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24.8.08

Les Journaux: Port of Theodosius I

A few years ago, archeological authorities in Istanbul discovered the ancient port built by Theodosius I in the 4th century, a few hundred meters from the Marmara Sea at Yenikapi. It is still being excavated in the dig begun during the ill-fated construction of the Marmaray, the rail project to connect the European and Asian parts of Turkey by a tunnel under the Bosporus Strait. The latest news is that thirty-two ships have been discovered there and much more is likely to be uncovered, as described in an article by Laure Marchand (La flotte de Théodose Ier refait surface à Istanbul, August 6) in Le Figaro (my translation):

"This is the first time that research has taken place on an area this vast in Istanbul," explains Aksel Tibet, an archeologist and co-author of a report for Unesco on the impact of the Marmaray on historical sites. "We already have good written topographic sources, but the main city, capital of several empires, has always presented a very dense habitat: what we have now is a unique opportunity to verify what we know about the terrain."

In the holds [of the ships], the cargo has confirmed the paths of maritime mercantile routes followed at the time. The wheat was imported from Alexandria, because the Byzantine emperor distributed 100,000 loaves of bread daily to the needy. The ceramics came from Milet [in Anatolia] and from the Iberian peninsula. Oblong or long-end amphoras, to keep dried fish or vinegar... The presence of hundreds of vessels made with all the techniques used along the Mediterranean basin is the proof of prosperous commerce.
How did so many ships end up being preserved near the port like this, with their cargo intact? "A tsunami is one of the hypotheses," says Metin Gökçay, which would explain some of the damage to the remains. There were apparently violent earthquakes in the 6th, 9th, and 11th centuries, and the boats may have been encased rapidly in sand, explaining why the precious cargo was never recovered. Silt from the Lycos River, which dumps into the bay, eventually caused the port to be abandoned in the 12th century. Other discoveries in the area include a section of the Walls of Constantinople, built by Constantine, and a 12th-century church. Researchers have also dug down far enough to discover neolithic graves with skeletons. For now, the continuing excavation has almost completely halted the completion of the Marmaray Project, which is costing the Turkish government big bucks. See some pictures here.

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