Kaunos: The Ancient Anatolian City of Rock-Cut Tombs and Ruins

The hot dry summers characteristic of a Mediterranean climate, coupled with the rocky cliffside of the ancient city of Kaunos present a striking contradiction with the elegance and beauty found in its Hellenic rock-cut tombs and more than two millennia of historical discoveries. During the days of antiquity, many city-states wanted control of the region. This southwestern Anatolian city next to Dalyan, Turkey, was strategically positioned between the East Mediterranean and Aegean seas for merchant ships during a time of flourishing maritime trade.

Kaunos rock-cut tombs

Six main rock-cut temple tombs in Kaunos. Source: Wikipedia, Alexander Sharp.

There were many desirable goods at Kaunos that could provision a long overseas journey, such as dried fish, salt, dried figs, agricultural products, materials for shipbuilding and repair, and slaves. Thus, the port city changed political hands many times during its existence, which left behind a melting pot of cultural influences and artifacts.

Kaunos rock cut tombs

Source: Google Maps.

Eventually, the Kaunosians abandoned the city, and it lay forgotten for roughly 600 years. Although scholars knew about it from old texts, they were never able to find it. That was until a British Naval Officer, R. Hoskyn, discovered it in 1842. Since then, archaeologists have been uncovering Kaunos’ magnificent history.

A Brief History of Kaunos

Human activity in this region dates back to around the 10th century BCE or earlier. The Kaunians settled there beginning around the 6th century BCE, but real architectural structures did not surface until around the 4th century BCE. The Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote that he believed the Kaunians were the indigenous people of the region. Their language and culture indicated that they had a close association with their neighbors, the Carians, although Herodotus pointed out differences in social customs between the two groups.

From roughly 500 BCE to 600 CE this port city flourished, and until the Romans finally took control around 85 BCE, it was conquered repeatedly by different forces.

Chronology of Rulership

  • In 546 BCE, Persian forces, led by general Harpagos conquered.
  • In 480 BCE Greek forces beat the Persians at the Battle of Salamis. Kaunos became a part of the Delian League bringing them under the governance and protection of Athens.
  • In the 4th century BCE, the Persian Hecatomnos regained rule. The city merged with its neighbor, Caria.
  • In 334, Alexander the Great conquered the region under the Macedonian Empire.
  • After Alexander’s death, his generals and family fought over the empire, and the region changed hands a few times.
  • In 189 BCE the Roman took over and put Rhodes in charge of the region. It then fell out of Roman rule and then back in again multiple times. During this same century, Kaunos became a part of Lycia, once an independent state to the east.
  • In 85 BCE Romans placed the region back under the governance of Rhodes. It remained in the Roman Empire until the 13th century.
  • Between the 13th-15th centuries, Turkish forces invaded and eventually took the whole region.

Decline of the Port City

The Dalyan Delta had been depositing large quantities of silt at the ports over time, and a large amount of land mass was added to the original coastline. This slowed and eventually stopped all maritime trade and the city became impoverished. Muslim groups and raiders began attacking the area from about 600 CE. After the Turkish invasion in the 15th century, swamps caused a malaria epidemic, and Kaunos was abandoned for good. The city fell victim to the forces of time, erosion, and destructive earthquakes. Then Hoskyn, who worked for the British Navy surveying the coastlines and waters of the region, discovered it in 1842, as noted.

Archaeological Finds

Kaunos rock cut tomb

Ruins of the theater which seated 5000 people. August 2010. Source: Wikipedia, Haluk Comertel.

Although there have been many fascinating discoveries, these are the most impressive:

  • Theater (above) dated circa 2nd century BCE. Its capacity was 5000 people. A large wall supported one side of the theater, while the other half was built into the hillside. An innovative periaktos, a device that allows for revolving and rapid change of scenes (sets), also existed at this theater – perhaps the oldest one of its kind.
  • Acropolis on a high peak 152 meters above sea level.
  • Basilica (church) built at the center of the palaestra terrace.
Kaunian rock tomb church

Kaunian basilica. At the top of the hill is the acropolis. The theater is on the right and back. August 2015. Source: Wikipedia, Alexander VanLoon.

  • Monopteros, which according to the Wikipedia definition “is a circular colonnade supporting a roof but without any walls.” Ancient Greeks used a monopteros to view a famous deity, which they placed in the center. The one found here housed a female deity and dates to circa 1st century CE.
  • Wind-measuring platform dating back to about 150 BCE. This tool helped engineers design the city according to the direction of the wind to maximize airflow and maintain fresh, clean air.
  • Roman baths where scientists found an exercise area, a sweating room, a warm room, and cold pool.
  • Agora from the Hellenistic Period with a stoa or long columned walkway. There were also many statues of different figures that sat atop stone platforms decorating the agora, along with a fountain.

On the south wall of a 1st-century nymphaeum dedicated to Emperor Vespasian, an inscription states that merchants could export certain items, including slaves, from Kaunos duty free.

Michel Gybels
Baths at Kaunian rock cut tombs Kaunos

Roman baths at the site. August 2015. Source: Wikipedia, Alexander VonLoon


  • Lesser Acropolis was built on an auspicious spot overlooking both harbors and served as a religious site with a church and two temples. The area was designed for the cult worship of the female fertility goddess Demeter. Every year, the Kaunian women would meet here for a three-day fertility festival in the hope that the Goddess would grant them a child.
  • Temple dedicated to Zeus from the 1st century BCE and a 6th-century church with a domed roof.
  • Area dedicated to Apollo was once a sacred zone where the indigenous residents worshiped their god, Baselius Kaunios, from the 4th century BCE to the middle of the Roman Period. Scientists also found steles and statue bases for votives here.

Rock-Cut Tombs

Outside the city walls, standing like striking marquees along the Dalyan River are the Hellenic rock-cut tombs. Dating back to the 5th through 2nd centuries BCE, six main tombs bear temple-like facades on the sheer cliffside. However, between Dalyan and Kaunos there are more than 150 rock-cut tombs, 20 of which have temple-type facades. Behind the facades are modest cut-out spaces of different sizes designed for housing the remains of families. The famous tombs facing the Dalyan River were undoubtedly for the elite. Slabs of rocks served as doors to the inner chambers.

The façades of the rock-cut tombs resemble the fronts of Hellenistic temples with two Ionian pillars, a triangular pediment, an architrave with toothed friezes, and acroterions shaped like palm leaves, which demonstrates an interaction among different cultures finally reflected on a new and unique architectural style.

Permanent Delegation of Turkey to UNESCO
kaunos rock cut tombs

Close up photo of a temple tomb from Fethiye, similar to the ones at Kaunos. Source: Wikipedia, Jedyooo

Lycian Rock-Cut Tombs

Although the Kaunosian tombs are unique, they are conceptually similar to the larger culture of Lycian rock-cut tombs that riddle Southern Anatolia, roughly from Caria to Etenna. A recent count revealed 1,085 Lycian tombs that remain intact. The biggest difference between the rock-cut tombs of the various Lycian regions is the facades, of which Kaunos presents the most elaborate with a clear Greek Hellenic style. These rock-cut tombs are a clear testament to the multi-cultural influences of the region.

Kaunian and Lycian rock cut tombs

Lycian rock-cut tombs at Myra also have facades. Source: Wikipedia, Saffron Blaze.

Kaunos, once a bustling destination city that overlooked over two prosperous maritime ports, now lies in scattered ruins approximately eight kilometers from the sea. There are no longer governments battling over control of the city; once it proved barren, no longer capable of filling large coffers, it was forgotten. But the work of archaeologists from across the world is revealing that today, the real treasure lies in its magnificent history.

Çevik, Nevzat. “New Rock-Cut Tombs at Etenna and the Rock-Cut Tomb Tradition in Southern Anatolia.” Anatolian Studies 53 (2003): 97-116. doi:10.2307/3643089.
Baybas, Gizem. “Spatial Decision Support System For Archaeological Application: A Case Study For Kaunos Archaeological Site.” Middle East Technical University, February 2013, 31-34. Accessed March 16, 2017.
Gybels, Michel. Turkish Archaeological News. March 29, 2016. Accessed March 16, 2017.
Stillwell, Richard, et al. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites. Accessed March 16, 2017.

Kimberly Lin

Kimberly's number one passion is bringing history to the world, and she has written for various websites since 2011. She spent several years living in Italy and her travels in Europe and Asia have given her a keen interest in archaeology, world history, culture, and really great food. Her degrees are in International Business and Finance from the University of Hawaii.