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Snail City

Mar 1, 1997 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:10 AM


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In the third and fourth centuries B.C., around the time of Alexander the Great, the coast of Turkey was a strategic point for ships plying the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean. The remnants of Greek outposts from this time still dot the Turkish coastline. One of them, the ancient port of Aperlae, has always puzzled archeologists. Aperlae seemed an unlikely place for a town. It lacked a nearby source of freshwater, so the residents had to build 31 large cisterns to catch rainwater. Strong winds blow into the bay each morning, which must have made it difficult for ancient ships to get out of Aperlae’s harbor. Meanwhile on the opposite side of the peninsula, just two miles away, there was a perfectly good bay. The ancient Greeks and Romans were never stupid, says Robert Hohlfelder, an archeologist at the University of Colorado. There must have been a reason for the city’s existence.

Hohlfelder believes he now knows the reason. An important clue was supplied by an amateur archeologist and yachtsman who discovered several underwater structures just offshore while snorkeling in 1970. Hohlfelder has known about the brick tanks for some time but only recently received permission from the Turkish government to study them. These submerged tanks, says Hohlfelder, were used to breed murex snails, the source of an expensive dye called Tyrian purple, favored by Roman emperors and aristocracy in a tradition harking back to the Phoenicians.

Just outside the city, Hohlfelder found a large pile of murex shells--a snail-industry waste site. The earliest city walls show that Aperlae was probably founded by Greeks in the fourth century b.c., but it seems to have reached its height during the Roman period, from the first century b.c. to the sixth century A.D. The remarkably intact city includes well-fortified walls, dwellings, streets, and a large, early Christian church.

Aperlae declined with the fall of the Roman Empire. The church was apparently converted into a fortress as a last-ditch effort at protection. Aperlae’s history comes to an abrupt end in the mid-seventh century; pirate attacks and incursions by Persians probably finished the city off.

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