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Archaeologists Discover Ancient Roman Church of Nicea

Council of Nicea

Archaeologists have been looking around Turkey’s Lake Iznik for several years now, hoping to find artifacts of the civilization that used to inhabit this area. Thanks to a tip from aerial photographs, they now believe they have discovered the ruins of a church beneath the lake’s surface.

“When I first saw the images of the lake, I was quite surprised to see a church structure that clearly,” Mustafa Sahin told Live Science. “I was doing field surveys in Iznik [since 2006], and I hadn’t discovered such a magnificent structure like that.” Sahin is the head of archaeology at Bursa Uludağ University in Turkey.

Lake Iznik is located in the western tip of the country, about a two-hour drive from Istanbul. When the area was still under Roman rule, it was known as Nicea.

Did This Church Host the Council of Nicea?

The church archaeologists discovered is a Roman-style structure (basilica) and was built on the shore of the lake around A.D. 390, they believe. An earthquake destroyed the church in A.D. 740, causing the church to sink into the water. The ruins laid submerged and undiscovered for 1,600 years.

Sahin and his team from Iznik’s Archaeology Museum use special vacuum equipment to carry soil from the excavation site to the shore, which they then sift for artifacts. So far, the archaeologists have discovered human graves which contain coins dating from A.D. 364-392. The coins helped them determine the age of the ruins.

The city of Nicea itself is significant due to its role in shaping early Christianity. In A.D. 325, Roman Emperor Constantine called for church leaders to meet in Nicea and determine the core beliefs that would define Christianity. It was out of this and subsequent meetings that the church leaders produced the Nicean Creed. So while this church wasn’t built until after the Council of Nicea had convened, it is significant in that its very presence indicates a turn in Roman policy (under Constantine) from being intolerant of Christianity to actually aiding its spread. The church in Nicea would have been built shortly after the Council of Nicea met.

The excavation site is significant for another reason besides being an early Roman church. Archaeologists also have reason to believe the church was built on top of a pagan temple dedicated to the Greek and Roman god Apollo.

Sahin and Alinur Aktas, a local government leader, are requesting the site be established as the country’s first underwater archaeological museum. They are proposing a 60-foot-high tower that visitors can climb to see the ruins from above and a walkway over the lake. Sahin would also like to include a diving club, so interested visitors could explore the submerged ruins. He would also like to make a room of the basilica accessible by enclosing it in glass, so visitors can visit the room to pray.

This discovery is sandwiched between other recent discoveries related to the history of Christianity such as the home city of Peter, Andrew and Philip, the location of Cana, and a rural synagogue in Galilee, among others.