Beneath the blue-green waters of a lake in western Turkey, an ancient secret has been hiding in plain sight. For years, archaeologists searched for the remains of a lost city, before an aerial photograph revealed them by chance. Now, the changing landscape has unveiled even more of this stunning historic spectacle.
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 in around 1,200 B.C., 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.
But 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 Şahin, 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 Iznik in Turkey’s Anatolia region. A quiet backwater today, the settlement was once known as Nicaea, an important part of the sprawling Roman Empire in the fourth century A.D.
First founded by Antigonus I Monophtalmus, the King of Macedonia, in the fourth century B.C., Nicaea was built on the site of an older Greek colony. Eventually, the city would become part of Bithynia, a Roman province located in what is now Asia Minor. And from 72 B.C. onwards, it formed part of the newly established republic.
Almost 50 years later, the republic became an empire and Nicaea, like many Roman cities, prospered. In fact, it became so influential that it was the setting for two important councils of the Christian church in the fourth and eighth centuries A.D. But its location in such a tumultuous part of the world meant that it suffered many raids and attacks throughout its long history.
In the 14th century, Nicaea briefly became the capital of the Ottoman Empire, its buildings torn down and used to build mosques. But with the rise of Istanbul, its prosperity began to falter. And after a brief resurgence in the 16th century, the city fell into decline. Today, the modern town of Iznik bears little resemblance to the once-great settlement that thrived for hundreds of years.
But beneath Iznik’s streets lie occasional reminders of Nicaea’s distinguished past. In places, for example, the grid-like layout common in Roman cities is still etched into the landscape. And around the town run thousands of feet of ancient walls, prompting the United Nations to consider it worthy of special preservation.
As a location on UNESCO’s Tentative List, the remains of ancient Nicaea are being considered for World Heritage Site status. And if successful, the site will be protected, its history preserved for many generations to come. But despite the presence of these historic relics, much of the original city has been lost to time.
In an attempt to recover this history, archaeologists such as Şahin often search the region for evidence of Nicaea’s fascinating past. And sometimes, they strike gold. After eight years of research, in 2014 the Turkish researcher finally found what he had been looking for – in the most unexpected place.
You see, one year previously, authorities in nearby Bursa had begun taking aerial images of the region. And eventually, someone noticed that these photographs were showing what looked like a ruined structure beneath the waters of Lake Iznik. Wondering if Şahin could tell them more, Saffet Yilmaz, a member of the team, reached out to the archaeologist.
Intrigued, Şahin 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 website Live Science in September 2018. “I [had been] doing field surveys in Iznik [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 10 feet or so of water – making it astonishing that nobody had spotted them before. And soon Şahin, along with experts from the town’s archaeology museum, began excavating the site in order to learn more.
Yet this task has not always been easy. As a result of high temperatures in the area, there is a lot of algae growing in Lake Iznik, and this in turn reduces visibility underwater. Sometimes, in fact, divers cannot see further than a couple of inches ahead of them.
According to Şahin, the relatively shallow nature of the site also causes problems, with waves posing a challenge to archaeologists. Apparently, the water hits against them and disrupts them as they attempt to carry out their work. And on the lake bed, deposits of slime have been churned up by the excavations, creating even more problems.
Faced with these difficulties, Şahin and his colleagues had to come up with a solution. Using specialist equipment, they created a vacuum to transport soil from the underwater basilica all the way to shore. In this fashion, the archaeologist and his coworkers have been able to 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 structures, the team uncovered coins that have allowed Şahin to suggest that the structure was constructed some time after 390 A.D.
Then in 2020 archaeologists studying the submerged basilica were treated to another revelation. When recent global events led to generally lower levels of commerce, transport and travel around the world, the pollution levels in Iznik and the surrounding area dropped. And without human activity muddying the waters of the lake, the ruins became more visible than ever before.
According to Şahin, the basilica may have been erected in honor of Saint Neophytos – a monk from Cyprus who was martyred in Nicaea in 303 A.D. Might this ancient structure have marked the very site where the hermit met his death? Amazingly, it’s not the only claim to fame that has been associated with Lake Iznik’s sunken church.
In 325 A.D. 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 on 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 Iznik was unlikely to have been built when this event took place, Şahin thinks that it may have been constructed at the location where the venue for the gathering – the Senate Palace – once stood.
More than four centuries after the First Council of Nicaea, a second ecumenical gathering took place in the city. This time, the bishops discussed the veneration of religious icons, a practice that had been outlawed by the Byzantine Empire. And although they had met in Constantinople – now Istanbul – the previous year, the outpost by Lake Iznik was considered a safer venue.
During the meeting, those present established a consensus on venerating images, restoring the practice in Christian homes and places of worship. Moreover, the council also laid out the ground rules on mixing with women, specifically forbidding monks from keeping female company. More than a thousand years later, some of the edicts set down at Nicaea remain in place.
Interestingly, Şahin has suggested that some artifacts found at the Lake Iznik 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 A.D. to 192 A.D., built a temple dedicated to the sun god Apollo somewhere outside Nicaea’s city walls. Could the basilica have been built over this earlier place of worship?
With all its apparent historical importance, then, how did such a structure vanish into the murky waters of Lake Iznik? Apparently, it stood until 740 A.D., at which point a devastating earthquake hit the region. The basilica was destroyed, and over time its ruins sank below the surface. There, they lay forgotten for well over a thousand years.
Now, however, the structure could be blessed with a new lease of life. In order to protect the site for future generations, Şahin and local government official Alinur Aktaş 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 Şahin, the museum would feature a tower some 60 feet in height, allowing visitors to enjoy a birds-eye view of the underwater basilica. When complete, it would also feature an overwater walkway, diving facilities and even a submerged, glass-walled room in the structure’s nave. Until the plans are approved, however, Şahin’s excavations will continue to offer a fascinating glimpse into this forgotten world.
Thankfully, interested parties will not need to wait for this facility to open – or become archaeologists themselves – to learn more about the sunken basilica. In October 2020 it was announced that Pascal Guerin, a French director, had finished the first stage of filming for a documentary about the treasure beneath Lake Iznik.
Entitled The Sunken Secrets of Basilica, the documentary was born out of a conversation between Guerin and Şahin. After raising funding for his project, the French director traveled to Iznik to begin filming footage of the submerged church and the people studying it. When completed, the movie will showcase the journey of the ruins from lost relic to archaeological treasure.
According to reports, the documentary will also explore the different factors which caused the basilica to disappear beneath the surface of the lake. And through interviews with geologists, Guerin hopes to reveal more about what happened in the region centuries ago. So far, the filmmaker has captured footage of researchers, officials and tourism workers, as well as the photographer who first discovered the ruins.
According to reports, Lake Iznik is far from the only body of water to be affected by recent global travel restrictions. In Venice, Italy, for example, reduced pollution has had a similar effect on the city’s famous canals. Typically somewhat murky in color, the waterways have apparently turned a deeper blue as 2020 has progressed.
And although reports of dolphins in Venice’s canals were later revealed to be a hoax, recent events certainly seem to have created a cleaner, greener city. Meanwhile, in April 2020 the website of British newspaper the Daily Mail reported that the seas off Portsmouth on the southern coast of England had turned “crystal clear” thanks to the lack of pollution.
Thousands of miles away, in India, these scenes were echoed on the banks of the River Ganges, as observers spotted that the water was running clear. Considered a holy site, the waterway has often been marred by pollution from the region’s industrial areas. But when production halted, nature quickly recovered.
In places such as Iznik, these new, clearer waters have provided an invaluable opportunity to study the submerged architecture of the world. But that isn’t the only recent unexpected boost to archaeology. In some locations, online projects have taken the place of physical excavations – with surprisingly fruitful results.
In southern England’s Tamar Valley, for example, archaeologists were facing the prospect of shutting up shop as their sites, like everything else, were closed down. But rather than stop their work completely, they turned to an alternative approach. At the University of Exeter, Dr. Christopher Smart seized the opportunity to create an army of citizen archaeologists.
Using the latest technology, Dr. Smart provided a chance for amateur enthusiasts stuck at home to contribute to his archaeological work. By poring over scans of the region, volunteers helped to locate some important historical sites. And even though teams have been unable to physically excavate the discoveries, the research has proved invaluable.
“I’m glad that we could continue to do volunteer-led research in these unsettling times,” Smart explained in a July 2020 interview with the BBC. “At the current rate we expect [volunteer researchers] to recognise hundreds of new archaeological sites in the coming month or two.” Meanwhile, in Derbyshire in England’s East Midlands, an out-of-work wedding photographer may have stumbled upon a Neolithic mound.
According to The Guardian newspaper, Chris Seddon was browsing aerial photographs of his home county when he stumbled upon something unusual. Keen to keep occupied, he joined an online archaeology course. Later, an expert confirmed that he may well have found a lost monument, potentially dating back thousands of years. Of course, a dig will ultimately need to be conducted to confirm the find, but it’s an impressive discovery for a man with no formal training.
So will this recent enforced downing of tools revolutionize the world of archaeology? If the waters of Lake Iznik had been this clear when Şahin first visited in 2006, it seems unlikely that it would have taken him eight years to spot the basilica. And although events beyond his control may have temporarily scuppered plans to build a museum around the site, they seem to be opening up the ancient world in new and surprising ways.