The ancient city of Labraunda was already important in early ancient times. Indeed, already Herodotus mentions the city in his Histories: "[...] The Persian Daurises made the settlements on the Hellespont his target and captured Dardanus, Abydus, Percote, Lampsacus and Paesus, each in a single day. As he was “en route” for Parium, after leaving Paesus, he received a message to the effect that Caria had joined in the Ionian rebellion against Persia, so he turned away from the Hellespont and marched his men in 497 BCE towards Caria.
The Carians congregated at White Pillars by the river Marsyas which flows from Idrias and joins the Meander. Later the Persians arrived. Once they had crossed the river Meander, the Carians engaged them at the river Marsyas. The battle was long and fierce but in the end the Carians were beaten by sheer numbers. Persian casualties numbered about two thousand while about ten thousand Carians fell. The Carians who escaped from the battlefield became trapped in the sanctuary of Zeus, the God of War, at Labraunda, which consists of a large sacred grove of plane-trees. The Carians are the only known people who sacrifice to Zeus as the God of War[...]" (Histories 1, 117-119).
The site of Labraunda lies 14 km. north-east of Milas (ancient Mylasa) and was a religious sanctuary built on terraces at a remote 700 m. high mountainside dedicated to Zeus Labrynthos. The word Labrys means “two-sided axe”, a Carian symbol of Zeus; the suffix "nda" means "place of". Worship of Zeus was dominant at Labraunda from the 5th century BCE until the Christian era.
Although Labraunda was the leading religious sanctuary in Caria, it was never larger than a village. Mylasa controlled the sanctuary, appointed priests and organized religious processions to Labraunda via a 13 km. long sacred way. In 499 BCE Ionian and Carian cities unsuccessfully rebelled against Persian rule. After the Persian king Darius I the Great defeated them, the Carians took refuge at the sacred precinct of Labraunda, regrouped and renewed their struggle. In 497 BCE Darius beat them again at Labraunda and secured control over Caria.
After the Greek victory at Salamis in 479 BCE, Persian control waned until about 400 BCE. Then the Persians appointed the local Carian prince Hetacomnus as satrap (governor) for Caria. Hetacomnus consolidated power in the region and was succeeded by his son Mausolus in 377 BCE. To accommodate Carian public opinion, Mausolus and his brother Idreius significantly upgraded and expanded the Carian religious sanctuary at Labraunda. They organized splendid festivals and athletic games, thousands of people from all over Caria visited Labraunda, made animal sacrifices dedicated to Zeus and participated in feasts and games in his honor. Zeus answered questions and gave advice via oracular eels, adorned with necklaces and earrings, kept in a sacred pool.
In 355 BCE, Mausolus just barely escaped an assassination attempt during the festivities at Labraunda. The sanctuary remained active under the Romans until a major 4th-century fire destroyed the complex.
However, the site was occupied until the mid- to late-Byzantine period when two churches were constructed. The first one, in the mid-5th century AD, inside the Roman East Baths, and the second one, in the 6th century AD, at the entrance of the site.
Since 2014, Labraunda has been excavated by an international team placed under French directorship. According to Olivier Henry, the Director of the Labraunda Excavations (personal communication), among the latest finds the team discovered in 2018 there is a new (Roman) stoa above the temple and a Byzantine (probably 6th century AD) cemetery toward the southern part of the site. The survey started in 2017 brought a lot of new things: settlements, fortifications, necropoleis, small farms and olive/wine presses; but the most spectacular is a series of Chalcolithic rock-paintings almost identical as the ones seen in the Latmos by Anneliese Peschlow-Bindokat.
The site of Labraunda is reachable from Milas via a long and winding rather difficult road/trail through the mountains. At the site one can park the car near the entrance at the south-east corner of the site where two marble Ionic entrances (propylea) once joined the 8 m. wide, 13 km. long sacred way from Mylasa. Ruins of a 4th century BCE rectangular structure fronted with four Doric columns, which once served as a treasury and later part of a Roman bath complex, stand near the entrance. Adjacent to the Doric structure are the remains of a late Roman church undoubtedly built to hasten the conversion of recalcitrant Zeus worshippers.
The sacred eels were located in the ablution chamber to the south-east along the lower terrace. A 12 m. wide, a well-preserved stairway leads up to the temple terrace and to the androns (an andron was an ancient meetinghouse reserved exclusively for men with couches and tables used for banquets and social events). The andron furthest south was built in Roman times. Mausolus built the adjacent andron and his brother Idreius built the well-preserved mid- 4th century BCE andron higher up, closer to the temple of Zeus.
During the late Roman period an altar was installed and Christian priests used the structure. The temple of Zeus (25 x 16 m.) was first build in the 5th century BCE and, as an inscription attest, expanded in the 4th century BCE under Idreius. An Ionic colonnade was erected around the temple. To the north of the third andron is a Doric style residence for priests dedicated by satrap Idreius to Zeus. Further up the hill north toward the acropolis is a 4th century BCE tomb with a large front courtyard and two burial chambers one in front of the other, which contain five sarcophagi, believed to be the burial place of Idreius. To the north-west are the scanty remains of a stadium (176 m. long) with two starting and ending stones for athletic games dedicated to Zeus.
The entrance ticket costs 8 TL. Cafés, restaurants, and hotel are available in Milas.
By car: From the main road in the city center of Milas the site of Labraunda is well-signposted (follow the direction of Ortaköy). From there a 14 km. a long and winding road leads to the site. After approx. 8 km. the road turns into a very bad trail/track which is very difficult to drive on with a normal car. You have to drive very slow and carefully till you reach the site. From Ortaköy the site of Labraunda is only reachable by 4x4 vehicle (Landrover Defender or equivalent).
Text: Michel Gybels
Photographs: Michel Gybels & Dany Ranschaert