In every ancient city, the gods are never far away and sooner or later we stumble upon their temples and sanctuaries, but I never felt their presence as explicitly as here in Letoon at the southern end of the fertile Xanthos Valley.
Letoon was the most important sanctuary of Lycia, dedicated to its three deities: Leto, who was the family goddess and guardian of the tomb, and her twin children Apollo and Artemis. The city was administered by nearby Xanthos (only 4 km away), closely linked together and often seen as a kind of double-city although the term “city” may not really apply to Letoon because no major settlement was ever found. Letoon was a sacred cult center and the spiritual heart of Lycia.
According to the legend mentioned by the Latin poet, Ovid Zeus fell in love with the nymph Leto, who gave birth to twins, Apollo and Artemis on the island of Delos. Hera, Zeus’ wife, was very jealous of this relationship and chased Leto and her twins away to Anatolia. That is how they arrived here at Letoon. Leto came to quench her thirst at this spring but local shepherds tried to prevent from drinking which annoyed her immensely; she became so fed up with them that she turned them into frogs (which still are croaking here today).
2. The theatre
4. Temple of Apollo
5. Temple of Artemis
6. Temple of Leto
8. Byzantine basilica
Based on an inscription found at Letoon, we know that monthly and annual sacrifices took place and that those who dared offend the goddess were found guilty before Leto, her children, and the Nymphs. This custom may go back to the earlier cult of Eni Mahanahi, a Lycian deity known from the 7th to the 5th century BC. This Lycian cult of mother-goddess was one of the many such influences that originated in Anatolia and spread throughout the ancient word. So it is not surprising to hear that because of this connection with the matriarchal customs of Anatolia even a woman was allowed to preside over the annual autumn assembly at Letoon.
What brought me here is a legend about Alexander. The story goes that when he visited the Sacred Spring, a bronze tablet emerged from the water carrying an inscription in ancient writing, which when translated announced that the Persian Empire would be destroyed by a Greek. The news obviously pleased Alexander and his entourage, and all rejoiced at the idea that the King’s campaign was favored by the gods.
Since ancient times, the Lycians used this Nympheum for their meetings in which the Sacred Spring occupied a very special place. During excavations, the well has produced hundreds of terracotta votive statues dating from the early Hellenistic days to the Roman times. It is lovely to see that even today the area around this well is very marshy and the remains are often submerged. It creates a very lively picture of the Hellenistic Nympheum that once stood here and to which the Romans added a semi-circular pool whose outlines are still visible. In those days, the sanctuary was surrounded by large porticoes where pilgrims and believers could stroll around and rest. Unfortunately, a large part of this building has not yet been excavated, although it is known that in Byzantine times a Basilica was erected on the altar’s terrace which winded up being flooded as well.
The main features at Letoon are, of course, the three temples standing on a podium as was customary for Lycia. The most obvious one is the Temple of Leto from the 5th century BC which is basically Ionic and has been partially restored. Its particularity is that the inside Corinthian columns were integrated into the wall. It does not show at first glance, but this temple is said to be one of the best preserved Greek temples and a most exceptional example of Greek architecture. Secondly, there is the Temple of Apollo from the 4th century BC in Doric style, where a marvelous mosaic was retrieved showing a rose motive in its center and Apollo’s bow and arrows on one side and his lyre on the other – the god’s personal symbols. A copy now replaces the original that has been moved to the Museum of Fethiye. Thirdly, we find an Ionic Temple in between the two previous ones. This one, the smallest one and showing only its foundations, is dedicated to Artemis and also dates from the 4th century BC. Nothing much remains of the last two temples since over the centuries their limestone has fueled the then popular lime-kilns.
The pilgrims must have been awed by the spectacular view of these temples as they approached from the Sacred Road. With a little imagination, one can almost grasp that feeling when walking over these ancient marble slabs.
Near the Temple of Apollo, an important stela was found bearing an inscription in three languages, Greek, Lycian and Aramaic. This is a decree authorizing the cult of the deities and establishing the provisions for its officers. They are not verbatim translations but each version contains some information that is not mentioned in the other two. The Aramaic inscription with its 27 lines contains the most condensed text, as opposed to the Lycian language needing 41 lines and the Greek 35. Useless to point out that this stela helped to decipher the peculiar Lycian language. This unique document can be seen at the Fethiye Museum.
Another most attractive building at Letoon is the theater with imposing vaulted entrances on either side. Above the south vault, we find a series of masks separated by triglyphs. It definitely is a Greek theater that has been transformed by the Romans in the 2nd century BC. What makes it so special is that is was carved from the natural bedrock except for the aisles. It stood at the end of the road coming from Xanthos and is said to be one of the finest of Turkey!