Rainbow over Gemiler island on the Lycian coast of Turkey

Rainbow over Gemiler island (pictured on the right).

On a number of our gulet trips in Lycia, from our starting point in Göcek, we head just a short distance to the east, approaching the outer reaches of the Fethiye Peninsula, an area that appears to have been densely settled in antiquity. Already at our lunchtime swimming spot, we are able spot antiquities: the limestone cliffs we were tied up to did not look quite natural. A series of smooth horizontal and vertical surfaces caught our eye: remains of ancient building foundations, maybe of houses, or perhaps of structures to do with the coastline, such as harbour installations, storage spaces and so on. Broadly speaking, when we see extensive rock-cuttings in this part of the world, we can assume that they are at least 1,500 years old - and potentially much older.

We often start by easing our guests into the long and interesting history of Lycia, exploring a particularly fascinating site - the island of Gemiler Adası (in Turkish, that means something along the lines of 'island of the ships'). Gemiler is a smallish island, steep and rugged, lacking any natural source of water and almost devoid of any agricultural potential. Nonetheless, much of it is covered in archaeological remains: there are walls everywhere and much of the ground is covered in pottery sherds. So, what happened here, and when?

Group exploring the Byzantine processional way on Gemiler island on the Lycian coast of Turkey

Group exploring what may have been a Byzantine processional way on Gemiler island

Archaeological studies by Turkish and Japanese scholars in the 1990s and 2000s have helped us answer these questions, at least in part.

As to when, nearly everything to be seen on Gemiler belongs to the Byzantine era, the period when the Eastern Roman Empire, centred on Constantinople, was the major power in the region (for Lycia, that's a long era, from the fourth to the eleventh or twelfth centuries AD). There's a certain amount of controversy regarding Gemiler, but most scholars would place most of the remains sometime between the fifth and seventh centuries, with a tiny bit of activity later on.

As to what: Gemiler does not seem to be a run-of-the-mill coastal settlement, but something rather unusual. The ruins are dominated by the foundations of no less than four basilica churches, all of them large, and including a very substantial one on the very top of the island. Intriguingly, that church is associated with a most unusual, even unique, feature: a 180m (600ft) long, walled and barrel-vaulted corridor, once decorated with painted plaster, leading all the way from a lower church near the coastline to the summit church (our photo shows part of it). We don't have any good parallels for this structure - what might it be? Most scholars agree that it is a ceremonial path, a processional route leading to (or from) the hilltop church. The effort and expense that its construction must have entailed suggests that Gemiler was a religious centre, most likely a pilgrimage. It has been proposed that the church once held the relics of a major saint, the obvious candidate being St Nicholas, who hailed from Patara, not far to the east (but to complicate matters, there are two Saints Nicholas associated with the region: Nicholas of Myra active in the fourth century, and Nicholas of Sion, alive two centuries later. Both were famous, so the story works either way).

Byzantine cathedral church on top of Gemiler island on the Lycian coast of Turkey

Byzantine cathedral church on top of Gemiler island

Additionally, the inlets around Fethiye are among the best-sheltered ports or anchorages in the area. The southern coast of Turkey overlooks what was one of the key sea routes of the Ancient World, part of the long-distance routes linking the Central Mediterranean, Italy and Greece, with the Levant and Egypt. Further east, there are few good harbours, so that ships travelling from west to east might have used the area to wait out poor weather, and ones coming the other way may have aimed here as the first shelter after a difficult stretch of coast. In either case, sailors and travellers might feel grateful for (or to) the spot. Since this route is also the one that pilgrims would have taken to the Holy Land, a local shrine to a very well-known saint may have been a useful asset for the area - a source of tourist revenue! Saint Nicholas became the accepted patron of sailors and ships across Christendom during that time - so maybe we are looking at the origins of that role here.

Our late afternoon visit to Gemiler and its monuments, the first archaeological visit on our cruise, is wonderful. Basking in the balmy light of the closing day, scented with the aroma of the pine and mastic trees that shade our walk (along with wild olives and gnarly oaks), exploring the island's remarkable antiquities is always a grand adventure.

To visit Gemiler island with expert guides, take a look at our Lycian tours in Turkey.

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