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Byzantine Era Tunnel and Rooms Unearthed under Ancient Church in Istanbul

Byzantine Era Tunnel and Rooms
Archaeologists in Istanbul have discovered a 1,500-year-old Byzantine-era tunnel and rooms beneath an ancient church. Credit: Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality.

Beneath the ruins of an ancient Christian church in Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, archaeologists have made a new discovery. They have uncovered underground rooms and a tunnel that dates back 1,500 years to the earliest period of the Byzantine Empire when Constantinople served as its capital.

Although the exact purpose of these hidden structures remains a mystery, experts believe they are likely connected to the expansive Church of St. Polyeuctus, which stood above them.

This grand church was constructed during a time when the city held great significance as the heart of Christianity, serving as the official religion of the Byzantine Empire.

The underground features comprise two spacious chambers that are connected by a tunnel. It appears that these chambers were associated with the church’s prothesis, a room located beside the altar where the sacramental bread and wine were prepared for the Byzantine Christian ceremony called the Divine Liturgy. It is worth noting that this term is still used in Eastern Orthodox churches today.

The archaeologists said that parts of the underground rooms still show exquisite decorations, including mosaics, stone inlays, and intricately carved blocks of marble.

Tunnel and rooms of ancient Church Initially discovered during the 1960s

The underground rooms were initially discovered back in the 1960s during excavation work carried out after road construction.

However, to ensure their preservation, the rooms were subsequently covered up, and their entrances were filled in again. Mahir Polat, the deputy general secretary of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IBB), confirmed this information.

Over time, the area where these underground structures were located, specifically in the Saraçhane district at the heart of Istanbul, fell into disrepair. However, last year, the IBB embarked on a redevelopment project for the area with the aim of transforming the extensive ruins into a captivating tourist attraction.

As part of this initiative, in March, workers undertook a new round of excavations to uncover the underground rooms and tunnel once more.

Polat further explained that the authorities have plans to allow the public to witness the ongoing progress of the excavation in the near future.

Tragic fate of the church caused by the earthquake and Crusaders

Polat said that the church met a tragic fate due to a devastating earthquake in the 11th century, which left it in a severely damaged state. Eventually, during the sack of the city in 1204 by Crusaders, primarily from Western Europe, the church was completely destroyed.

Renowned British historian Jonathan Phillips, the author of “The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople” (Penguin Books, 2005), sheds light on the events surrounding the Crusaders’ involvement.

They had initially been enticed to Constantinople, intending to support a faction within the Byzantine Imperial structure while en route to their ultimate goal of taking Jerusalem.

However, their plans were thwarted when the emperor they favored was overthrown in a popular uprising. Consequently, the Crusaders, left empty-handed, redirected their focus toward pillaging and looting the imperial city.

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