This article was written by Christine Ro and was first published in The Telegraph

Off the coast of the Turkish city of Antalya lies the small uninhabited island of Kekova. It’s a beautiful and tranquil place, with water a jewelled shade of blue. It’s also fragrant, as “Kekova” derives from the Turkish word for thyme.

A sunken ancient city

But the island is perhaps best known for its curious attraction: the remains of a sunken ancient city visible below the waves. These are the ruins of a trading post, Simena, destroyed by earthquakes in the second century.

The ruins of a trading post, Simena, which was destroyed by earthquakes in the second century CREDIT: TAHSIN CEYLAN

While it is possible boat or kayak around the area, and dive nearby, under-water exploration has been banned since 1986 as part of a series of measures to protect the lost city’s heritage, something the Turkish government takes seriously. It declared the region a Specially Protected Area in 1990, and in 2000 submitted Kekova to Unesco for consideration as a World Heritage Site. It currently sits on the organisation’s Tentative List.

Now, Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism is poised to overturn the ban after an application from Münir Karaloğlu, the mayor of Antalya, who told local press: “Our efforts to diversify tourism alternatives have begun to bring results and interest in diving tourism has increased. If permission is received from the ministries, diving tourism will be available with the help of guides and archaeologists in Kekova.”

Though the ruins are limited – it is not quite a fully submerged city, and much of the site has been removed over the years – the parts that remain include several houses, public buildings and a harbour. Especially evocative is a stone staircase leading out of the water, while the site as a visible reminder of the ancient Lycian civilisation is intriguing. Unesco describes Simena as “rarely seen”, adding that Kekova is a “remarkable example of cultural continuity”.

Can a hidden underwater city bring tourists back to Turkey?
The move could bring a wave of tourists to the island CREDIT: TAHSIN CEYLAN

If the diving restrictions are lifted, the spot would be ideal for novice divers; much of the sunken city is still high enough that it can be seen from the surface, and thus the diving is shallow. But Levent Işık of the Kekova Diving Centre says a lift on diving restrictions could transform the island.

Can a hidden underwater city bring tourists back to Turkey?
The sunken city is a five-minute boat from the village of Üçağız CREDIT: TAHSIN CEYLAN

“The potential for tourists to dive this site is of great interest to all who wish to find out more about our heritage,” he said. “The governor of Antalya and the governor of Demre are Scuba divers and protectors of the underwater world.”

“Once this ban has been lifted it will have a tremendous impact as many underwater archaeologists and universities will want to come and see more of the secrets that the 4000 year old civilisation had.”

The sunken city is a five-minute boat from the village of Üçağız, where the dive trips originate, which in turn can be reach from Kaş, a bus away from Antalya.

There’s been no word yet on the status of the application for controlled diving, which was only filed two weeks ago.

At a glance | Who were the Lycians?

The Lycians were an ancient civilisation dating back to at least the 14th century BCE. At various points they came under Greek, Persian and Roman rule. In the first millennium CE the Lycian civilisation dwindled away due to a combination of earthquakes, plague, and pirate raids. Traces of Lycian culture are found on the southwest coast of modern-day Turkey, including impressive rock-cut tombs.

The Lycians remain anthropologically interesting due to their unique death customs, their pioneering model of democratic federalism, and the possibility (though disputed) that at one point power was passed down through women rather than men.