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The Great Palace of Byzantium

Archaeologists in Turkey believe they could have unearthed some of the remains of the Great Palace of the Byzantine Empire which ruled much of the known world for nearly a thousand years from the heart of Constantinople.

The dig in the Sultan Ahmet area of Istanbul has so far unearthed labyrinthine passageways and chambers with exquisite vaulted ceilings patterned with swirling red tiles which have been lying underground choked with earth and debris for centuries. One of the chamber walls is covered with a fresco of fruit clusters and geometric patterns. The red and blue colours are still vivid. Alpay Pasinli, the director of Istanbul's Museum of Archaeology, remembers the moment when the fresco began to emerge.

'It was a Saturday evening at 5pm, and I was called by an expert who said they thought they had found a wall painting. I ran to the site. We had to wait for three days as a 10cm patch was uncovered, then another three days and so on, bit by bit. It took two months to uncover it.'

The excavations in the shadow of the brooding bulk of the Hagia Sophia, Christian Byzantium's most famous church, have been going on for just over a year, but the finds have only recently been made public. It all started when archaeologists began investigating the derelict former Ottoman prison site in front of the Hagia Sophia and close to the great gates of Topkapi Palace – the seat of Ottoman power after the seizure of Constantinople in 1453. Workmen began to scoop out the dirt at the bottom of two steps which disappeared below ground. Seventeen stone stairs were unearthed and excitement mounted when a. corridor, which turned out to be 100ft long, was found at the bottom leading into a network of corridors and passageways.

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