1,500-Year-Old Byzantine Port Discovered
Saturday, July 22, 2006; 11:01 PM
ISTANBUL, Turkey -- It seems a typical scene of urban decay: abandoned buildings, crumbling walls, trash and broken wine bottles.
Yet it's more than 1,500 years old. Engineers uncovered these ruins of an ancient Byzantine port during drilling for a huge underground rail tunnel.
Like Romans, Athenians and residents of other great historic cities, the people of Istanbul can hardly put a shovel in the ground without digging up something important.
But the ancient port uncovered last November in the Yenikapi neighborhood is of a different scale: It has grown into the largest archaeological dig in Istanbul's history, and the port's extent is only now being revealed.
Archaeologists call it the "Port of Theodosius," after the emperor of Rome and Byzantium who died in A.D. 395. They expect to gain insights into ancient commercial life in the city, once called Constantinople, that was the capital of the eastern Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
Dr. Cemal Pulak, of Texas A&M University and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in Turkey, said the engineers working on the tunnel project were surprised to stumble on the ruins. But he said archaeologists knew from ancient documents the port was somewhere around Yenikapi.
"This was the ancient harbor of Byzantium, the Theodosian harbor," Pulak said, pointing to the dusty site around him, which he said was probably an expansion of an earlier port known as Eleutherion.
So far, the 17 archaeologists, three architects and some 350 workers at the site have found what they think might be a church, a gated entrance to the city and eight sunken ships, which have Pulak particularly excited.
He believes the ships were wiped out all at once in a giant storm. He said the wooden boats, all apparently destroyed around 1000, make up a sort of "missing link" in the history of shipbuilding because of the fusion of old and new techniques in a single boat.
"When I came here and saw those ships, the lower part built by the ancient method, the upper part by the modern method, it was more or less the missing link," Pulak said.
The site is huge, about four city blocks long by two to three wide. Hundreds of workers dig with picks and shovels, dusting items off or rolling wheelbarrows up wooden planks.
Walking around, workers kick up pieces of ancient pottery and bones. Most of the items are ancient trash: broken pottery that sailors tossed from a ship or animal bones from a nearby slaughterhouse that were thrown into the harbor.