The Lycian Way : Book Review

The Iliad from the 8th century B.C.E. is thought to be the earliest testimony of ancient Greek literature, and in it already, mention is made of the Lycian people : „And Sarpedon and peerless Glaucus were captains of the Lycians from afar out of Lycia, from the eddying Xanthus“ (Hom.Il.2.876, trans. G. Murray).

In this guide book to Lycia, we can read that as early as the 14th century B.C.E., a ship sank just before the Lycian harbour. What archaeologists found when they excavated it : „six tons of copper bars. Bronze was to be made from this copper, and the required pewter was in another chamber of the ship. The remainder of the freight contained: almonds, olives, figs and pomegranates, which were stored in large amphorae, as well as weapons, gold, ebony, ivory from elephants and the rhinoceros, amber pearls, pistachio resin intended for the production of perfume, and bars of blue glass. The goods came from Cyprus, Persia, Egypt, Assyria and Mycenae and testify the widely spread and flourishing commerce relations of the time“ (p. 86 in Der Lykische Weg : Auf den Spuren der Antike by Melanie Heinle, Phoibos Verlag, Vienna, 2014, translation mine). So the history of the Lycian people and their culture begins far earlier than their first appearance in Homer. But without much understanding of the Lycian language or its alphabet, scholars have found it difficult to study and interpret the findings about this enigmatic ancient folk.

Der Lykische Weg, in English : The Lycian Way is an archaological guide book to, as the title suggests, the Lycian Way, which is a long-distance hiking trail in Turkey. The trail is called „Lycian“, because it crosses through the ancient region of Lycia (situated on the southern coast of Turkey). The 500km trail, made up of part ancient, and part modern footpaths and narrow roads, is studded with sights of ancient ruins that gradually let emerge the culture and history of ancient Lycia and its people, these difficultly accessible, and yet seemingly so prosperous and highly regarded Lycians.

Who were they? Melanie Heinle describes the monuments and testimony of their culture through this archaeological guide offering site photos of theatres, aqueducts, sarcophagi, rock tombs and much more. The book provides practical information about roads, climate and miscellaneous hiking advice for active travelers, helpfully suggesting segments for one-day or two-day trips, as well as offering the sequence of all these suggested trips taken together to piece together the best part of the original Lycian Way.

Photos of Mediterranean landscapes full of resinous pines, cloudless skies and rugged paths complement the stream of enigmatic and forlorn ruins of ancient burial sites that betoken a rich variety of rituals, an Apollonian oracle, a temple to Leto, the remains of an ancient commercial harbor, or inscriptions in the Lycian language (and alphabet).

The author complements her travel reports with short passages from Herodotus, Strabo, and less known ancient authors whose descriptions of Lycia and its people begin to trace lines of a people who were well known and revered in antiquity, and who seem traditionally to have had a special worshipping relationship with Apollo and Leto ; hence the Apollonian oracle, and the great temple of Leto, both of which are explained in detail with attention to their architectural structure and religious significance.

The history of the Lycian people shines through as one of imperial occupation upon imperial occupation, next to recurring periods of cultural and economic efflorescence. Beginning with the Athenian empire of the 5th century B.C.E., followed by Persian, Alexandrian, Ptolemean, and Roman occupation over several hundred years, the Lycian cultural landscape nowadays is particularly noteworthy for its multitude of burial sites.

Along the Lycian Way, the wayfarer is presented with sights of pillar tombs, rock tombs, tumulus tombs, sarcophagi, heroic monuments and various more votive artifacts of often impressive proportions, that raise many questions as to who all these men and women were, who were buried here so long ago. The author’s lucid and erudite approach to travel in the area makes this book much more than it purports to be, so that readers (provided they understand German) can look forward to a well-researched historical and archaeological exploration in addition to finding useful tips on hiking and route planning on the Lycian Way.