I went to the British Museum yesterday. In the Great Court, the very first monumental sculpture you encounter is the magnificent Lion of Knidos.
Weighing more than 7 tons, this colossal lion comes from a tomb in the ancient city of Knidos, a coastal city in south-west Turkey. The tomb stood on the edge of a cliff overlooking the approach to Knidos harbour. The building itself rose some 18 metres, and its pyramid roof was topped by the lion.
I have been to the British Museum many times, but for whatever reason, until yesterday, I had never identified the lion as especially significant. Seeing the lion finally closed a 27-year old circle for me, because I had visited Knidos so many years ago and seen the original site from which the lion was bought to the British Museum.
In 1989, I sailed along the coast of Turkey from Göcek to Bodrum in a 45ft yacht called Top Girl. The sea was warm and the air was fragrant with wild herbs and flowers. For the first time in my life I fully experienced antiquity in the landscape first-hand. I was deeply moved by the dramatic, rocky vistas and the prevalence of well-preserved ancient sites; Greek, Roman and Lycian, that were scattered along the coast and on small islands in sheltered bays.
Near the end of the voyage to Bodrum, we anchored for an overnight stop at Knidos, which is at the end of a long, unpopulated peninsula, and felt very remote and ancient. We had the site; the ruins of houses, tombs and public buildings, all to ourselves. In ancient times though, Knidos was a Greek city of Caria and part of the Dorian Hexapolis and would have been well-connected by sea.
I have been going back to Turkey ever since to explore this world. I have been to many ancient cities and sites, both on the coast and far inland, like Aphrodisias. Wonderful as they all are, perhaps none have had the same impact on me as that first encounter with Knidos. (Well, apart from Simena, but that's another story.)
Archaeologists disagree about the date of the tomb and its lion. Some believe it was built 50 years or so after the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos, which dates to about 370-350 BC. Others place it later, in the 2nd century BC.
In their expansion into the region, the Romans easily obtained the allegiance of Knidians, and rewarded them for help given against Antiochus the Great by leaving them the freedom of their city. During the Byzantine period there must still have been a considerable population: for the ruins contain a large number of buildings belonging to the Byzantine style, and Christian sepulchres are common in the neighbourhood.