It is not signposted, despite being just a five-minute drive inland from the modern coast road connecting the large resort towns of Alanya and Antalya. Five minutes if you know where you’re going, that is. It took me almost an hour to negotiate the labyrinth of lanes and dirt tracks, until I suspected that its location must be a closely-guarded secret.
Perhaps all those men with moustaches and weather-beaten faces lolling outside ramshackle cafes were members of an ancient society dedicated to protecting the final resting place of the Holy Grail.
The walls of Alara castle are draped around the upper half of a parched white dome of rock. In the travel guides that mention it, this is usually compared to a string of delicate lacework, but I prefer to think of it as the broken threaded teeth of a gigantic, fossilized boring machine poking above the ground, like something out of The Land That Time Forgot.
The Seljuk sultan Alaaddin Keykubat conquered and embellished it in the twelfth century, before Ottoman armies swept through Anatolia and absorbed it into their growing empire as a small bauble en route to the ultimate prize of Constantinople.
After a short walk along the approach track I came across three teenagers sitting on a log.
They were students from Bursa University, excavating the site. I noticed two shovels and a pickaxe nearby. Gazing up at the parched, egg-shaped hill with its spiral of walls and crumbling turrets resembling the gherkin office block in central London, I had to admire their optimism. They lent me a torch, which they said I’d need, though I couldn’t imagine why.
As it turned out, the only way into Alara castle is through a steep, unlit, ninety-foot tunnel gouged out of the rock. Taking your life in your hands, you must negotiate the crumbling—and frequently missing—steps and centuries of accumulated rubble in pitch darkness.
I sweated and toiled onwards and upwards, teetering on stairways that ended in sheer drops and great holes that disappeared into the gulf, half-expecting to bump into a team of Nazis looking for the Well of Souls. But the view from the top was magnificent.
Turkey is spoilt for ruins, and in obscure places like Alara you are literally on your own. I could easily have slipped on a pile of loose rubble and nobody would ever have heard from me again.
Decades later when they’d got around to organising guided tours and putting lights in the tunnel, my remains would probably have ended up in Alanya Archaeology Museum where, stripped of middle-aged fat, they would be displayed in a glass cabinet as a fine specimen of Seljuk soldiery.
I couldn’t help reflecting that in England the whole area would have been cordoned off as a death trap.
But at the same time, that is part and parcel of Turkey’s attraction. Archaeology is alive here, in the sense that it frequently grabs you by the throat. It hasn’t yet been tamed and trained with neat little notices telling you to keep off the grass or that this bit of trimmed lawn used to be the bathhouse. In Turkey, you’d simply fall into it: feel free to have a look around, but please note that you might die.
English Heritage is all very commendable, but—throw me the whip!
If you’re up for some adventure:
The coach to Alanya from Antalya takes about an hour. Once there, you can get a minibus (they run every ten minutes) west, in the direction of the airport, to Avsalar, a small town on the coast road. Then, walk 20 minutes west along the road until you come to a wide dirt track heading inland.
The castle is free to enter.
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