Finding the New Rome
Voting for archaeology
Editor Simon Denison
Discovering the new Rome
British archaeologists have been involved in the first systematic survey of Constantimople, the former captial of the Eastern Roman Empire. Ken Dark and Ferudun Özgümüs report.When archaeologists discuss the end of the Roman Empire, they generally focus on the end of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century ad. But the Late Roman Empire was divided into two parts, East and West, each with its own capital and emperor. In the Eastern Roman Empire, or 'Byzantine' Empire, Imperial rule did not end in the 5th century, but only when the capital Constantinople - modern Istanbul - fell to the Ottomans in 1453.
While the archaeology of the western Roman world is much studied, the Byzantine Empire has received far less archaeological attention. Even the Byzantine capital, established as the 'New Rome', has been relatively neglected. However, Byzantine Constantinople was a city deserving of its illustrious comparison with Rome.
Written sources show that, from the 4th century onward, the city was embellished with all the trappings of imperial residence - palaces, statues, honorific columns and other impressive monuments. Public baths, theatres and a massive horse-racing track (hippodrome) provided entertainment for a vast urban population in a city packed with the luxurious homes of the Late Roman rich. Colonnaded streets and marble-built forums provided the framework for a thriving cosmopolitan trading centre, rich on the sea-borne trade that passed through the Bosphorus.
From the 4th century too, Christianity was the state religion of the Roman Empire, and many churches - most famously the 'Great Church' of Hagia Sophia - stood in the city. The Patriarch, the head of the official state Church of the Byzantine Empire (the 'Orthodox Church' as it is called today) was based in Constantinople, and some of the Empire's leading monasteries stood within the city's walls.
For the lands of the West such as Britain, Constantinople retained its status as the eastern Roman capital and at times contacts across Europe were maintained. In the 6th century, when the Byzantines attempted to reconquer the Western Empire, a brief period of direct Byzantine trade with Britain seems to have occurred. This brought goods, and probably traders, from Constantinople to places such as Tintagel in Cornwall, where archaeologists have discovered the largest quantity of 6th century Byzantine pottery found outside the Mediterranean. With the collapse of the attempted reconquest this link was severed, never to be resumed.
Written evidence tells us much about the history and overall topography of Constantinople in the Byzantine period. Yet, despite its prime importance for the history of Europe, the eastern Roman capital has received very little archaeological attention compared to almost any major Roman city. This lack of interest is surprising itself, given its potential significance, but it is shocking when accompanied by a rate of destruction of buried and standing archaeological remains at least as rapid as in London during the 1960s, which led to the rise of modern rescue archaeology in Britain.
Istanbul is one of the most rapidly developing, and largest, cities in Europe. Roads, housing, offices, car-parks, and, not least, amenities for the expanding tourist trade are constantly being constructed throughout the city's historic core. Standing (but previously unrecorded) Byzantine structures are destroyed or damaged without record, and archaeological deposits are daily dug away.
Turkish archaeologists make gallant efforts to excavate some of the sites being destroyed in the city centre, and the state, museum and city authorities do their best, but resources and personnel are much too scarce to permit their work to keep pace with the rate of destruction. 'Developer funding' seems out of the question and state-funded urban rescue archaeology is in its infancy. No 'rescue units' are on hand to record material prior to destruction.
Over recent years, rescue work within the city walls involving non-Turkish scholars has been small-scale. It has mostly been undertaken by Austrian, Italian, German, and American teams, largely in the course of restoration work on standing buildings. The last British/Turkish rescue project within the city was the excavation of the church of St Polyeuktos at Saraçhane (1964-69), co-directed by Martin Harrison, later Professor of Roman Archaeology at Oxford. Outside the city, Jim Crow and Richard Bayliss of Newcastle University have recently recorded the 'Long Walls' (the fortifications defending the western approach to the city) and aqueduct systems in Istanbul's European hinterland.
By the late 1990s, the need for a more systematic programme of rescue archaeology had become urgent. In 1997, one of us (Ken Dark) proposed a programme of site-watching and pre-destruction survey, aiming to make basic records of all material dating from before about 1500 which was either being destroyed or damaged, was at risk of damage, or was hitherto unrecorded. In 1998 the necessary permit was obtained from the Turkish Ministry of Culture, and work began.
The results from the first two seasons are spectacular. We have recorded about 200 pieces of Byzantine sculpture and architectural stonework, in addition to other standing structures, building foundations, underground cisterns, inscribed tombstones, carved stone sarcophagi and even traces of what might be a colonnaded street.
In 1998, work concentrated in the south-west of the Byzantine capital. The most unexpected discovery was the lower part of a famous 11th century Byzantine church and imperial burial place, St Mary Peribleptos. The church, one of the most important new imperial buildings of the whole Middle Byzantine period, was founded at vast expense by the emperor Romanus III (1028-34), who was buried there. The church was thought to have been destroyed in the 18th century, but has now been exposed as a result of building works. It will be preserved beneath a modern church compound.
The ruined 5th century church of St John Studius, arguably the Byzantine capital's most important monastery, still stands in this area. It seemed both relatively well-recorded and unthreatened when we visited the site in 1998 but a minor fire within the church had denuded a large scrub-covered mound in the north aisle, revealing that it was comprised almost entirely of previously unrecorded Byzantine architectural fragments and sculptures. When we arrived, these were under direct threat of removal, and were recorded immediately. They presumably derive from the church where they were found, and include what might well be fragments of its marble pulpit and other fittings.
Additional recording in and near the church has revealed new architectural and decorative details, and will permit a radical reassessment of this important complex, the earliest standing church building in Istanbul and a model for the whole of Orthodox monasticism.
In 1999, we looked at the north west of the walled city, the area of the Byzantine Blachernae palace. This, one of the two main imperial palaces in the city from the 5th century onward, eventually became the only court of the Byzantine emperors. So, it was - arguably - the last palace of the last Roman emperor. But Blachernae palace was archaeologically very poorly understood in 1999 and seemed an obvious 'target' for rescue work as the area was being rapidly developed. Several structures that may have been part of the palace were found, including a well-preserved (and still-roofed) apsidal brick-built room and a hypocausted structure, probably part of a 'Roman' bath-house.
The latter was probably within the imperial palace, and is best interpreted as the first Middle Byzantine (9th-12th century) baths and the first imperial bath-house to have been recorded in Istanbul. As such it provides a fascinating insight into the way in which 'Roman' customs and technology survived and were transformed during that period.
Near both structures were other pieces of sculptured stone from elaborate Byzantine buildings, and fragmentary architectural material and other structures were found across the whole of the likely area of the palace. This represents perhaps the most substantial body of new data relating to the palace for at least half a century.
Archaeologists who teach at university frequently tell students that archaeology in real life is not as spectacular and adventurous as it is portrayed in movies. It does not, we insist, involve exploring hidden underground chambers, finding beautiful marble sculptures and crawling through ancient but unexplored tunnels. Most of the time, of course, that is true.
Yet our Istanbul survey has not been without its adventurous moments. For example, among the material recorded at the modern church of St Demetrios Kananou was a small Byzantine burial chapel, complete with apse, what may be the setting for its altar and other internal features including an arched burial niche. This was entered by clambering into the dark beneath the slabbed floor of the modern church, torchlight striking the features of the long-neglected chapel.
Some Byzantine material has turned up in very peculiar places. A previously unrecorded stretch of the Byzantine city's sea-wall was found in the basement of a modern church called Surp Migirdiç. Elsewhere, we found the last vestiges of the Late Byzantine church at Toklu Dede Mescidi, believed to have been completely destroyed in the 1980s, beneath (and built into) the walls of a modern home.
Several sites that - although mentioned in texts - had previously given little archaeological indication of their antiquity, have produced an embarrassment of riches. This was certainly the case at Panaghia Tis Sudas, a Byzantine church positioned so close to the city land wall that its name means St Mary 'of the Moat'. There, although little had been reported by earlier scholars, we recorded Byzantine sculpture, an inscribed Byzantine tombstone, and several column shafts and capitals. More surprisingly, much of the modern church and adjacent holy well sit on underground cisterns that clearly pre-date them, and appear to be of Byzantine date.
In some cases standing structures, although in general well-preserved, have new material literally falling out of them, as is the case at the Golden Gate - the great ceremonial entrance of the city. There, a statue base was recorded in the newly exposed core of the wall where it had been re-used in the Byzantine period.
One of the major questions that this archaeological survey hopes to address is whether Byzantine Constantinople was, in essence, a Roman or a medieval city. The Byzantines never stopped thinking of themselves as Romans (romaioi), although their culture gradually changed from what we might regard as characteristically Roman to a distinctive 'Orthodox Christian' form after the 7th century. It appears that the city of Constantinople shared in this transformation, retaining almost all the hallmarks of Roman urban life through the 5th-7th centuries, but changing its character thereafter.
By 1200, the city was in many respects a different sort of place, with a different sort of architecture, to its earlier counterpart. In particular, although palaces, churches, forums and streets survived from the earlier city, few other Late Roman civic buildings remained in use for their original purposes. So it would be a mistake to imagine that Constantinople was an archaic, unchanging and isolated 'time-capsule' preserving Roman culture unaltered for centuries. Nevertheless, the city remained a very wealthy and - by the standards of its time - probably a very large capital of a state that considered itself the continuation of the Roman Empire. It was still, at least in some respects, a leading centre for Classical learning, right up to its looting by western Crusaders in 1204.
The city was again transformed by the short period of Crusader rule in the 13th century (see below), and although the Late Byzantine capital produced some outstanding works of art and architecture, when the city fell again to the Turks in 1453 it was probably mostly comprised of villages and monasteries set amid fields, with denser urban occupation only in a small part of the walled area.
As the project continues, we aim to extend the survey to other districts of the city, chosen largely on the basis of archaeological risk, conducting complete street-by-street searches of whole areas. Obviously, this work can only record a small sample of what was once there. Much of the archaeology of the Byzantine capital will probably be destroyed without trace. Nonetheless, if the present rate of discovery continues, the project will literally transform the archaeological landscape of what was, for centuries, one of the greatest cities of the world.
Rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire
Late Roman ways of life largely continued in the Byzantine Empire until the 7th century AD (the Early Byzantine period), and peace and prosperity prevailed in what was already the most Christianized part of the Roman world.
In the West the 5th century is often associated with collapse, but in the Byzantine East this was a period of increasing wealth, with large towns and long-distance trade flourishing. This 5th century 'economic boom' formed a prelude to the most remarkable phase of Byzantine history. In the first half of the 6th century Byzantine forces attempted to reconquer the Western Roman Empire, successfully restoring Roman rule in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and southern Spain by the 550s.
For a while it seemed that the Roman primacy in the West might be regained, but from the late 6th century onward, political, economic and military crises and a catastrophic plague brought about the end of this attempt at reconquest. The rise of Islam in the 7th century led to the loss of the Byzantine-controlled Holy Land and North Africa to the Arabs, and throughout the 7th century urban life and long-distance trade dramatically declined.
From the 9th century onward, during the Middle Byzantine period, town-life and long-range trade were gradually re-established and Byzantine art and culture reached what many see as its classic form. This period came to an end with the capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204. Most of the former Byzantine Empire then passed under western European (usually termed 'Latin') occupation, until the restoration of Byzantine rule to the capital and a small part of its former territories in 1261. A much-depleted version of the Empire, although one in which cultural life still flourished, survived until the final loss of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453. (KD)
Ken Dark is an archaeologist based at the University of Reading, specialising in the 1st millennium AD. Ferudun Özgümüs lectures on Byzantine archaeology at Istanbul University
The work in Istanbul was initially sponsored by the Late Antiquity Research Group. From 1999 the British Museum offered to sponsor and fund the project for five years; and last year support was also offered by the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005