Mysterious Underwater Ruins in Turkish Lake Found To Be A 1,600-Year-Old Basilica
Archaeologists were surprised to discover that “weird ruins” in a Turkish lake are actually a nearly 1,600-year-old basilica. Moreover, the city associated with the submerged church has been a key site for religious history. The martyr linked to this church allegedly had unique powers and could bring water forth from a stone. Now there are elaborate plans to turn the basilica into an underwater museum.
Ancient Nicaea, modern day Iznik, in Turkey has central importance to the history of Christianity. In 325 AD it was the site of the first ecumenical council – the one responsible for clarifying the orthodox Christian position on the divinity of Christ and his relation to God and humanity. It is also the location of the last ecumenical council, which took place in 787 AD and settled the issue of iconoclasm (whether icons were a form of idolatry.) It has been the location of many churches and visited by many saints. As a result, it is fitting that a relatively recent archaeological find near Iznik is the discovery of a submerged basilica which may be associated with the martyred saint Neophytus of Nicaea.
The underwater Byzantine Basilica. ( Kenyon College )
Discovering the Submerged Church
The church was discovered at the bottom of Lake Iznik while Turkish archaeologists were surveying the waters for any evidence of cultural heritage. Fishermen had already mentioned that they had seen “weird ruins” at the lake bottom. The surveyors searched the lake floor for artifacts and features until they found the foundations of a church. Since its discovery, it has caused quite a stir. Archaeologists from Uludag University in Bursa even have plans to create an underwater museum. This church has also caused excitement among Greek scholars since it is an example of Greek cultural heritage.
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The Importance of Nicaea for the Church
The city of Nicaea is said to have been founded by Bottiaean colonists who had been expelled from their homeland in Bottiaea by the Macedonians during the Archaic Period of Greek history (c.a. 800-500 BC). The city was destroyed at some point after the time of Alexander the Great and rebuilt around 315 BC by Antigonus I Monophthalmus (382-301 BC), one of his successors and founder of the Antigonid dynasty. By 280 BC, Nicaea was under the control of the kingdom of Bithynia and eventually became the capital city. This elevated the status of the Nicaea to a seat of royal power until it was annexed by the Romans in 72 BC. Even after the Roman occupation, however, it continued to be a prominent city.
Roman theater in Nicaea (Iznik). ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
In the late Roman and early Byzantine periods, the city of Nicaea became an important Christian center. In 325 AD, Emperor Constantine gathered 220 Bishops at the city to settle a major dispute over doctrine which had arisen in the Christian world at that time. The Council was a response to a bishop named Arius who said that Jesus was powerful but not equal to God and that he was simply another created being. The bishops at the council of Nicaea spent two months developing a clear way to express orthodox Christology - they did this through what is today known as the Nicene Creed.
The second major ecumenical council held in Nicaea, in 787 AD, was over an entirely different dispute, iconoclasm. During that time, several Byzantine emperors, particularly Emperor Leo III (717-741 AD), came to believe that veneration of icons was a form of idolatry. Icons are images of saints and other religious figures used to help a worshiper focus his or her attention on God. At the time, icons were believed to be more than just visual aids though and were considered to actually have a divine or spiritual presence of some sort to facilitate mystically communing with God.
Icon depicting the Emperor Constantine, accompanied by the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea (325), holding the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed. ( Public Domain )
Leo III was the first Christian emperor to order the destruction of all iconic images as idols. This was already being done in the Islamic world, where the reigning religious tradition had an even stronger aversion to graven images. Many bishops and monks, however, disagreed. This caused a major dispute as well as the imprisonment and banishment of many churchmen who dissented.
Most of this was done by Emperor Constantine V, Leo III’s successor who was even more zealous for iconoclasm. This caused a great deal of division and disagreement within the Church. After Constantine V died, his widow, Empress Irene, summoned all the bishops across Christendom to meet for another ecumenical council in the now ancient city of Nicaea. This was the seventh and last of the ecumenical councils. Among several decrees, the bishops agreed that icons were not idolatry and would be restored.
Seventh ecumenical council, Icon, 17th century, Novodevichy Convent, Moscow. ( Public Domain )
The Church of Saint Neophytus?
The discovery of the basilica also raises the question of which one it was. Scholars studying the site have suggested that the church might be the Church of Saint Neophytus built in the 4th or 5th century AD in honor of Neophytus of Nicaea who was martyred in the city.
According to tradition, Neophytus was born to devout Christian parents while Rome was still pagan and Christians were being persecuted throughout the Empire. Neophytus was rewarded for his virtue, piety, and constant prayers with miraculous powers. He is said to have brought water forth from a stone like Moses.
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St. Neophytus, Maximus the Confessor, & Agnes. ( Christopher Klitou )
One night, his mother prayed that God would reveal his will for Neophytus to her. After she prayed, a dove descended from Heaven and told her the boy’s destiny. After this, the dove led the young Neophytus to a cave on Mount Olympus where he encountered a lion which he had to slay. After leaving the cave, he went to the city of Nicaea where he condemned the impiety of the pagan religion. In response, angry pagans tied him to a tree, beat him with hot tongs, and scraped his body with large iron claws. When he still would not die, they killed him by running him through with a sword. This is said to have happened in 303 AD, ten years before Christianity was legalized under a religious freedom edict passed by Emperor Constantine in 313 AD.
More research needs to be done, but the Church of Saint Neophytus was probably built in the 4th or 5th century, during the last of the formative centuries of the Christian tradition. Even if it is not the Church of Saint Neophytus, it likely has an interesting story to tell which will add to the already rich Christian heritage of Nicaea.
Aerial photo of the church ruins. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: The submerged St. Neophytos Basilica, Nicaea, Turkey. Source: Public Domain
By Caleb Strom
“Basilica in Lake İznik to become underwater museum” by Dogan News Agency (2015). Hurriyet Daily News. Available at: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/basilica-in-lake-iznik-to-become-underwater-museum-.aspx?pageID=238&nID=80640&NewsCatID=375
“Martyr Neophytus of Nicaea.” Orthodox Church in North America. Available at: https://oca.org/saints/lives/2016/01/21/100250-martyr-neophytus-of-nicea
“325 The First Council of Nicea” by Bruce L. Shelley (N.D.). Christianity Today. Available at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-28/325-first-council-of-nicea.html
“The Second Council of Nicaea.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11045a.htm
“Iconoclasm.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07620a.htm
Maybe I missed something, but it would sure be nice to know how it is that a basilica comes to be submerged in a lake.