The jagged rocks off Oshima Island break the surface of the ocean like so many knives strewn across the shallow water. Even on a calm day, they are a menacing reminder of the maze of reefs that surround this island in the Pacific just off the coast of Kushimoto, Wakayama Prefecture, in central Honshu.

It was into these treacherous waters that the Ottoman frigate Ertugrul was blown one stormy night 118 years ago. Thrown against the reefs, the ship split apart and sank, taking with it more than 500 men and leaving just 69 survivors, says Kiyoshi Oishi, director of the Turkish Museum on Oshima.

Ironically, the tragic shipwreck helped cement a friendly relationship between Turkey and Japan that has continued to this day.

“Ertugrul is the Titanic of Turkey,” says Tufan Turanli, 56, the director of a project to excavate some of the most important relics of the wreck still remaining on the seabed.

“It has so much importance [because] it was on a voyage just for the sake of friendship.”

In 1887, Japan’s Prince and Princess Komatsu visited Istanbul and presented the Ottoman sultan with the Order of the Chrysanthemum, Japan’s highest award. Three years later, the Ottoman government dispatched the Ertugrul on a reciprocal mission to bestow the Ottoman Medal of High Honor on Emperor Meiji. The ship arrived in Yokohama in June 1890, and its commander, Admiral Osman Pasha, presented the medal and other gifts to the Imperial family. For the rest of the summer, the ship and its crew remained in Japan.

Then, on Sept. 15, 1890, the ship set sail for Turkey from Yokohama. On board the 79-meter frigate were more than 600 sailors and officers. Some records indicate that they were warned it was the typhoon season, but they decided to head home anyway.

In the event, that day started out clear, but soon the weather turned and the Ertugrul found itself caught in a typhoon. Over the next day, it was battered by fierce winds, waves and rain.

By nightfall on Sept. 16, the Ertugrul had suffered so much damage that the sailors were unable to control it, and it drifted at the mercy of the storm toward the rocky coast of Wakayama Prefecture. At around midnight, the ship smashed to pieces against the reef off Oshima Island and sank.

Now Turanli and his team of Turkish, Spanish and Japanese divers are delving into the century-old history of the Ertugrul. This year marks the second year of the project, which began with an expedition to Oshima in 2007, and promises to continue again next year. The project is funded in part by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in Bodrum, Turkey.

“Our real goal is to bring back the memory of the sailors,” says Turanli.

Bringing what’s left of the Ertugrul to the surface isn’t easy, however. Underwater excavations like this one face some unique challenges, since everything from mapping and identifying objects to carefully removing them from the sea floor is done in a series of dives. In addition, long exposure to salt water often corrodes or otherwise damages the artifacts and makes them very fragile.

Berta Lledo, Turanli’s wife and the project’s head archaeologist, says that she first sketches important discoveries underwater to create a record in case they disintegrate when moved. Lledo, age 37, who studied archaeology in her native Spain, says she uses a regular lead pencil underwater and draws on a white board sanded to give it a rough surface. But since the water around Oshima is only 12-15 meters deep, the wave action is unusually strong on the seabed, and Lledo is often buffeted by the water while sketching.

“That is hard!” she notes with a laugh.

But there are positive tradeoffs. “It’s like a time capsule,” says Turanli, who has worked on underwater excavations, including those of Roman and Byzantine shipwrecks, for more than 30 years.

So far, the team has made some surprising discoveries. They’ve found bullets, pots, shards of China, and even human bones. The bones were particularly unexpected.

“The ship was split to pieces,” says Turanli. “I didn’t think there would be anybody remaining.”

But for Turanli, one of the most interesting discoveries has been a single button. “They say that just before the accident, the commander, Osman Pasha must have really felt it coming. A few hours before it happened he donned his full uniform, so that in a way he was ready for the end,” explains Turanli. “And so when I find the button, I say, could it be from that uniform? Whether it is or not doesn’t really matter, because it makes me think about it and remember it, and that is important.”

For Lledo, a glass specialist, the best find so far has been a small piece of glass that is curved at the top and framed in wood. “I think it’s from a small, hexagonal lamp,” she says. The fragment appears to have been burned; Lledo believes the ship may have caught fire just before sinking. “It was a beautiful little lamp, and now it is at the bottom of the sea,” she reflects.

Eventually, the artifacts will be displayed at Oshima’s Turkish Museum, which stands just 400 meters from the spot where the Ertugrul sank. The human remains recovered by the team will be buried on the island; tracing the descendents using DNA testing, Turanli says, is too difficult.

Although the current excavation has brought renewed attention to the Ertugrul, it has never been forgotten on Oshima Island, where a memorial stands next to a cemetery for the drowned sailors. A ceremony every five years commemorates the accident.

“Everyone on the island knows the story,” says Oishi, director of the Turkish Museum. On the night of the accident, some of the sailors were by luck washed up onto the shore of the island, according to Oishi. It was there that local fisherman found them and cared for them.

“In those days, this island was a very inaccessible place,” he notes. Oshima was connected to the mainland by bridge for the first time just nine years ago.

The people here pooled their food and cared for the injured until they could be taken to Kobe. All 69 of the rescued sailors eventually recovered.

However, the rescue isn’t a point of pride among the islanders, Oishi says. “Fishing is dangerous work. Today you may save someone, but tomorrow it might be you who’s being saved.”

Nevertheless, the wreck, the rescue and the ensuing return of the survivors to Turkey on Japanese ships laid the ground for more than a century of friendly diplomatic and economic relations.

“The Ertugrul played an important role in establishing a special emotional relationship between the people of Japan and Turkey,” says Bogac Ulker, an adviser to the Turkish embassy in Japan. Official diplomatic relations between the two countries began in 1924, following World War I and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.

These days, Japan exports about $4 billion-worth of goods (largely car parts and engines) to Turkey annually, and imports about a tenth of that amount from Turkey, with tuna the most important of those imports. As well, Japan — home to some 2,300 ethnic Turks — celebrated the Year of Turkey in 2003.

For Turanli, working on the Ertugrul excavation with a team that includes three Japanese, one Spanish, and five Turkish members is one way to keep this friendly relationship alive.

“One of my goals,” he says, “is to do this project in the same spirit of cooperation we’ve had for 118 years.

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