The Land of Lycia - Natural Features, Environment, Climate and Strategic Geography

Ancient site of Xanthos, MarchNo territory of Anatolia, no autochthonous region of Asia Minor apart from the Troad, was so closely connected with Greece in mythology as Lycia. Its magnificent scenery, with mountains rising to heights of over 10,000 feet, with its lakes, woods and forests, its rocky coast indented with creeks and sprinkled with islands, its superb ruins of two dozen cities, could hardly reflect more splendidly, even today, the ancient link that held them together. 
(Brewster 1993:57)


Lycia came to occupy most of the Teke Peninsula at the southwest corner of Anatolia, roughly defined as the area of Turkey lying south of a line drawn from Dalyan to Antalya.  Its nature is lush, it is densely-forested and the landscape is mountainous and very dramatic.

Click here to see a map of Lycia's topography.

Click here to see a satelite view of the Teke Peninsula.

Photo gallery: Landscapes of Lycia

The steep geography of Lycia sharply divides the land into river valleys, coastal plains and several upland basin-shaped valleys (characteristic throughout the Taurus mountain range) which offer good pasture for sheep.

Three great mountain chains determine access to and within Lycia - in the west two spurs of the western Taurus Mountains (karstic), the Boncuk Daglari and the Baba Dagi (one of the best places in the world for paragliding), and in the east the greatest range of all, the Bey Daglari, standing well over 3,000 metres.  Right into early summer one can see snow atop the two highest peaks in Lycia, Akdağ and Bey Daği. The Lycians were really locked into their country as these three ranges cut off Lycia from neigboring Caria to the north and Pamphylia to the east and join in the north of Lycia to form a plateau. This plateau, along with a lower range of mountains, served to cut off Lycia from central Anatolia. 

Ak Dağ

Travel was much restricted within Lycia itself, because of these mountain ranges, and access to many parts of the country was practical only by traveling along the coast. The valley of the Xanthos River (Xanthos Valley) which formed one of the main land communications routes (then and today) could be reached from central Lycia only via Kalkan (ancient Phoenicus) or through the Seki Plain via Oenoanda.  Both ways came through the other land communication route of the Elmalı Plain (in the Elmalı Basin), the largest of the upland plains of Lycia.  Ancient roads ran from central Anatolia through mountains to this plain and then down to to coastal cities such as Antiphellos, Limyra and Myra.  This area contains many little-excavated sites, some dating back as far as the third millenium BC or earlier.  The area was once rich with natural resources. The Akçay River (the largest in northern Lycia) and two lakes (one now drained) were here and irrigated fields when they regularly overflowed and the water-table was high and provided plenty of drinking water.  Large cedar forests were nearby as well.  In antiquity people here made their living from fishing, hunting, farming and the production of reed articles.

Click to enlarge the photos above (Elmalı Plain in July). Elmalı is the largest town of the area and means "place with apples" due to the many orchards of the area.

Xanthos Valley

Xanthos Valley

Lycia has only two rivers of note: the Xanthos River and the Limyrus, which enters the sea near Limyra.  At the mouths of these rivers are alluvial plains, the only level ground in Lycia.

The Xanthos River was the longest and largest river in Lycia and the main water supply for many of the Lycian cities. It begins about 25 miles inland and empties into the sea at beautiful Patara beach. Strabo reports the original name of the river as Sibros or Sirbis. During the Persian invasion the river is called Sirbe which means "yellow" like the Greek word "xanthos", which also means yellow. The river usually has a yellow hue because of the soil in the alluvial base of the valley.  In Lycian times, like today, the river provided the people of the Xanthos Valley with rich, fertile soil for planting as well as plenty of wildlife.  Today wheat, cotton, tobacco, sesame, corn, aniseed, citrus fruits, pomegranates and grapes are grown in valley, as well as tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and cucumbers in the many greenhouses seen throughout.

The Xanthos Valley is long and relatively wide for river valleys in Lycia - fifteen to twenty kilometers across for most of its length. Communication between cities in the valley was easy and this area was the political center of Lycia for much of antiquity. Four of the most important cities of Lycia were located here: Tlos, Xanthos, Pinara and Patara, most of them located on the slopes of the flanking mountain ranges.

Photos of the Xanthos Valley

Central Lycia is a completely different territory, consisting mainly of a large number of small valleys separated by mountain ridges. This led to the large number of independent cities in antiquity.  The Elmalı Plain (see above) is also located in Central Lycia.


Arycanda perched over a mountain valley

Some Lycian cities lay along the coast as well; Lycia had a powerful naval force and traded by sea.  However most of the coastline is very rugged and inhospitable - along the coast a series of lower mountain ranges drop sharply into the sea.  We know that during Roman imperial times a ferry service ran regularly between the large coastal cities of Limyra and Mrya since overland passage between the two was very difficult due to steep mountains.  There is an ancient path, but it is rugged and steep, close to 2,000 feet high.

The climate of Lycia is typical of that of the Mediterranean coast of Anatolia - lush and green in the spring, hot and dry in the summer. The mountains provide a much cooler climate in the summer and, like today, it appears that transhumance was practiced by the Lycians, taking their flocks to higher altitudes in the summer. In fact, it appears that the eighty families who escaped the first sack of Xanthos were at their summer pastures at that time. The vegetation of Lycia consisted of bush and crops in the coastal areas and forests and pastures towards the mountains. Indeed, Lycia was once heavily forested and famous in antiquity for its export of cedar.

Lycian coast between today's Kalkan and Kaş

Coastline between Kalkan and Kaş

Lycia was strategically important to many competing imperial powers (Persians, Alexander the Great, Romans, the Knights of St. John, the Ottomans, etc.) due to its location on the Mediterranean coast. Its coastline made up a vital stretch of military sea-route from the Aegean to the eastern Mediterranean. Due to limitations of provisions and sea-worthiness, the seafarers of the Classical period were unable to operate far out of sight of land and always had to put into shore for the night. As maximum daily range for that time seems to be about two hundred and thirty to sixty kilometers, any ship passing Lycia would have to put into shore in the area especially since most of the coastline along Lycia is inhospitable (known from the large number of Bronze Age, Hellenistic, and Byzantine wrecks off the shore) and by the shortage of fresh water. Therefore, any power with control over the Lycian coast could at least know where the enemy fleet would be going. Power over this coast was additionally attractive for control over merchant routes. It is believed that a large trade route existed along the coast of the Levant and the Mediterranean coast of Anatolia, and there was a direct trade route from Lycia to Egypt, both from the Late Bronze Age until the Roman periods. This trade route was very important for the passage of cultural contacts, especially with the Greek world. Most visitors from Greece to Lycia, even if they did not come to trade, would come as St. Paul did on a merchant ship.

Sunset near Kalkan

Sunset near Kalkan