Public Release: 

Researchers Discover Church Submerged In Ancient Port City

University of Colorado at Boulder


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Close up of underwater church apse marked by three small yellow circles


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University of Colorado History Professor Robert Hohlfelder working at ancient city of Aperlae


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Wide view of Aperlae bay with sailboat showing some of the underwater features, including a brick tank used to make Tyrean Purple dye from snails for elite Romans and a faint outline of the church, which is much larger

A University of Colorado at Boulder research team led by history Professor Robert Hohlfelder has discovered the remains of a 1,700-year-old Christian church submerged in shallow water in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of southern Turkey.

The stone church, about 20 meters long and 10 meters wide, apparently was built sometime after 330 A.D. on the shoreline of the ancient city of Aperlae. As the shoreline subsided over the centuries due to earthquake activity, the church gradually sank about six feet into the clear Mediterranean water, said Hohlfelder.

The Christian Church was established in a region once known as Lycia following the reign of Constantine I, the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity. The church remains were identified in June 1998 during a joint archaeological project begun in 1996 by a faculty-student team involving Hohlfelder and CU students as well as University of Maryland architecture Professor R. Lindley Vann and a group of MU students.

"There is a confusion of riches on the seafloor," said Hohlfelder. "It looks like the structure had been added on to over the centuries," he said. "We think this church, which has an elaborate apse, may have supplanted a seaside temple."

Although apses usually are semicircular projections found at the east end of churches, "This apse has a unique design," he said. Adjacent to the submerged church is a carefully constructed, multicolored mosaic as well as large stone columns, probably part of a temple where sailors came to pray before and after successful voyages.

The Aperlae church is likely the only underwater church known from that era, Hohlfelder said. It may have been dedicated to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors who was born near Aperlae.

"Virtually every city in the region of Lycia has a church dedicated to Saint Nicholas," said Hohlfelder. "It is inconceivable Aperlae would not have one. Sailors would rush to these churches after successful voyages to give thanks."

So far, Hohlfelder and Vann have discovered four churches in Aperlae -- far out of proportion to the estimated 1,000 residents. "We don't have a clue why there were this many churches," Hohlfelder said. "Perhaps it was some sort of holy city or monastic center." One of Hohlfelder's graduate students on the expedition, Mary Wiland, is studying the churches for her master's thesis.

Evidence for the 2,400-year-old city's origins include a mound of snail shells piled on its outskirts and three stone tanks submerged in the harbor. Hohlfelder believes the tanks were used to manufacture and store a dye obtained from the snails known as "Tyrean Purple" that was shipped throughout the Mediterranean to the Roman elite.

No written history of Aperlae exists, but the archaeological evidence indicates it flourished despite a lack of fresh water and a poor coastline location for sailing, said the researchers, who are working closely with the Turkish Ministry of Culture.

The discovery of more than 30 large water cisterns indicate the Aperlae residents were able to sustain themselves without the benefit of a spring or river. Additional research in 1998 by recent CU-Boulder graduate Davis Alvey indicates the residents may have supplemented their water supply by building a series of sluice boxes in a major ravine running west of town that were used to trap and retain occasional rainwater.

The CU team speculated the sluice boxes may have been linked to a gravity-feeding water system that filled cisterns.

"Because of a lack of written history, this entire project must be done through archaeological work," Hohlfelder said. He and his students used Global Positioning System satellite receivers, a rowboat, ocean buoys and snorkeling equipment to investigate and profile the ruins along and beneath the coastline.

Aperlae's walls appear to have been fortified several times over the centuries to protect its residents, who were plagued by pirates in antiquity, Hohlfelder said.

By the first century B.C. Aperlae was probably under firm Roman control, prospering and expanding for the next several centuries, Hohlfelder said. By the seventh century A.D. as the Eastern Roman Empire crumbled, however, Aperlae appears to have been pirated and abandoned. Hohlfelder's research was funded in part by the CU-Boulder Graduate Council for the Arts and Humanities.

Located on the southern coast of Turkey 15 miles east of the port city of Kas, CU-Boulder students involved in the 1998 field season included Alvey, Wiland and undergraduate history major Sarah Scaturro.

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