Digging to Byzantium Turkish Tunnel Project Unearths an Ancient Harbor

Workers digging a railway tunnel under the Bosporus Strait have uncovered the remains of a major Byzantine harbor that archaeologists say is a trove of relics dating back to Roman Emperor Constantine the Great.

The tunnel, when it's finished, will end in a shining new railway station, the largest in Turkey -- a train and subway link surrounded by a 21st-century shopping center. Modern Turkish planners, though, weren't the first people in history to imagine the spot as a transport hub. The $4 billion tunnel project has uncovered a fourth-century harbor under the slums of Yenikapi, on the European side of Istanbul, and archaeologists excavating the area say it's a trove of relics dating back as far as Constantine the Great.

Chief archaeologist Metin Gokcay and his team have found preserved leather sandals, hairbrushes, candle holders, mosaics, massive anchors, eight ships and the remains of a pier and stone harbor jetties. "We've found lots of things that tell us about the daily life of the city in the fourth century," Gokcay told the BBC. "I've done many digs in Istanbul, but there are many things here I've never seen before."

The Roman emperor Constantine moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium in 330 AD and renamed the city Constantinople. (Later it became Istanbul.) It grew into the busiest trading center in the eastern Mediterranean. "The ships from here carried the wine in jars and amphorae from the Sea of Marmara," a nautical archaeology expert named Cemal Pulak told the London Guardian. "The cargoes of grain came in from Alexandria. This was the harbor that allowed the city to be."

This paradise for archaeologists has been hell for engineers who want to finish the tunnel by 2010. The modern vision is to ease boat, bridge, and street traffic in Istanbul, which has a population of 12 million, by linking the European and Asian sides of the city with a rail service that can move over a million passengers a day under the Bosporus Strait. The Marmaray tunnel will be the deepest underwater tunnel in the world, built to withstand earthquakes up to 9.0 on the Richter scale. So far the project has been on schedule. But the Yenikapi site will be its focal point, and the archaeologists can't say when they'll be finished.

"It's true I lose sleep over this," Marmaray Project Manager Haluk Ozmen told the BBC. For now, the excavation has only held up work at Yenikapi, but it might hold up the whole tunnel. "The dig is the only thing that can delay the Marmaray project. That's why we're working 24 hours a day to meet our deadline. Everything is in the hands of the archaeologists now."

Relic-excavation has already lasted four months too long, from the planners' point of view. But Ismail Karamut, director of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, isn't impressed by arguments about malls and bridge congestion. "This city is 2,800 years old and here we're digging right in the middle of a living city," he said. "It's not like excavating on a mountainside. The transport people can't start until we're finished. And maybe they'll have to change their project depending on what we find. We've told them we can't give them a deadline."


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