Protecting Turkey’s Byzantine Heritage

Last weekend we took a ride on the new Marmaray Metro. We dove deep underground near the market at Kadıköy (ancient Chalcedon), boarded a train and rode one stop to Ayrılık Çeşme at ground level where we transferred to another line, plunging immediately into the earth again. Passing under Üsküdar (formerly Scutari of Florence Nightingale fame) we entered the tube that would take us, in a brief six minutes, below the waters of the Bosporus to Sirkeci, once terminal of the legendary ‘Orient Express’. Our destination, however, was one stop further, Yenikapı (Newgate), in days gone by, site of Roman Constantinople’s main harbour of Theodosius Caesarius.
Sad to say, not much of this history is readily detectable by the casual observer today. There are Eastern Orthodox (and Armenian) churches in Kadıköy, but none survive from the days when Roman bishops held their Ecumenical Council there in 451 CE to codify tenets of the new state religion, Christianity. There is, I understand, a small museum dedicated to that legendary Imperial British Lady of the Lamp, but it is tucked away in one corner of a vast military barracks, and requires official permission to visit. There is certainly a cavernous excavation next to the modern station at Yenikapı where archeologists unearthed thirty-five sunken Roman galleys and other treasures, delaying completion of the Metro line by two or three years – and a purpose-built museum to house and display these relics and artifacts, so all is not hopelessly lost.
The Yenikapı Metro station is an impressive modern structure that will eventually be a major transport hub for Turkey’s largest city, providing connections to four rail lines as well as access to passenger and vehicular ferries crossing the Sea of Marmara and the mouth of the Bosporus to Asian Istanbul and other cities in Anatolia. The station’s interior is tiled with images representing the layers of history uncovered during excavations, dating back to 6,500 BCE.
Exiting the station, we crossed the street and set off towards Divan Yolu, once the Mese, the main shopping thoroughfare of Roman Constantinopolis. We didn’t have any particular destination in mind so we took a zigzag course through back streets to see what turned up. What we chanced upon was a brick edifice of antique design, sporting a minaret but clearly owing its architecture to an earlier period of history. It was built on a kind of raised terrace and accessible by a broad stairway. Beneath the stairs however, was an intriguing entrance that we decided to explore first. Inside was a very large circular space filled with small shops selling leather goods, jackets, bags and such. Of more interest, to me at least, were columns of obvious antiquity, topped by carved capitals.
Bodrum Mosque – Myrelaion Church
To cut a long story short, we visited the so-called Bodrum Mosque on the terrace above and questioned one or two locals, without learning much about the history of our discovery. A little research was necessary and I can now share with you the following.
Jan Kostenec, writing in the Encyclopedia of the Hellenic World identifies the circular building as a rotunda, built in the 5th century and reputedly the second largest in the Roman/Byzantine world after the Pantheon in Rome. Experts apparently argue about its original function. Possibly it was part of a palace for the royal princess Arcadia; or perhaps a market place with a secondary function as a place of execution, similar to the practice in present day Saudi Arabia. Much later the rotunda was converted to a cistern and used as the foundation for a palace built in the 9th century. Subsequently it was reinvented again as a nunnery when its owner Romanos Lekapenos became emperor in 920 BCE. A small church known as Myrelaionattached to the convent survives as the present day Bodrum Mosque whose architecture had first caught our attention. It is said to contain the remains of six members of the Lekapenos dynasty.
Well, it is undoubtedly a bathetic end for a 1,500 year-old Roman rotunda to find itself functioning as a not-very-up-market bazaar for bargain-hunting tourists. And very likely there are Eastern Orthodox Greeks, archeologists and historians of the ancient world who would be disappointed to see a 1,200 year-old Byzantine church serving as a place for Islamic worship. Especially since very few of the congregation would have any awareness of, or interest in the history of the building in which they pray. The Turkish Government and its citizens come in for a good deal of criticism for their careless neglect and even destruction of their archeological inheritance. I read a report published by the TASK Foundation (for the Protection of History, Archeology, Arts and Culture) in 2001 entitled ‘Archeological Destruction in Turkey’. The report was prepared by a group labeled collectively the TAY Project and aimed to document all the archeological settlements in Anatolia and Thrace – a monumental task but indisputably worthy.
The report lists 313 sites all over Turkey representing periods from Paleolithic to Medieval Roman/Byzantine and explains why and how they are under threat. The most common reasons given are uncontrolled housing development and road building, which are said to account for fifty percent of the destruction. Among other causes, one is ‘unconscious usage’, an example of which is the tilling of the old defensive ditch surrounding the walls of ancient Constantinople for market gardens.
Well, those TASK people are right, of course. The land area of modern Turkey has been home to more human civilisations and prehistoric settlements than probably anywhere else on the face of the earth. It is a paradise for archeologists and a priceless treasure house of antiquities holding keys to unlock many mysteries of humanity’s march to post-modernity. Still, the implication that destruction only began after the Ottoman conquest, and worsened under the Turkish Republic is maybe a little unfair.
Statue of the Tetrarchs –
note the prosthetic foot
Much of Imperial Constantinople was, in fact, already in ruins by the time Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror led his troops into the city in 1453. Our rotunda, for example, is believed to have been in a ruined state by the 8th century, before being rebuilt in its new palatial identity. The population of Constantinople had declined from an estimated one million to around fifty thousand by the mid-15th century and nothing remained of the once great Roman/Byzantine Empire beyond the mighty walls. Much of the destruction had in fact been wreaked by fellow Christians of the Fourth Crusade who sacked and pillaged the city in 1204 CE. An example of this is a porphyry sculpture known as the Tetrarchs, currently located in the façade of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The statue depicts four Roman emperors who ruled concurrently from 293 to 313 CE and originally adorned the Philadelphion, one of the main squares of Roman Constantinople. Archeologists working around our Bodrum Mosque in the 1960s unearthed part of the missing foot of the fourth emperor. You can see it in the Istanbul Archeology Museum – though the statue in Venice is probably a tad more impressive.
It should be remembered that by the time of the Fourth Crusade, Constantine’s capital was already more than eight hundred years old, at least four centuries older than Manhattan, New York, which itself has lost many of its heritage buildings, and is looking distinctly seedy in parts. It is only quite recently that we have started to become aware of the level of civilisation attained by Native Americans before they were largely wiped out after the arrival of Europeans.
Quite naturally the victorious Ottomans wanted to build symbols of their own power in their new capital, as we can see from the imperial mosques and other monumental structures dotted around older parts of the city. At the same time, however, those early sultans encouraged the return of Christian former citizens as well as the immigration of others such as Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Many churches continued to perform their original purpose. Undoubtedly some were converted to mosques, but it could be argued that this conversion preserved architecture and interior decoration that might otherwise have been destroyed. The marvellous mosaics and frescoes to be seen in St Sophia and Chorachurches (now museums) were not removed, but plastered over out of Islamic sensitivity to idolatry, and have been subsequently revealed by archeologists in all their glory. These beautiful works of Greco-Roman art date, however, from the 10th century or later, older ones having been removed by Orthodox Christian authorities themselves during the Iconoclastic period brought on by spiritual competition from the dynamic new Muslim religion.
Certainly much of the character of old Constantinople/Istanbul has been lost during the rapid urban development of the Republican period. Again, however, mitigating arguments can be made. At least Turkey’s industrial revolution with its accompanying rural to urban migration and rapid population growth has taken place in an age more inclined to the preservation of antiquities. How much remains of medieval London or Paris, for example? Further, the Republic’s new secular leaders ordered at least those two major Byzantine churches to be converted from mosques to museums, not ideal perhaps from an Orthodox Christian viewpoint, but arguably less offensive.
At the same time, however, as New Yorkers like Pete Hamill[1]will sadly tell you, no city can be preserved in a nostalgic time warp. The population of Istanbul has exploded from two million in 1970 to something like fifteen million today, with all that implies in terms of building construction, demands for water, power and telecommunications, roads, bridges, public transport, industrial development, retail outlets, sports facilities and entertainment centres. Town-planning authorities at national and local government level are caught in a constant tug-of-war between the demands of modern city-dwellers and the wishes of archeologists. 
Istanbul stands on possibly the world’s largest unexcavated archeological site. Clearly, however great your interest in history, you will find it hard to justify demolishing a large chunk of the modern city to gain access to what lies below. Construction of the Marmaray Metro may have buried irretrievably places of archeological importance – but without it much would have remained inaccessible and undiscovered.


[1] American journalist and writer of many books including ‘Downtown – My Manhattan’
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