If the sun ain't hot enough, try the fire

Isabel Lloyd leaves the beach in Turkey to worship the ancient god of fire

The darkness on the Turkish mountainside was almost complete. Below, a few lights dotted the valley. Above, a shooting star flicked briefly across a section of the Milky Way. The only other illumination came from the stony ground at our feet: two dozen or so small fires dotted around a slope no more than 50ft across.

The darkness on the Turkish mountainside was almost complete. Below, a few lights dotted the valley. Above, a shooting star flicked briefly across a section of the Milky Way. The only other illumination came from the stony ground at our feet: two dozen or so small fires dotted around a slope no more than 50ft across.

They licked and plumed from vents in the rockface, as they have done for millennia, as they did when an ancient people made sacrifices to Vulcan, the god of fire. This was where Bellerophon killed the monster Chimaera; this, said the Tantric witch in our party, was a place of power.

Then our friend the American builder, a problematic hunk who kept taking his top off, strode up to one of these immemorially old, natural conflagrations and took a deep breath. Like the Big Bad Wolf, he blew. And the flame went out. "Seth!" came an aggrieved female voice from the gloom. "That was a really bad energy move."

She may have had a point: blowing out stuff with this much historical baggage could well have repercussions. Because the flames of Chimaera - spouts of gas from the bowels of the Earth that ignite spontaneously on contact with the air - have been venerated for thousands of years by the inhabitants of Lycia, on the southern Turkish coast. Vulcan wasn't the only god to receive burnt offerings in the nearby temple; later, the Indo-European Mithras got a look in too. And when the Turks held their own version of the Olympics, it was at Chimaera, on the slopes of Mount Olympos, that they lit the games' symbolic torch.

The Olympic connection, particularly in the light of current events in Sydney, is an intriguing one. The ancient world had about 20 Mount Olymposes - the word is thought to mean "great mountain". Turkey has two; the one which holds the Chimaera in its lower reaches is now known as Tahtali Dad ("tree-clad mountain", despite its bare, golden peak). At its feet lie the ruins of an ancient city, also called Olympos, with mysterious origins. This is a magical place, half hidden by pine forest and largely unvisited. Go now: it may not stay that way much longer.

For Olympos is on Turkey's first long-distance trail, the Lycian Way, which was marked only in 1999 but now has an extremely accurate guidebook for English-speaking walkers. The ruins are also at one end of a glorious arc of beach, which shimmers with eastern Mediterranean sunshine right through until late October. Until now this has been the sole preserve of antipodean backpackers and sea turtles, both of which are fond of nesting here in the summer months. Word is slowly getting out, however; and it can't be that long before tourism in its more megalomaniac form gets its claws in.

To visit both Olympos and Chimaera, which are roughly an hour's walk away from each other, you need to drive west from the sweaty concrete sprawl of Antalya, the region's main city and transport hub. The road whiplashes along the coast between the Toros mountains and the sea. My taxi driver carried gum to stop his ears popping as we climbed first up and then down again. When he gave me a piece, I chewed tentatively. It was flavoured with rose water, tasting first of the Orient and then of my grandmother's best soap.

After 90 minutes or so we descended to Çirali. This is a hamlet which, after hopping about rather haphazardly on either side of a mountain stream, ends indecisively in a collection of small agricultural holdings, holiday shacks, roadside stalls and a few beach-set wooden restaurants. The river valley it inhabits is so fertile that even in Roman times it was described as "most fruitful", and nothing much has changed: it's full of orange groves, orchards of pomegranate and small fields glowing with wobbly rows of ripening tomatoes.

Though the beach here is deeply tempting, with clear, blood-warm sea to swim in and mountains beyond to gaze at, it's worth trudging for 15 minutes along the coarse sand and shingle to the western end. Here a giant limestone crag juts impressively into the air, half concealing the mouth of a large stream as it meets the sea. From a distance the rock seems bare, but get a little closer and you see the first signs of Olympos: close-set stone fortifications clinging 50ft up on the sheer face. These precipitous remains are, apparently, Byzantine-Genoese in origin, but whoever the bricklayers were, they must have also been very adept rock-climbers.

Turn the corner, walk a little way along the river bank into a wood of fig, Mediterranean pine and oleander, and the magic begins. Olympos's birth pangs are a mystery, but it's clear that by 1200BC the Lycians, the main inhabitants of this area, were using what was then a navigable river as a base for trading with Greeks and Phoenicians. Little of the Lycian city remains, apart from two recently excavated sarcophagi at the entrance of the site. Blame the Romans - they tore it down in 78BC, in revenge for the locals teaming up with a troublesome pirate chief. Being Romans, though, they knew a good thing when they saw it, and immediately sold the land to new settlers, who started all over again, and made the city one of the three most important in the region.

Discovering what these ancient Olympians left behind can't feel much different today from how it did to the early Victorian travellers who first brought news of these ruins to the British Empire. The temples, baths, granaries and mosaics are largely untouched, hidden among vegetation and endearingly free of any explanatory placards. This is a tour-guide-free zone: you're left alone to wander in the shade of the trees, trying to work out the purpose of this or that architectural remnant, as wall-eyed chameleons amble across your path and turtles plop into the stream.

To reach the amphitheatre, you need to clamber over fallen marble columns and wade through freshwater springs; but once you are sitting in the sixpenny seats in the gods, basking in sunshine and the song of cicadas doing a little late-summer overtime, the spirits of the long-dead seem to rise all around.

The men and women who worked and played here worshipped at Chimaera. They even stamped their coins with pictures of Bellerophon, who killed the fire-breathing monster of the mountain by riding his winged horse Pegasus to a safe height and dropping lead into its mouth. The pirates, on the other hand, preferred to dedicate the site to Mithras. Plutarch wrote: "They conducted strange sacrifices on Olympos and celebrated certain secret rites" in honour of him. As the flames were then visible from the sea and were probably vital for navigation, this is understandable - but the words "strange" and "secret" can't help but make you feel nervous for the local virgins.

Visiting the Chimaera today is best done at dusk, when the 20-minute slog uphill is not too taxing. I went with a group of guests from an expatriate's wedding party - the Tantric woman and the American builder among them. The torchlit trek was marked only by the usual diversions - group singing and general gossiping - but on arriving at this strange, dark slop of scree and blackened stone, lit by ancient fires, one by one we fell quiet.

After a while I noticed that my Tantric friend had climbed right to the top, where she was squatting by the largest fire, making passes through the flames with her hands and doing some rather noisy deep breathing. She then threw in a piece of paper with some writing scribbled on it, and watched it burn down to ash. "What's she doing?" I asked. "Making an offering," was the whispered reply.

Which, under the historical circumstances, seemed perfectly reasonable.

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