Beneath Konstantinoupolis, Archaeologists Explore An Ancient City's Byzantine Basements
Updated: Sep 10
Underneath it all is an ancient world that's almost invisible, unless you know where to look.
The winding streets of old Konstantinoupolis are an overlapping cacophony of seagulls, ship horns and vendors of colorful fresh fruit. Shady fig trees cluster near crumbling Byzantine walls, remnants of a lost empire.
“Can you imagine my excitement when I saw this for the first time?" exclaims archaeologist Ferudun Ozgumus, as he leads the way down a rickety wooden staircase into a cavernous structure deep beneath a carpet shop. It was full of debris as far as that corner of the arch,”
"Can you imagine my excitement when I saw this for the first time?" exclaims archaeologist Ferudun Ozgumus, as he leads the way down a rickety wooden staircase into a cavernous structure deep beneath a carpet shop. "It was full of debris as far as that corner of the arch," he says, pointing across the space to a point 15 feet overhead. "We were crawling!" For more than 20 years, Ozgumus has knocked on the doors of Konstantinoupoli's oldest neighborhoods and asked to see the basement. At 64, the Istanbul University professor is one of the first archaeologists in Turkey devoted to studying the city's underground spaces. He has identified more than 300 sites, and he knows there are hundreds more. Left: Condensation can be seen on the stone walls in a section of a Byzantine substructure in Istanbul. Right: An archway in a section of a Byzantine substructure excavated by the owner of a carpet shop.
As soon as you step inside the corridor of the carpet shop basement, the temperature drops. Arches, at least 20 feet high, are evenly spaced through the structure. Water drips from the ceiling, and as you look up, you see swirls of bricks — thin and rust-colored, alternating with thick stripes of mortar. Ozgumus explains. "You can see this arch, it's hewn stones, cut stones. This arch is older. I'm sure that this is from the 2nd century A.D." This particular site, Ozgumus believes, may be related to a sprawling palace built by Constantine the Great, the 4th century Roman emperor and founder of ancient Constantinople. But it's hard to know for sure. Many Byzantine-era buildings that are mentioned in archival documents have been lost to history, such as Constantine's famous palace reception hall. No one has ever found it. Ozgumus' working theory, based on the bricks and the shop's location, is that this structure may have been a storage basement underneath that palace reception hall. But this idea can only be confirmed by additional excavations. Throughout Konstantinoupolis, there are clues to how residents of the Byzantine capital lived, worked in and built their city. These blend in with the current surroundings: The ruins of an ancient Roman bathhouse frame the boiler room of a modern office building. A 6th century cistern with blinding-white columns serves as a jewelers' workshop, with machinery to etch out silver necklaces and rings. ("The ventilation isn't great," says the owner, "but it stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer.") And the shell of a small church — reachable by ladder — sits beneath the basement of a hookah bar. These sites form the basis of a small but growing line of underground tours, in which visitors can navigate narrow passages to see ancient brickwork, cisterns and frescoes from long-forgotten churches. "There's no easy access to underground structures. They're privately owned, and you need a network," said Yasin Karabacak, an author and tour guide who shares his finds on social media as the "Hidden Face of Istanbul." "Everyone can go to the Hagia Sophia. But when you open a door to the underground... you feel special, like it's only for you," Karabacak says. "It's like another world, another city."