Bitez is a small town, barely beyond the outskirts of the ever-growing resort city of Bodrum, where many of gulet cruises in Turkey have their start or end points. Its attractive setting with a number of fine beaches nearby has predestined Bitez to become a pleasant but unassuming tourist resort in its own right, its economy determined by a string of beach-side restaurants and numerous hotel or apartment complexes of varying standards and sizes.
It's the kind of place where guests can easily spend a few relaxing days before or after one of our cultural cruises, close enough to the hustle and bustle of Bodrum town with its bars, restaurant and cultural offerings, but also far enough to be much quieter and more laid-back in character. There are many such places in the Bodrum peninsula, making Bitez altogether rather unexceptional.
But a closer look at Bitez reveals a little secret - an archaeological one!
That, too, is typical of the area. Visitors to the Bodrum Peninsula are usually aware of Bodrum Castle with its wonderful Museum of Underwater Archaeology, and of the remains of ancient Halicarnassus, one-time capital of Caria, such as the ancient theatre unmistakably overlooking the city, and perhaps also of the remains of the great Mausoleum, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. But they don't tend to know of the many hidden gems scattered throughout the region. For example, most visitors to nearby Gümüşlük appreciate it as a pretty little village with seaside fish restaurants, not as the site of ancient Myndos with the fairly extensive ancient remains we blogged about earlier this year.
So, what's the secret of Bitez? It's the little abandoned church of Gara, hidden in plain sight by the main road to one of the beaches, marked by a road-sign as "Chapel". There has not been a Christian community here since the 1923 "Exchange of Populations" between Turkey and Greece. Therefore, former churches are not too rare a sight in the region. Some have been turned into mosques, e.g. at Gümüşlük, others have been turned over to various other uses, such as until recently the Church of St. Nicholas in central Bodrum. Others are simply standing as empty shells, slowly crumbling away.
Gara Church is one of the latter. We had come across its name a few times in recent years, as there is a local effort to conserve it. A few days ago, I finally found the time and opportunity to take a look.
At first sight, the partially overgrown rubble-built ruin, its doors and windows blocked with modern grills, could be mistaken for some type of old barn, but a closer look at its West-East orientation and at its vaulting reveals its former function. Seeing just that, I would have assumed it's simply an 18th or 19th century village church, not worthy of further notice. But what drew my attention and those of others before me, is much older.
Although Gara Church must have been in use until the 20th century, its floors betray a much longer history. The main aisle is covered in fine mosaics of geometric patterns. Even more remarkably, a room on the eastern side contains a mosaic boldly depicting a group of four or more fish, including a very lovely swordfish. Covered in a film of dust, the mosaics are not too clearly visible at present, but a little preservation would probably restore their original brilliance. I am not a specialist in dating mosaics, but the mosaics are certainly Roman or Late Roman. On the internet, there is talk of a 2nd century AD date, which would be extremely early for a Christian church, so a somewhat later origin might be suggested.
The present building seems to partially interfere with the mosaics, suggesting that it is more recent at least in part. That would not be surprising, as many such buildings were modified, expanded and altered repeatedly through the ages. Unfortunately, it is difficult to make out the architectural lay-out. There is a main room, the church proper, its detail obscured by whitewash and its original entrance partly blocked. Attached on the eastern side are two smaller vaults, partially collapsed. Just to the south is an enormous circular rock-cut water cistern that ought to be of ancient date, also suggesting a Late Roman or early Byzantine establishment. But whether it is a town or village church, or even part of a monastery, and what exactly the course of its long history might have been remains a mystery for now.
The Gara church is a modest monument, but its mosaics are superb. If you are in the area, perhaps on the way to or from one of our tours in Turkey, it deserves a little detour (Google Maps coordinates here). And maybe, if the local initiative succeeds, the site will receive a little attention in the form of consolidation, restoration and perhaps study or excavation, before long...