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Volume 49, Number 3May/June 1998

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The Last Port of Call

Written and photographed by Donald Frey

Bodrum's 15th-century crusader castle would seem an unlikely home for the world's foremost museum of underwater archeology. But for centuries—probably for millennia—the small Turkish town on the coastal corner where the Aegean and the Mediterranean Seas meet, known in classical times as Halicarnassus, had been a center of Turkey's once-thriving sponge-diving trade, home to a fleet of 20 boats that combed the seabed and scores of men who knew every meter of it.

The chance find of a Bronze Age shipwreck off Cape Gelidonya by Bodrum sponge diver Kemal Aras brought American archeologist George Bass and his team to Turkey in 1960, where, over the years, they largely invented the science of marine archeology. To date, Bass and his colleagues from the Institute of Nautical Archeology (INA), affiliated with Texas A&M University, have excavated eight shipwrecks from their base in Bodrum, all originally discovered by Turkish sponge divers—and every one, Bass points out, a time capsule. "None of these ships was bound for Bodrum," he says, "but for each one, Bodrum became the last port of call." Cargo, personal effects, and remnants of on-board life from these ships have shed new light on Mediterranean history and trade, filled the pages of scholarly journals, and now fill the castle's display halls.

In 1960 the castle was little more than a ruin within whose tumbling walls townspeople grazed their livestock, barely accessible by road from the mainland. But Bodrum, birthplace of the great Greek historian Herodotus, had not always been a sleepy town. In the fourth century BC, as Halicarnassus, it was a thriving city with a population of perhaps 20,000, capital of the Greek province of Caria, and well known for its large, sheltered harbor and its position astride important maritime trade routes. This was the era when King Mausolus built the city walls; after his death in 353 BC his widow, Artemisia, built a monumental tomb for him called the Mausoleum, which came to be considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. (See Aramco World, May/June 1980.) Later ruled from nearby Rhodes by the Persians, Bodrum resisted Alexander the Great, but was sacked by his forces in 334 BC and never fully recovered. In AD 645 it was taken in the great Arab invasion of Asia Minor, and vanished from history's pages.

More than six centuries later, the extinction of the last of the crusader principalities in the Middle East forced the military monastic order known as the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John of Jerusalem to retreat from the Holy Land to Rhodes, where they made their new headquarters. In order to maintain a foothold on the mainland of Asia Minor, the knights also built a castle at Smyrna, modern Izmir. But in 1402 Izmir fell to Tamerlane's armies. The defeated knights retreated southward and decided to make highly defensible Bodrum their stronghold. They built the formidable Castle of St. Peter there, which they occupied for more than a century, until the Ottoman sultan Süleyman the Magnificent conquered Rhodes in 1523. Bodrum and Rhodes became part of the Ottoman empire, the knights relocated to Malta, and over the years both Bodrum and its castle sank into obscurity.

As excavation of the Bronze Age ship at Cape Gelidonya progressed (See Aramco World, May/June 1993), George Bass needed a place to store the artifacts that had been recovered and preserved. The castle was unused, and journalist and diver Peter Throckmorton had already created a display, on the floor of its Italian Tower, of a selection of amphoras and broken pottery he had collected. At Bass's urging, the authorities in Ankara agreed to make the castle's refectory a display hall for the Gelidonya artifacts. With this small beginning, the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archeology came into being.

The years that followed saw Bass and his American-Turkish teams excavate Roman and Byzantine shipwrecks at Yassiada, followed by another Bronze Age wreck at Şeytan Deresi and the so-called Glass Wreck at Serçe Limam. (See Aramco World, July/August 1984.) Bass's teams never excavated without a government archeologist-commissioner on site who recorded the dig's daily activities to make sure that the best scientific practices were followed. Unlike the score of other binational investigations under way in Turkey in any given year, however, Bass's lay 27 to 55 meters (90-180') underwater! To monitor his sites, the commissioners appointed had to be divers as well as archeologists.

During three decades of surveys and excavation Bass worked with at least half a dozen different Turkish commissioners, but he remembers his impressions of Oğuz Alpözen, a young archeology student who joined his Byzantine shipwreck excavation in 1962 and, five years later, became his commissioner. Alpözen wanted to participate in every phase of the expedition, even the boring routine of filling the diving tanks. During the years that followed, Alpözen was Bass's commissioner half a dozen times, and a strong friendship evolved which only strengthened when Alpözen was appointed director of the Bodrum Museum in 1978.

Alpözen says that "Turkey owes a great deal to George Bass, because he is the one who took archeology underwater, and he did it in our country." Bass prefers to acknowledge that "there is probably no museum in Turkey where the foreign archeologists are given such freedom and encouragement to do their research. We owe a lot to Oğuz Alpözen and the Bodrum Museum staff."

During the next years Alpözen completely overhauled the Bodrum Museum, creating a number of new displays. In the Byzantine Chapel, he installed a full-scale replica of the stern third of the seventh-century Byzantine wreck excavated at Yassiada. Visitors can walk on its deck and look down into the ship's galley, then turn to specially lit glass cases to examine coins, weights, lamps and other everyday items from the wreck that make it a time capsule of seafaring life 13 centuries ago. Nearby, a 1:10-scale cutaway research model of the hull, which took INA ship reconstructor Richard Steffy more than 1500 hours to complete, reveals details of shipbuilding techniques of the time. An old "hard-hat" sponge diver's outfit was placed in a courtyard to honor Kemal Aras, the diver who found the Cape Gelidonya wreck. Then, one by one, the castle's English, French and German towers were restored, and in the English Tower Alpözen recreated a medieval banquet hall.

While the replica was abuilding, Alpözen created a unique exhibit of both Serce Limam glass and Roman glass from nearby dry-land excavations, displaying the vessels in a darkened room illuminated only by light coming up through their bases. In the same room, a huge aquarium became a diorama of the Yassiada site. For Alpözen it was important that museum visitors see what an underwater site and its excavation entailed. "My museum exhibits are designed for ordinary people," he says. "An Anatolian shepherd who doesn't know what archeology is, a tourist who doesn't know what the Bronze Age is—we must make it possible for each of them to understand and appreciate what he is seeing."

But, Alpözen says, "The crown jewel of my museum is the Glass Wreck exhibit." Housed in a special air-conditioned building constructed in 1985, the exhibit features the reconstructed AD 1025 hull, over 15 meters (50') long. Although less than 20 percent of the actual hull survived, INA reconstructors Sheila Matthews and Robin Piercy reassembled the timbers and then "ghosted in" a skeletal steel framework that dramatically recreates the ship's lines. Facing the bow of the ship, more than 70 Islamic glass vessels are on display, while in an adjacent room separate exhibits show every aspect of life on board, displaying kitchenware and storage vessels, the ship's cooking brazier, fishing tackle, a chess set, the bosun's tools, and a vast array of weapons to defend the ship and its cargo from pirates. Glass was not the only cargo on board, and in other cases glazed bowls, other pottery and traces of organic cargo are displayed.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Alpözen is already making plans for another "crown jewel": the exhibit of the Ulu Burun Bronze Age shipwreck. After 11 seasons, that excavation has been completed and Alpözen is already at work reassembling the cargo and artifacts in a giant diorama so that everyone, even an Anatolian shepherd, will understand and appreciate what shipwrecks and underwater archeology have to teach us.

Underwater archeologist Donald A. Frey is a vice-president of the INA and has taken part in all the Institute's excavations in Turkish waters. He has lived in Bodrum for more ihan 20 years.

This article appeared on pages 20-25 of the May/June 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1998 images.