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Case study: the discovery of an old Byzantine harbour in Istanbul

The discovery of an old Byzantine harbour in Istanbul generated tensions between archaeologists and urban planners.

In this step, we are going to take a look at the exceptional archaeological discovery made during the construction of a gigantic railway project connecting the European and Asian shores of Istanbul.

This story reveals the tensions between archaeologists and urban planners. We will delve into their differentiated concerns and time horizons.

Author and journalist Dr Elif Batuman wrote a detailed report in The New Yorker (that you can find below this article in the ‘See Also’ section) on the discovery of the Byzantine port at the Yenikapı station. This article will help us understand the issues at stake for both archaeologists and urban planners

But before, what is the Marmaray project? It is a metropolitan-scale rail network inaugurated in 2013 extending all the way from Halkalı in the west, on the European shore of Istanbul, to Gebze in the east, on the Asian side of the city. When completed, it will cover a distance of more than 76 kilometres and reach a capacity of 1.5 million passengers per day. Such a transportation project has tremendous impacts on urban mobility and urban transformations. It can encourage people to choose public transport over car, thus reducing congestion on the roads. It can also greatly affect the neighbourhoods surrounding the train stations and raise real estate values. But the Marmaray is more than just a transportation project. It is also a political project, bearing the symbol of connecting Europe and Asia. The former mayor of Istanbul, who became Turkey’s political leader in 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, made it one of the projects that he hoped would testify to his accomplishments in realizing an idea that had been first evocated at the end of the Ottoman Empire, more than a century earlier.

While most of the new stations of this train were situated in parts of the city that were urbanised only during the 20th century, some of them had to be built within the historical part of the city. In spite of the urban planners’ endeavour to avoid encountering archaeological remains, the site progressively revealed major findings, which caused the project to be delayed for years:

“ … the real problem was the large number of Byzantine shipwrecks that began to surface soon after the excavation began, in 2004. Dating from the fifth to the eleventh century, the shipwrecks illustrated a previously murky chapter in the history of shipbuilding and were exceptionally well preserved, having apparently been buried in sand during a series of natural disasters. In accordance with Turkish law, control of the site shifted to the museum, and use of mechanical tools was suspended. From 2005 to 2013, workers with shovels and wheelbarrows extracted a total of thirty-seven shipwrecks. When the excavation reached what had been the bottom of the sea, the archaeologists announced that they could finally cede part of the site to the engineers, after one last survey of the seabed —just a formality, really, to make sure they hadn’t missed anything. That’s when they found the remains of a Neolithic dwelling, dating from around 6000 B.C. It was previously unknown that anyone had lived on the site of the old city before around 1300 B.C. The excavators, attempting to avoid traces of Istanbul’s human history, had ended up finding an extra five thousand years of it. It took five years to excavate the Neolithic layer, which yielded up graves, huts, cultivated farmland, wooden tools, and some two thousand human footprints, miraculously preserved in a layer of silt-covered mud.”

Elif Batuman “The Big Dig – Istanbul’s city planners have a problem: too much history”. The New Yorker, 31 August 2015

The scale of the contribution of these findings to historical knowledge did not prevent the rise of tensions. Major stakes were behind this railway project. First the major congestion issues in the large metropolis of Istanbul. Before the opening of the Marmaray, two million people were moving from and to the Asian and the European shores of Istanbul daily, over the two bridges and by ferries. Second, the then-prime minister of the country personally complained against the archaeological works that were delaying what he considered as his project and insisted for the inauguration of the project to take place on the 90th anniversary of the creation of the Republic of Turkey, on 29 October 2013. Dr Elif Batuman underlines the tensions between two time horizons: that of the daily commuters, who would be gaining time thanks to the Marmaray, and that of the archaeologists who would need decades to properly unveil the millenaries of history lying in the ground.

By reading the rest of the article through the link below, you will get a detailed account of the works of the archaeologists to safeguard the knowledge of a site that is bound to be dismantled and decipher historical information from the ships, bones, and countless objects that were found in the Yenikapi archaeological excavations.


In your opinion, how should we prioritize the archaeological works and the improvement of transportation system?

In a time of urgent need of better transport, can we afford to delay a project for years because of the presence of historical remains?

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Cultural Heritage and the City

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