Beneath the ridge to our left lurked by far the most impressive of the rock-cut tombs of what was clearly the main necropolis (city of the dead) of Trebenna. Cut high in the smoothed rock face above us, it was graced with a Greek inscription ‘Trakondas Ermaiou' (presumably the name of the deceased) and decorated with twin reliefs of carved flower motifs
Standing astride the ridge, the gaps in its serrated spine filled with crumbling defensive walls of carefully hewn limestone blocks, the panorama is truly impressive. On two sides towering peaks block the vista, to the north the ground drops steeply to a deep, cave-riddled valley before rising again to the cliffs and crags dominating the slope of the mountain rearing up on the far side. Only to the east is the view unobstructed, down across dense woodland to, some 700 meters below, the city of Antalya sprawled across the Pamphylian plain, backed by the vast, shimmering blue sheet of the Mediterranean.
It would be a grand place to be were the limestone ridge just that, a natural vantage point giving superlative mountain and sea views reached after an exceedingly pleasant woodland stroll. The fact that dotted along and below the ridge are the additional delights of the remnants of a once important but seldom visited Roman-era site, make it a special place. Indeed the only trouble with Trebenna is finding it, as not only is it an unsigned, open (there's no ticket booth or admission fee) site, you'll also search in vain for any information about it in any standard guide. The problems begin once you have parked your car in a lovely, secluded valley just off the main road between Antalya and Geyikbayırı (itself on the road to the well-known yayla of Fesleğen, home to a popular oil wrestling festival in the summer), a mere 40-minute drive west of Antalya.
Into the forest
The valley bottom, which is the starting point of the walk to Trebenna, is easy to find as it is home to a couple of places, Josito and Kezban's, which offer camping and hut accommodation to rock climbers who throng to the valley's bolted cliffs every winter from colder, wetter northern European climes. The limestone outcrop on which ancient Trebenna was situated, controlling the route into the valley from which it rises, is initially visible above the forest. Once you head west on a forestry track, however, it disappears from view, leaving the walker free to concentrate on negotiating the tiny weir that crosses a mountain stream flowing fast and clear beneath a great, arched canopy of ancient plane trees.
Across the stream the track bends away to the left but the route to Trebenna continues up a steep bank and enters scrubby woodland. The path would be impossible to find were it not for a series of cairns marking it as it zigzags up beneath the trees, though even then it is easy to lose in the dappled shade and the plethora of competing paths, many which appear to have been forged by wild boar, which are abundant in the area. After a little over an hour we emerged from beneath the shade of the trees onto a flat, treeless area once used, according to my friend Cemalettin, by local villagers to grow and thresh wheat. It's a relief to be free of the forest for a while, especially when your goal is tantalizingly visible just above, a pale rock ridge surmounted by stretches of ancient wall and towers.
“Wow, that's really something to see” said American Joe, my other walking companion, already scanning the heights to find a way through the last remaining band of trees and scrub to be negotiated before reaching the ruins.
Ascent to the ruins
Heading more steeply up we shouted in delight to each other at the sight of a lidless sarcophagi, tumbled onto its side, peeping out from the undergrowth. It was complete with an inscription carefully chiseled in Greek lettering within a bas-relief plaque carved on its side. Behind it lay a square, cave-like hollow in a small cliff face. It was, of course, a rock-cut tomb, complete with a niche carved into the cliff to its left, where mourners would have placed lighted candles or oil lamps. Another Greek inscription was carved into a block set in a high wall of neatly cut masonry that ran through the all-enveloping scrub, behind the sarcophagus. That this had been a settlement of some importance in ancient times was clear from what we had seen already, but scrambling through a doorway in the wall and crossing from one side of the ridge to the other, we soon realized that there was much more to come.
Here was a forestry track, which according to Cemalettin, led up to Geyikbayırı village, marking an easier (but far less satisfying) route to the site of Trebenna. Ignoring this, we followed a clear path left, through the undergrowth, past a series of impressive doorways piercing a stretch of stone walling, each boasting beautifully carved stone lintels and jambs. This had clearly been a building of great importance but what its function was I was unsure, as were my companions. Although it was only a little after midday, it had been a long day already so we sat and basked in the pale heat of a glorious mid-November day. Backs to a row of rock-cut tombs carved out from the hillside behind us, we enjoyed coffee and a packed lunch whilst admiring the view down to Antalya and the Mediterranean.
We'd actually planned an ascent of a snow-capped peak behind Fesleğen yayla and set off at six that morning but a near disaster with an oil leak on my truck had necessitated four hours hanging around the sanayi (industrial estate) in Antalya whilst it was fixed, thus we'd had to scale down our ambitions for the day. Trebenna, however, had already proved a more than adequate replacement, with Cemalettin pointing out quite rightly that our targeted peak had no Roman remains and would be there for another day. So, refreshed by our simple repast we continued our explorations.
City of the dead and scaling the heights
Beneath the ridge to our left lurked by far the most impressive of the rock-cut tombs of what was clearly the main necropolis (city of the dead) of Trebenna. Cut high in the smoothed rock face above us, it was graced with a Greek inscription “Trakondas Ermaiou” (presumably the name of the deceased) and decorated with twin relief carved flower motifs. Clearly the tomb of someone of great importance, it was protected by a high wall pierced by a monumental doorway. Many other simpler tombs, some blackened by the fires of Turkish hunters or shepherds, pocked the cliffs below the ridge-top fortifications. Back the other way a short scramble upwards brought us to evidence that the site had been occupied after the Roman era. For here, tucked beneath the cliff face on a sloping ledge, was a small Byzantine church, its barrel-vaulted roof collapsed, the apse rent by a gaping hole. Remarkably, despite its exposure to the elements for many centuries, traces of fresco have survived, with the heads of saints, complete with halos, clearly visible on the walls.
Reaching the ridge above required a delicate piece of climbing above a sheer drop, but once over, this the ridge top was -- apart from the prickly scrub -- easy to explore. The 360-degree panorama was superb, making up for the fact that a few stretches of defensive walling apart, we managed to discover little to add to our (very meager) knowledge of Trebenna. Another compensation, however, was the small clumps of pretty mauve croci growing beneath the scrub and the chatter of black redstarts amongst the trees.
With the sun already tracking low towards the backlit pyramidal peak to the southwest, we headed on down and back into the forest. Misled by the relative ease with which we had found Trebenna, and with no prominent ridge top to aim for, we temporarily lost the path and had to fight our way over fallen trees and past spiky, trailing creepers until we found it again. It hadn't exactly been Indiana Jones stuff but the thrill of discovering, quite spontaneously, a little-known ancient city in the forested foothills of the Toros Mountains felt like a real adventure.
A very brief history of Trebenna
In the first century the city is recorded, in the Stadiasmus Patarensis (a document compiling the distances between Lycian cities), as having been in the Roman province of Lycia -- the first recorded evidence of its existence. During the second century an inscription found on the site shows that there was an imperial cult here to the Emperor Hadrian (who visited the region in A.D. 130-131, around which time the populace in nearby Antalya and Phaselis erected triumphal arches in his honor). The city was at its most prosperous in the third century, when it was given permission to mint its own coins and became a “colony” settled by Roman soldiers.
Interestingly, the derivation of the name Trebenna is neither Greek nor Latin, but probably comes from the Indo-European word “tarp” meaning to “crush.” This fact, along with circumstantial evidence from coins, suggest that, like its better known neighbor Termessos, the city had existed in the Hellenistic period and quite possibly earlier.
Much valuable work on the site has been carried out by Turkish archeologist Nevzat Çevik. Further information is available at www.akdeniz.academia.edu/FatihOnur/Papers/73958/Trebenna_Tarih_and_History_of_Trebenna (registration is required).