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Constantinople: Archaeology of a Byzantine Megapolis. Final Report on the Istanbul Rescue Archaeology Project 1998–2004

July 2016 (120.3)

Book Review

Constantinople: Archaeology of a Byzantine Megapolis. Final Report on the Istanbul Rescue Archaeology Project 1998–2004

By Ken Dark and Ferudun Özgümüş. Pp. xvi + 181, figs. 104, color pls. 41. Oxbow Books, Oxford 2013. $99.95. ISBN 978-1-78297-171-9 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Despite the challenges of building development and other threats to its urban heritage, scholarly interest in the medieval archaeology of modern Istanbul—the Byzantine Constantinople or “megapolis” of this book—remains unabated. The past two decades have witnessed symposia on the subject convened in Istanbul and elsewhere, as well as the publication of conference proceedings, monographs, archaeological reports, exhibition catalogues, journal articles, and even imaginative walking guides and websites. In particular, the spectacular discoveries resulting from the construction of Istanbul’s new Metro, especially in the former harbor of Theodosius at Yenikapı, have generated international interest in the city’s Byzantine archaeology. As the final report of a surface survey in Istanbul, the volume under review is therefore an important addition to this literature, containing new data of interest and thought-provoking discussion, even if it does not quite live up to the high claims of its main title and stated goals.

As the subtitle of the book states, the new data presented in this volume (except for that summarized in appx. 3) was recorded by the Istanbul Rescue Archaeology Project, a collaboration of Dark, of Reading University in the U.K., and Özgümüş, of Istanbul University, who jointly directed six summer survey seasons between 1998 and 2004. Although Özgümüş appears on the title page as coauthor, internal notes (xi, 12–13) state that Dark authored the present volume and Özgümüş would prepare a Turkish report and publish separately his own fieldwork conducted in 2000 and after 2004. A catalogue of material recorded by the project is confined to the back of the book (115–36), followed by maps of the survey areas and approximate find spots, plus a useful bibliography.

Most of this material is vulnerable to destruction or removal, and so its publication alone is to be welcomed. Structures and architectural elements are illustrated in the text and color plates, but this is not comprehensive, and there are no detailed plans plotting structures into the archaeological plan of the city. A few elements are described as column capitals (figs. 42, 45), but to the present reviewer’s eye they appear to be column bases. Two early Byzantine gravestones and a column with a mutilated monogram are noted and illustrated (figs. 25, 48, 57), but no editions of the Greek inscriptions are published here, although one can read the epitaphs in the photographs. Another “illegible” inscription is said to be in Greek and published without commentary or edition (fig. 47), but to the present reviewer it appears to be in Armenian (an observation also made by another reviewer of this book). One hopes that such important finds may yet be fully published in print or online.

Inspired by rescue archaeology in urban centers in Britain, the goals of the Istanbul project were admirable and ambitious: to document, whenever possible, surviving remains of Byzantine structures and architectural fragments in the western half of the city between the modern Atatürk Boulevard and the Theodosian land walls, an area less well known archaeologically than the Byzantine “downtown” located on the eastern portion of the historical peninsula. Thus, although this book seeks to discuss the results of the project in this very large area (perhaps 60% of the walled city) in the context of the city as a whole, it does not provide a survey of the entire “megapolis” of its title. The preface states: “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” (xv). Chapter 1 puts this statement in context by providing an excellent overview of the historiography of archaeological and topographical exploration in Istanbul, as does chapter 2, which outlines the methodology, archaeological formation processes, and theoretical rationale for the project. It is refreshing to read such chapters, which are all too often sidelined in Byzantine archaeological publications. Dark champions the archaeological evidence as an independent source, challenging past historical-topographical approaches that fit the archaeology of Constantinople within a privileged textual matrix. Such is the challenge of historical archaeology in the Byzantine context: how to use textual and archaeological sources together in a critical, balanced dialogue, without reducing the archaeology to an illustrative or secondary role. Privileging texts over archaeology has its own problems, but by using textual sources without engaging directly in their critical evaluation, Dark leaves himself open to criticism from historians and topographers. A deeper analysis of these texts could have strengthened the publication’s usefulness, but this would have expanded the work well beyond its stated primary purpose of presenting the final results of the project. Here, perhaps, this book suffers, as historical archaeological reports can, from the need to balance the descriptive, necessary in the presentation of new data, with the author’s desire to be suitably interpretative, integrating the publication into scholarly debates and making it more accessible to historians. Archaeological reports can make for very dry, technical reading, and Dark laudably attempts to contextualize the bare bones of the survey data by discussing it in reference to past studies and by citing little-known or unpublished reports of archaeological finds. But at the same time one also feels that the author has overextended himself (and the reach of the survey data) in claiming to craft a new model for the “Archaeology of a Byzantine Megapolis.” This is apparent in the concluding chapter 7, which does not advance a radical new model for the city’s development as claimed in the preface; instead, it uses the survey evidence largely to corroborate our current knowledge.

Given the complexities of (and lack of scholarly consensus in) Constantinopolitan studies, there is much in chapters 3 through 7 and the appendices for historians, archaeologists, and topographers to discuss and dispute in future years. Chapters 3 and 4 cover the southern and northern parts of the survey area, leading to more detailed discussions of the Blachernae palace (ch. 5) and the site of the Church of the Holy Apostles at the Fatih Camii (ch. 6, appx. 1). Chapter 6 and appendix 1 argue an imaginative new interpretation for the location and alignment of the vanished Holy Apostles complex and Constantine’s mausoleum, although it is based upon slender (and subjective) evidence. This topic alone has generated over a century of publication, speculation, and debate; this chapter is sure to provoke more on the subject, although further archaeological investigation seems unlikely. As such, this chapter appears emblematic of the larger problem: the archaeology of Byzantine Constantinople defies detailed quantification thanks to the development of the modern “megapolis” of Istanbul that replaced it.

Eric A. Ivison
Department of History
College of Staten Island CUNY

Book Review of Constantinople: Archaeology of a Byzantine Megapolis. Final Report on the Istanbul Rescue Archaeology Project 1998–2004, by Ken Dark and Ferudun Özgümüş

Reviewed by Eric A. Ivison

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 3 (July 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1203.Ivison


Reading this review of the book has laid a lot of questions to rise. It is a delight to be reading this review and I thank you for this report.

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