Known in English as St Nicholas Island, Gemiler lies along the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, south from Fethiye and west of the sandy beach at Ölüdeniz. Separated from the mainland by a narrow sea channel, it is a tiny speck of an islet, just 400 meters (1,312 feet) wide and 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) long but is renowned for its wealth of Byzantine ruins, which date back more than 1,500 years.
Gemiler Island was once one of Christendom’s most popular pilgrimage points with devotees heading for Jerusalem in the Middle Ages. They came to honor the tomb of St Nicholas – the original Father Christmas, who was Bishop of Myra on the Turkish coast opposite – even though his remains were moved to the mainland in 650 AD. Also around this time, the little Byzantine settlement on Gemiler came under threat from pirates and was abandoned as the residents moved to the mainland for protection.
Today a chaotic jumble of ruins covers much of the island, comprising the scattered remains of four churches, evidence of Byzantine houses, a port, waterways, tombs and graveyards. Stores once stood along the shoreline, where traders would sell olive oil and grain to passing ships. The fragments of St Nicholas’s tomb that still stand today reveal faint vestiges of frescoes depicting scenes from his life; these are open to the elements and are slowly deteriorating in the sun.
Gemiler has plenty of rocky bays providing safe mooring for yachts and provides excellent snorkeling along its coastline; tumbledown ruins can occasionally be spotted just below the surface of the sea.