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W
e are in an area covered by white rocks that are slowly turning gray. There is fire coming out of the numerous holes in the center. I am atop Mount Yanar, at 230 meters (755 ft.) from sea level. The mountain is near a valley that opens out to the Mediterranean and is five kilometers (three mi.) northwest of the city of Olympos, one of the most prominent settlements of ancient Lykia. This is the site of the eternal fire of Lykia, known by the locals as Çirali, and by all others as Khimaira (Chimera). The source of the fire is underground. The holes out of which the fire emerges remind me of an ironsmith's forge, which brings to mind one of the most beloved of all gods: Hephaistos, the Greek god who could form any metal into artefacts of incomparable beauty. This gifted god would take zinc, gold, and silver, grab his hammer, and, working in the unbelievable heat of the ceaseless fire, shape these into the armor and weapons of all the immortals. He built shining houses for other gods. He had 20 bellows breathing heat in at different temperatures and beautiful women whom he formed from gold to help tend the fire in his forge. It was Hephaistos alone among the gods who had the privilage to create... and he created Pandora, Zeus' plan to keep mortals weak after Prometheus stole fire and gave it to humans. This was how the Iliad described him.

In ancient times fire was passed from hand to hand by torches in celebrations honoring Hephaistos to symbolize the presence of the god. It was believed that his shop was underneath volcanoes, inspiring people to build temples in his honor on these mountains. The temples were called Hephaistions. Examples of them can also be found on Etna in the Aegean, and on the Apseron Peninsula near Baku in Azerbaijan. According to ancient sources, there was a Hephaistion in Olympos as well. In fact, Hephaistos was depicted with a hammer in his hands on Olympian coins.

Because there has not been scientific research of any sort on Yanartas where the flames burn, the hypothesis that there was a temple in the area has not been confirmed. The area is being studied by Dr. Adnan Diler who argues that there might have been an altar instead of a temple in the area. The altar might have been used to sacrifice animals to Hephaistos.

Homer's Iliad tells the tale of Khimaira as well. It tells the story of how Bellerophon, who had been exiled from Argos, was sent to Lykia riding on Pegasus and how, after coming to Olympos, he killed the lion-headed, goat-torsoed, and snake-tailed Khimaira with his arrow. Bellerophon then threw the monster into the mouth of Mount Olympos, which is said to be the reason why there is an eternal flame in Çirali.

The myths around Olympos are not limited to those that surround Bellerophon and Khimaira. Who can speak of Olympos and ignore the mighty Zeus? The city of Olympos is thought to have been founded during the Hellenistic period about 300 BC. The coins of the Lykia Union (2nd century BC) first point to the existence of the city. Some of these coins bear a picture of Goddess Athena on the one side and a thunderbolt on the other side symbolizing Zeus. Zeus was the most supreme among the Olympian gods. Consequently, it is almost certain that there would be a temple of some sort to his honor. The site of this temple would in all likelihood be Mount Olympos. There is talk of a city initially called Phoinikos that was then renamed Olympos and of a mountain by the same name in Strabo's Geographica. But there were some twenty mountains bearing this name in antiquity. There is no doubt about where the city is. What remains to be determined is which one of the mountains in the vicinity is Mount Olympos.

For a long time, it was assumed that Mount Tahtali was in fact Mount Olympos. Recent research indicates, however, that Mount Olympos is probably Mount Musa which lies to the south of the city. Adnan Diler has recently uncovered a sacrificial altar on the Yaylalik Hill at 678 meters (2,224 ft.) and has argued that this is a sacred area. He suggests that there might be another one farther up in Zeus' honor, proving the hypothesis that Mount Musa is in fact Mount Olympos. This means that Strabo, who argued that Fort Zeniketes, a pirate dwelling, was on the foot of the mountain and that one could see all of Lykia, Pamphylia, Pisidia, and Milyas from the fort, was not only off target but exaggerated quite a bit.

During ancient times, Olympos was one of the six prestigious cities that formed the Lykian Union and had three votes. It was captured by Zeniketes, the famous pirate of the first century BC. In 78 BC, it was recaptured from the pirates by the Roman commander Servilius Vatia and regained its position in the Lykian Union. During this period, the city was important because of the temple to Hephaistos near the eternal fire. Under the Romans, especially during the second century, Hephaistos was the chief god of Olympos. Periodic celebrations were staged in his honor.

Roman sources inform us about the period when Olympos was under the domination of the pirates. For example, we have information that there were festivities where animals were sacrificed to the gods and sacred religious meetings were held. Among these were rites of Mithraism masses, a religion that found many supporters during the second century AD. Mithras, the war god, symbolized the soul that was created from light. The Mithras civilization was brought to the region by Kilikian pirates and was one of the pivotal belief systems before Zoroastrianism was to take hold in the Eastern world.

Light, sun, and Lykia: the birthplace of Apollo, the sun god. People meditate at sunset around the Olympos acropolis even in our day. They have chosen the Çirali beach because they believe that the area possesses a mystic oriental dimension. I, too, am affected by the atmosphere.

Olympos continued to develop after it was reclaimed from the pirates. Old buildings were repaired and new ones were built. But this brief period of development was cut short by renewed invasions by the pirates who mercilessly looted the city. Hard hit by the lootings, the city lost its important position during the third century. It continued only as a very small city for a long time. Though records point to the existence of the city during the period when the Genoans and Venetians dominated trade in the Mediterranean, we know that the city was all but abandoned during the 15th century when the Ottomans began to establish their power in the sea.

Almost forgotten, the city tried to erase the signs of humanity with the help of mother nature. Today, Mount Tahtali (2,366m. 7,762 ft.) watches over the eternal flame and the city. Mount Musa rises to the south of the city, Mount Omurga to the north. The Akdere Creek flows between the two. Olympos is situated on both sides of the valley formed by the Akdere. There are reedbeds and magnolias on the banks of the creek. The Olympos castle rests on the southern rocks. Dunes have formed behind Çirali beach over thousands of years, starting at Karaburun to the north and extending to mount Musa to the south. These dunes stretch for some 3,200 meters (2 mi.) and are home to many indigenous plant species, not to mention the Caretta caretta sea turtles that come here to nest every year. In antiquity, boats used to be able to advance to the mouth of the creek. The dunes that have formed since then now block that entrance. Beginning in the 15th century and extending into the 1970s, the city seems to have taken refuge in the forest that eventually grew on the calm and quiet ruins.


Mount Musa rises to the south of the ancient city, Mount Omurga to the north. Akdere Creek meanders between the two. The water level in the creek drops considerably in the summer.


The rocks on the southeast end of the Çirali beach are the best place to dive into the turquoise Mediterranean.


Karaburun's rocky elevations form the northern side of the Çirali beach and hide the Akbükü Bay from view.


The morning sun shines onto Çirali beach to the north of Olympos, Mount Musa's shadow is cast on the Mediterranean. The elevations that are closest to the ancient city bear the remnants of a medieval castle.


Beginning in the fourth century AD, many written sources mentioned a mount Khimaira (Chimera) where eternal flames burned. Travellers that came to the area in the 19th century would make sure to visit this site. The flames have lost none of their charm even though their intensity changes over time (left). If you can leave behind the allure of the ruins, you may want to go for a swim at the Çirali Beach where you can also catch a wonderful glimpse of Mount Tahtali. If you are doing this in July, you must be exceptionally careful because this is the time when the Caretta caretta come to the beach to nest (right).


The sea, sand, and the sun: what a wonderful trio. Reading here is like travelling to another dimension.


The dunes behind the Çirali marina are home to many different species of plants.


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