members of the league. The Etruscans were aware of their ancient link to their Asian homeland and maintained many of the traditions of Lycia, such as their own celebrated league of twelve federated cities. The Lycians were recorded by Homer as coming to the aid of Troy, their generals Sarpedon and Glaucus fighting against the invading fleet of Menelaus and Agamemnon. Yet clearly the Lycians also felt some innate kinship with the Greeks, for that most Hellenistic of all the deities, Apollo and his virgin sister Artemis, were born on Lycian soil (at the sanctuary of Letoon) while one the gods most celebrated temple-oracles was also sited in Lycia (at Didyma - a brood sister to Delhi and Delos).
The Lycians managed to maintain their independence against the emerging Anatolian super-power of Lydia (based on the city of Sardes) though they were forced to concede a dependent and tributary alliance in 540 BC when a Persian army under general Harpagus pushed its way into their mountains. Providing the Lycians paid the annual tribute and sent regiments to join the Persian Emperor when he went to war, they were however left to run their affairs under the ancient traditions of their federation. The Persian yoke proved light enough that the Lycian federation refused to ally themselves with a dynamic new state that was being created by a dissident governor. For Mausolos the satrap (the governor of the region) tried to create his own dynastic kingdom from a fusion of Greek and Anatolian cultures. The monster tomb that his sister-wife Artemisia created for the two of them seems to have an act of genuine grief which also commemorated their father and grandfather (Hyssaldomus and Hecatomnos) who had also ruled as proud satraps of this most western part of the Persian Empire.
In 333 Alexander the Great, on his way to confront the army of the Persian Empire at Ipsus, marched his army through the Lycian mountains. Having first destroyed the power of the city of Hallicarnassus he was everywhere greeted as a liberator, and offered golden crowns as the restorer of Lycian freedom. It was this victory march, which passed through some thirty cities including Telmessus, Pinara, Tlos, Xanthus and Phaselis which Freya Stark had such fun tracing back in the 1950's. After Alexander's death, the Lycian federation passed under the suzerainity of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt. The Ptolemy's were great codifiers of the constitutions of the various city-states over which they ruled and it was during this period that the Lycian language (and alphabet) was at last superseded by the lingua franca of Greek which was in common use from Afghanistan to Sicily. Towards the end of the second century BC, Lycia found itself unwittingly on the disputed frontier between the Seleucid's (another one of the dynasties founded by one of Alexander's generals) and the Ptolemies. This rivalry allowed Rome to start meddling in the high politics of Asia, and the Lycian federation found itself locked in a tenacious struggle to retain independence against Rhodes - the chosen regional ally of Rome - who then at the height of her maritime power. But the ancient freedoms of the Lycian League were maintained and so they remained immune from the caos of the Asian revolt against Rome and the brutal destruction inflicted during the Mithridatic wars. It was a curious irony of history that those who most valued the Republican freedoms of Rome (and who murdered Julius Caesar in 44BC to preserve them) were to be responsible for the end of the freedom of Lycia. For it was the Roman republican army led by Brutus and Cassius that invaded the territory of the Lycia League and in 42 BC encircled the ancient city of Xanthus. Xanthus did not surrender but choose to burn down the surrounding farmhouses and prosperous suburbs rather than let them fall into the hands of the enemy. They encircled their city in a moat and earthern wall, and when driven from these defence fell back on the temple-studded citadel. When this to was stormed by the discipline legions, the Xanthians gathered all their possessions on great communal fires, slaughtered their unresisting families and then finally cast themselves onto the flames. Plutarch records the story of a Lycian mother hanging from a noose with her dead child slung around her neck, a burning torch strapped to her arm with which she intended to set fire to her house. They preferred death to the loss of their ancient liberties.
Later that year Brutus and Cassius were themselves destroyed at the battle of Philippi by the army of Antony and Octavian. In the share-out of the Roman empire that followed this victory, Antony received all the provinces of the East. He delighted in reversing the actions of his Republican enemies by restoring the ancient liberties of Lycia. So that when he visited the Lycian Federation he came ashore as an honoured guest and a liberator, while in the rest of the eastern Mediterranean he was saluted as ruler and a latter-day Dionyosus (and a highly unpopular one who insisted on collecting an 'accession' donative rated at ten years worth of tax). According to a cherished local legend it was during this time that the Lycian League prepared the island of Cedre (Sedir Adasi) for the arrival of Queen Cleopatra to meet Antony on neutral territory. To make their honoured guest feel welcome they transported galleys full of the golden sand of Egypt which was strewn on the shore of Cedrae so that Cleopatra would feel at home. It worked, Antony and Cleopatra loved the sandy beach and the temporary escape from their royal cares. They sailed south together to rule their joint dominions from Alexandria. After Octavian had buried them both Lycia became just another province within the Roman Empire. Romance was over but replaced by good governance which saw the region's population grow to exceed 200,000 divided amongst some thirty flourishing towns and cities. But the legend of ancient liberties lived on, a role model that was cherished by both the ideologues of the French Revolution and another tide of sea-peoples transplanted onto a foreign shore, the United States of America - even if the numerology of thirteen rebel colonies does not quite the sacred twelve of Lycia.
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by Barnaby Rogerson