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A Byzantine Plot? Volume 51 Number 6, November/December 1998
by Jon Gorvett

Ruins of the palace that was the seat of government for the eastern Roman and Byzantine empires for more than a millennium have been found beneath Istanbul's streets, according to Alpay Pasinli, director of the Istanbul Museum of Archaeology, who oversaw the excavations. Restoration work on the Four Seasons Hotel, originally an Ottoman prison, led to the discovery, which lies between the Byzantine church Ayia Sophia, now a museum, and the entrance to the Topkapi Palace of the Ottoman sultans.

Byzantine palace remains exposed at ground level include several collapsed columns, water conduits, and a wall, possibly part of a tomb, with frescoes of a cross motif in yellow, red, and green. The ground breaks away at one point to reveal a large subterranean chamber constructed of vaulted brick arches and domes supported by 16-foot-tall stone columns. The domes are about ten feet in diameter and five feet high. A number of narrow tunnels lead from the chamber, but their extent has not been determined. Early speculation was that they might be the pitae, archives housing manuscripts and icons. The structure's exact age is unclear. Pasinli, who is not a Byzantinist, told Reuters it was of the fifth century, but in other reports it has been dated to the sixth or ninth century; Halil Ozek, another archaeologist involved in the excavations, told the New York Times that it was of ninth-century date.

Construction of the palace began under Constantine, who moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city in A.D. 330. Expanded over a number of centuries, the palace included ceremonial halls, churches, and gardens on 100 acres of land extending from the Hippodrome, now Sultanahmet Square, to the Sea of Marmara. By the time Mehmet II captured Constantinople in 1453, it had fallen into disrepair and was largely abandoned. The Ottomans sited their palace partly on the ruins of the old one, the rest of the Byzantine complex being buried beneath centuries of other buildings.

The site's future is uncertain. Pasinli is no longer speaking to reporters after the Turkish press alleged that he was connected with artifact smuggling and that the palace discovery was a scam involving the hotel, which wanted to cash in on the find by converting part of the uncovered palace remains into a tourist bazaar. None of these allegations is proven, but Pasinli is under investigation by the Ministry of Culture.

Pasinli is on the Preservations Commission, which is charged with granting building permits for projects in areas of archaeological interest (the whole of Sultanahmet Square has been such an area since 1990). According to his detractors, Pasinli, who has powerful political, business, and union backers, has ensured passage of permit applications by the commission. One such application was for the restoration of the hotel. What happened to the palace remains that must have been found during this work, which involved digging a large hole underneath the hotel, is unknown. The hotel, which also wanted to build on the site of the new discovery, paid the Istanbul Museum of Archaeology for the excavations there. Sources at the museum who are unfriendly to Pasinli say that the hotel is indeed looking for ways to incorporate the palace remains into a new building, possibly a reconstructed version of a nineteenth-century Ottoman one that stood there.

That the permit was granted is almost more surprising than the discovery of the palace remains. German archaeologists Theodore Wiegand and Ernst Mamboury witnessed the construction of the Ottoman prison, now the hotel, in 1911 and examined the palace sites not requiring excavation, publishing their findings in 1934. French archaeologists surveyed the area during the Allied occupation of the city following World War I, and two years ago Oxford University doctoral student Eugenia Bolognesi also surveyed it. A Turkish team that has conducted a geophysical investigation of the area since 1990 has located hundreds of anomalies that may indicate buried structures. It initially recommended the closure of the area to traffic and to further building, but was overruled by Pasinli and the commission. Strangely, the geophysical team is now working for Pasinli.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America