Everything You Need to Know About Gemiler Island
Measuring 1000 metres long, 400 meters wide, and about 100 meters tall, Gemiler is a small island shrouded in big mystery.
Gemiler Island or Gemiler Adasi (which means Island of the Boats in Turkish) is also popularly referred to as St. Nicholas Island or Santa Claus Island. What's the connection to Turkey's infamous saint? Historians claim that medieval sailors nicknamed the island in honour of their patron saint, as it provided safe harbour during storms and provisioning during long journeys. Several faded fresco paintings discovered on the island's ruins also suggest a connection to St. Nicholas.
Piecing Together the Island's History
Why did people establish a large community on an island with no available water or tillable soil? Legend indicates that 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.
Archaeologists have been able to piece together a fair bit of information about the island's original inhabitants based on weather-beaten ruins that dot the landscape. There were four churches spread across the west end of the island, and a crowded community of houses on the east end of the island. The churches, all built in the late 5th and early 6th centuries, were central to the Christian community. There are also several large fresh-water cisterns on the island.
The Church Ruins
Situated on the western slope of Gemiler Island, only the apse and bapistry of this church remain.
Avoiding damage from waves due to its slightly higher site on the west shore, the well-preserved, semi-domed apse of Church II, with the shape of a cross cut-out of the stone wall, is often photographed by visitors to the island. Faded fresco paintings, including some representing St. Nicholas, adorn the walls around the north door to this church, suggesting it was dedicated in his honour.
The medieval portulan (a reference used by sailors navigating in the area) mentioned the distinctive outline of the church located on the top of Gemiler Island. Built into the island's bedrock, this 30 meter long, 3 aisled basilica is thought by some archaeologists to have contained the original tomb of St. Nicholas following his death in 326AD. (They claim the saint's earthly remains were transported back to Myra when the island was eventually abandoned in the 650s.)
Separated from the other churches by a long wall bisecting the island, nothing remains of this building other than a small section of floor mosaics marking the church's atrium.
A long covered staircase with 17 stops, which historians believe represent Christ's journey during the Crucifixion, connected Church III and Church IV.
Present Day Gemiler Island
Nowadays, Gemiler Island still holds appeal for sailors and is a popular anchorage for travellers enjoying sailing holidays along the Turkey's spectacular Turquoise Coast. Yachts, gulets and sailboats tie up at the island's ancient quays, visitors enjoy water sports in the narrow channel separating the island from the mainland, and parasailers enjoy an exhilarating bird's eye view from high above the sea.
For a small entrance fee, visitors can climb to the modern-day lighthouse and watch magnificent Mediterranean sunsets from the island's western peak. Nature lovers, history buffs, and hikers can wander the uninhabited island for hours, exploring the ruins and imagining life from long ago. The island's caretaker accepts the fee and also sells guidebooks in a variety of languages to raise funds for island maintenance.
Because the island is classified as Protected Land by the Turkish government, construction is not permitted. This means that visitors can continue to enjoy the unspoilt beauty while trying to unravel the island's mysteries.
Gemiler Island in Pictures
Click on any image to enlarge.
Sources of Additional Information about Gemiler Island
- Historvius: Mapping History
- Hurriyet Daily News: Gemiler Island, a shelter for Christians escaping Romans
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