Site History

Letoon (also spelled Letoum, near modern Kumluova, Turkey)

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Letoon was the sacred cult center of Lycia, its most important sanctuary, and was dedicated to the three national deities of Lycia - Leto and her twin children Apollo and Artemis. Leto was also worshiped as a family deity and as the guardian of the tomb.
Letoon lies less than 10 km to the south of Xanthos on a fertile plain.  Xanthos and Letoon are often seen as a "double-site", since the two were closely linked and Letoon was administered by Xanthos.  Xanthos-Letoon is one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in Turkey. For this reason, it has been registered in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. Letoon has been under excavation since the 1950's and since 1962 by the French Archaeological Mission, in conjunction with the excavations being carried out at Xanthos. Excavation goes on today - the team has done some excellent work and in recent years has begun to restore the Temple of Leto. 
To reach Letoon, you turn west one km beyond the road from Kinik to Fethiye and continue 5 km.  It's not far from Patara and a day trip from Kalkan, Kas or Fethiye to Letoon or Xanthos could easily be combined with a trip to the beach and/or ruins there.  Several finds from Letoon (as well as artifacts from other sites), including the important Trilingual Stele from Letoon, bearing inscriptions in Greek, Lycian and Aramaic, (crucial in the deciphering of the Lycian language) can be seen in the Fethiye Museum.
According to a legend told by Ovid the latin poet, the nymph Leto was loved by Zeus and gave birth to her twins fathered by him, Artemis and Apollo on the island of Delos.  Zeus' jealous wife Hera pursued Leto and chased her with the twins to Anatolia where she came to the place of Letoon.  Here she tried to quench her thrist at a spring but local shepherds attempted to chase her from the water - until she turned them into frogs in retaliation.  Another story gives the twins' birthplace as the source of the Xanthos River and another story says that wolves helped her find the Xanthos River. In gratitude she named the country Lycia: Lykos is Greek for wolf.
This mythology has been a popular subject in art.  See a painting of the Ovid's legend of shepherds turned into frogs: Landscape with Leto and Peasants of Lykia by Hendrick de Clerck.
Letoon was a sanctuary precinct and not actually a city, and seems to have had no major settlement associated with it at any period.  It was administered by Xanthos and was the spiritual heart of Lycia, its federal sanctuary and the place of national festivals.  Letoon was the center of pagan cults activity until perhaps the 5th century AD when Lycia was ravaged by Arab attacks and the area started to silt up with sand brought by the Xanthos River.  It is believed to have been abandonded by the 7th century AD. 
Archaeological finds date back to the late 6th century BC.  During the Archaic and Classical periods (7th-5th century BC) the site was probably sacred to to the cult of an earlier mother goddess (Eni Mahanahi in Lycia), which was later superseded by the worship of Leto. 
During Roman Times, the Emperor Hadrian founded an emperor worship cult at the site.  Christianity later replaced pagan beliefs and in the 5th century AD a chuch was built using stones from the old temples.
An inscription found at Letoon refers to the establishment of the cult as well as its rules for monthly and annual sacrifices - offenders against this were found guilty before Leto, her children and the Nymphs. The Lycian cult of Leto was one of the many forms of the wide-spread mother-goddess religion which originated in ancient Anatolia and spread throughout the ancient world.  It is noteworthy that a woman was allowed to preside over the national assembly that was held each autumn at Letoon - perhaps a reminder of the ancient matriarchal customs in Anatolia.
Main phases of the layout of the sanctuary:
In Classical times, some isolated edifices were built on terraces laid out between the hill and the holy spring.
In Greek times, temples and porticoes were erected in a a regular grid. In Roman times, the Nymphaeum was re-designed in baroque style. In Byzantine times, a basilica was built on the altar's terrace, which dominated a site progressively covered by water. The sanctuary was once bordered by large porticoes, where pilgrims could rest and which closed off the site.  The three temples were erected on podiums, which is typical of Lycian architecture. They offered a spectacular view to pilgrims walking up the Holy Street from the propylon (a monument gateway leading to the sanctuary) which was located down the platform where the temples and altars were built. The site exends further to the south, but this area has yet to be excavated.
 Features of Letoon include:
• Temples - Remains of three temples, each dedicated to one of the three deities of Letoon are located side by side in the center of the site.  All three temples were built around older temples, probably dating back to Classical times. The temples of Artemis and Apollo were burnt down to slaked lime, however the temple of Leto was only destroyed in the end of Antiquity and so eighty per cent of the temple blocks have been preserved.
• The temple of Leto is the largest and best-preserved temple, likely dating back to the 5th century BC.  The temple was built of very fine limestone, the clear color of which created the illusion of marble.  An ionic portico surrounded the cult room (cella), which was decorated with an elegant engaged corinthian colonnade.  Because of its dimensions and the quality of its sculptured decoration, this temple is one of the most exceptional examples of Greek architecture in Turkey and one of the best preserved Greek temples in the world. 
• To the east of the temple of Leto is the temple of Apollo, dated c. 4th century BC.  This temple was Doric, unlike the other two temples, both of which were Ionic. A gorgeous floor mosaic depicting his symbols - bow and arrow, and lyre are seen here.  Between the other temples lies the temple of Artemis, also dating back to c. 4th century BC.  It is smaller with excellent masonry.
• Nymphaeum - To the southwest of the temples is a nymphaeum connected to a sacred spring, full of terrapins and frogs some say to be the unfortunate shepards transformed by Leto's vengeance.  It was perhaps used in an religious immersion ceremony and was built during the Hellenistic period with the Roman addition of a semi-circular pool.
• Basilica - remains of a Byzantine church with a nearby mosaic fragment.  The church is believed to have been constructed in the 6th century AD and to have been destroyed around the mid-7th century, possibly by the Arab attacks of that period.  The nave and aisles were decorated with floor mosiacs depicting geometric designs and animal figures (these can't be viewed - they are now either covered or have been removed).  It is thought that there was a monastic community associated with the church and, due to the large number of drinking vessels found during excavation, the late Martin Harrison (the chief excavator) dubbed its members "the Drunken Monks".  More information from Bilkent University.
• Amphitheatre - Letoon's theatre (said to be one of the most beautiful of Hellenistic times) has vaulted passages leading to entrances on either side and is in a very good state of preservation.  It was constructed in the 2nd century BC and was used for religious perfomances.  The central part of the auditorium was carved from natural bedrock and the aisles made from ashlars.  The theatre was situated at the end of the road from Xanthos, which passed through a Lycian cemetary.  The entrance on the south side has an interesting carving of a row of sixteen masks.
• Tombs - some tombs of the south side of the amphitheatre, including this sarcophagus with a relief of a reclining figure and decorated with lion heads.

Safyurekm, Patty and Kemal ."Lycian Sites." 15 February 2009 <>.

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Copyright © 2009 Thomas G. Hines, Department of Theatre, Whitman College. All Rights Reserved.
Last Update: 2/15/09