Restoration of Justinian’s Basilica Cistern

Exciting news emerged this week from the world of Archaeology pertaining Mosaic_of_Iustinianus_I_-_Basilica_San_Vitale_(Ravenna)to the Emperor Justinian the Great and one of the greatest Roman feats of engineering and architecture still standing (albeit underground).
Anyone who has ever visited Istanbul has surely visited the Basilica Cistern, known in Turkish as the “Yerebatan Sarnıcı”. Located across the street and 645x400-basilica-cistern-set-for-comprehensive-restoration-1483481203740 underground from the Hagia Sophia in the heart of what once was Constantinople – capital of the Roman Empire for one thousand years and before that it was the Greek colony of Byzantium – the Cistern is an architectural marvel completed by the Emperor Justinian the Great (though it was likely begun during the reign of his uncle, the Emperor Justin).
The cistern was built to hold water that might keep the city’s thirst quenched in the event of siege or drought – though it was one of many that littered the city it was far and away the most important. But to call it a reservoir is to do it a grave injustice. It is a work of grace and beauty, built underneath the city streets in the heart of Constantinople. To enter it is to enter a magical space, in some ways (to me at least) it feels as ethereal and transcendent as the grand basilica above. The roof that towers above is supported by 336 columns rising 30 plus feet into the air, reflected in the water that still partially fills the room. A number of those columns contain recycled elements, including 0x0-basilica-cistern-set-for-comprehensive-restoration-1483481201380masonry that the Romans recovered from the more ancient Greek city of Byzantium like the absolutely breathtaking Medusa heads that form the base of two columns (see picture to the right).
To walk into the Cistern is to step 2,000 years back in time to the last era of the Romans when they still possessed the technological expertise, capital, and desire to build truly monumental works. Imagine that this place (pictures below) was never built to be seen, to entertain visitors, to awe tourists – it was simply built to hold water! Could we build something so regal today even if we tried? Its hard to contemplate. One cannot look at such a thing and wonder about, and to be awed by, the civilization that was capable of creating it.
So, the news this week is that Turkey will embark upon an ambitious restoration of the Cistern (along with the Milion that rests above it – the mile-marker from which all distances in the Empire were measured since Old Rome was lost to the Goths). One cannot help but wish them well and hope that the restoration is done with tact.
For more on the restoration see here


BREAKING NEWS – TURKEY DEFEATS THE ROMANS (563 years ago – too late to celebrate?).

Talk about being desperate for good news! Over the weekend the autocratic regime of Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan (image at right) mounted a major celebration to mark the anniversary of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II’s (“The Conqueror”) victory over the final Roman Emperor, Constantine XI (“the Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine greet supporters during a rally marking the 563rd anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottomans 29 May 2016 EPAMarble Emperor”). A million people were expected to attend the celebrations and the President’s extravaganza would feature the army, navy (replete with submarines), etc. Just in case the nasty Romans pop up to ruin the festivities?

None can deny that when Mehmed finally pierced Constantinople (now Istanbul’s) Theodosian City Walls on April 6 1453, it marked a turning point in world history. The Turks had spent nearly 700 years trying (unsuccessfully) to take the city that had been the center of human civilization since it was founded by Constantine the Great in 330CE, and thanks to some of the largest cannon ever cast they finally succeeded.

A sad day for lovers of Roman history!

And evidently a very happy day for Erdogan. Nothing like kicking a dog when he’s down, especially when the dog (the Roman Empire) has been down for about six hundred years.

Yet another enduring testament to the power of Rome – still resonant, and relevant, six centuries after it finally disappeared from the face of the planet.

Some images from that fateful day, including one of the Marble Emperor, one of the famous canons, and one of Mehmed entering the city.

Constantinople_1453 220px-Dardanelles_Gun_Turkish_Bronze_15c 220px-Walls_of_Constantinople 220px-Fall-of-constantinople-22 200px-Constantine_XI_Palaiologos_miniature Zonaro_GatesofConst

Diocletian’s lost palace, discovered…

When you hear the word “Izmit”, what comes to mind?

How about capital of the Roman Empire?

Once known as the Roman city of Nicomedia, founded by refugees from the Greek city of Megara (whose compatriots also founded nearby Byzantium – Constantinople – Istanbul), Nicomedia, now Izmit, sits in modern Turkey on the Sea of Marmara.

DiocletianIn 286 CE, the Roman Emperor Diocletian (right) struggled to containwhat is known as the “Crisis of the Third Century”, when Rome came under ferocious attack along its northern and eastern frontiers. In response to these threats, Diocletian instituted a massive reform in Roman government. He split the power that resided in the office of Emperor into four, creating two senior Emperors, or Augustus (Diocletian and Maximian), and two junior Emperors, or Caesars (Galerius and Constantius, father of future Emperor Constantine the Great).

Diocletian assumed responsibility for the Roman East, establishing his capital at Nicomedia. It would remain the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire under Diocletian and subsequently, under Constantine the Great until Constantine moved the capital across the Bosporus to Byzantium in 330CE (though Constantine would eventually die in Nicomedia seven years later in 337).

Nicomedia, a city lost in time, or at least lost to Western minds, remains a thriving metropolis, now known as Izmit.

And under the streets of Izmit, the Roman city still lies, proof of which Izmit Marble surfaced during routine work to recover from a devastating earthquake in 1999. Builders who discovered the headless Hercules in 2001 (pictured below) treated the Roman remains as garbage for fear that their construction work would be stopped by local authorities. Fortunately, that is precisely what happened and the site is now Headless Hercules from Izmitunder protection from the local museum and a proper dig to excavate the unearthed remains of Nicomedia begin this month. Archaeologists now believe that that the headless Hercules once sat in Diocletian’s palace which
still rests meters below street level, waiting to be uncovered.

Izmit Palace

Remarkable stuff, and as surprising as the discovery may be to us, to many local residents it is just as novel. As one of the lead archaeologists on the soon to begin dig stated: “[M]any people living here are unaware that they have been living on a huge palace for centuries,”

For more see the Turkish paper Hurriyet.

Roman Gardens in Istanbul, Under Siege

Amateur gardeners (myself included), eat your heart out…

On the fringes of Istanbul’s Theodosian walls, in the neighborhood of Yedikule, the residents of Byzantium / Constantinople / Istanbul have been cultivating gardens on the same plots of lands for nearly 2000 years, since before the city walls were built by the Roman Emperor Theodosius II (408-450CE) – a restored section of the Wall near in Yedikule is pictured below.



The first gardeners were likely the Greek Byzantines, then the Romans, then the Ottomans / Turks and most recently, migrants from Turkey’s Black Sea region and most recently, Syrian and Afghan refugees. Throughout the gardens’ 2000 years history many of the same crops have been grown as the gardeners themselves have changed including cabbage, beets, carrots, onions, turnips among other crops.

Sadly, these ancient gardens, or ‘bostan’ as they are known in Turkish are under threat from the swelling population of the city (now topping 16 million from the 9 million residents when I lived here in the late 90’s). Underutilized land across the city is being consumed by sprawl, and many of these ancient gardens / ‘bostan’ have already succumbed.  Below is a picture of one patch of Yedikule’s bostan.


Yet a growinYedikule Gardensg movement in Istanbul recognizes the cultural and environmental value of these remarkable gardens and are fighting to preserve them.

See this article in Yale University’s “Environment 360” newsletter for more on this fascinating issue.


Roman Grave Discovered in Istanbul Shopping District

I love when a little piece of ancient Rome pops up unexpectedly in modern Istanbul reminding everyone of the city’s prior and longest tenured residents – the Romans!

The skeletons were found beneath the “Casa Garibaldi”, also known as “Societa Operaia Italiana di Mutuo Soccorso in Costantinopoli,” built in 1863 and located close to Taksim Square in a part of Istanbul closely associated with the city’s Ottoman past.  Taksim Square lies across the Golden Horn from Sultanahmet – the historical center of the Roman and Greek city.

What were the Romans doing in this fashionable Ottoman district?Beyoglu, the neighborhood where the Casa Garibaldi is located was once in fact a Roman suburb of Constantinople.  It’s not known precisely when these Romans were buried, or why, or what precisely had been located on this spot in Justinian’s day and perhaps we will never know.  But I am heartened by the fact that more attention is being given to these types of discoveries in Istanbul despite the clear opposition of the Turkish state to archaeological studies of the city’s Roman past.  A recently founded department of Byzantine (Roman) Studies at Istanbul’s Bosporus (Bogazici) University is a reflection of this movement.

Orthodox Christian monks from the monastery at Mount Athos were invited to bless the skeletons before they were moved to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

For more on this discovery, see the article in Hurriyet.