On a mission to explore deepest Lycia

Children play in the dirt between humble abodes with tin roofs, as carts, donkeys and farm vehicles pass by. We assure the owner of the yard where we know there is an inscribed stone that we have the permission of the Culture Ministry. He warmly welcomes us with tea as the neighbors gather. I try to persuade him that it is not necessary to cut down the rose bush and the tree growing in front of the tombstone bearing a relief of a youth’s head. The children want to know the language of the inscription, carved in Ancient Greek about 18 centuries ago. We are in ancient Cibyratica, at the site of the ancient city of Bubona, at an altitude of about 1,000 meters, less than 100 kilometers from the southwest Turkish coast, in the village of Ibecik. It is here that a group of beautiful bronze statues was discovered, the only group of its kind ever to be found dating from Roman times. Unearthed during illegal excavation, they are now exhibited in foreign museums. We – a research team from Heidelberg and Athens – are the only visitors to the area, and we come every year. To reach there, one has to climb the final 400 meters on foot, but the area is strewn with bases of statues with Greek inscriptions dating from the Roman Empire, as well the ruins of countless buildings. The ancient city, a self-governed community of citizens usually linked with the Classical Age and the Athens of Pericles, was not abolished by the Romans, who encouraged the autonomy of Greek cities. Although it did not maintain troops or wage wars, it was a center of intensive political and economic activity. The Greek intellectual tradition cultivated in these centers was imposed and maintained as the prevailing ideology with the agreement of the representatives of Rome. About 60 kilometers northeast of the city of Fethiye is the village of Incealiler, where there is a path leading to ancient Oenoanda. It has not been systematically excavated nor developed as a tourist destination, yet it is comparable to Ephesus before the restoration work. The city’s walls are still impressive and in its marketplace the bases of statues are still standing or lying where they fell centuries ago. It is worth visiting Oenoanda simply for the clarity of the atmosphere, the scent of the pine forest, and the view of the mountains on the horizon. Yet the site offers some of the most important monuments in the history of Greek epigraphology. Even the untrained eye can discern Greek script on ruins scattered everywhere. Oenoanda, as well as Cibyra and Bubona, belong to the northern section of the area, which in antiquity was known by the name of Lycia. No populations from mainland Greece ever settled there, but the Greek language flourished in these lands as much as in Ionia and Aeolis. The local population had already ceased using Lycian from the fourth century BC but never stopped emphasizing their origins and traditions. The Lycian people, as they called themselves, considered themselves part of Hellenism, but unique thanks to their Lycian characteristics. The Mediterranean once favored composite, cosmopolitan identities. Times change, however, and when during my studies in Athens I decided to delve into ancient Lycia, the easiest way seemed via Germany. I often visited Turkey as a member of research teams from Tubingen, Zurich and Heidelberg. I never balked at declaring myself a Greek, but I always represented third countries and for most of the locals I was simply a European, although they sometimes singled me out as a «neighbor.» I wondered what would happen if I went as a representative of a Greek organization – whether I would have a problem getting a work permit or whether the Turkish authorities would treat me with suspicion. Nothing like that happened, but there were other problems of an entirely different nature. It cost almost double to travel from Athens to Lycia as from Germany or Switzerland, since there were no direct flights to the nearest airport (Antalya). Moreover, there was no financial support from any Greek organization. The finances of the National Research Foundation are another sorry story typical of Greek state institutions. So I received only moral support. As on previous missions, we were guests in a village house. They served us tea and fruit as before. From the outside, the house looked like an old manor, well-built of stone and timber; inside, doors, windows, cupboards and dividing walls were all skillfully carved in timber. The lady of the house, a slim woman of around 45, was taken aback to hear that I was Greek. She was silent for a while, and we exchanged worried looks. She then got up and brought us a silver jug and asked us to read the inscription on it. It was a Greek name. When the house had been abandoned in 1922 (by its Greek inhabitants) her grandparents had found silverware that had been left behind. The woman felt truly ashamed. I told her that we can’t change the past, but that it is we who will write the future. (1) Christina Kokkinia is an epigraphologist undertaking research with the Institute of Greek and Roman Antiquity at the National Research Foundation. Sponsors in Lycia were the British Institute at Ankara and the Gisela und Reinhold Haecker Stiftung, Heidelberg. In Bubona, sponsorship was also provided by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.