Ancient Rome vs. Istanbul’s New Subway

“Oh, some archaeological crockery turned up—oh, some finding turned up,” he told the press. “That’s how they put obstacles in our path. Are these things really more important than the human?”

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan on the archaeological dig in what once was Constantinople’s Eleutherion Harbor

Istanbul – Nova Roma – Constantinople – BYZANTIUM.

Few more fascinating places exist on the face of the planet, layered with history and culture, teeming with life, speeding into the future.

As part of that race, in 2004, Turkey revived Ottoman-era plans to build a tunnel beneath the Bosporus to accommodate a subway line (prior to the tunnel the only way to cross the Bosporus was via ferry or over one of two bridges).  Having lived in Istanbul, I can testify to the city’s remarkably bad traffic (which is getting worse – when I left in ’98 the city had 9 million residents, today that number is 14 million).

In an effort to avoid burrowing through the historic district of Sultanahmet for the subway (formerly the heart of both Greek-Byzantium and Roman-Constantinople), the tunnel’s designers chose the modern neighborhood of Yenikapi (that was built on reclaimed land that had once been water) for the subway’s principal European stop.

However that reclaimed land upon which Yenikapi was built was of particular significance to the city’s Roman era – it had once been known as Eleutherion Harbor (or the ‘Theodosian Harbor’), one of the Imperial city’s principal harbors during its early days as the capital of the Roman Empire and through Justinian’s era.  However, with time it silted over and was eventually abandoned in the city’s later Roman period.

Once Istanbul’s Big Dig began it quickly became clear that Yenikapi contained a Roman treasure trove including some of the best preserved Roman ships of war ever found (many from Justinian-era Rome including the featured image above) and a piece of Constantine’s original city wall.  Additional excavations unearthed previously unknown Neolithic settlements dating to 6000 BC (the earliest known settlements prior to this discovery dated to ~1,300 BC).

The superb Istanbul Archaeology Museum was brought in to monitor and control the dig, resulting in many of these exceptional finds being preserved for future study – a process that will take decades given the scale of the finds.  Having the Museum involved in the process (fortunately) resulted in an equally exceptional delay to the dig which was just completed in 2014 (raising hackles in the Turkish government as per lead quote above).

See an interesting article in the current New Yorker that does a good job of summarizing the Tunnel project, the associated politics and the stunning discoveries that resulted from it all.

For more on the Istanbul Archaeology Museum see here:

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