Kekova is known as Turkey's “Underwater City,” mainly because it's a city and it's underwater. But are those factors enough to suggest that the city is the ancient, submerged civilization? Throughout history, most historians have said, “No, that's stupid. You're a dumb person.” But that's only because the story of Atlantis was fictional. It was a cautionary tale about ignoring climate change, plate tectonics, and building-code standards.
The island of Kekova used to be part of an above-ground city named Simena.
However, thanks to some earthquakes in the 2nd Century CE, Simena was cleaved in twain. The earthquakes sank the low-lying parts of the city, leaving Simena on the mainland intact, and Kekova off the coast in ruins.
Today, Kekova Turkey (aka, Dolchiste/Dolikisthe) is a fairly large island about 124 miles from end to end. It's basically uninhabited, except for a few extremely territorial goats. There's not much on the island apart from wild thyme (aka, “kekik,” the island's namesake), rocks, and other remnants.
Those other remnants include a shipyard, the foundations of some public buildings, and a few houses occupied by goat squatters.
You can't drive to Turkey's underwater city.
Although most of these Roman-era remains are now submerged under the Mediterranean Sea, they're still visible from any tourist sea-craft you might rent for the day. As part of our tour, we were driven to a dock where our boat, the Mustafa Kaptan, waited.
We soon met the man who would be captaining our boat through the waters around Kekova Island, and the young woman who would be cooking our lunch (his daughter). Both were congenial and welcoming, encouraging us to sit on the shaded sundeck while they made final preparations.
Our 45-foot, double-decked tour boat was huge. With a full capacity of 35, it offered a changing cabin with bathroom and shower, it even had a kitchen.
While we waited for the other passengers to arrive, we relaxed on the sundeck, sipping our drinks. Abruptly, the boat rumbled as its engine turned over and we pulled away from the dock.
We were the entire boat's only two passengers.
Not since we lucked out with our trip to the Galapagos Islands, had we been on such tourist-free transport. As a result, our journey to the site of Turkey's Underwater City was exceptionally pleasant and panoramic.
The sea was calm in May, and the weather warm, but not yet hot. A soft breeze and our boat's semi-translucent awning tempered the dazzlingly bright Mediterranean sunshine. Our 50-spf sunscreen was barely up to the challenge.
It was under these ideal conditions that our captain calmly piloted the seacraft out and across the now-flooded divide between Simena and Kekova. And, at such a leisurely pace, we were never—at any time—in danger of spilling our drinks.
Kekova is known as “the paradise of the world” to Turkish copywriters.
Once across the divide, our captain hugged the coastline of Kekova Turkey so that we could see the flooded foundations of the former city submerged beneath the sea. The remnants of Ancient Simena (aka, Aperlae) were visible both above the water, and below it. I imagine the residents of these former homes had a dickens of a time getting their insurance company to pay for the damage.
Much like all the coastline around Antalya Province, Kekova's rocky hills collapse directly into the Mediterranean's turquoise water. There's no beach along the water's edge. The freakish clarity of the sea makes it easy to view the ancient half-submerged houses and buildings that—had they rebuilt—would today be pricey, waterfront properties.
Frankly, I was hoping to see even more ruins stretching between Kekova and Simena. But the sea gets deep and dark pretty quickly, so you'd need SCUBA certification to find any “Welcome to Atlantis” signs.
May is a great time to visit Kekova Turkey.
The month of May isn't Turkey's “high season” for tourism, that happens later in the year. The main advantage of going during this shoulder season is that the air and water temperatures are cooler and sub-hellish.
Summer is the high season in Turkey. That's when the water is warmer for swimming, but the air temperatures can reach 104-degrees. And that kind of heat melts the ice in your Daiquiri far too quickly for my liking.
During shoulder- and off-peak times, there are far fewer tourists in Turkey, too. This extra benefit was borne out as our captain looked for a quiet cove so we could eat lunch.
Perhaps the best moment of our entire trip to Kekova Turkey.
Our captain rolled up alongside a similarly sized craft and weighed anchor nearby. The other boat contained thirty or more hot and fit young men and women, crammed onto the deck like an over-sold yoga class. Meanwhile, the two of us—sitting on the same size boat, all to ourselves—just smiled and waved at them while we casually ate lunch. Their jealousy was delicious, almost better than our meal.
During high season, our captain told us, the peaceful cove we were anchored in was usually occupied by forty other boats. (Quick math: 40 boats times 35 people on each boat…that's 1400 noisy, drunk tourists cannon-balling and befouling the water with vomit and/or urine. No, thank you.)
Thankfully, we only had to deal with one ship full of Instagram “influencers.” A group of young female wanna-be model's stood on deck in bikinis posing for all manner of 'grams and stories while pretending not to regret dropping out of high school, and believing internet fame will last forever.
Calling the Mediterranean blue feels like an insult.
Photographs can't really convey the color saturation of the Mediterranean Sea. Words are even less effective, quickly reducing even the best writers to hackneyed clichés and superlatives. I have to think that living around this color water has to have an effect on the locals' attitude towards life—certainly, growing up near brown rivers and lakes made me doubt the existence of a loving god.
There's a magic to this body of water, whether you're in Turkey, Greece, Italy, or anywhere else around its coast. A vibrancy that makes everything seem better. So it's no wonder the region's ownership changed hands so many times throughout history. Spend a few days here and you'll want to invade the place, too.
We sailed to the castle-topped city across from Kekova Turkey.
After lunch, we raised anchor and sailed to the docks of Ancient Simena (now called, Kaleköy, meaning “Castle's Village” in Turkish). Upon docking there, we were given a good chunk of time to explore the city before our captain would, as he put it, “shove off, with or without Ye!” He then followed that by saying, “Hyarrr!”
Once on Kaleköy, we could choose from two tourist paths. Walking to the left would take us to the rock tombs along the coast. The massive sarcophagi with Lycian inscriptions there proved too heavy to move, so the Turks left them in place and called it a tourist attraction.
To the right, we could hike up through the city to the Byzantine castle at the top. We decided to walk to the tombs first, because we're lazy and it seemed the easier trek in the now hot sun.
“The tombs” are apparently only the one tomb.
As it turned out, the walk to the tombs was a real workout for our ankles because the violently uneven path of ancient limestone and clay bricks made remaining upright difficult, even sober. Luckily, the fading painted directional arrows kept us from stumbling headlong into people's homes and shops along the way.
At the end of the path, we searched the waters for the aforementioned tombs, even asking other tourists if they had seen anything. Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that there was only a single visible tomb (see photo), about 20′ off the coast in ankle-deep water.
A group of other tourists eventually massed at this observation point, and we collectively stared at the artfully carved block of limestone in wonder. Specifically, we wondered if that lone tomb was worth walking all that way for. Deciding that it wasn't, we headed back to the castle path.
Purple pirates of the Mediterranean.
The first castle was originally built atop Simena because of pirates (a popular career-path back then). Protecting this popular trading seaport from pesky pirate attacks was vital to the continued production of Tyrian dye.
A deep purple pigment, this dye was worth 20-times its weight in gold because divers had to fight 12,000 predatory sea snails just to get 1.4 grams of the snails' colorful mucous secretions.
Now a humble fishing village, Simena's need for a defensive castle seems more superfluous than anything else. Still, the castle was there, so we had to hike it—that's Tourist Law 101.
Storming the castle atop Ancient Simena.
The hike up wasn't as easy as we'd hoped, and not just because of the uneven, rock patchwork they called stairs.
No, it was difficult because every five meters or so, there was a local person selling homemade ice cream (aka, Maraş Dondurma). By the time you got to the top, you're so full of dairy you can hardly move.
Worse, after you just spent money propping up the local ice cream economy, they have the nerve to charge for admission to the castle! Ruefully, we coughed up our last 150TL and walked inside.
The castle isn't in great shape, frankly, but considering that it's over two thousand years old, we overlooked the crumbling walls, out-of-control weeds, and lack of high-speed wifi.
But what you see today are rocks and remnants from a Byzantine crusader castle erected by the Knights of Rhodes. The Knights were a medieval Catholic military order—the kind of fighting force Jesus himself would have amassed had he not been crucified in Jerusalem.
The castle's original stone stairs, likely pilfered over the years by locals to build the houses we had just walked through, were recently replaced by the government with temporary wooden ones.
We were grateful at first, until it became obvious that expedience and exposure had taken its toll on the stairs. Every step on those weathered and weakened steps was a game of “Will you or won't you get wood splinters in your groin?” Someone should really fix them. I mean, again.
The view of Kekova Turkey from the Simena castle was, in the end, pretty satisfying. There was even a rusted out cannon up there, like in every good ancient castle. We took a bunch of photos and then headed back down through la Crème Glacée gauntlet and re-boarded our sailing vessel to go home.
Should you visit Turkey's underwater city of Kekova?
Frankly, there's nothing much to do around Kekova, Turkey, but maybe that's its appeal. Like much of Antalya Province, it's an undeniably attractive area in which to do nothing much. I might even argue that it is the greatest place to do nothing much. Sorry, Mazatlan!
Certainly, seeing the sunken ruins of an ancient civilization was interesting, but not any more incredible than experiencing the perfection of Kekova Turkey's weather and water themselves.
It's almost like the whole “underwater city” gambit was just an excuse Turkey's Tourism Board used to get people to see water that's bluer and clearer than most private pools people have ever seen. It worked on us, and we've been to Bora Bora, Tahiti, Santorini, et al.
So, while I wasn't wowed by a sunken city that could've been Atlantis if you squinted hard enough, I was blown away by the breathtakingly teal waters the city sank into.