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Ancient Byzantine Church Discovered Under Turkish Lake

St. Neophytos Basilica, Nicaea
St. Neophytos Basilica, Nicaea. Credtis: Arkeofili/Public Domain

The remains of a 1,500-year-old basilica constructed in honor of St. Neophytos have now emerged after water levels in Lake Iznik in the province of Bursa had dropped recently, the newspaper Daily Sabah reports.

The basilica in northwest Turkey, submerged underwater for centuries and believed to be dating back to the 4th or 5th century AD, was discovered after aerial photographs of the lake were taken, revealing the submerged ruins of the Byzantine church, only 20 meters from the banks of the lake.

Underwater discovery of the St. Neophytos Basilica

Archaeologists had discovered that there was a basilica submerged there as early as 2014; however, the decreasing water levels brought it very close to the surface recently after a drought affected the region.

The area, including the city of Nicaea, where the Nicene Creed was agreed upon in the First Ecumenical Council, served as an important religious and cultural center during the Byzantine and early Christian periods. Experts say that the basilica is an example of early Christian architecture.

It is estimated that the church was submerged into the lake during an earthquake in the year 740 AD. Several important artifacts have been found since excavations began in 2015 with the aim to exhibit the ruins of the basilica as part of an underwater museum.

According to another report on the website My Modern Met, a team led by Dr. Mustafa Sahin, the head of archeology at Bursa Uludag University, undertook underwater excavations to undertake research on the sunken church.

The basilica had actually been built upon an existing structure, which was a common practice at the time. Αdditionally, no evidence of mosaic or stone floors was found, with researchers presuming that the existing structure had an earthen or wooden floor. Several graves were found on site, with some containing skeletons of several young children and a middle-aged adult.

The church is believed to be dedicated to St. Neophytos, a martyred saint. It was built on the site of St. Neophytos’ grave, as it was common to construct churches atop the graves of martyrs and worshipers wanted their own graves to one day be close to that of a saint.

According to the report, Dr. Sahin believes that the building the basilica sits upon may have been a pagan temple dedicated to the ancient Greek god Apollo.

Neophytos Basilica, Nicaea
St. Neophytos Basilica, Nicaea. Credtis: Arkeofili/Public Domain

The story of the martyred St. Neophytos

Neophytos was born to Christian parents in the city of Nicea, Bithynia. His hagiography indicates that, as a child, a white dove miraculously appeared to his mother, and indicated the path that Neophyte would be best to follow.

Afterwards, he left his house and followed the bird which led him to a cave. The saint remained there between nine and fifteen years, and he left his hermitage only once to bury his parents and donate his goods to the poor.

During the persecution of Diocletian, around the year 310 AD, he went to Nicaea to denounce the impiety of the pagan faith. Enraged by this act, his pursuers whipped him with belts and tortured him with iron claws. The holy martyr emerged unscathed from a heated oven in which he was abandoned for three days and three nights.

His torturers, not knowing what to do, decided to sentence him to death. One of the pagans pierced him with his sword, and the saint died in devotion to the Lord of the Christian faith at the age of sixteen. The Roman martyrology says: At Nicaea in Bithynia, in modern Turkey, St. Neophytos, martyr.

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