Ruins of Millennia-Old Monument Unearthed in Turkish ‘City of the Blind’

Archaeologists conducting excavations at an Istanbul train station found traces of an ancient apse, or semicircular recess

Ongoing excavations at the Haydarpaşa Railway Station (pictured here) in Istanbul revealed traces of a third- or fourth-century B.C. monument or mausoleum
Ongoing excavations at the Haydarpaşa Railway Station (pictured here) in Istanbul revealed traces of a third- or fourth-century B.C. monument or mausoleum. Dan via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

Since May 2018, excavations at Istanbul’s historic Haydarpaşa Railway Station have yielded an array of landmark finds, including ruins from the Ottoman, Roman and Byzantine periods. Now, reports the Hurriyet Daily News, Turkish archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a third- or fourth-century B.C. apse, or semicircular recess commonly found in ancient churches. The architectural feature—thought to be part of a monument or mausoleum—is the oldest structure discovered at the site to date.

“There is an architectural density here,” excavation leader Mehmet Ali Polat tells Demirören News Agency (DHA). “Most of these are structures were built in the third and fourth centuries A.D. Additions were made to these structures in the fifth and sixth centuries.”

As Hurriyet reports, Polat and his team uncovered the apse near the station’s waiting platforms. The Turkish Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure and Ministry of Culture and Tourism began digging at the site three years ago, when workers restoring the transport hub unearthed ancient artifacts. Since then, DHA notes, experts have discovered more 35,000 objects, large artifacts and columns in the roughly 3.7 million-square-foot excavation area.

While researchers don’t know exactly why Istanbul’s ancient residents constructed the apse, they suspect that it belonged to a sacred site. Per Encyclopedia Britannica, apses in pre-Christian temples often acted as “enlarged niche[s]” that held sculpted likenesses of deities.

Other highlights of the discovery include ceramics and coins spanning millennia, from the seventh century B.C. to the modern era, according to DHA.

Scholars say the excavations may offer insights on Khalkedon, or Chalcedon, the 2,500-year-old “Land of the Blind” on the eastern shore of the Bosporus strait.

“This [area] is the northwestern port of the ancient city of Khalkedon, a large structure that could be a warehouse,” Polat tells Hurriyet. On the other side of the road, we see a group of buildings that could be a small summer palace.”

As the Anadolu Agency reported last March, the site’s unusual name dates to around 667 B.C., when Byzas of Megara founded the city of Byzantium on the European peninsula of the Golden Horn, across from Khalkedon on the Asian side. (Byzantium is known today as Istanbul.) Because Khalkedon’s inhabitants failed to settle on the “perfect” peninsula now occupied by his people, they must have been blind, Byzas posited.

Per World History Encyclopedia’s Donald L. Wasson, the Roman historian Tacitus later wrote that Byzas and his followers chose the spot on the order of “the god of Delphi,” who advised them to settle “opposite the land of the blind.”

Ancient people used the area heavily between the fourth and seventh centuries A.D. After this point, however, most of the buildings fell into disrepair.

“Then it gradually becomes active again in the middle Byzantine period,” Polat tells DHA. “We know from the remains we have excavated that there were only small workshops here in the late Byzantine period.”

Experts hope the recent archaeological finds will illuminate aspects of Khalkedon’s enigmatic culture. As Jesse Holth writes for ARTnews, previous discoveries—including 10,000 gold coins, remnants of a fifth-century castle and 28 sets of human remains—have helped archaeologists determine that the bustling metropolis likely boasted an expansive trade system.

The Istanbul Archaeology Museums conduct about 250 excavations in the Turkish city each year, notes DHA in a separate article. Last month, reports Hurriyet, Polat and his colleagues announced the discovery of a pebble mosaic floor at the site of the future Kabataş train station, which is also home to the foundations of Europe’s first canned food factory—a late 19th-century facility that packaged tomatoes and peas.

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