LARG-News: Rescue Archaeology in Istanbul, Turkey 1998

Volume 6, issue 2 (winter 1998-1999)

Rescue Archaeology in Istanbul, Turkey 1998
by Ken Dark and Ferudun Özgümüs

A new rescue archaeology programme for the historic core of Istanbul began in July 1998, The project was initiated and directed by Dr Ken Dark, for the Late Antiquity Research Group, with Dr Ferudun Özgümüs, of Istanbul University, as co-director. The aim is to record (through systematic survey and ‘site-watching’) Byzantine and pre-Byzantine material which is either currently at risk of destruction or damage or which remains hitherto unrecorded – and so potentially at risk of loss or damage in future without academic awareness of its existence.

The 1998 season examined the southwest part of the Byzantine city of Constantinople: the modern districts of Yedikule and Koca Mustafa Pasa. This work resulted in a large number of new discoveries, some of which are summarised below. It also confirmed the extent of archaeological destruction in this part of the city, despite the efforts of the relevant authorities.

The Turkish castle at Yedikule was found to contain many previously unrecorded sculptured blocks from Roman and Byzantine structures, both within its courtyard and in its walls. Among these are slabs bearing chi-rho symbols, a frieze with animal ornament, what may be part of the chancel screen of an early Byzantine church, and Roman and early Byzantine column capitals.

Immediately outside the Golden Gate itself, a large mound of soil against the outer part of the inner city wall was found to have been removed in the course of treasure-hunting. These dubious activities exposed a ruinous Byzantine brick structure, which the 1998 survey recorded. This appears to have been a small rectangular room of which only two crumbling wall stubs survive. It is difficult to interpret such a fragmentary structure, but it may relate functionally to the Gate, perhaps as an outer guardhouse.

At Ali Fakih Pasa mosque, a Byzantine brick-lined cistern was found in situ, complete with its monolithic stone well-head. Adjacent to the mosque to the north, a length of Byzantine brick wall, standing over 2m. high in places, was exposed during recent building works. Inside the compound are several pieces of Byzantine architectural sculpture, including a very fine early Byzantine marble Corinthian capital. A Byzantine stone sarcophagus also lies, overgrown, in the same yard and further pieces of architectural stonework are incorporated in the modern walling. The site would seem to be that of a previously unidentified Byzantine building. Another in situ cistern, of very similar form, was found (adjacent to a Byzantine sarcophagus) in the car park immediately next to Sancaktar mosque.

On the very westernmost edge of the survey area is the Byzantine shrine of Zoodochos Pege. A detailed examination of the modern buildings produced the surprising discovery of a length of U-shaped ‘tunnel’ of Byzantine date. This is preserved in the modern stairway wall immediately adjacent to the holy well, and a similar narrow passage on the opposite side of the well. The function of these features is uncertain, but they appear to represent the last visible traces of a Byzantine building (presumably the church itself) incorporated into later structures. While not immediately at risk, recognition of their significance should assist their future preservation.

Immediately within the gate of Narli Kapi, behind the standing sea wall, Byzantine monolithic columns were lying adjacent to the modern road. By the roadside immediately across a narrow lane,- a column base was identified – perhaps in situ. Immediately outside Narli Kapi, at the church of Surp Migirdiç, a previously unrecognised fragment of the Byzantine sea wall (of characteristic build, but now merely an irregular lump of masonry) was found in the cellar wall of the church.

Many Roman and early Byzantine architectural fragments were also found built into the external wall of Davut Pasa mosque, and column elements (columns, bases, drums etc.) lie both inside the mosque courtyard, in its ruinous medrese immediately to the East (some which are already published, so not recorded in 1998), and in the surrounding lanes. The quantity and range of architectural fragments at this location might represent more than later re-use of such material. Similarly, at Hekimoglu Ali Pasa mosque, column elements were recorded in the compound of the mosque and in adjacent lanes. Of special interest is a row of columns in the compound of the mosque, which appears to be in situ and lies on the approximate postulated line of the Mese.

At the ruinous church of St. John Studius many important new discoveries were made during the 1998 survey. Although a well-known site, unrecorded sculptural fragments and column elements (including monolithic column fragments) lie scattered within the present ruin, where they are at risk of illegal removal – despite every effort by the authorities to protect them. During the 1998 season all unpublished material lying in the monument, and all Byzantine and earlier material built into surrounding structures, was recorded. These add up to a sizeable addition to the architectural fragments known from the church and its complex.

As the church structure is also at some risk from these illegal depredations, a record was compiled of the church and atrium walls. Due to the loss of recent plaster from sections of the wall surface and elsewhere, more of the structure is visible than until very recently, making a survey of this type very timely. This detailed inspection noted several ‘new’ features. Ornamental brick crosses were recorded in the church nave walls and – beneath peeling modern plaster – a Byzantine pendant cross symbol was found in the narthex. This was painted onto the Byzantine plaster close to the main west door, in red paint identical to that of the Byzantine false jointing.

During the course of structural recording, a piece of polychrome stone mosaic and a fragment of sculptured porphyry were found on the floor of the apse. ‘New’ Byzantine stonework was also recorded inside the church. This includes many pieces of architectural sculpture and column elements.

The north aisle of the church was, until recently, covered in scrub. A minor fire has revealed that a long mound in its centre is, in fact, not merely an earth and rubble accumulation, as might be assumed, but comprised wholly of Byzantine sculptured stone. This, too, was all recorded, adding a large number of new pieces to the corpus of sculptural and architectural stone known from this site.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery was the well-preserved standing substructure of the church of the monastery of St Mary Peribleptos. On a building site adjacent to the south of the present church at Sulu Manastir, the demolition of wooden houses revealed a substantial brick substructure standing over 6 m. high – with deep arched niches along its exterior. Further work confirmed that this was probably the substructure of the Peribleptos church itself, and added additional details of its architecture. A stump of a similar brick wall of Byzantine date abutting the substructure by the modern road fine to the east preserves traces of vaulting and might be part of a large vaulted room next to the church. It seems likely that it represents another major structure of the monastery, usually supposed destroyed in the eighteenth century.

Future work

If permission is granted it is hoped to build upon the 1998 survey by extending it in annual seasons to other districts of the city from 1999 onward. We hope that the readers of Gouden Hoorn/Golden Horn will give their support to the project, which clearly has the potential to add significantly to our knowledge of the Byzantine capital. In particular, this project urgently requires financial assistance (despite its low operating costs) and offers of this sort whether from individuals or organizations would be most welcome. Please email K.R.Dark[@] or write to: Ken Dark, Istanbul Archaeological Project, LARG, 324 Norbury Avenue London SW16 3RL. A longer interim report on the 1998 season is also available, at £5.00, from the same address.


The authors would especially like to thank the Ministry of Culture at Ankara for granting a permit for the 1998 season, and the Government Representative Mr Ali Önder for his continual support, encouragement and good humour throughout the survey. Dr Dark would also like to thank Ms A. Senyüz and Mr K. Ipek at the Turkish Embassy in London, and Mr H. Müftüoglu at the Turkish Consulate in London, for their kindness and assistance, particularly in obtaining research visas for Dr Dark and Ms Spears in time to conduct the survey.

Our thanks are also due to all those who actually conducted the 1998 survey under our direction- H. Çetinkaya, E. Karakaya, M. Özkahraman, J. Spears and A. Tirayaki. We would also like to thank the Late Antiquity Research Group in the UK for giving this project their academic backing and support. Likewise, our thanks are due to Istanbul Archaeological Museum, Hagia Sophia Museum, and the bodies that generously granted permission to visit their buildings. Last, but not least, we would also like to thank Professors M. Özgdogan and E. Özbayoglu of Istanbul University for their continuing – and invaluable – advice, support and enthusiasm.