The ruins of Tlos in Turkey’s Muḡla province are tremendously impressive. I followed the road signs for the village of Kemer from the Fethiye-Kaṣ highway and took a turnoff at Kaleasar village, and as I rounded the bend there it rose in all its glory ahead of me, like a castle in a fairy tale. Anything involving a medieval fortress and a steep hill gets my vote, but Tlos is even better than that because it dates back to at least the 2nd Millennium BC and its hillside is honeycombed with ornate rock-cut tombs in the best Lycian tradition. My heart actually skipped a beat as I pulled into the car park next to the site and grabbed my camera and notebook.
Tlos was a member of the Lycian League in the 2nd Century BC. This famously ground-breaking institution was the world’s first proper democracy, with every settlement in Lycia having a right to send a representative to the annual meeting of the Patara parliament. There were over 23 city-states involved in this, including Myra, Patara, Olympos, Xanthos and Tlos, all of which I can recommend visiting should you have the time and inclination.
Business was alive and booming in those far-off days too, with much of the 2nd Century BC building work down to the altruistic efforts of a pair of wealthy philanthropists, one of whom also made a generous donation of 50,000 denars to the city (a lot of money in them days).
Tlos was inhabited all through the Byzantine period and was only eventually left to itself in the 19th Century, which is why it’s in such a well-maintained state of preservation. The larger ruined buildings and acropolis walls are Ottoman, and in fact in the 19th Century the very top of the acropolis was used as winter quarters for a local princeling or Aḡa. There’s a large Byzantine church to the east of the gymnasion, along with a big Roman tower that has survived largely intact.
From the top of the acropolis I had a fabulous view across the surrounding countryside and as always when I visit sites like this marvelled at the sheer effort of cutting these great marble blocks from nearby quarries, dressing them precisely and dragging them into place. The stadion is particularly awesome, a long rectangle flanked by 14 rows of seats. Think of the life that must have gone on here, and the beauty of the city when it was at its height. Generations being born, living and dying, ending their brief span in some of the shattered sarcophagi and rock-cut tombs that visitors marvel at today.
Tlos is a trace of something that happened in the past, whatever that means. As a devotee of Schopenhauer, in whose philosophy the Western intellectual tradition and the Upanishads finally come together, time and space are part of the framework which is pre-given, and which allows us to experience whatever it is that is out there. So in that context I’m not sure what ancient history is, or what these stones are meant to represent. As TS Eliot put it in Burnt Norton:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.