Beneath Istanbul, Archaeologists Explore An Ancient City's Byzantine Basements Below the surface of the sprawling, modern metropolis is a different world. Archaeologists are gaining insights into the city's ancient past by examining the basements of ordinary buildings.

Beneath Istanbul, Archaeologists Explore An Ancient City's Byzantine Basements

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Underneath the offices, apartments and shops of modern Istanbul, there are the stone chambers and cisterns of an ancient city. Some are secret; some are open to those who know how to find them. This summer, NPR's International Desk is taking us to some captivating places we might long to visit in this time of restricted travel. It's a series we're calling Wish You Were Here. Today, we go to Turkey, where reporter Durrie Bouscaren follows an expert into the basements of Istanbul and beyond.


DURRIE BOUSCAREN, BYLINE: It could be any carpet shop, but this one is different. There's a courtyard it shares with a cafe next door, where there's a rough wooden staircase that leads straight down into the ground. Ferudun Ozgumus, a professor of archaeology at Istanbul University, leads the way.

FERUDUN OZGUMUS: Can you imagine my excitement when I saw this for the first time in 1998? It was full of debris as far as that corner of the arch. How do you call it...

BOUSCAREN: Hands and knees?

OZGUMUS: Hands and knees. Crawling?

BOUSCAREN: You're crawling. Crawling.

OZGUMUS: Crawling. You're crawling in.

BOUSCAREN: The temperature drops underground. It's a cavernous space, at least 20 feet high. Water drips down from the ceiling, and as you look up, you see swirls of bricks, thin and rust-colored, alternating with thick strips of mortar.

OZGUMUS: The thickness of bricks and thickness of mortar between bricks and the color of them all tell me the date of those structures. For example, we have an arch ahead of us. You can see this arch - hewn stones, cut stones. This arch is older. It's not late Roman. I'm sure that this is from the 2nd century A.D.

BOUSCAREN: Ozgumus, a 64-year-old bouncing ball of energy, has spent two decades in the city's old neighborhoods knocking on doors and asking to see the basements. He thinks this could be the lost location of a palace built by the founder of Constantinople, which later became Istanbul.

OZGUMUS: I am 80% sure if we excavate, we will finally find the reception hall of Constantine the Great.

BOUSCAREN: Ancient civilizations placed great significance in the underworld, and the eastern Roman Empire was no different. Byzantine stonemasons were experts at building underground. They created cisterns to store water, pulled in through aqueducts, built cavernous basements under public buildings. The arches they built a thousand years ago have withstood earthquakes, fires. Today, they're still holding up multistory buildings in the world above.


BOUSCAREN: We stop in an office building that we find on a somewhat grungy street of wholesale shopping malls. Most of these buildings, Ozgumus says, are covering ancient spaces underneath, and some of them are still in use, like this jewelry workshop deep down in an old cistern.


BOUSCAREN: As we walk downstairs, the basement is blindingly white, full of gleaming columns and the sound of a lathe, where jewelry workers toil at a collection of necklaces and rings.

OZGUMUS: All silver, silversmith - this is early 6th century, one of the cisterns of Istanbul.

BOUSCAREN: Jewelry-makers toil away at an extensive collection of necklaces and rings. A piece of cardboard is taped to one of the marble columns, covering an engraved Byzantine cross so the workers, who are Muslim, can pray.

MOHAMMED COMEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

OZGUMUS: "The ventilation isn't great, says Mohammed Comez, the owner of the workshop. "But it stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer."


BOUSCAREN: Ozgumus was one of the first archaeologists to catalog these ancient sites, and he's one of a handful who'll give tours to visitors - ancient brickwork, undiscovered passages, frescoes from old churches that had long been forgotten. He's found over 300 sites, most of them underground, and he knows there are more.

OZGUMUS: 'Cause ancient Constantinople is full of those substructures.

BOUSCAREN: We visit the ruins of what may have been a bathhouse, now framing the boiler room of a legal office. And we go to the shell of a small neighborhood church beneath the basement of a hookah bar. A lot of these places are preserved, Ozgumus says, because of a law passed in the 1980s. People who found something ancient on their property could keep it without worrying that it would be seized by the government.

OZGUMUS: Thanks to this new law, this new court, a lot of historical things were protected by the locals in Istanbul. Before, they were destroying it.

BOUSCAREN: But some people are still afraid of losing their property and they keep their ancient sites a secret, Ozgumus says. To uncover these secrets, you have to be friends with everyone - janitors, caretakers, servers at cafes. He's undaunted when the manager of a shopping mall doesn't give him permission to visit the basement.

OZGUMUS: He thought the state is going to confiscate his building - the reason why he doesn't let us go in anymore.

BOUSCAREN: We turn a corner and walk into a small store selling packaging.

OZGUMUS: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

OZGUMUS: (Non-English language spoken). See; you are lucky, unbelievably lucky.

BOUSCAREN: The shopkeeper's son is going to let us see Ozgumus' favorite sites - the massive storage area that he believes was built to supply Constantinople's main square of shops and public life.


BOUSCAREN: And we're in - a basement of Byzantine bricks crowned by stone arches from the 2nd century, beautifully preserved because the family who owns it uses it for storage.

OZGUMUS: Look at this stuff, what you see before you. Look at this beauty.

BOUSCAREN: This is the beauty of the city, he says, lying just beneath the surface, almost invisible, unless you know where to look.

For NPR News, I'm Durrie Bouscaren, underground in Istanbul, Turkey.


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