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. Pinar Sevinclidir investigates.

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.

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