HISTORY / istanbulogy / March 25, 2014

In Pursuit of History



We Istanbullites do not know much about the history of our home city. I am ashamed to say history is so much in the air that we are one of the spoilt kids of the Mediterranean. The excavations of the past decade in the historical peninsula have made us familiar with words like “Neolithic”. It sounds bland, I know. I’ve always had an infatuation for history except for the Neolithic but after taking an archaeology class this year, I have come to enjoy a greater breadth and depth in the history of the lands I belong to. Maybe the land does not belong to us, we belong to it? So for once and all, I decided to plunge into this fuss about Yenikapı. You know as non-academic people, we folks are supposed to get by only with press releases and half a dozen photos without a copyright infringement risk. So I have made a thorough non-technical reading on the excavations, visited the exhibition “Stories from the hidden harbor, shipwrecks of Yenikapı” displaying a small but an inspiring selection of finds at the Museum of Archaeology and hassled archaeologist friends to suck out what they know about the issue.












yenikapı4    yenikapı18




Here is the pill; here is what you need to know about Yenikapı.

What is this Marmaray project about? The Marmaray -Marmara rail- and metro projects were launched to solve the transportation problem of an ever-growing metropolis with a population of over 15 million. The projects took a start in 2004, and the line is partially active as of October 2013. When it is completely over, it will be the biggest subterranean rail line on the west and east axis connecting Asia and Europe while the metro line on the European side will ease the traffic on the north and south axis. How is this project related to Yenikapı excavations? Yenikapı, a district in the historical peninsula, is one of the stops on the rail line and as a result of the excavations, historical sites and artifacts dated as far back as 6,000 B.C. were revealed. Which is why the headlines were “Groundbreaking discoveries!”


Did we come across the historical remains during the construction of the rail and metro lines? No. Contrary to the popular belief, it was not discovered by chance; the Theodosian port was mentioned in the ancient texts & maps and that’s why the excavations started as a part of the projects. Its being planned within the scope of the project is actually quite an important step for archaeological studies in Turkey.


Is Yenikapı the only site where the excavations have been carried out? No. Üsküdar, Şehzadebaşı (Vezneciler) and Sirkeci are the other historical sites, where a great deal of materials that belong to Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic and Roman period as well as architectural remains of Ottoman and Byzantine eras have been discovered.


How come we keep on hearing about Yenikapı for a decade? The time period allocated for the excavations was at first 6 months but soon it became obvious that it was almost impossible to dig and remove the sites within such a short period of time, so it has turned into one of the biggest archaeological excavations in the world and the most extensive one so far in the city of Istanbul.


Is it really the biggest? How big is it? It covers 8,000 years of history within an area of 58,000 square meters. Imagine a place as big as a football stadium! Bear also in mind that this is only one of the four archaeological sites!


What about the depth? Between 3 meters above the sea level and 10 meters below the sea level.


When are the excavations to be finalized? The excavations in all sites are over. In May 2014, archaeologists will withdraw from Yenikapı site.


Who has been in charge of the excavations in these 4 sites? The archaeological excavations were initiated in 2004 under the leadership of the Istanbul Archaeological Museums upon the permission of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, General Directorate for Cultural Assets and Museums. The Archeology Museum’s support, supervision and provision of personnel was said to be of immense value.


Who contributed to the excavations? Cemal Pulak of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University shared his experience with the Turkish archaeologists without charging any fee. His thorough analysis and removal of one shipwreck that took almost 4 months to lift provided invaluable insight into the naval technology of Byzantine period. A team of 60 archaeologists together with a team of more than 300 experts in various disciplines were involved in the excavations. 17 disciplines include ship technology, nautical archaeology, Urban Archaeology, Geo-Archaeology, Osteoarchaeology, Archaeobotany, Art History, Veterinary Medicine, Maritime Trade, Philology, Forestry and Dendrochronology and so on. The removal, documentation, conservation, and reconstruction of the Yenikapı shipwrecks have been assigned between Istanbul University’s Conservation Department and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.


Which time periods do the remains unearthed belong to?

Ottoman period: Workshops and the street texture were uncovered. Ceramics, tiles and everyday items are among the finds.

Byzantine period: The remains of a church from 12-13th century were removed to be displayed either in the archaeopark or in the museum planned for the future. 35 shipwrecks dated 5-11th century were discovered. The lost harbor of the emperor Theodosius (379-395 AD) was uncovered. It was the largest port of its time built at the Lycos creek to cater the needs of an-ever-growing capital, Constantinople. Architectural remains exposed are 2 wharfs from 8-9th century, and traces of sea walls. A broad range of finds include coins, perfume bottles, amphorae, leather sandals, objects of faith, black glazed pottery, nautical artifacts such as stone, wooden and iron anchors.

Classical period: Among the few finds are figurines and ceramics.

Neolithic period: Neolithic settlement with simple stone foundations, human skeletons buried in embryo position and items used in burial rituals were unearthed. And the most amazing of all was the 8000-year old traces of Neolithic people of Istanbul. When I first saw the footprints at the exhibition, I thought they were modelled. I just could not believe they could be for real. Yet, they were!!!


Why was the Theodosian port an important one? Constantinople was a densely populated capital, whose needs had to be well taken care of; it had a fertile hinterland, which made it an important exporter of agricultural produce and raw materials. All these factors necessitated the construction of the Theodosian port that soon turned into a busy trade center. The trade routes in the East Mediterranean were drastically interrupted by the Arap raids in the 7-8th century, as a result of which the trade shifted to the north, thereby increasing the importance of Theodosian port. The shipwrecks and nautical artifacts reflect only one aspect of the trade going on in the area, which is the sea trade. By the 12th century, it had already lost its function due to alluvial silting carried by the creek.


Is the shipwreck collection big enough to open a maritime museum? Yes, with 37 shipwrecks of different types and functions, it is the world’s biggest collection of ships that belong to 5-11th century. A great deal of data provided insight into ancient ship building techniques, ship typology and development of ship building. A maritime museum for the ships ranging from galleys to seagoing and small, local vessels  is being planned for the future.


What is the explanation for 37 shipwrecks found at the harbour? It is hypothesized that natural causes such as the lodos, the southwest wind, of the Marmara sea sank at least 22 of the ships, some of which were found with their cargo. The rest is thought to have been abandoned as they were no longer fit to operate.


Is this the oldest Neolithic settlement in Istanbul? Yes, it is. Though Neolithic settlements of Pendik, Yarımburgaz, Fikirtepe are today within the borders of greater Istanbul, Yenikapı is the only one at the heart of ancient city in the historical peninsula.


What is this fuss about the Neolithic settlement?  Before the discovery of this Neolithic settlement, all evidence indicated 8th century B.C. as the start of the settlement in the city, which in a way confirmed the legend of Byzas, who came all the way from Megara and founded Byzantion here. So all along, we believed it to be an ancient city of 2,700 years. To our surprise, the settlement was dated to 6000 BC, which in turn pushed back the history of Istanbul by circa 5300 years. It is now a city of 8,000 years. Wow!


Do the findings in this settlement in any way contribute to the world’s history? Yes. In the Neolithic settlement of Istanbul, the deceased were found in embryo position. 10 years ago, before the excavations, it was assumed that burial did not take place in the Neolithic period. Now we know that 3 different types of burial rituals were practised.  1. Cremated remains (ashes and bones) were left wherever they were. 2. Cremated remains were stored in an urn, a ritual completely unknown in the Anatolian Neolithic settlements. 3. Burial in the ground. (inhumation) Also, wooden burial structures found were quite a surprise; the material is rare as its conservation is difficult.


Do the discoveries tell anything about the evolution of Marmara sea? Yes. The excavations and the research in the past 10 years have shed light on the geological changes in the Marmara sea and changed the date of the transformation it underwent. It was hypothesized that the Marmara sea was transformed from a lake into a sea around 8,500B.C. As far as the theory went, the tectonic changes and melting of the ice deepened the valley of the Bosphorus and raised the level of the sea, which in turn flooded the Marmara lake. However, the 10-year excavations discovered the Neolithic settlement right in the Marmara sea, far from the coast, which implies it was flooded later on. When the settlement was dated 5,800 B.C., the date of the transformation of Marmara sea changed as well. Wow!


What does the data collected mean to ordinary people like us? An enormous amount of data is saved. Only in Yenikapı 35.000 artifacts ranging from the Republican period to the Neolithic period 6000 BC have revealed an uninterrupted period of 8000 years. It will change our understanding of not only the history of Istanbul, but also Anatolia, Europe, Mesopotamia and the interaction between them. How to turn data into knowledge depends on the conditions, and opportunities of Turkey. It will definitely revolutionalize our knowledge of ship technology, maritime trade activities in the east Mediterranean, everyday life of Istanbullites & their belief system,  and the evolution of the Marmara sea. Yet, who knows how long it will take to process the data collected over a decade?


Animal skeletons including an elephant were found in the site. What is an elephant doing here? Research indicates that some were used for transportation while some were slaughtered to be eaten. The elephant was probably for the circus/shows.


What is next? Along with a museum project, there is an archaeopark project underway, which, I believe, in a sense reduces excavation sites into tourist attraction. It is such a shame that right after the metro opened, the municipality displayed a couple of items at the entrance of the Yenikapı station stating that it was these artifacts that postponed the opening of the metro system. Considering the attitude of the officials, one cannot help but think there is no consistent state policy as regards to what to do with this amount of data.


Any documentaries we could watch? Except for Turkish channels, many TV channels like National Geographic and Discovery Channel made documentaries on the process of discovery at the excavation sites.



Tags:  ancient port animals Archaeopark byzantine heritage Byzantium Cemal Pulak Constantinople documentary Emperor Theodosius excavation exhibition geology Istanbul Archaeological Museums Istanbul University lodos maritime museum Marmaray project museum naval technology Neolithic period ottoman heritage photo essays Roman heritage ships video Yenikapı

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Apr 02, 2014

Thank you very much for this great and informative article!

    Apr 04, 2014

    you are welcome:) i m glad you enjoyed it!!

Jun 14, 2014

soo good article, thanx u 🙂

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