In Kas, reminders of a gilded age

KAS, Turkey — “Kas is beautiful, the most beautiful place, but it is slowly being spoiled,” laments Cevdet Ayhan, surveying his roadside eatery — Ada Island Fish Restaurant — a place as simple as it is stunning.

Ada is rustic, with just a few tables scattered over a peninsula, the smell of nearby goats and roosters mixing with the sea as the wind sweeps through the cement structure. The menu is easy, “fish or calamari,” and visual — a tray of whole fish held out for your inspection.

Ayhan, a well-traveled man, returned to Kas (pronounced "Kash"), a charming harbor town relatively untouched by a blitz of development and tourism on the Turkish coast, 25 years ago to begin his restaurant and a family.

While Ayhan himself benefits from any tourist traffic, he has also chosen to keep things simple yet sophistocated, an homage of sorts to Kas’ roots. 

From an ancient inscription, written in two languages, it is known that modern-day Kas was constructed above the ancient Lycian port of Antiphellos. The maritime kingdom of Lycia, established in the 8th century BC, ran along the Mediterranean seaboard from Fethiye in the west to Antalya in the east. Originally a minor settlement, Antiphellos grew throughout the Hellenistic age, a trend that continued into the Roman era where the town was renowned for its cedar tree trade and sponge fishing.

Even after the passing of nearly three millennia, reminders of the sophisticated Lycian civilization still fill the town in the form of ruins, necropolises and monuments. Inhabitants nonchalantly use assorted bits of broken monuments as plant pots and ashtrays.

Walking up Uzun Carsi Avenue, Kas’s main drag, your eyes are drawn to the massive sarcophagus crowning the top of the hill. Framing the intricately carved tomb are the bustling shops lining the street, where a traveler’s every material desire is waiting to be fulfilled, from the sale of hamam towels to rugs, Snickers to guided tours.

While the grandeur of the sarcophagus, formed from a single block of stone, hints at a regal resting place, the writing on the tomb has largely been obscured by time. The name of the man for whom the tomb was built is long forgotten, and it has been host to a number of local nicknames — from “the lion’s den” (an homage to the fierce heads mounted on the side of the tomb) to “the Sarcophagus of the King.” Here, as elsewhere in former Lycia, the living and the dead easily co-exist.

As evening sets in, the Lycian amphitheater and collection of tombs above the town are burnt to a deep orange, the sun fading into the sea. The only Anatolian amphitheater to face the water, it is remarkable to imagine the performances that would have been given in such a space; the steep, broad levels ready to seat over 4,000.

On the day of GlobalPost's visit, however, the stadium housed only one man. Sitting at the highest level of the stadium, the smoke from his cigarette was carried seaward as he sat, pensively gazing down at a site that had served kings and entertained thousands.

Once an unspoiled fishing village, Kas has grown into a relatively well-preserved tourist town on the southern bulge of Turkey's Mediterranean coast. But the cosmopolitan, yet almost untainted, town is changing.

The past few decades have seen a rapid rise is tourism across the region, just a few hour flight from most of Europe. Where before there were only a few small restaurants, today there exists a plethora of seafood joints, bars and cozy, garden coffee shops. On the streets old men peddle paper cornets of roasted chickpeas and almonds cooled by blocks of ice.

Several hours from the nearest airport, Kas has largely been spared the most offensive aspects of the tourism industry, preserving a quality of timelessness that the rampant tourist industry has stolen from many other such seaside towns.

As the region’s most profitable industry, the inevitable creep of “extreme tourism” seems to be making its way to Kas’ idyllic shores. For locals, the biggest symbol of such expansion is the state-of-the-art marina under construction. Due to be completed in 2010, the $16 million project will provide berths to over 400 yachts with shops and cafes. In a town of approximately 6,000 people, that is one yacht for every 15 people.

“Here we have sun, fresh air, the sea. But as things change more money keeps coming in,” Ayhan explains, forcefully gesturing from the calm sea to the rocky crags across the road. “It can be good, but you have to choose between this simple life and what the money will bring.”

When asked what choice he’ll make, Ayhan just smiled, glancing around at his surroundings with tenderness. But in a place where history has blended so seamlessly with its modernity, the future looks far from certain.