Bathonea, on the shores of a lagoon in Istanbul, was once a bustling port city, home to Hittites, Mycenaeans, Alasians, Byzantians, Vikings and the Ottomans. TRT World talks to Kocaeli University’s Sengul Aydingun, the head of the excavation team.
A team of archaeologists, geologists, architects, and underwater architects did a preliminary research project regarding Bathonea between 2007 and 2009 for three seasons. Bathonea is situated by the Kucukcekmece Lake in northwestern Turkey and discovered there were visible sunken boats and the remains of an ancient lighthouse.
The local folks had their own take on the lighthouse that was immersed under water. They had thought it was a minaret from a town from long ago. The Bathonea excavation team leader, Sengul Aydingun, of Kocaeli University, says the locals were quite disappointed when they found out that the remnants were not, as they had believed, of a minaret.
Aydingun tells TRT World that Bathonea is a significant discovery because there had not been traces of the Hittites, an ancient group of Indo-Europeans previously known to be confined to central Anatolia, around 1650 BCE. According to Aydingun, the lowermost layer of Bathonea goes back to 2000 BCE. In addition to the Hittites, there were traces of Mycenaeans from the Aegean coast, Alasians from the Mediterranean (Cyprus) and other tribes from the Balkans. This is the first time such civilisations were found in Turkey’s Thrace peninsula.
The figurines, made from ceramics and lead, were discovered in previous years, and Aydingun believes there will be more as excavations continue in the summer of 2021.
This layer was covered up by either the sea levels rising or a great seismic event after a natural disaster, and the area not seeing any civilisation for a thousand years.
In the seventh and sixth century BCE, Bathonea was occupied again by communities that hailed from ancient Greece and formed a port area. “We determined these signs in the Firuzkoy peninsula on the north end of the lake,” Aydingun says.
Then came the Romans, especially Emperor Constantine and his sons after him, who built considerably in this peninsula. “Buildings left over from them are rare enough in central Istanbul, but we are digging and finding pristine examples here,” Aydingun adds. “These are cisterns, ancient port buildings, pools, palaces, monasteries, and martyrions (church or shrine built over the tomb of a Christian martyr).”
Aydingun refers to the scratched runic text in the Hagia Sophia, presumably made by a Viking soldier or a commanding officer 1100 years ago, saying “Halvdan was here.” She says that while it was known that the Vikings came to Istanbul to trade, they found proof of it at Bathonea in the form of Viking crosses, and amber goods. The Vikings, it seems, had travelled a long way from the Baltic Sea, where they normally resided.
Meanwhile, numerous amphoras unearthed during the excavation, originating from Spain, Italy, Africa and Lebanon, indicate that there was trade with faraway lands. There were also thousands of medicine containers made out of clay, medical devices, while the mortar and pestles used in the preparation of medicine point to ‘Daphnision’, referred to as the Late Antiquity’s medicine production centre.
The lagoon is protected from the elements and was therefore a rich environment for fishing and hunting bird meat. One of the greatest sources of income for the dwellers of Bathonea, was fish and the fish sauce, garum, which also meant tax income for the state. It is known that at one time in Bathonea, 150,000 tons of fish were caught per year.
Bathonea port’s commercial activity peaked in the 5th century AD but suffered a steep decline after the mid-seventh century. The Byzantine Empire has had to deal with natural disasters such as earthquakes, as well as Arabic and Sassanian invaders from the south, and Bulgarian tribes from the west.
The Byzantine Empire went through the biggest commercial decline during the time when all of the Mediterranean posts such as Egypt, Cyprus and Rhodes came under Arabian rule. Due to the fact there were no more grains and olive oil coming from Egypt, other goods from Mediterranean ports appeared at the port of Bathonea. To compound the problem, Cyprian copper and far eastern goods such as rich fabrics, semi-precious stones, ebony, ivory and ostrich egg luxury items from Africa no longer came either. As a result, Bathonea went into decline, just as the Theodosius port, 20 kilometres away, had.
It would not be revived until the Vikings and Varangians arrived between the 9th and 11th centuries. After the 12th century, Bathonea’s port remained unused after the Latin invasion, and was left derelict.
After this era, the Byzantine Empire’s strong religious influence is seen with basilical structures and church remnants. These buildings suggest that the area was set up to be a holy site.
Whereas during Ottoman times, it is believed that the stone terrace shores surrounded the lake completely, some buildings by the shore suggest that Bathonea was used as a shipyard. The Kucukcekmece lagoon was from past to present connected to the Marmara Sea, meaning it was utilised as a safe haven for ships.
Bathonea excavations have wrapped up for the year 2020, and will pick up again in summer 2021. Who knows what fresh discoveries next year will bring?