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Byzantine revelation: the building of Istanbul's new underground railway has uncovered thousands of years of history, including the first complete Byzantine naval craft ever found.

Archaeologist Metin Gokcay knocked on many doors in the small towns of Anatolia until he finally found the last known craftsman to carve hair combs exactly like the one he had dug out and dated back to the Byzantine era. The craftsman had stopped making the combs years ago but, to Gokcay's pleasure, could still display the skill and technical proficiency he had inherited from those who lived centuries ago. The wooden hair comb that prompted Gokcay's journey was found four years ago in Yenikapi, a run-down neighbourhood in Istanbul that is now the site of a major excavation. Hundreds of gold coins, amphorae for wine and oils and ivory cosmetic cases are among the treasures to have been uncovered. But it is the 33 Byzantine ships found preserved in the earth which have brought the site to the attention of the world.


It is the first time that this many shipwrecks have been unearthed within the same area since a discovery in Pisa in Italy in 1998. It is not just the number of ships that excites archaeologists but the links between the wrecks: within the 33 ships, dating from the sixth to the 12th centuries, there are brick transport vessels, round-hulled cargo boats, long and small lighters that offloaded from larger ships, as well as the first complete Byzantine naval craft found in modern times. Six of the ships were used for fishing and transporting goods around the Istanbul peninsula. The larger vessels range from 30 to 57 ft long and were used for longer expeditions. They travelled around the Mediterranean and Black Sea and mainly carried grain from Egypt. The biggest ship uncovered so far is 120 ft long and, according to an initial assessment, is around 1,400 years old.

The ancient port of Theodosius was uncovered in 2004 during work to build a 52 mile-long rail and underground metro network in Istanbul. The discovery wasn't entirely surprising to historians as there were references in written sources to a harbour around the area known as Portus Theodosius. However, the surprise concerned what was hidden under the soil.

The port was built in the fourth century by Theodosius I (AD 379-395), the last emperor to rule both the eastern and western spheres of the Roman Empire, before the latter dissolved. During the Byzantine era, the harbour became the trade hub of Constantinople, the capital of the empire. In the fifth century AD, the city was one of the largest in the world with a population of 300,000 and its port was one of the busiest. Luxury goods, such as silk and spices, travelled from China and India through Constantinople to western Europe. It was also one of the stops for believers of the great religions on their way to Jerusalem or to Mecca.

However, the main traffic of the port was ships carrying grain from Egypt, under Byzantine rule at the time and the bread basket of the empire. Once it reached Constantinople, the grain was stored in depots adjacent to the harbour, one of which was recently unearthed. The port was used until the Arab victory over Byzantium in the Battle of Yarmuk in AD 636 and the subsequent loss of Egypt. At the end of two quiet centuries, trade picked up again in the ninth century due to relations with the Slavic Rus tribes and the port continued to be active until the 15th century.

The variety of ships preserved together gives experts the chance to see developments in Byzantine maritime activity and shipbuilding throughout the centuries. The archaeologists' favourite find to date is a 1,200-year-old ship with a captain's kitchen, utensils and a basket of cherries, found together as they might have been when the ship was in use.

To explain the remarkable condition of the find, Gokcay puts forward a hypothesis suggesting how some of the ships might have sunk. He believes a sudden catastrophe such as a tsunami submerged the boats and immediately covered them with silt, thus preserving delicate objects such as the cherries. There are earthquakes recorded in this area in the sixth, ninth and 11th centuries but Gokcay says that the discovery is too recent to rush to conclusions and that it will take years to examine the evidence fully.

After a delay of five years, Istanbul commuters are longing for a new transport system to ease the daily grind. But the railway cannot be completed before the excavation is finished and Yenikapi reveals something new almost everyday, such as the four human skeletons found last year complete with their wooden and ceramic belongings. These date from 6,500-6,000 BC, which might mean the first settlement in Istanbul began 8,500 years ago, not 2,700 years ago as was previously thought.

Documenting the finds will also take many years and this will affect how and when they can be displayed. However, some of the first artefacts to be uncovered at the site are now on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. The ships are currently stored in chemical pools to keep the wood moist and are being studied to determine how they were constructed. A new museum will eventually be built for the ancient fleet of Byzantium, but it is not yet clear when and where.
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Title Annotation:FRONTLINE
Author:Sevinclidir, Pinar
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:7TURK
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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