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Posted by Tim on Dec 15, 2005
Patara: Pirates, Politicians, and Presents

When we first arrived in Patara, we weren't especially at our best. 26 consecutive hours of travel (spent on eight different buses) had taken its toll. We were knackered.

And then a series of unfortunate incidents imprinted upon us a less-than-stellar first impression of the place. One of these, of course, was the dog-and-chicken incident that Jessica alluded to in the conclusion of her last post.

That, though, is a story for another time.

Off the Beaten Path

There weren't any buses heading directly to Patara itself. We had to catch a bus from Fethiye ("FET-ee-yah") to the town of KaÅŸ ("kash"), and ask the driver to let us out along the way.

Soon we found ourselves standing on the side of the highway as the bus disappeared into the distance. Before us stood a brown roadsign announcing that Patara was another 2km away (as were "Patar and "Pttara", apparently).

It was during this 20 minute walk to town that things took a turn for the bizarre (see: dog/chicken incident, etc.). But again, that is a story for another time.

Patara is probably a wonderful place to visit during high season, when I imagine there are as many as four or five people there. In November, though, it's basically closed for the winter. This tiny village has given itself over entirely to a fledgling tourist industry: of the small handful of homes and buildings in the village (on two streets, intersecting to form a "T"), about a dozen of them are pensions and hostels, and another six are restauants.

By our count, maybe three of those hostels were open when we visited. More troublingly, only one restaurant was still open, and it only served gözlemes (savory filled pancakes, disquietingly small in size). We were destined to be hungry in Patara.

The entire place had a bit of an uneasy, Twilight Zone feel to it. Abandoned hostels looked as if they'd been abandoned in quite a hurry, showing absolutely no indication that they were closed except for the total lack of staff and the fact that the newspaper in the breakfast lounge was months old. We seldom saw anyone anwhere at any time, with the sole exception of the gözleme lady who seemed to spend her every waking moment sitting in her hut making pancakes. Who for, I have no earthly idea.

After one close call (with an old couple so excited to have potential customers that it seemed they might almost resort to force to keep us from leaving) we decided on a pension. It was a quirky, good-hearted place that never did feel like home but did often feel like the set of a sit-com. Long-time lodger Ayain was staying there indefinitely, in a self-imposed exile from Istanbul (ostensibly so that he could practice his English with whatever tourists happened by). He often served as translator for the adorable couple who ran the place, and as surrogate uncle/older brother for their 14-year-old son.

We were always a bit off-balance in Patara, and always hungry as well. I do suspect, though, that in the mid-summer things are a bit different. We saw a number of lovely-looking restaurants and bars that were closed for the season. They would have made all the difference in the world. In the summer, Patara would have been Punta del Diablo.

Of Sand and Stone

If you find yourself in the Western Mediterranean region of Turkey, and if you are led by the summer sun towards a brown roadsign on a deserted stretch of highway pointing towards a tiny hamlet named Patara, go and give it a look. Because when it isn't closed for the season, it has a lot to offer.

Patara is in the center of (and was once the capital of) the ancient nation of Lycia. Just outside of the modern-day village are the vast ruins of a 2000-year-old metropolis, which has only recently come under the archaeological microscope. Beyond that is the beach.

The beach at Patara is simply stunning. It exists on a staggering scale: more than 20km long and an average of 50m wide, it is the largest beach in all of Turkey. Moreover, because it is so far from the package-tour scene, even in high season you're unlikely to be sharing this spectacular expanse of white-powder sand with more than a few dozen people. By my math, that works out to almost 3,000 square feet of beach per person. Not something you're likely to find in Miami.

Beneath this beach, interestingly, are yet more ruins. A large portion of ancient Patara was eaten by the sand, it seems, and to this day the beach is hiding an unknown number of stone buildings. Most famous among these is the still-undiscovered Temple of Apollo, winter residence of the world-famous oracles of ancient Greece. It seems that omens and prophecies would be dispensed from Delphi in the summer, and Patara in the winter.


Lycia first appears in the history books back in 1400 BC, with acts of piracy against Cyprus. It seems that the Lycian coastline, an intricate bit of geography overflowing with small islands and hidden coves, is a pirate paradise. The first known campaign against the Lycian pirates was in 1194 BC, they were crushed by a massive fleet organized by Ramses III of Egypt. Within a few hundred years, though, the pirates were up to their old tricks again.

The ocean floor beneath the Carribean has been accumulating treasure from sunken pirate ships for about the last four hundred years. The seabed along the Lycian coast has been doing so for well over three thousand years.

The next big players on the scene were the Romans, who weren't about to ignore the absolute fortune in coins and goods being raided each and every year. In 67 BC, a Roman admiral named Pompey was given broad powers and nearly unlimited resources, and managed to bring the Lycian pirates to heel for the first time in more than a millenium.

By the time of the fall of Rome, though, the pirates were back again. This time, they pillaged for an uninterrupted millenium and a half, until the arrival of the British navy.

Today, the same islands and coves that were once so appealing to the parrot-and-pegleg crowd are now wowing the tourists. For about $30/day you can book yourself an extended cruise and ply your way up and down the Lycian coastline.


Surprisingly, the American system of governement was born in the world of these pirates.

Well, on second thought, that might not seem so surprising after all.

About 2,300 years ago, the Lycian Confederation was the first representative government in the world. It was a source of wonder and admiration to the ancient Greeks, and to the Romans as well. Lycia was, in fact, the very last Anatolian province to be incorporated into the Roman Empire, and even then they retained an unprecendented autonomy. Their system of government had two bodies, a Council and an Assembly (similar to the Senate and House in US politics), with privilages and obligations assigned to each of Lycia's 70 cities based on population.

About two millenium later, the ancient Lycians again found themselves the subjects of admiration. The authors of the constitution of the United States openly based the new government they were constructing on a bizarrely contradictory world of democracy and piracy.

Which, again, might not really come as a surprise to some.


Patara's most famous son was a man named Nicholas, born somewhere around 300 AD. He would go on to become the Bishop of a town named Myra (near KaÅŸ), and eventually was sainted by the Catholic church.

But the reason for his fame begins back in his home town of Patara, back when Nicholas was a young man.

He inheirited a large sum of money, the story goes, and decided that he would use it to help the poor. At some point he came across the sad story of three young girls.

It seems a wealthy businessman with three daughters had lost everything he had through bad investments. He could no longer afford to feed his daughters, nor to pay the dowry demanded by tradition in order to marry them off.

In some versions of the tale, the cad is on the verge of selling them into forced prostitution when Nicholas intervenes.

He wants to help the girls, but to do so without offending their father's honor. One night, while all in the house slept, he gently tossed a bag of gold through the eldest daughter's window. Her two sisters didn't have their windows open, though, so he would have to resort to something else for them.

His solution: the chimney.

When St. Nicholas dropped two bags of gold down the chimney, a legend was born.

I'm not sure when he moved from the beach to the North Pole, but I'm guessing his reasons had something to do with not being able to survive eating nothing but gözlemes.

If you enjoyed this story, you might also like these ones:

Curling Up With a Book

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Amie a.k.a. Koreen's sister
December 15, 2005 at 10:06am
This was a really cool post! I really enjoyed reading this…very informative.
other jess
December 15, 2005 at 11:10am
the blue of the water is wonderful. very gray/black/white in philly right now.
December 15, 2005 at 11:55am
Now I have learned my new thing for the day! I had always thought, for no particular reason, that St. Nick was Swedish… Cool now I can go home and nap… Well maybe not but keep up the good work. Love and Miss you both!
December 15, 2005 at 3:35pm
All of a sudden I have a strange urge to watch back to back episodes of HBO's "Rome" followed by that Christmas special with the Berger-Mister-Burger dude in it…
December 17, 2005 at 7:53am
You have sparked my interest in ancient history (again). Now I really do have to dust off my texts by Homer and Ovid. Kind of makes you want to jump right into the sea and dive for coins!
December 18, 2005 at 2:44pm
Oh how very cool! I love Turkey vicariously through you both. Wonderful entries!
December 18, 2005 at 7:44pm
tim hedgehog is really quite good at his one handed photos.
Carried away
December 30, 2005 at 6:35am
What a great little stoy about St. Nicholas.
Perhaps YOU will have to go back to Patara sometime in the summer.
January 14, 2006 at 3:51pm
That was a fascinating entry, Tim! Democracy and piracy do seem to go together often, if not exactly well. :)

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