Letoon was the sacred cult center of Lycia, its
most important sanctuary, and was dedicated to the three national
deities of Lycia - Leto and her twin children Apollo and Artemis.
Leto was also worshiped as a family deity and as the guardian of the
tomb. Letoon lies less than 10 km to the south of Xanthos on a
fertile plain. Xanthos and Letoon are often seen as a "double-site",
since the two were closely linked and Letoon was administered by
Xanthos. Xanthos-Letoon is one of the most remarkable archaeological
sites in Turkey. For this reason, it has been registered in the
UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. Letoon has been under excavation
since the 1950's and since 1962 by the French Archaeological
Mission, in conjunction with the excavations being carried out at
Xanthos. Excavation goes on today - the team has done some excellent
work and in recent years has begun to restore the Temple of Leto.
Letoon is a romantic site and many of the monuments arise from
standing water which provides lush vegetation. Terrapins and frogs
are usually seen. Unfortunately though, the high water table hinders
excavation. To reach Letoon, you turn west one km beyond the road
from Kinik to Fethiye and continue 5 km. It's not far from Patara
and a day trip from Kalkan, Kas or Fethiye to Letoon or Xanthos
could easily be combined with a trip to the beach and/or ruins
there. Several finds from Letoon (as well as artifacts from other
sites), including the important Trilingual Stele from Letoon,
bearing inscriptions in Greek, Lycian and Aramaic, (crucial in the
deciphering of the Lycian language) can be seen in the Fethiye
According to a legend told by Ovid the latin poet, the nymph Leto was loved by Zeus and gave birth to her twins fathered by him, Atemis and Apollo on the island of Delos. Zeus' jealous wife Hera pursued Leto and chased her with the twins to Anatolia where she came to the place of Letoon. Here she tried to quench her thrist at a spring but local shepherds attempted to chase her from the water - until she turned them into frogs in retaliation. Another story gives the twins' birthplace as the source of the Xanthos River and another story says that wolves helped her find the Xanthos River. In gratitude she named the country Lycia: Lykos is Greek for wolf. This mythology has been a popular subject in art. See a painting of the Ovid's legend of shepherds turned into frogs: Landscape with Leto and Peasants of Lykia by Hendrick de Clerck.
Letoon was a sanctuary precinct and not actually a city, and seems to have had no major settlement associated with it at any period. It was administered by Xanthos and was the spiritual heart of Lycian, its federal sanctuary and the place of national festivals. Letoon was the center of pagan cults activity until perhaps the 5th century AD when Lycian was ravaged by Arab attacks and the area started to silt up with sand brought by the Xanthos River. It is believed to have been abandoned by the 7th century AD. Archaeological finds date back to the late 6th century BC. During the Archaic and Classical periods (7th-5th century BC) the site was probably sacred to to the cult of an earlier mother goddess (Eni Mahanahi in Lycia), which was later superseded by the worship of Leto. During Roman Times, the Emperor Hadrian founded an emperor worship cult at the site. Christianity later replaced pagan beliefs and in the 5th century AD a church was built using stones from the old temples. An inscription found at Letoon refers to the establishment of the cult as well as its rules for monthly and annual sacrifices - offenders against this were found guilty before Leto, her children and the Nymphs. The Lycian cult of Leto was one of the many forms of the wide-spread mother-goddess religion which originated in ancient Anatolia and spread throughout the ancient world. It is noteworthy that a woman was allowed to preside over the national assembly that was held each autumn at Letoon - perhaps a reminder of the ancient matriarchal customs in Anatolia.