On the shores of a lake in western Turkey, an archaeologist is searching for the remains of an ancient civilization. Less than 200 feet away from his excavation site, however, a secret is hiding underwater – and has been for over 1,000 years. And it’s only in 2014, when surveyors show off aerial images of the area, that the explorer sees something incredible.
As one of the first places in the world to have been permanently settled, Turkey has a rich and fascinating history stretching back thousands of years. And ever since the Greeks brought their culture and language to the Anatolian coast from around 1,200 BC, the region has been a melting pot of different religions and ideas.
Over the course of history, several different powers have sought to take control of the area now known as Turkey. And from the ultimately Christian Romans to the Muslim Ottomans, each successive empire has left its mark on the region. Today, the country straddles Europe and Asia, but although it is prosperous and modern it’s nevertheless plagued by political strife.
However, Turkey’s checkered past also makes it a fascinating spot for archaeologists, with several experts having flocked there over the years in order to study the country’s ancient ruins. And they have uncovered plenty of fascinating relics from the distant past – including a Neolithic settlement and dozens of ships.
Mustafa ?ahin, an archaeologist from Turkey’s Uludag University, evidently thought that his country was worth exploring, too, as in 2006 he began conducting surveys in and around ?znik in Turkey’s Anatolia region. ?znik was once known as Nicaea – an area which had once been an important part of the Roman Empire.
Keen to discover relics from ?znik’s fascinating past, ?ahin began searching around the nearby Lake ?znik for signs of the ancient city of Nicaea. However, it wasn’t until 2014 that he realized he may have been looking in vain. What he sought was a little harder to find, it seems.
You see, one year previously, authorities in nearby Bursa had begun taking aerial images of the region. In addition, those responsible for the photography had eventually noticed that their images were showing what looked like a ruined structure beneath the waters of Lake ?znik. Wondering if ?ahin could tell them more, Saffet Yilmaz, a photographic group member, therefore reached out to the archaeologist.
Intrigued, ?ahin took a closer look at the lake. And he was amazed to discover the remains of a Roman-style church – or a basilica – clearly defined beneath its surface. “When I first saw the images of the lake, I was quite surprised to see a church structure that clearly,” he recalled to Live Science in September 2018. “I [had been] doing field surveys in ?znik [since 2006], and I hadn’t discovered such a magnificent structure like that.”
Located approximately 160 feet away from the shore, the remains were covered in only ten feet or so of water – making it astonishing that nobody had spotted them before. And soon ?ahin, along with experts from the town’s archaeology museum, began excavating the site in order to learn more.
The task has not always been easy, however. As a result of high temperatures in the area, there is a lot of algae growing in Lake ?znik, and this in turn reduces visibility underwater. Sometimes, in fact, divers cannot see further than a couple of inches ahead of them.
According to ?ahin, waves too pose a challenge to archaeologists in the area. The water apparently hits against them and disrupts them as they attempt to carry out their work. Furthermore, the excavations have supposedly disturbed deposits of slime that have been resting on the lake bed. The substance then spreads out through the water and creates even more problems.
Faced with these difficulties, ?ahin and his colleagues were forced to fashion a solution. Using specialist equipment, they therefore created a vacuum to transport soil from the underwater basilica all the way to shore; in this fashion, the archaeologist and his coworkers can study what they find up close. And thanks in part to this innovation, successive excavations have proven successful.
Indeed, since 2015, the team have made some incredible discoveries – including a number of graves located underneath one of the basilica’s principal walls. Inside these graves, the team uncovered coins that have allowed ?ahin to posit that the structure was constructed some time after 390 AD.
?ahin also believes that the basilica may have been erected in honor of Saint Neophytos – a monk from Cyprus who was martyred in Nicaea in 303 AD. However, it has also been suggested that the sunken church has yet another significance.
In 325 AD Constantine I, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, called for a meeting of bishops from around the world to be held in Nicaea. This gathering would prove consequential, as it managed to bring consensus to a number of divisive issues within Christianity – such as the date on which Easter should be celebrated and the nature of the relationship between Jesus and God.
In fact, the First Council of Nicaea is seen as fundamental to the development of modern Christianity. And although the basilica in Lake ?znik was unlikely to have been built when this event took place, ?ahin thinks that it may have been constructed at the location where the venue for the gathering – the Senate Palace – once stood.
What’s more, ?ahin has suggested that some artifacts found at the Lake ?znik church indicate that an even older structure may have existed beneath the ruins that we see today. Records show that Commodus, a Roman emperor from 180 AD to 192 AD, built a pagan temple dedicated to the sun god Apollo somewhere outside Nicaea’s city walls – suggesting, perhaps, that the basilica was constructed above this temple.
For all its apparent historical importance, then, how did such a structure vanish into the murky waters of Lake ?znik? Well, it is believed that the basilica stood until 740 AD. Then, however, a devastating earthquake hit the region, and the building was destroyed. And, after that, the ancient church’s ruins were gradually lost to the lake; there, they lay forgotten for over a thousand years.
Today, however, the structure could be blessed with a new lease of life. In order to protect the site for future generations, ?ahin and local government official Alinur Akta? have been calling for the location to be transformed into an underwater archaeological museum. If successful, this would be the first attraction of its kind to be built in the whole of Turkey.
According to ?ahin, the museum would feature a tower some 60 feet in height; this would allow visitors to enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the underwater basilica. It would also include an overwater walkway, diving facilities and even a submerged, glass-walled room in the structure’s nave. Until the plans are approved, however, ?ahin’s excavations will continue to offer a fascinating glimpse into this forgotten world.