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.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/31/the-big-dig

For more on the Istanbul Archaeology Museum see here:

http://www.istanbularkeoloji.gov.tr/main_page

Nero’s Golden House

A house whose size and elegance these details should be sufficient to relate: Its courtyard was so large that a 120-foot colossal statue of the emperor himself stood there; it was so spacious that it had a mile-long triple portico; also there was a pool of water like a sea, that was surrounded by buildings which gave it the appearance of cities; and besides that, various rural tracts of land with vineyards, cornfields, pastures, and forests, teeming with every kind of animal both wild and domesticated. In other parts of the house, everything was covered in gold and adorned with jewels and mother-of-pearl; dining rooms with fretted ceilings whose ivory panels could be turned so that flowers or perfumes from pipes were sprinkled down from above; the main hall of the dining rooms was round, and it would turn constantly day and night like the Heavens; there were baths, flowing with seawater and with the sulfur springs of the Albula; when he dedicated this house, that had been completed in this manner, he approved of it only so much as to say that he could finally begin to live like a human being.  Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars

An intriguing piece appeared in this month’s “Archaeology Magazine” on Nero’s Domus Aurea or “Golden House” that has been undergoing a painstaking and extended renovation.  After the tyrant Nero’s death the Roman Senate had this sprawling city-within-the-city filled with earth and buried so that the dictator’s memory too would be submerged (but never forgotten).  Spanning the area between the Palatine and Esquiline hills in Rome (where the Colosseum stands today) – the scale of the structure and its contents are difficult to fathom.  On a side note, the Flavian Amphitheatre took its colloquial name, the Colosseum from the hundred foot tall statue of the “Colossus”  as the stature of Nero on the grounds of his Golden House was known.

The Domus Aurea stood for four years after completion before it was buried in 69CE following the Emperor’s death.  And it slept peacefully underground until the Renaissance when a boy fell through the roof into the halls below in the 15th century.  A generation of some of the great artists of the period including Raphael heard of the chance discovery and had themselves lowered by rope into the palace through holes drilled in the roof (contributing greatly to the subsequent damage that archeologists today are trying mightily to undo).  While its difficult to say how these glimpses of the ancient world influenced them one can begin to imagine as we look at the stunning Domus Aurea today.

I couldn’t help but think, as I read the article, that as these Renaissance pioneers were rediscovering an ancient world in the West that had been lo200px-Constantine_XI_Palaiologos_miniaturest for so many centuries, in Constantinople at that same
approximate time the very last Caesar, the Emperor Constantine XI (see contemporary image at right) was battling Mehmed the Conqueror to prevent the fall of Constantinople that would finally and forever extinguish what remained of the Roman Empire.  I am fascinated by this contrast, artists in the West re-learning, rediscovering their patrimony and in the East, a flickering light finally extinguished.  Incidentally, the Fall of the East that ensued when Mehmed breached the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople made the Renaissance possible, flooding Italy with scholars, artists and philosophers and the contents of the world’s greatest libraries from Constantinople that had kept the flame of ancient Greece, Rome and Persia alive while the rest of Europe had wallowed in centuries of darkness and comparative ignorance.

Here is a link to the article on the Domus Aurea in Archeology Magazine:

http://www.archaeology.org/issues/187-1509/features/3562-golden-house-of-an-emperor

And for those interested in learning a bit more about the Last Roman Emperor, Constantine XI, who will appear prominently in my next novel (now being researched), please see this fair summary in Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_XI_Palaiologos

Happy Anniversary – Justinian “the Great”

On August 1st 527, the old warrior and Roman Emperor, Justin I died in the Imperial capital of Constantinople.

Justin had risen to the throne in 518.  He had previously held the position of Commander of the Excubitors, the elite palace guard, and upon the death of the Emperor Anastasius, Justin was nominated to the purple with the considerable help of his brilliant young nephew, Pietrus Sabbatius.

As Justin’s health failed he named his nephew (now re-christened “Justinian” in honor of his uncle) as co-Emperor in April of 527.

And when Justin died on August 1st, Justinian became sole Emperor, a position that he would hold until his death in November of 565.

So began the Age of Justinian (though he also exerted tremendous influence behind the throne while his Uncle reigned) – a period which continues to impact the world that we live in today.

He would be the last Roman Emperor to speak Latin as his first language, and the last Caesar to rule over an Empire that included the city of Rome in its domains.  Justinian would count many other “lasts”, and many “firsts” amongst his accomplishments though for me what continues to resonate is that as Justinian ascends, the world stands on a razor’s edge, with the Ancient World on one side and the Dark Ages on the other.  Upon his death the passage to the Dark Ages was irrevocably made.