Mystery Of Ancient Port City In Mediterranean May Be Solved

November 12, 1996

The mystery of why a virtually unknown, 2,400-year-old port city on the Mediterranean Sea was founded, thrived for centuries and then abruptly collapsed may have been solved by a University of Colorado at Boulder historian.

Professor Robert Hohlfelder, an internationally known marine archaeologist, said a 1996 survey of the ruins of Aperlae in present-day Turkey indicate it was probably established in the 4th century B.C. to harvest marine snails, the source of a coveted dye known as "Tyrean purple" used by Roman emperors and others of the region's elite. Although no written history of Aperlae exists, the archaeological evidence indicates it was once home to about 2,000 people, despite its lack of fresh water and abysmal coastline location for maritime activity, he said.

The evidence for the city's surprising origins includes a large mound of murex snail shells piled on its outskirts and three large, rectangular tanks now submerged in the harbor area, he said. The brick tanks, the largest of which measures 27 feet by 18 feet by 6 feet, were probably used to manufacture and store the dye, which may have been shipped by small vessels to larger harbors in the region.

"The real mystery seemed to be why the city was ever established there in the first place," he said. "I'm convinced these tanks hold the key to the city's existence. "It looks like the city was developed to take advantage of this natural resource."

The research project was undertaken by Hohlfelder, University of Maryland Architecture Professor Lindley Vann and several students, including CU-Boulder undergraduates Davis Alvey and Christopher Bowles. The little known site was brought to Hohlfelder's attention by American Bob Carter, 83, who briefly explored it in the 1970s and accompanied the team to the Aperlae in June 1996.

Located on the southern coast of Turkey 15 miles east of the port city of Kas, Aperlae is being surveyed in cooperation with the Turkish Ministry of Culture.

There are only two or three casual references to Aperlae in ancient historical writings, none of which shed much light on it, said Hohlfelder. The architecture and inscriptions found at the ancient Anatolian site indicate the inhabitants were Lycian, probably under the rule of Persians and later Romans.

"Because of a lack of written history, this entire project must be done through archaeological work," he said. Hohlfelder 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. The shoreline appears to have subsided about six feet over the centuries due to earthquake activity.

Vann and his students focused on the architectural remains of a portion of the city overlooking the harbor, said Hohlfelder. The "remarkably intact" city includes an elaborate line of city walls, dwellings, streets, a large cathedral, a bishop's palace, burial tombs and several large monuments commemorating Roman emperors.

"At first glance, the anchorage makes absolutely no sense," Hohlfelder said. "Because of the strong winds blowing from the southwest, it would have been impossible for much of the day for ancient sailing vessels to leave the harbor."

In addition, the discovery of more than 30 large cisterns indicated the Aperlae residents were able to sustain themselves without the benefit of a spring or river. "These people were careful to capture virtually every drop of rain," he said.

Aperlae's walls appear to have been fortified several times over the centuries to protect its residents. "This was a wild coast plagued by pirates in antiquity," said Hohlfelder, who co-directed the International Caesarea Ancient Harbor Excavation Project from 1978 to 1993 in present-day Israel.

By the first century B.C. Aperlae was probably under firm Roman control, prospering and expanding for the next several centuries, he said. By the 6th century A.D., as the Roman Empire was declining, Aperlae residents apparently stepped up refortification efforts in response to increased marauding by pirates. The archaeological evidence shows one of their last projects was to convert the Christian cathedral into a fortress to afford them more protection, Hohlfelder said.

Evidence also indicates the Aperlae residents may have made their last stand against Arab raiders in the fortified cathedral. "Those who were unable to escape were probably either killed or sold into slavery," said Hohlfelder. "History comes to a screeching halt at Aperlae by the mid-7th century. That's where the story ends."

The CU-Boulder and Maryland researchers plan to return next summer and continue their work. Hohlfelder's research was funded in part by the CU-Boulder Graduate Council for the Arts and Humanities.

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