Everything You Could Want to Know About Turkey's Gemiler Island

Gemiler Island is a relatively small island in the Mediterranean, measuring 1000 meters long, 400 meters across at its widest spot, and about 100 meters tall. It is located less than 100 meters off the coast of mainland of Turkey, near the city of Fethiye, and just around the corner from the tourist resort of Ölüdeniz.

The island is surrounded by mainland on three sides, which means it is well-protected during bad weather. Boats anchored in the channel on island's north shore remain safe, even during the worst of storms.

A few scattered islets lay to the south of the island. Although these rocky outcroppings are not mentioned on most maps or articles about St. Nicholas Island, they are home to the ruins of stone structures that (I assume) were once part of the Gemiler Island settlement.

Gemiler Island is currently uninhabited – except by a big orange tom cat (who frequently accompanies hikers around the island), several goats, a few lizards, and a small army of mosquitos! Pine, olive, and carob trees grow everywhere. There are a few walking paths around the island, but they are covered in loose scree, so visitors who want to spend any time exploring should wear good walking shoes (and plenty of insect repellent).

Gemiler Island's Connection to Saint Nicholas

So what's the connection to Saint Nicholas? There are actually two:

Either way, it is a well-accepted fact that St. Nicholas lived in the region, so an island named in his honour is not really a surprise.

The History of Gemiler Island

So why did people establish a large community on an island with no available water or tillable soil? Legend indicates that early Christians originally fled to Gemiler Island to hide from persecution by the Romans. Once there, they elected to stay and eventually built the island into a prosperous Byzantine community serving the needs of passing ships. In the 7th century, a series of Arab invasions forced the inhabitants to flee, and Gemiler has been uninhabited ever since.

Archaeologists have been able to piece together a fair bit of information about the island's original inhabitants based on the weather-beaten ruins that dot the landscape. While there were no public buildings, theatres or bath houses as are commonly seen in other settlements, there were four churches spread across the west end of the island, and a crowded community of houses on the north end adjacent to the harbour. There are also several large fresh-water cisterns on the island, indicating the island's inhabitants had effective mechanisms for collecting rain water.

ruins of Byzantine-era stone buildings line the north slope of Gemiler Island

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The Ruins

map of the ruins at Gemiler Island

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The Harbour

There was an extensive harbour along most of Gemiler Island's north side. Buildings and passage ways used to serve visiting boats can still be seen along the steep shore, although some foundations and walls are now underwater due to the effects of earthquakes and rising sea levels.

In the past, visiting boats would anchor in the narrow channel to replenish their supplies of olive oil, fresh water, and whatever else they needed on their journeys across the Mediterranean. Nowadays, boats anchor in those exact same spots, tying their lines to the remains of stone quays that have held boats securely for over a thousand years! (The main difference is that the island is no longer a source of provisions. Instead, we rely on visits from the Pancake Lady and Ice Cream Man to make our journeys more enjoyable ;-).)

The Churches of Gemiler Island

The ruins of four churches can be found on Gemiler Island. (Some sources I've read indicate there was a fifth church on the island, but I cannot find reliable documentation – and I've only found 4 during my (admittedly-uneducated) wanders around the island.) The churches, all built in the late 5th and early 6th centuries, were central to the Orthodox Christian community.

Church 1

If you access the island through the official entrance gate, you'll come across the ruins of Church I after just a short hike. This small stone church was the first built on the island, and all that remains is the south-facing wall of the apse and baptistery.

ruins of the first church built on Gemiler Island

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Church 2

Continue your climb and you'll arrive at the more-extensive ruins of Church II. Featuring a curved wall and semi-domed roof with the shape of a cross cut-out from its peak, this is likely one of the most photographed spots on the island.

ruins of the domed church at Gemiler Island

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Unfortunately, in their haste for the perfect Instagram selfie, most visitors fail to notice the faded frescoes of St. Nicholas and other religious icons around the north door when entering Church II. (In all honesty, the paintings are in a shaded area and difficult to see.) Although these depictions have been defaced – quite literally, the faces have been destroyed – they have survived the ravages of time because they are in a short length of relatively intact, enclosed hallway.

Church 3

Viewing the remains of the most impressive church built on the island requires a climb to its peak. Only a few walls remain of this church, which was partially built into the bedrock of the island. However, the semi-circular apse has been reconstructed by archaeologists and parts of the incredible mosaic floor remain intact.

mosaic floor ties depicting a goat eating an olive tree

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Archaeologists believe that this church is where the earthly remains of St. Nicholas were originally entombed after his death in 326 AD, and remained until around 650 AD when they were relocated to the church in Myra for safekeeping during Muslim invasions.

While little remains of the structure now, its distinctive outline at the peak of the triangular island was mentioned in marine charts of the time, helping sailors navigate their Mediterranean journeys.

Church 4

The remains of the final church on Gemiler Island are practically non-existent, just a small section of mosaic floor on the east side of the island. Little is known about this church, but it must be assumed that it was integral to funeral proceedings due to its location adjacent to the island's extensive cemetery.

grey and white mosaic tiles surrounded by dried grass

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The Corridor

A 350 meter long, arched stone corridor joined churches III and IV. Enclosing a long stairway, the processional walkway featured 14 stops (representing the Stations of the Cross) where priests would pause to pray when moving back and forth between the buildings.

stone corridor connecting two of the churches at Gemiler Island

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Although much of the ancient passageway has collapsed, parts of the structure remain standing – including sections of the arched roof! Decorations in the mortar and stone work are still visible too, evidence of the craftsmanship of the builders.

The Cisterns

Two massive stone cisterns were used to collect and store rain-water on the island. One was located on the eastern peak of the island, the other on the hill above the harbour. It is likely that the water in this second cistern was sold to passing boats in need of fresh water for their journeys, while the water in the first was used by the island's inhabitants.

The Wall

A long stone wall separated the secular part of the island from the area where the churches were located. Amazingly, much of the wall is still standing and can easily be seen in aerial photos of the island.

The Graveyard

The east half of the island is devoted to an extensive cemetery housing over 50 tombs and graves.

desecrated stone tomb from the Byzantine era

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The Religious Importance of St. Nicholas Island

Due to its connections to St. Nicholas of Myra, Gemiler Island has long-held religious importance. It is believed that the island was a frequent stop on the pilgrimage route from Constantinople (now known as Istanbul) and countries in the west to Jerusalem and other religious sites in the eastern Mediterranean.

Modern Day Gemiler Island

Gemiler Island is managed by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism. A nominal fee is charged for entrance to the island, but, because it is part of the national museum system, you can also use your Muze Kart. Guide books and information pamphlets about Gemiler Island can be purchased at the entrance kiosk.

How To Get To Gemiler Island

Boats of every size and shape frequent the island throughout the year. In fact, it's not uncommon to see small sailboats anchored next to super yachts! But if you don't have access to a boat of your own, here are some ways to visit Gemiler Island:

The Best Time to Visit

Gemiler Island is accessible throughout the year. Obviously, it is most popular during the summer months, but there is something magic about walking around the island in the winter, when no-one else is around.

During the height of tourist season, the parts of the island nearest to the entrance kiosk are congested during the day, especially when the daily boats arrive and disgorge their passengers. And the area around the lighthouse at the island's peak is busy at sundown because everyone enjoys the view of the sun setting over the Mediterranean. But, even on the busiest days, the rest of the island is virtually empty.

If you are interested in exploring the ruins on the island, the best time to visit is early in the morning before the daily boat trips arrive, or late afternoon, after the bulk of day-time visitors have left, but before the masses head to the peak for sunset viewing. In addition to having the island to yourself at these times, you may find that the entrance kiosk is un-staffed, allowing you "free" access.

The Future of Gemiler Island

Because the island is classified as Protected Land by the Turkish government, construction on Gemiler Island is not permitted. This means that visitors can continue to enjoy its unspoilt beauty while trying to unravel its mysteries.

Sources of Additional Information about Gemiler Island