Turkey’s historical heritage – Drop a spade into the ground

Gümüşlük, on the Bodrum peninsula of Turkey’s south Aegean Coast, is our getaway retreat of choice for the hot summer months. My morning routine is to cycle four or five kilometres to the village bakery to get simits for breakfast. In case you didn’t know, simits are one of the reasons people choose to live in Turkey – and one of the things Turks miss most when they are away from home. A simit is a bagel-shaped bread roll, whose crispy crust is coated with sesame seeds, the perfect accompaniment for a Turkish breakfast of feta cheese, honey, olives, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers.
Cycling as a post-modern lifestyle choice is still not a big thing in Turkey, and a guy of my age sweating and grunting around country roads is something of a curiosity. I used to greet the sentry at the gate of the local gendarmerie, and we would exchange a brief word of mutual appreciation for the demanding tasks we were undertaking . . . until this year. Now there is no sentry, and the white double-storey building that used to house him and his military colleagues stands empty.
The Bodrum peninsula is an Aegean paradise of white stucco houses, crimson bougainvillea, azure sea and never-ending sunshine . . . but there is, of course, a downside. Currently, our household water is trucked in and rationed out from a central reservoir at certain hours of the day. We, and most of our neighbours, have circumvented this inconvenience by installing our own tank with a pump that allows us the luxury of a 24/7 water supply. Now, however, in response to demand, the local council is working on a pipeline that will connect us to the town water supply system, and herein, in case I had left you wondering, can be found the reason for the disappearing gendarmes. But before I solve that mystery for you, I want to digress a little into the mists of prehistory.
Church in Gümüşlük
There is an exhibition currently showing at the Sabancı Museum in Istanbul, entitled, simply, ‘Across’ (Karşıdan Karşıya’ in Turkish). The exhibition contains artefacts from the civilisation that existed in the Cycladic Islands around 3000 BCE. These people, among the first to turn pottery on a wheel and smelt metal for tools and weapons, interacted and cross-fertilised with similar groups on the south Aegean coast of Anatolia, where lies our little village of Gümüşlük. Its geographical advantages have long been recognised, among them, a natural harbour with a circular bay almost enclosed by a narrow peninsula sheltering it from the prevailing winds. Today, tourists are given sketchy information about the ancient city of Myndos that grew around the shores of this bay. Indeed, the observant visitor will notice finely dressed black stones reused in modern buildings, fragments of marble columns lying in the fields, and door posts and architraves, clearly from an earlier time, garnishing the deconsecrated village church.
Like many ancient sites in Turkey, Myndos has yet to be excavated by archaeologists, and surprisingly little is known about its history. However, excavations of another kind are currently progressing, with the aim of laying the pipeline that will carry the town water supply I mentioned earlier. Apparently, workmen tunnelling beneath the gendarme base near Gümüşlük stumbled upon the remains of an ancient necropolis. Luckily for historians and archaeologists, there was at least one person in the construction crew capable of recognising the find for what it was, and the gendarmes have had to move their operations to an empty school building in the vicinity.
Who knows what will come to light once experts start to uncover the long-hidden secrets of Myndos? Ancient Greek writers attributed the origins of the city to the Leleges, generally assumed to have been the aboriginal inhabitants of Anatolia. When Alexander the Great arrived on the scene in 334 BCE, it was part of the kingdom of Caria, owing allegiance to the Persian Empire. The capital of this kingdom was Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum), famous for the wondrous funerary edifice erected by Queen Artemisia on the death of her brother (and husband) King Mausolus, from whose name we derive our word mausoleum. That was nearly two and a half millennia ago, and the site has been continuously inhabited since, passing from Hellenic hands, through classical Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman to modern times. The church I mentioned earlier, lost its primary purpose after the population exchanges following the Turkish War of Independence in the 1920s. These days it comes to life again in the summer months when it hosts well-attended concerts of classical music.
By now you have probably guessed the reason for the title of this piece. If you drop a spade into the ground pretty much anywhere in modern Turkey, you stand a good chance of unearthing astounding evidence of an earlier civilisation. I feel sorry for Turkish school kids for many reasons – but one in particular is the amount of history they have to learn. If you, like me, struggled with the Tudors and Stuarts, the causes and course of the Hundred Years War, or the incomprehensible entities historians refer to as the Holy Roman and Hapsburg Empires, spare a tear of sympathy for the Turkish child, required to come to grips with a mind-numbing assortment of sequential and overlapping societies and civilisations extending back to Palaeolithic times.
The Museum of Ancient Anatolian Civilisations in Ankara recognises the need for ten further sections after the Neolithic Age ended in Anatolia around 5500 BCE. The Çatalhöyük site near Konya is recognised as one of the earliest urban conglomerations. Then follow:
  • The Chalcolithic (copper/stone) Age (5500-3000 BCE), eg Alacahöyük.
  • The Early Bronze Age (3000-1950 BCE), dominated by the Hatti tribes.
  • Assyrian Trade Colonies (1950-1750 BCE), such as Kültepe which I mentioned in an earlier post.
  • Hittite Period (1750-1200 BCE), whose capital was Hattusa (modern Boğazköy).
  • Phrygian Period (1200-700 BC), which produced the legendary King Midas.
  • Late Hittite Period (1200-700 BC), whose best known site is Carcemish.
  • Urartian Period (1200-600 BCE), with sites in Eastern Anatolia, especially around Lake Van.
  • Lydian Period (1200-600BCE), with another famous king, Croesus (the rich one).
  • The Classical Period.

If that list is not enough to addle your brain, consider that the Carians and the Leleges are merely subsets, and the Classical Period, which lasted around a thousand years, encompasses all of Ancient Greek and Roman times. Then you have the Byzantines, generally considered to have had an Early, Middle and Late period in their own thousand-year history. Somewhere in that Late period, the Turks appeared on the scene and proceeded to establish two major empires, the Seljuks and the Ottomans, not to mention a confusing array of beyliks and fiefdoms.
In recent years, quite a number of spades have been dropped into the ground in Istanbul as a result of the Marmaray Project. ‘Marmaray’ is a massive rail transit project aimed at linking the European and Asian sides of the city via a submarine tube under the Bosporus Straits. Several huge underground stations on the opposite shores will feed passengers into a network of lines fanning out all over the metropolis. The project was originally scheduled for completion around 2008 – but current expectations are for the first stage to be opened in 2012. ‘Why?’ you may ask. Are Turks really that disorganised and inefficient? The fact is that construction work has been constantly interrupted by the need to allow teams of archaeologists into the excavations to sift through the latest stupendous find.
Just to put this business in some kind of context, I would like to share with you brief excerpts from two books I came across recently. The first is entitled ‘The World Beneath Istanbul’ by Ersin Kalkan.  It’s not awfully well written (at least the English version), and it’s rather anecdotal than scholarly. However, it does open a fascinating subject. In his introduction, the author quotes Dr Johannes Cramer, of Berlin Technical University’s Institute of Architecture: ‘Did you know,’ he asks rhetorically, ‘that the underground city of Istanbul is eight times bigger than that of Rome?’ I didn’t, and I don’t know how he arrived at that figure, but even allowing for some exaggeration and a generous margin for error, it’s food for thought, isn’t it! The second book is ‘Walking Through Byzantium’ by Jan Kostenec, If you can’t find the book, the website is definitely worth a peek. Here’s what Kostenec has to say in his introduction: ‘Unlike other ancient capitals, modern Istanbul has witnessed virtually no urban archaeology, and basic elements of the Byzantine city, such as the street system, public spaces, and housing, remain all but unknown.’
So, you can imagine hordes of drooling archaeologists lurking around the various Marmaray construction sites, trowels and wheelbarrows at the ready, waiting for the first glimpse of a marble fragment or a shard of pottery. As it turned out, the finds have been rather more spectacular, and provided sufficient material for an earlier exhibition at Sabancı Museum, entitled ‘8000 Years of a Capital.’ In fact, finds dating back to 6000 BCE have considerably extended the time frame in which the site of Istanbul is known to have been continuously inhabited. Discoveries from more recent times include remains of the original city wall built by Constantine the Great in 330 CE, and the main harbour of the city he founded, the 4th century Port of Theodosius. The most spectacular find to date has been an almost intact medieval Byzantine galley, complete with all its cargo of amphorae and other goods.
The Marmaray project, clearly, has provided a rare opportunity for archaeologists to delve beneath the surface of the modern city of Istanbul. At the same time, it provides an illustration of the tension between the existence of a living city, and of the layers of history that lie beneath it. There can be few places on earth where this pressure is as great as in Istanbul, where the history is as long, and the pace of metropolitan growth so rapid.
A lesser-known example is the 9th century Christian Satyros Monastery recently unearthed at Küçükyalı on the Asian side of the city. Küçükyalı is well within the urban sprawl of modern Istanbul, with its estimated population of 15 million – but perhaps twenty kilometres beyond the walls of medieval Constantinople. Needless to say, excavations have necessitated some disruption to the local community, including the removal of a section of asphalt road and a children’s playground, and have so far brought to light the large central monastery building and a water cistern with associated pipes and channels.
What we learn from this is that the archaeological riches of Turkey are not confined to contemporary population centres or sites mentioned in the visitors’ guides. Anywhere in the country, an unsuspecting spade may suddenly turn up a Bronze Age figurine, a Roman villa or a Greek theatre. In fact, for my last example, I want to take you to a small city in the western Black Sea region of Turkey. Zonguldak is a very new city by Turkish standards, having been founded in 1849 as the port for shipping coal from the mines of Ereğli. Nizamettin Oral, a 65 year-old farmer living in a nearby village, was excavating in his garden with the aim of building a greenhouse. What he found was the mosaic floor of a 3rd century Roman villa, which has led to two years of work by archaeologists from Ereğli Museum. More mosaics and frescos have been unearthed, and it has been suggested that the finds are part of a larger classical Roman settlement.
I haven’t been able to learn what has happened to Nizamettin Bey, his farm, and the progress on his greenhouse. I would guess that agricultural activities have pretty much ceased in the vicinity. I hope that he has been well compensated by the government as an incentive to other citizens who may stumble upon similar discoveries. Clearly, another message that comes out of all this is that preserving the past is an expensive business – and for a country like Turkey, with an embarrassment of historical riches and an economy struggling to join the developed world, the money is not always easy to find. Imagine the cost overrun of that Marmaray project and its four-year delay! The 16th century Süleymaniye Mosque, flagship achievement of Ottoman master architect Sinan, was recently renovated at a cost of nearly USD 15 million.
In London, I remember seeing a small section of the ancient city wall in a glassed-off area of the Barbican Centre. I understand that other similar sections can be seen elsewhere by determined explorers. In Istanbul I have actually walked around the walls of the ancient city of Constantinopolis. It’s relatively easy, in the sense that most of them are still standing – but difficult in another way. They are approximately twenty-two kilometres in circumference, and it took me three trips on separate days to complete the circuit. Restoration work is in progress. But at least they’re above ground, and you won’t need a spade to find them.

3 thoughts on “Turkey’s historical heritage – Drop a spade into the ground

  1. Beautifully written and makes me appreciate Gumusluk, Istanbul, and Turkey even more! PS: My cousin Zeynep, who is an architect, works for the marmaray project, making sketches of ancient locales discovered along with archeologists.

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