ISTANBUL - Anatolia News Agency
The ruins of what is thought to have been a bishop’s palace have been cleared of the garbage and bushes that covered the structure on the southern side of the Hagia Irene Museum.
The museum is located in the first courtyard of Topkapı Palace.
An official working on the excavations, Byzantine art expert Hayri Fehmi Yılmaz, said work had been carried out there in the 1940s and that the existence of a structure there was known. “But it had been abandoned for about 50 years and had become surrounded by bushes and garbage,” he said.
Yılmaz said the team had spent one and a half months thoroughly examining the structure with help from experts from the fine-art faculties of Istanbul and Mimar Sinan universities under the leadership of the Istanbul Archaeology Museums Directorate.
“Some researchers said it might have been Sampson Hospital or an almshouse, but our research team disagrees,” he said. “It is a structure that was constructed together with Hagia Irene, next to it. They have organic ties. That is why this structure was most probably the bishop’s palace of the city.”
According to Yılmaz, the team thinks the structures were adjacent buildings because Hagia Irene had many entrances to its interior and courtyard. “This place was already in the same courtyard. Both were called the ‘big church’ and a big wall surrounded the area, in which the ruins of the structure are also contained,” he said. “This makes us think that it is from the 6th century, just like Hagia Sophia and Hagia Irene.”
An important part of the ruins dates to the 6th century and the structure was used until the 15th century, Yılmaz said, adding: “It is very interesting that it was covered with earth during the Ottoman period. We can see traces of the Ottomans in the upper level and construction materials from the 15th to 20th century in this area.”
Yılmaz said the structure was a significant example of Byzantine civil architecture, adding that the area had maintained its importance after the Byzantine period and that there were also interesting ruins from the Ottoman period in the area of Topkapı Palace.
Istanbul’s oldest fountain
“Lots of ceramics and other artifacts from the Byzantine era have been unearthed during these works,” Yılmaz said, noting that the team had uncovered interesting information about the Ottomans, including daily life in Topkapı Palace. At different times during the Ottoman era, Yılmaz said, the building was used as a storage house, woodshed and morgue. Huge bascules, or counterbalanced devices, were found that are indicative of the storage-house period, and it is surmised that one of the two palace morgues was located there. Yılmaz said the team has found traces of the bench on which the corpses were washed before burial, a little-known detail about palace life.
“We have uncovered a fountain with a lion-shaped gargoyle that is the oldest fountain we have found in Istanbul yet. It definitely predates Byzantium. A part of the Roman-era Istanbul fountain is lying here, and a few floor mosaics too,” said Yılmaz, adding that the team expects to make more such discoveries.
According to Yılmaz, the area was the center, or acropolis, of Istanbul, making it liable to contain even older archeological finds during excavations that may last five or six years.
“Today, we see the Ottoman and Byzantine architecture on the surface [of Istanbul] almost without missing a chapter, but without a doubt this was a mighty area before the Byzantines too,” he said. “We can see a small part of a Roman fountain, but there might be material from the Hellenistic or even older eras under this level. That is a fascinating thing.”