An enigmatic sunken city

Divers know... Legends and rumors of sunken cities abound in Turkey. In the end you dive to the area in question and, if you're lucky, you see some ruins. This time the rumors proved to be correct. This was not legend but truth. We were confronted with a sunken settlement far beyond our wildest expectations, whose limits we have yet to plumb.

The legends in question are based on unknowns regarding the different cultures that flourished on these lands over the millennia. Our people also have a predilection for inventing their own stories rather than researching the facts. Rumors of a 'Sunken City' in Lake Hazar in the eastern province of Elazığ frankly struck us as rather doubtful. But when the governor's office asked us to make dives in the lake and brief them on our finds, we readily agreed. When we reached the lake on 3 June 2005 at the end of a 17-hour journey by minibus, state officials and State Radio and Television cameramen were waiting for us. In our wetsuits and accompanied by our hosts in dress suits, barely kept dry by umbrellas, we set out in a wooden boat for two small ruins sticking up out of the water.

The water was a murky green, and from the minute we started our dive we could no longer see each other. It was while were slipping through this green time tunnel that suddenly a large dark apparition loomed before us. When we got closer and took a look, we realized it was a brick wall of superb masonry. Feeling our way with our hands, we followed the wall, tracing zigzags and sometimes making ninety-degree turns. Later, chambers appeared that we could only enter through their windows since their lower levels were buried in the sand. All of them followed the line of the defense wall. There was no  end to the ruins. This was not legend but reality.
As soon as I returned to Istanbul, I applied to the Culture Ministry for permission to engage in underwater research in the region. It took several months to get the permit and complete the preparations, but we managed to set out for Elazığ a second time, together with Engin Aygün, before the cold weather set in. This time it was October and the lake again greeted us with rain. But so enigmatic and awesome was it with the steep mountains encircling its sparkling mirror-like waters that we had long since inured ourselves to any and all hardships in order to unravel its mysteries. Those mysteries were of course resolved one by one in the later studies we did on the sunken settlement after that first encounter. Initially launched at our own expense, those investigations were subsequently pursued with the backing of Elazığ province and the Rectorate of Istanbul Technical University.
Known as 'the Mediterranean of the East', Lake Hazar lies approximately 30 km southeast of Elazığ in the townships of Sivrice and Maden. The lake becomes deeper at its eastern end near the town of Gezin. According to the geologists on our team in 2006, the lake basin was originally smaller than it is today but later expanded on its shallower western side, where today's Sivrice is located, when its waters rose after it was cut off from the Tigris due to an earthquake.
Let us look now at the recent history. In 1957 a hydroelectric power plant went into operation on Lake Hazar, upon which the water level in the lake fell rapidly. When water was also siphoned off by the brick factories on its shores, the lake receded towards the center and the contour of the shoreline changed.
The small island indicated on maps as 'Kilise Adası', around which we did our research, is 2 km from the township of Sivrice on the southwest side of the lake. The island, which lies directly in front of the village of Sürek on the lake's southern shore, is thought to have been a peninsula in the past.
The ancient settlement appears in the historical sources as Dzovk. Saint-Martin in the book he wrote in 1819 states that this was an important religious center, the seat of the Gatoğigosluk or spiritual head of the Armenian church, in the late 11th/early 12th century. Kriko Pahlavuni III, the last Gatoğigos to live here, in 1150 purchased from the Crusaders the Rumkale at Halfeti, a settlement since the days of the Assyrians, because its strategic location and natural structure were conducive to the construction of a castle, and proceeded to transfer the Gatoğigosluk here. Accessible over the rocks, the church here continued to be visited until it fell to ruin. Submerged now, its thick defense walls are being rebuilt in an effort to preserve this important site.

Since our work season was quite limited, we made dives every day to a depth of 1,234 meters. Each one lasting an hour and a half to two hours, our dives began from the two towers that began to emerge about 250 m southwest of Kilise Adası when the water receded. These observation towers are located on either side of the main gate, which is underwater.
The defense wall unearthed in our investigations is 520 meters long, and the road connecting the complex to land 206 meters long.
The thickness of the wall varies between 1.1 and 2.2 meters. Although its height above the sand is 6 meters, all the structures are buried in about a meter and a half of mud-sand. There is a total of three towers and 14 chambers attached to the wall. The chambers, inside a vast 4 x 24 meter structure covered by a cradle vault, are two-story and were most likely cells where the holy men lived; some were used for storage.  Besides the main entrance there are three other entrances to the settlement.
The table amphorae with cloverleaf mouths that we encountered underwater constitute further evidence that this settlement dates to the Middle Ages. The green-glazed sgraffito and turquoise-glazed patterned plate fragments found on the island indicate that the area continued in use in the Seljuk period as well.
It should also be pointed out that one major factor in the survival of these historic artifacts is that they are underwater, insofar as the lake's alkaline waters formed a protective layer of limestone over the walls. The 2-meter-high upper portion of the observation towers that emerged when the waters receded is deteriorating rapidly today.
Arousing great interest in international academic circles and the media, this region is in the nature of a pilot project for underwater studies, a subject of importance now from the standpoint of preserving Turkey's cultural assets. The results obtained will ensure the collection of significant data for assessing cultural assets that may be submerged in the future, by the construction of dams in particular.
The sunken city is also going to be an important source of revenue for the local people from the standpoint of diving tourism. When the site is completely unearthed, it will be possible to open it up to guided dives.
Underwater work on Lake Hazar has ended because the Ministry of Culture was unable find anyone to represent them on the project. It is hoped that in the years ahead this Istanbul Technical University project can be resumed and that the rest of the region will also be combed and the finds made available for the benefit of the local people.
We are grateful to the office of the governor of Elazığ province, Mustafa Balaban, to the mayor of Sivrice, Hasan Karabulut, and to Ramazan Nazlıcan, Ali Ak and Ahmet Ayaz.