The Church at Letoon

The site of Letoon, on the southwest coast of Lycia, east of modern Fethiye and approximately 4 km southwest of Xanthos, is best known archaeologically for its three temples associated with the goddess Leto and her children, Artemis and Apollo, and historically as the place where the cities of the Lycian League held their annual meetings.

The church, seen from the west

(photo: J. Greenhalgh 1997)

Excavation of the site by a team of French archaeologists began in the early 1960s, in conjunction with the excavations being carried out at nearby Xanthos. The efforts of the French team were concentrated on the temples, a Roman nymphaeum, the theatre and a series of stoas or porticoes, while excavation of the church was conducted by the late Professor R. Martin Harrison, of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.

Now, 40 years and the removal of tons of alluvium later, the Letoon is one of the most attractive small sites in Turkey, with frogs (descendants of the shepherds that Leto turned into frogs because they refused to help her?) jumping around and croaking and ducks swimming in the water that floods part of the site in the springtime.

The nave of the church is separated from each of the two aisles by a row of six pillars, creating seven bays. The division between the nave and the chancel is clearly marked by a plinth into which the chancel screen and posts would have been slotted. Within the apse survive the three steps of a synthronon. This area is paved in opus sectile and the nave and aisles are decorated with floor mosaics depicting geometric designs and animal figures.

One interesting feature of the church is that it had no narthex at its west end. İnstead, the nave and aisles were entered at the west directly from an atrium. The atrium itself was entered via a vestibule-like chamber to its north, apsed on east and west, possibly a later addition.

There was a doorway near the eastern end of the north wall of the church and two doorways in the eastern section of the south wall.  

The triconchos during excavation in the 1960s

(photo: R.M. Harrison)

The purpose of the doorways in the south wall was to provide access, through an outer rectangular chamber, to a triconch chapel (or possibly baptistry) built against the south curve of the main apse of the church. The floor of this triconchos was paved with a mosaic featuring a series of roundels, some of which contain crosses whose arms are each formed by a heart-shaped leaf. A mosaic panel contains an inscription that names a certain Eutyches as the donor.

Additional rooms and annexes were built onto the church, mainly on its south side, including a (?) chapel, apsed at its south end, to the south of the atrium. There were also several burials - some pithos burials, others covered with large curved tiles.

There is much reuse of material from the earlier structures on the site, including a number of inscribed stones, and the in situ base of the altar table within the chancel area is formed from a column drum from the large Temple of Leto. İnteresting among the excavated material from the church are several broken panes of window glass, and an extremely large number of glass drinking cups and fusiform vessels. 

Detail of the mosaic in the triconchos

(photo: R.M. Harrison)

The date of the construction of the church is not absolutely certain, but the coins from the associated levels, most of which date between the reigns of Justinian and Heraclius, suggest that the building was initially constructed at some time in the 6th century and that it suffered destruction around the mid 7th century, an event possibly related to the Arab attacks of that period. The ceramics support these dates. The chronology of the additions and alterations is as yet undetermined. The most major modification included the blocking of the bays between the nave and the aisles, but there is no firm evidence to verify whether this represented a transformation that pre-dated or post-dated the 7th century.

Plan of the church

Although it is unknown what hidden secrets the deep alluvial fill surrounding the excavated area may hold, as far as can be determined there was no major settlement associated with the site during any period. Along with other indications, this would suggest a monastic community associated with the church. Other evidence that supports this interpretation is the fact that the Eutyches who donated the mosaic in the triconchos was Diakonanglwn, signifying a function related to a monastery. Indeed, the large number of drinking vessels found during excavation led Martin Harrison to refer to the members of the church as the “Drunken Monks”.

The current project is to review the data produced in the 1960s excavations and to carry out further investigations to assess the chronology. Hopefully this will be a fitting tribute to Martin Harrison, who loved Lycia so much that he even spent his honeymoon there many years ago, and who is still remembered by local inhabitants of both uplands and lowlands as a tall figure who, sometimes along with George Bean, strolled the hills and plains of the region with his trusty walking stick.

Jean Greenhalgh

Newsletter No. 1 - 2002, Pg. 26, 27

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Bilkent University - Department of Archaeology and History of Art
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Last Updated: November, 2002.