Ancient mediterranean port city may have been holy land way station

July 23, 2000

A partially submerged city on the Mediterranean Sea in present-day Turkey has yielded a second underwater church, leading researchers to believe the settlement was a magnet for pilgrims traveling to and from the Holy Land nearly 2,000 years ago.

Known as Aperlae, the 2,400 year-old settlement likely supported no more than 1,000 people at its zenith in the fourth to sixth centuries, said University of Colorado at Boulder history Professor Robert Hohlfelder. But the five churches discovered since the site was first surveyed in 1996 -- including the two submerged by shoreline subsidence caused by earthquakes - are more than would be expected for a population that size.

"During the first several centuries of the Christian era, churches were a sign of regional importance, much like domed sports stadiums are today," said Hohlfelder, an internationally known underwater archaeologist and historian. "It looks like this city invested considerable capital in these prestige symbols. Another reason for so many churches is that Aperlae may have been a way station for pilgrims traveling to and from the Holy Land."

Hohlfelder, Professor Robert Lindley Vann of the University of Maryland's School of Architecture and several of their students began studying the ruins in 1996 after learning of them from Bob Carter, an American traveler who briefly explored Aperlae in the 1970s. One highlight of the 1996 season was the discovery of three large, rectangular brick tanks now submerged in the harbor that were likely used to produce a dye known as "Tyrean Purple," made from marine snails, which was highly coveted by the Roman elite.

Despite the abysmal location of the harbor due to erratic winds, choppy seas and a lack of freshwater spring or river in the city, residents apparently gathered enough rainwater in cisterns to sustain them, Hohlfelder said. Aperlae likely was founded in the fourth century B.C. to produce the valuable dye and export it to nearby port cities via boats.

Because of a lack of written history at Aperlae, Hohlfelder and Vann enlisted the help of Professor William Leadbetter of Edith Cowan University in Perth last June to photograph and make paper impressions of 32 Greek and Roman inscriptions found on Aperlae tombs. He believes the earliest settlers may have been war veterans from Macedonia, and that Aperlae headed a union of four regional cities intent on maintaining their independence in the first and second centuries, said Hohlfelder.

Two other Aperlae expedition members this summer, University of Denver geography Professor Don Sullivan and DU graduate student Wil Longbreak, located more than 100 agricultural terraces that once held enough olive trees, barley, wheat, vegetables, grapes and timber to make the city self-sufficient and probably produce surplus crops for limited export. But the mystery of how the townspeople collected sufficient water from the 32 known cisterns to sustain a city the size of Aperlae deepened this summer when two public baths were discovered.

"These public baths would have required an extensive amount of water," said Hohlfelder. "I think Aperlae may have had large underground cisterns in the center of the city like some other settlements in the region at the time. We just haven't found them yet."

In addition, Professor Kathleen O'Meara and four students from the Maryland Institute, College of Arts, participated in the 2000 field season by producing watercolor drawings of the submerged and standing architecture at Aperlae. "This is a 'back to the future' approach that is still invaluable to archaeologists, since artwork can provide clues that may not be evident in photographs," said Hohlfelder.

Leadbetter re-examined a "milestone marker" from the only paved Roman road into the city from the late third century, probably signaling the rededication of the road and city. "This inscription showed the imperial interest in Aperlae," said Hohlfelder.

The team stayed in a nearby fishing village during the June field season, taking a 45-minute boat ride and a 30-minute walk each day to reach Aperlae and returning to the village each evening. Using snorkels, masks and fins to cruise the bay and Global Positioning System equipment to pinpoint specific ruins, Hohlfelder, his wife Kathryn Barth, a Boulder architect, and CU-Boulder undergraduates Ira Schiff and Chris Laramie were surprised to find shifting sand had uncovered the apse and foundation of a second submerged church since the research team's 1998 visit. Further investigation confirmed all five churches were roughly the same size, said Hohlfelder. He speculated that Lycia, a small region encompassing Aperlae, may have been a stopover for pilgrims heading for the Holy Land -- then Palestine -- in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh centuries. Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine who ruled from A.D. 306 to 337, visited Palestine, and she and Constantine began spreading the word of Christianity and encouraged church construction throughout the Roman Empire.

In addition, the popularity of Saint Nicholas -- the bishop in a town called Myra located just 15 miles from Aperlae in the early fourth century -- was growing due to reports of his miracles that included saving drowning sailors, filling empty ships with grain and providing gifts to children. The close proximity of Myra likely increased the number of pilgrims visiting Aperlae, Hohlfelder said.

The Lycia region enveloping Aperlae also was the final landfall for ships bound for the Holy Land, which sailed from the Turkish coast south into the open sea, skirting the southern coast of Cyprus and then bearing east to present-day Israel. Returning ships sailed north past Lebanon, Syria and the southern coast of Turkey - including Aperlae - in order to take advantage of prevailing winds and currents, he said.

Hohlfelder and his students also discovered a "sea gate" in June that led travelers to the two now submerged Aperlae churches. The gate held a small water basin that was probably used by visitors for ritual cleansing before they entered the churches.

"The church locations may seem unusual, but they emphasize the religious importance of water and gave seafarers a place to pray for safe journeys and give thanks both before and after voyages," he said. The first defensive wall protecting Aperlae appears to have been built in the middle of the third century when the Goths, a Germanic people, began spreading south over the Roman Empire and ravaging towns and cities. The Goths eventually built a more peaceful relationship with the Romans.

At the beginning of the fourth century, when relative calm returned to the region, the defensive sea walls apparently were pushed into the bay by residents to extend Aperlae's shoreline, said Hohlfelder. But the defensive walls went up again in the sixth century due to the declining Roman Empire and increased coastal marauding by pirates.

The archaeological evidence shows that one of the last projects at Aperlae was to convert the Christian cathedral into a fortress late in the sixth century, he said.

"It became too dangerous to live there, so the people probably fled by boat along the coast or north by foot into the mountains," said Hohlfelder. "History comes to a screeching halt at Aperlae by the mid seventh century."
Note: Photos can be downloaded from EurekAlert. For more photo information, call Jim Scott in the CU-Boulder news office at 303-492-3114 or e-mail him at

University of Colorado at Boulder

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