The ancient culture that served as a model for the democratic system in the United States

Hikers can learn about the rich history of Lycia, an ancient maritime republic that is recognized as the world’s first democratic union, by following a path that stretches for 540 kilometers along the Mediterranean Coast of Turkey.

“You mean the Lycians? However, who exactly were they? Iskender had said. “When we Turks arrived to this location, all we could see were ruins and – how can you even refer to them? Where the bodies of the deceased are buried?” the veteran boatbuilder said while placing his bottle of Efes beer on the table and making a horizontal motion with his hands. “It’s a long story,” he said.

“Tombs?” he asked. I made the offer. He gave a small nod as he readjusted his dirty skipper’s cap.

Even though it was only May, the afternoon heat was already oppressive in Simena, a lonely village on Turkey’s Teke Peninsula, which is located on the Mediterranean coast in a region that was formerly known as Lycia. I was two weeks into a journey along the Lycian Way, which is a 540km trail between the cities of Fethiye and Antalya, when I met Iskender. I had stopped in at a roadside cafe near a boatyard in search of some refreshment.

As he rode up a rocky ridge, he made a motion in the direction of the turreted walls that surrounded Simena Castle. “Those tombs that you spotted close to the castle… “How were they able to move such enormous stones, tens of thousands of years ago?” he questioned. “Even with five men, we were unable to move those tomb lids.” Iskender shook his head as if he was attempting to come to terms with a thought that was beyond his comprehension.

I had been able to view the Lycian sarcophagi with their Gothic vault-shaped lids, which were scattered across the slope in the hundreds, from the citadel. Earlier, in the vicinity of Kaleucaz, I climbed a hillside that overlooked the marina to find a massive necropolis of tombs that were overgrown with vegetation. Just meters away, vendors were setting up their stalls while making a lot of noise. The Turkish presence appeared feeble in comparison to these frightening remnants, which served as a reminder that this area had been inhabited by others in the past.

Ancient Lycia was a mountain stronghold inhabited by a fiercely independent maritime race whose origins remain a matter of speculation. The area was immortalized in the Iliad as the land of the “swirling river Xanthos,” named after its original capital.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus stated that the ancestors of the Lycians, the Trmmili, “sprang originally from Crete.” However, researchers in the contemporary day believe that the Trmmili were originally an Anatolian people who became Hellenized after Alexander the Great conquered the territory from the Persians in 333 BCE. And despite the fact that the Lycians have been long since integrated into the culture of the Byzantines and the Turks, their political heritage is still present today as a result of an intriguing historical relationship.

James Madison, who would go on to become president of the United States, delivered a statement before the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on June 30, 1787. A lack of proportional representation was hindering the effectiveness of governing in the young nation, which is why the forum had been called to establish a system of government that would be more beneficial for the nation.

Madison mentioned Lycia as an example while responding to Oliver Ellsworth’s claim that equality of voices had always been a key concept in confederations. Ellsworth had stated that equality of voices had always been a fundamental tenet. He believed that the Lycian League was unique in its structure.

The Lycian League was the world’s first democratic union, a model of a powerful confederacy based on popular and proportional representation. It was established in the second century BCE and consisted of 23 city-states. In the Lycian Council, large cities controlled three votes each, including the capital of Patara, while medium-sized cities commanded two votes and tiny villages had one vote each.

There is a lack of clarity regarding the events that led to the formation of the League; however, it was most likely a reaction to the tyranny of Rhodes, which had been granted temporary sovereignty of Lycia by Rome in the year 190 BCE. The League was incapable of determining matters of international policy; nevertheless, it did have the ability to elect a ruling executive, known as a Lyciarch, as well as local judges and collect taxes. It was referred to as “the most perfect constitution of antiquity” by the French philosopher Montesquieu, who lived in the 18th century.

Professor Anthony Keen, a specialist on Lycia who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, explains the system as “a meeting of Greek ideas about democracy with pre-existing Lycian ideas about how a community of individual urban settlements works together.” Professor Keen characterizes the system as “a meeting of Greek ideas about democracy with pre-existing Lycian ideas.”

Many of the trails I was traveling on were formerly roadways, millennia-old thoroughfares that connected the cities of Lycia, whose history came to an end in 43 BCE when Roman Emperor Claudius seized the territory. After coming to the area in the 1990s, a woman named Kate Clow who was born in the United Kingdom was inspired to establish the Lycian Way because of her fascination with the region’s ancient pathways.

She remarked, “I wasn’t inspired to make a trail; I was inspired to collect old roads.” “I was inspired to collect old roads,” she said.

Clow is committed to expanding the route and providing help to the towns it passes through; for example, this year a volunteer group turned a building in the village of Sidyma into a cultural center.

On the Lycian Way, there were not many hikers, but the track was bustling with life. There were shaggy-haired goats, ponderous tortoises, and much more frightening were the black snakes that occasionally leapt across the road.

Women dressed in loose-fitting şalvar trousers brought me goat cheese, fresh honey, gozleme flatbread, and cups of tea while we were traveling through mountain towns that were covered in poppies and other wildflowers. During the hottest parts of the day, I would cool myself by jumping into the ocean, seeking refuge in gorges of dense vegetation, or stretching out in groves of oak, wild olive, and dogwood that were fragrant with thyme. After the sun had set, there was a deafening stillness across the area, and the bonfire I had been tending shook slightly beneath the rustling pines. It was as if the trees were pleading with me to recall the individuals who had constructed these roads.

On the Lycian Way, remembrance is such an all-encompassing presence that you will walk, stop, and sleep in the company of phantoms at some point throughout your journey. Because despite its breathtaking scenery, this is a region filled with ghosts. The explorer Freya Stark referred to it as “the most haunted coast in the world” in her book The Lycian Shore, which was published in the 1950s and told the story of a voyage that she took around the peninsula by sea. In every thicket and wood, there are deserted tombs lying around like dumb envoys sent down from a long-vanished embassy.

Tombs were an expression of the central role that worshipping ancestors and the afterlife played, and they were an extravagant component of the urban fabric of Lycia. The tower-like pillar tombs that were discovered in the remains of Xanthos, which served as the capital of Lycia while it was ruled by the Persians, were by far the most peculiar discovery. The Lycian Way takes a detour inland to reach the location, which is situated on a rocky outcrop and is flanked by orange plantations and greenhouses. The Harpy Tomb, which is decorated with reliefs of female winged figures, and the Xanthian Obelisk, which is a colossal stele covered in Lycian script that has not yet been entirely understood, are the two pillar tombs that predominate on the acropolis.

The greatest pillar tomb on Xanthos, known as the Tomb of Payava, was dismantled in 1841 by the British archaeologist Sir Charles Fellows, who transported as much of it as he could to London on the ship HMS Beacon. The tomb had Lycian inscriptions and bas-reliefs. Today, the tomb may be found in the British Museum, where it can be seen in close proximity to the original friezes from the Harpy Tomb and the Nereid Monument, a magnificent sculptured tomb designed in the style of a Greek temple.

Rock-hewn “house” graves were constructed by the Lycians beginning in the fourth century BCE and continuing onwards. These tombs were typically funeral chambers carved into cliffs, and the rock face around the doorway was cut to simulate the front of a wooden Lycian house, complete with protruding “joists” and “timbers.” The sarcophagi, which are oblong tombs carved from Lycian limestone and often sit above a lower sepulchre, are the most prevalent type of tomb.

An archaeologist named Dr. Catherine Draycott from Durham University noted that in Lycian tombs, the deceased person would be buried in the upper sarcophagus, and their relatives or slaves would be buried in the chamber that was located beneath it. “There is this idea in Lycia of literally elevating important people in death,” she said. “This is a concept that is prevalent in Lycia.” “So, in that sense, they are making a hero out of whoever is put in there,” the author writes.

Finds of personal objects like jewelry are extremely uncommon, thus archaeologists only have a sketchy idea of what daily life was like for the Lycian people. On the other hand, the widespread tombs have helped archaeologists piece together the Lycian people’s sophisticated burial practices. “The challenge is that the majority of the concrete evidence comes from Roman sources. Draycott noted that there was very nothing remaining from the older time periods. The tombs have been looted for so long that they are now completely empty; not even the bones remain.

After traveling for two days from Xanthos, the path led me back to the coast by the ruins of Patara, which was once the capital of the Lycian League. Patara, which was once a bustling harbor, was eventually deserted after the river that served it became contaminated. The colonnaded main roadway is now a pool, and the walls of the shops that used to line the avenue have long since crumbled. The street was originally lined with businesses. The Council Chamber, also known as the bouleterion, is the most important structure in this area. This recently renovated assembly house served as the political epicenter of the Lycian League. It included a semi-circular amphitheater that was furnished with 20 rows of stone benches.

My thoughts wandered from Patara to distant Philadelphia, and Madison’s invocation of the Lycian League came to mind as I sat high up in the bouleterion. It wasn’t hard to envisage hundreds of robed delegates discussing public issues while the Lyciarch oversaw proceedings.

Because to James Madison, the current structure of the House of Representatives in the United States is based on the Lycian principle. This means that the 435 seats in the House are distributed among the 50 states in accordance with each state’s population. The Lycian people tried many different things to stop the passage of time and keep themselves alive for the next world, but the one item that proved to have a true afterlife was the most ephemeral and abstract of all of these things: an idea.

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