The Byzantine tombs are visible from the sea and even before I set foot on this lonely eastern Mediterranean island I feel the spirit of those who lived, prayed, and died on Karacaören Adasi. I have come to see one tomb in particular. It is not clear who is interred here but I have been told that inside this tomb are remnants of an ancient fresco, a depiction of St. Christopher under a starry sky.
I have rejoined my cutter Flying Fish in southeastern Turkey after the COVID-19 pandemic separated us in March. I quarantined in Key West. Once the initial wave of coronavirus receded in Florida I caught the first flight available from Miami to Istanbul. (Turkey is a non-EU country and at the time of this writing was still admitting U.S. citizens.) Little did I know that the virus in America would return like a tsunami. I isolate now aboard Flying Fish, my immediate future a sea of uncertainty. It is a good time to be among the saints.
Under the watchful eye of the imposing peak Babadağ (Big Papa), I am aware that I will tread on consecrated land when I go ashore at Karacaören Adasi. It is not forbidden but still I feel compelled to tread softly. There is no tourism on this tiny island. No beach, resorts, villas, or roads. There is not even a boat landing on Karacaören Adasi. It is an imposing fortress of rock shards rising steeply from the sea. I anchor my dinghy offshore of the island, put cameras into a waterproof bag, and swim to the rocks. There is no evidence of a living soul on the island but still I sense that I am being watched.
Ruins are visible on many islands in this area of the Turkish Mediterranean. Ancient civilizations existed along the Lycian coastline for millennia. One island nearby, Gemiler Adasi, is a popular destination for large Turkish gulets (tour boats) that bring hundreds of tourists daily to its ruins. Gemiler Adasi is also consecrated land with dozens of ecclesiastical ruins and over 50 Christian tombs. It is thought that Saint Nicholas (Father Christmas) was buried on Gemiler Adasi in the 4th century AD. If so, Saint Nicholas must now be rolling over in his grave. The gulets arrive each morning blasting Turkish hip-hop from speakers loud enough to wake the dead. The day trippers pour out of the gulets and onto the island leaving in their wake soda cans, cigarette butts, and dirty disposable diapers. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, children, brewers, and pawnbrokers. Saint Nicholas must also be a very forgiving soul.
I escape the noise of Gemiler Adasi and choose instead to explore uninhabited Karacaören Adasi. As I climb ashore I find a foothold in the 1,500-year-old steps cut into solid rock. The island is only a half-kilometer square but nearly every part of it contains evidence of a Byzantine civilization destroyed, presumably, by the earthquakes that frequent this part of the Mediterranean. In my periphery I catch a glimpse of something else. Something–or somebody–is moving among cedar trees and densely growing macchie shrubs.
On Karacaören Adasi I am thinking about the martyr St. Christopher. According to the legendary account of his life, Christopher was a Canaanite 5 cubits tall (7.5 feet) and said to be cursed with a fearsome face. The mythos of Christopher tells of one day when a child approached him and asked, because of Christopher’s great height, to be helped across a river. Christopher obliged. However, as they entered midstream, the river rose and the child’s weight increased. It was only with great effort that Christopher safely delivered the child to the other side. When he asked the child why he was so heavy, the child explained that, “He was the Christ and when Christopher carried Him, he also carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.” Afterward, Christopher traveled throughout Lycia proselytizing to those he met. This was unacceptable to Roman Emperor Decius, and in 251 AD he ordered the pious giant beheaded. Christopher was ultimately beatified and he became the patron saint of travelers.
The steps to the ruins of Karacaören Adasi lead to what archeologists have identified as a three-aisle basilica with a baptistery to one side. I walk amid the rubble, the ground littered with chunks of white marble, terra cotta, and mosaic. Round arches and domes that once brought light and warmth into this basilica still stand along the edges of the ruin but this house of worship is now open to the sky. Behind the basilica is a deep cistern cut into the ground. It is dry and bones are visible amid the debris at the bottom. Behind me I hear a quiet footstep, and then the displacement of small rocks.
There are two rounded crypts together just outside what may have been the sacristy of the basilica. The rock doors of the tombs have been breached and the burial trenches unearthed. The domed ceilings are still largely intact. Inside one of the crypts, above the grave of an unknown Lycian, is what remains of the centuries-old the fresco said to be the image of St. Christopher rendered under the stars a Mediterranean sky.
It is gratifying to see something this ancient, free of graffiti and garbage, and to think of the hands and souls that created the artwork so many years ago. This is pure unrestored history. I cannot clearly make out the image of what may or may not be St. Christopher but the red pigment depicting the flowing robes of this subject is clearly visible on the walls. Did the artist who painted this sit on the same stone that supports me now and admire the work? And who was privileged to be buried under this fresco? A high priest, a nobleman?
I am lost in quiet reverie until I hear–definitively–the sound of movement just outside of the tomb. I stand quickly and strike my head on the wedged-shaped voussoir stones that support the ceiling of the crypt. For a moment I see my own sepulcher stars… Then, outside, there is the sound of footsteps running away. I quickly emerge from the tomb. Who’s there? It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the bright Mediterranean light. And then I am face-to-face with my apparition. A white goat stands atop the ruins, smiling at me.
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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2020