Myra (Turquie) : Masks, tombs and a theater

Masks, tombs and a theater: discovering ancient Myra

Terry Richardson

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Grotesque theatre masks

With its backdrop of tier upon tier of snow-capped peaks cleft by dizzyingly steep gorges, hidden coves, curving slivers of sandy beach, dramatic headlands, towering cliffs and a smattering of rocky islets studding a sea that is more often than not either an astonishing azure or startling turquoise, Turkey’s southwest Mediterranean has to be one of the most spectacularly beautiful stretches of coastline in the world.

The picturesque scenery and invitingly mild climate would be enough on their own to make this region, much of which was once known as Lycia, the major Mediterranean hotspot that it already is. But what makes the area really special is its unique combination of natural beauty and stunning ancient sites dating back to the Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods.

One of the most interesting, though often overlooked, ancient sites on this beautiful coast is Myra, situated on a flat and verdant plain behind the prosperous, if untidy, agricultural settlement of Demre. Easily reached from resorts such as Kaş/Kalkan to the west and Antalya/Kemer to the east, Myra makes for a most satisfying day’s outing -- especially when combined with a visit to the almost adjacent Byzantine Church of St. Nicholas, famed for its connections with the Santa Claus myth. Ironically enough, elsewhere in Turkey, Byzantine sites are generally overlooked in favor of those from the classical era. At Demre, the situation is reversed, largely because the large number of Russians who visit the Antalya region view a trip to the Church of St. Nicholas at Demre as a pilgrimage rather than a mere outing -- which is great news for those who are more interested in Myra’s classical remains, which are often given the most perfunctory of explorations by the coach-tour masses.

Some history

Myra’s name is thought to derive from either the Lycian or Greek word for the aromatic resin myrrh or alternatively, from the Luwian (an ancient Anatolian tongue widespread in Lycia) term for the mother goddess. In the second century B.C., it was one of the chief cities of the powerful Lycian League but was absorbed into the Roman Empire in the first century B.C. During this period, the infamous betrayer of Julius Caesar, Brutus, extorted cash from the city. Myra had an early brush with Christianity in A.D. 60, when St. Paul changed ship at its port city of Andriake, and as early as the second century A.D., the city was flourishing as an important Byzantine bishopric. But it was a little earlier, around the middle of the first century A.D., that the city was at perhaps its most prosperous, the period when Myra’s most monumental structure, its theater, was almost certainly rebuilt on a grand scale by a generous benefactor.

Exploring the theater

When British archaeologist-cum-traveler Charles Fellows visited Lycia in the 1840s, it was a backward, impoverished part of the Ottoman Empire. The intrepid Fellows was, however, stirred by the remains at Myra, writing, “The theater at Myra is among the largest and best built in Asia Minor: Much of its fine corridor and corniced proscenium remain; the upper seats have disappeared, but the present crop of wheat occupies little more than the area; probably about six feet of earth may have accumulated on its surface.” Today, the theater remains, along with the rock-cut tombs pocking the face of the cliff behind it, the most impressive of the remains of this once powerful ancient city. The wheat has long gone (tomatoes grown under plastic and citrus groves are now the mainstays of the local economy), as has the silt that filled the orchestra and lower tiers of seating (removed by the Turkish archaeologists who have been digging here, on and off, since the 1960s).

The theater is remarkably well-preserved, and it’s still possible to ascend the exterior steps and enter the semi-circular auditorium via the diazoma, the passageway dividing the upper and lower seating sections. The theater once seated up to 13,000 spectators, which means the settlement spread out at its feet across the fertile flood plain toward the Mediterranean and the port city of Andriake probably had a population in excess of 100,000 in the Roman era. This made it a large city by ancient standards (Ephesus, for example, one of the largest cities in Roman Anatolia, had a population of some quarter of a million), and its modern replacement, Demre, with around 23,000 inhabitants, has some catching up to do to match its ancient forebear. Things have moved on for Demre, however, since famous British traveler Freya Stark visited in the 1950s, when the orange trees (which had replaced the wheat Fellows had reported growing on the plain over 100 years earlier) “lapped up to the theater,” and the fruit was “taken around to Antalya by motorboat” as there was then no coastal highway.

Masks and tombs

Classical-era theaters are not exactly a rarity in Anatolia, but what makes the one at Myra so special is the number of large stone blocks, littered around both inside and outside the structure, sporting beautifully carved bas-relief depictions of the grotesque masks worn by actors in the classical period. The masks were worn for a variety of reasons, the most important being that the exaggerated features of each mask would allow those sitting in the upper tiers, far from the stage or orchestra, to see more clearly whether the character was male or female, young or old, angry or sad. One of the reasons the carvings are so vividly preserved here is they were excavated relatively recently from a protective bed of silt and have been subject to little weathering. Indeed, one of the pleasures of a visit to Myra is seeing the ongoing excavations, which have recently uncovered a series of monumental granite pillars now being pieced together in front of the theater.

Perhaps even more spectacular than the theater are the rock-cut tombs in the cliffs behind it. The most dramatic of these are cut from the living rock of the cliff face. Complete with pitched roofs and blank windows, they almost certainly echo early Lycian wooden houses. More common are tombs cut, cave-like, into the face of the limestone cliff -- look out in particular for the rows of rods, which mimic the wooden beams used to roof Lycian houses, and the gaping holes where tomb-robbers have smashed their way in, searching for the valuable grave gods left with the deceased. At the time of Fellows’ visit, some of the tombs held “additional interest, for retaining the colors with which they were painted.”