Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.07.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.07.16

Ken Dark, Ferudun Özgümüş​, Constantinople: Archaeology of a Byzantine Megapolis. Final Report on the Istanbul Rescue Archaeology Project 1998-2004.   Oxford; Oakville, CT:  Oxbow Books, 2013.  Pp. xv, 181.  ISBN 9781782971719.  $99.95.  

Reviewed by Paul Magdalino, Koç University​ (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This book is in essence described by its subtitle: it is the final report on a rescue survey of Byzantine remains in the western areas of the historic peninsula of Istanbul. It is impossible to go far off the beaten tourist track in old Istanbul without eventually coming across stray pieces of Byzantine stonework or bulldozed buildings that reveal the stumps of Byzantine brick structures. It is difficult for anyone with any attachment to Byzantium not feel the urge to become an archaeological vigilante, ever watchful for the next bulldozed site. In the mid 1990s, Ken Dark set himself the admirable task of prospecting all the previously unknown Byzantine surface remains that were either becoming exposed by construction work, or reported hidden behind the facades of twentieth-century buildings. He enlisted the help of a local art historian, Ferudun Özgümüş. This book is the fruit of their collaboration from 1998 to 2004, though much of it was anticipated in previous publications, and the collaboration generated independent surveys by Dr Özgümüş whose results are only partially summarised here. Dr. Dark claims entire responsibility for the text and the views expressed therein.

Chapter 1 rapidly surveys the physical geography of the Byzantine city, and chronicles in some detail its archaeological investigation up to 2012. Chapter 2 sets out the history, organisation and methods of the reported project. It explains the constraints that led to the choice of study area—the space between the Theodosian Land Walls and the Atatürk Boulevard—and the obstacles in the way of the systematic identification and recording of reported remains. Chapter 3, ‘The Southern Part of the Study Area’, catalogues the finds of worked stone and Byzantine brick substructures in the area between the Adnan Menderes Boulevard (formerly Vatan Caddesi) and the Marmara coast as far east as the Yenikapı excavation site; this is briefly discussed, but most of the material in the chapter comes from the western part of the area. By contrast, the coverage of Chapter 4, ‘The Northern Part of the Study Area’, is more evenly spread between the area within the (hypothetical) line of the first, Constantinian wall, and the area enclosed by this and the Theodosian Wall. To the east of the former, it includes some major, previously undocumented structures in the area of the Column of Marcian, as well as minor finds in the vicinity of well-known Byzantine monuments (the Lips and Pantokrator monasteries). West of the former Constantinian wall, the sites investigated were at the Mihrimah Camii, around the Chora monastery (Kariye Museum), and near the cistern of Aetius, where the material is discussed in connection with the search for the site of the Petra monastery. Chapter 5 is devoted to the site of the Blachernae Palace in the modern neighbourhood of Ayvansaray. Chapter 6, ‘The Church of the Holy Apostles’, is devoted mainly to arguing that the strips of limestone wall beneath the present structure of the Fatih Camii belong to the Byzantine church that was demolished to make way for the mosque in the fifteenth century. Chapter 7, the conclusion, bears the title of the book as a whole, and “addresses some of the wider implications of the data from this project for understanding Byzantine Constantinople”(p.97). There are three Appendices: 1, ‘The first phase of construction at Fatih Camii’; 2, ‘The church of Zoodochos Pege’; 3, ‘The 2000 “Fener-Ayakapı – Cibali – Unkapanı” Survey (summary of one of the independent surveys conducted by Ferudun Özgümüş). There follow a ‘Catalogue of Material of Roman or Byzantine Data Recorded in the Study Area during the Project’s Work in 1998-1999 and 2001-2004’, a series of 14 area maps (drawn by Nigel Westbrook), a 25-page bibliography, and an index. The text is illustrated throughout by 104 black and white photographs and plans (including the area maps) and there are 41 colour plates between chapters 6 and 7.

At the outset, the book makes an ambitious mission statement. “The analysis here uses new methods and new archaeological data (from a part of the city often neglected by previous scholars) to propose a new—archaeologically based—model of Byzantine Constantinople. This aims to escape from the limitation of descriptivism and the over-dominance of textual sources (important as these are) characteristic of much previous work on the city” (p.xv). This mission is partly fulfilled in that the book does present new material data, gathered by a survey method not previously employed in Istanbul, and from parts of the city that were largely untouched by published archaeological excavation. But the reader who expects, on this basis, more profound and original insights into the urban fabric of Byzantine Constantinople than are to be found in the older literature is going to be disappointed.

The claim to escape from textual dependence and descriptivism is disingenuous, since the study consists of the description of data and continually refers to textual evidence in the attempt to locate and identify structures. It is liberated from descriptivist and textual constraints only to the extent that its descriptions are not exhaustive and it never engages with the texts directly, critically or in depth. The descriptions of Byzantine built structures are not accompanied by detailed plans, and they never give the precise alignment and orientation of walls with regard to other Byzantine structures in the vicinity or to the modern constructions that overlay them or hem them in; yet this information is vital for reconstructing the street layout of the Byzantine city in relation to later phases of urban development. Descriptions of worked stone fragments, the most important category of finds surveyed, do not specify the provenance of the marble, although the criteria for identifying the quarries are well established; if the investigators did not possess the necessary expertise, there were plenty of experts they could have consulted. The same can be said for their use of written evidence, which is well illustrated by their reference to an inscribed slab built into the wall of a post-Byzantine church. The caption to the photograph (Fig. 47, p. 56) identifies this as an “Illegible Byzantine inscription (probably a tombstone)”. The main text adds (p.55), “A few Greek letters, and the division of text into eight 5 cm-wide horizontal lines can be discerned, but nothing more can be seen”. It does not take much experience of Near Eastern cultures to recognise the general appearance of Armenian lettering, and expert opinion is not difficult to find. Elsewhere (pp. 47-51), when discussing the identity of the ‘Sofular cluster’ of massive structures south of the column of Marcian, the author completely overlooks the best textual witness for the early Byzantine buildings in this area, the Theodosian Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae. In a rare mention of a textual source by name, Theophanes is confused with his continuator (p. 67). Dark is entirely vague about the “textual sources” which “suggest that the principal church of the Petra monastery was single-apsed” (p. 61) and would therefore rule out an identification with the three-apsed structure of the present-day Odalar Camii. Yet a critical look at the text of the only relevant source, the fifteenth-century travelogue of the Castilian visitor Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, would have shown its ambiguity: although Clavijo initially speaks of an apse in the singular, he later refers to a main ‘chapel’ and two flanking ‘chapels’ with altars. The Petra monastery is much discussed in the extensive secondary literature, which Dark cites, while ignoring the results of its most important recent item, the detailed discussion of the site by Neslihan Asutay-Effenberger.1 Even when he pays more lip- service to the secondary literature, the result does not always inspire greater confidence, as when he misrepresents the points made in studies by the present reviewer(pp. 50, 68) and by Cyril Mango (p. 52). All in all, this survey report is a piece of hasty, one-man DIY, contrasting with the professional teamwork of the other major archaeological project on Byzantine Constantinople to have been published in Britain in recent years: the study of the water supply of Constantinople.2

Any way one looks at it, this book deserves a mixed review. It represents an important archaeological rescue effort, but not all the ‘rescued’ survivors are adequately provided with identity papers. The reported survey filled a gap in the rescue archaeology of Constantinople, and came up with much new material. However, not many of the new finds tell us much that we did not already know, or could not infer, from the poor old textual sources. Despite the author’s dissatisfaction with those earlier studies that focused on individual monuments known from texts, this is exactly what he does in chapters 5 and 6. Of the material that relates more broadly to the urban fabric outside the imperial and religious units, it is mainly the ‘Sofular cluster’ that puts a major new complex of buildings on the map. The project deserves credit for locating Byzantine cisterns that were not identified in the recent study of the water supply, although a systematic survey is now being undertaken by Kerim Altuğ. The author is surely right to interpret his finds in the south west of the intramural area as confirming that the roads between the gates in the Theodosian Land Walls and the Constantinian Golden Gate, especially the ‘northern road’, were quite heavily built up. Yet this comes as no surprise when we consider not only the sites known from texts, but also the fact that these were the main land routes leading out of Constantinople and connecting it not only with all points to Rome and the Danube frontier, but also to its most important European suburbs at the Hebdomon (Bakırköy) and Rhegion (Küçükçekmece). In the end, the result amounts to a little modest material confirmation that the zone between the Constantinian and Theodosian walls was, in Cyril Mango’s words, “neither wholly urban nor wholly suburban”.

If the hard content is slim, it is substantially packaged with sensible and informative generalization, above all in the history of archaeology in Istanbul, and in the explanation of the project’s methodology. These introductory sections are worth reading for their own sake. The book is, as a whole, well written and cites an impressive secondary bibliography. All the more unfortunate, then, that it is riddled with minor flaws of presentation: works cited in the text but missing from the bibliography (Bonnie et al. 1994, Berlinsky 2011), a site (160) that is doubled on the map, the Pantepoptes monastery confused with the Pammakaristos (pp. 26, 61)—a confusion perhaps deriving from a certain dyslexia in the rendering of non-English words. This applies not only to many Turkish names, but also to that of the eminent Russian Byzantinist who appears as “Khazdan”. The pièces de résistance are, appropriately, the epithets for Constantinople itself, characterised as “megapolis” from the front cover onwards and as “Theotokopoulos” in the conclusion (p.104).

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: The Istanbul Archaeological Project 1997-2004: history, organisation and methods
Chapter 3: The Southern part of the Study Area
Chapter 4: The Northern part of the Study Area
Chapter 5: The Blachernae Palace
Chapter 6: The Church of the Holy Apostles
Chapter 7: Conclusion: the archaeology of a Byzantine megapolis


1.   N. Asutay-Effenberger, ‘Das Kloster des Ioannes Prodromos τῆς Πέτρας in Konstantinopel und seine Beziehung zur Odalar und Kasım Ağa Camii’, Millennium 5 (2008) 299-325.
2.   J. Crow, J. Bardill, R. Bayliss, with P. Bono, D. Krausmüller and R. Jordan, The Water Supply of Constantinople (London 2008).

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