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Ancient City's Churches Hold Clue to Its Past

Archeologists believe the port of Aperlae on the Turkish coast, which once had 1,000 residents, may have been a pit stop on pilgrimages to the Holy Land.


Why would an ancient city of no more than 1,000 residents on the rugged southern coast of Turkey have five churches?

That is the question that intrigues archeologist Robert Hohlfelder of the University of Colorado, who has spent the last four summers studying the seaside community of Aperlae, a 2,400-year-old port now largely submerged under six feet of water.

Hohlfelder's team had previously found three churches in Aperlae, but their expedition in June revealed two more--an unusually large number for such a small group of people.

Certainly, the churches were a sign of wealth, Hohlfelder said--a prosperity apparently produced by manufacture and export of Tyrean purple dye, one of the most valuable products of the early Christian era.

But even for a wealthy community, five churches might be a bit excessive, he said. Perhaps, he speculated, the answer might lie in the then-common practice of making pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Palestine. Over the decades, tens of thousands of the richest and most powerful citizens of the Roman Empire traveled to Jerusalem to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and to worship on the Mount.

Considering Aperlae's key location on the Turkish coast and the period in which it flourished, he said, the many churches suggest it was a way station on that pilgrimage. Travelers could have stopped to replenish their supplies, and the churches could have helped them replenish their souls.

Nestled between the Taurus Mountains and the shore of the Mediterranean, Aperlae could have been the final landfall for ships bound from Italy to the Holy Land.

If Aperlae were a way station, pilgrims "would stop and pick up supplies, water and wood, whatever they needed," said archeologist Robert Stieglitz of Rutgers University. "I guess they would go to church, too. Five churches on a site that small is very unusual."

Leaving Aperlae, the ships would have skirted the southern coast of Cyprus, Hohlfelder speculated, then veered east to Israel to complete their pilgrimage. Returning ships would sail north past Lebanon, Syria and the southern coast of Turkey--including Aperlae--in order to take advantage of prevailing winds and currents, Hohlfelder added.

Such pilgrimages were made fashionable by Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, who ruled from AD 306 to 337. She and Constantine encouraged construction of churches throughout the Roman Empire, which then included Turkey. The rich and the devout regularly made such journeys from the 4th to the 7th centuries.

It had not been clear where they stopped along the way. Hohlfelder and Robert Lindley Vann of the University of Maryland now say that Aperlae was one of the major ports of call.

Although much of Aperlae is now buried in the debris of earthquakes that have rocked Turkey through the centuries, it was not a "lost city." In fact, it was hidden in plain sight. Foundations of many structures are visible through the clear waters of Asar Bay and walls and foundations march up the hillside above the water.

Aperlae was spotted in the early 1970s by a wealthy American yachtsman named Bob Carter, who did a quick survey and brought it to the attention of archeologists. But it was not until 1996 that the Turkish government issued a permit to Vann to explore the site. He recruited Hohlfelder.

That permit allows them to use only snorkeling equipment in the bay, not scuba gear, and the team is not allowed to conduct any excavations. Nonetheless, Vann and Hohlfelder have returned every summer since, walking and boating in from a nearby village, and have pieced together much of the city's history.

The original mystery they faced was why the first colonists--Hohlfelder thinks they were war veterans from Macedonia--chose the site. A much better harbor lies nearby on the opposite side of the hammerhead-shaped peninsula where Aperlae is located. Strong winds blowing into Asar Bay in the mornings would have made it difficult for ships to leave the harbor.

Moreover, the site had no obvious source of fresh water and overland access was extremely limited.

The answer came in their early expeditions. In the summer of 1997, the team found at least three large brick tanks, or vivariums, in which murex snails were grown. The snails were used to make Tyrean purple dye. A gully near the city has more than 1,700 square yards of ground piled high with snail shells.

The snails grow all along the Turkish coast and were the only source of the vibrant purple dye that was a mark of aristocracy in the Roman Empire.

In Rome, only the emperor was allowed to wear purple clothing made using the dye. Senators could have clothing trimmed with purple. The dye was forbidden to everyone else in the imperial city.

Hohlfelder believes that Asar Bay must have been a particularly rich source of murex snails. "I'm convinced these tanks hold the key to the city's existence," he said. "It looks like the city was developed to take advantage of this natural resource."

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