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TRAVEL > Gemiler Island, a shelter for Christians escaping Romans

Wilco VAN HERPEN

The once-safe haven for Christians seeking shelter from the hunt is now a fantastic site of photogenic ruins

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According to a legend, it was the Romans who were ‘hunting’ Christians. They managed to kill quite a lot of them and the rest escaped to the mountains next
to the sea near the island.

According to a legend, it was the Romans who were ‘hunting’ Christians. They managed to kill quite a lot of them and the rest escaped to the mountains next to the sea near the island.

While I was in Kayaköy for my television program about photography “2 Göz 1 Şehir” (2 eyes 1 city), my friend Faruk Akbaş, who has been working on a photo project about Kayaköy and its environment for many years now told me about an interesting island in front of the coast near Kayaköy. He did not say too much about it except that it would really surprise me. The next day, he brought me to the Gemiler beach, where his friend Recep was waiting with his boat to bring us to the island. I thought the island would be miles away from the shore, but it turned out that I could have swam that distance… It would not be the first time that people would have swum to the island. According to a legend, it was the Romans who were “hunting” Christians. They managed to kill quite a lot of them and the rest escaped to the mountains next to the sea near the island. During the night, the Christians managed to swim to Gemiler Island and hide from the Romans. When it became quiet again and the Christians realized this was a good place to hide, they decided to start a colony here.

Recep, who is also the caretaker of the island, brought us there with his boat, but before we set foot on the island, he sailed around it to give us an idea about its size and to show some interesting details of the island. One remarkable detail is just off the shore of the island in the sea, you can see walls and structures that once were shops. People used to sell grain, olive oil and many other products to ships that passed by. It is interesting; in the whole area there are sunken cities and harbors. You can often see them just by going to the seaside with your snorkel and diving glasses and have a look at it up close. But be aware; many of those places are forbidden for divers because they are first degree protected places. During the tour around the island, I could see the remains of protective walls, churches and houses. The water was so clear that you easily could see the remains of the buildings that once used to be houses and shops where people were doing their shopping or children were playing.

Our tour around the island was finished and we went ashore. Although it is a small island once getting ashore, I realized that going to the top would be quite a climb. The first part was made of stairs, but it did not take long (actually just 15 or 16 steps…) before they disappeared and a path covered with gravel was all that was left. Unfortunately, again… I have to warn you; this island is beautiful to visit, but you have to be in good condition. It is perhaps not as risky as the Afkule monastery, but still you have to walk over quite a difficult path. So put on your hiking boots and start exploring.

Shortly after you start your hike, you can see the remains of a church. This is an encouraging beginning because the best part is still to come. A bit further up and you will find a bigger church. The structure of this church is still intact; you can see the place of the altar and a corridor that leads behind the church. After seeing this church, it is time for the big surprise or at least it was for me.

An incredible job on a small island

Another five minutes’ climb further up the hill and you suddenly see the remains of a “tunnel,” a corridor that used to be around 150-meters-long. According to my guide, the priests that walked up or down in this corridor had to pray 12 (other sources say 17) times. If Saint Nicholas really lived on this island, it means he too used this corridor and he too kneeled 12 times to do his prayers. (Saint Nicholas was a saint who still is very popular in countries like the United States, Belgium, Germany, France and the Netherlands. He was a man who took care of children, prostitutes and people who lived under difficult circumstances). This corridor used to connect the upper church with the one below, but all that remains nowadays is a tunnel-shaped long corridor full of holes and collapsed walls and a roof.

It is strange to walk around in such a construction, thinking about the lives and activities that once were. Mumbling their prayers, priests walked up or down to their church. It most probably was a very humble life and the only excitement was when yet another ship arrived to take fresh provisions for their trip to the sacred land of Palestine.

This island must have been very important because I have never seen a construction like this before. To do such an incredible job on such a small island would have been, if nobody of great importance had lived here, a crazy job and waste of time and energy. Also, the fact that there are four churches and many tombs and graveyards on the island shows its importance. Unfortunately the situation of all of the “buildings” or should I say “left-overs” of this magnificent island are very, very bad…

But here is a chance for Turkey now… On June 4, 2014 Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced Turkey has been elected to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) intergovernmental committee for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage. Double the amount you spent last year on archeology (43 million Turkish Liras) and use it for restoring important places like this one. Anyway, such an amount is peanuts for a government. To show Turkey and the rest of the world how serious they take this membership, they could make a start with restoring the corridor and some of the churches and buildings on this island. It will be an impressive masterpiece of goodwill and, once the project is finished, become a touristic hot spot for many believers in the world. People from all over the world would come to walk in this corridor, pray the 12 or 17 times as the priests used to do and see how serious Turkey takes its responsibilities.

June/11/2014

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