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Archaeologists long to further uncover hidden Byzantine-era marvels in Türkiye’s Istanbul

 In the heart of Türkiye’s Istanbul, once the capital of the Byzantine Empire, the 1,500-year-old Church of St. Polyeuctus lay buried beneath urban sprawl for nearly a millennium until its accidental discovery during the construction of an underpass.

Inhabited for approximately 8,500 years, Istanbul has witnessed the erosion of much of its cultural heritage on its relentless march of urbanization, as illustrated by the plight of this Byzantine church.

Ayse Ovur, an archaeologist and writer, told Xinhua that conducting archaeological excavations, particularly in the historic Sultanahmet peninsula, has become exceedingly challenging due to the urbanization process over the past 50 years.

She emphasized that cisterns, fountains, and monuments dating back to the Byzantine Empire vanished beneath the modern buildings. “Discoveries frequently arise during metro construction or fortuitous encounters,” Ovur said.

Despite the challenges, archaeologists, through meticulous excavations and extensive research efforts, are trying to uncover some of the historical miracles and stories hidden within cities.

Since 2020, ongoing excavations have enabled experts to unearth a significant portion of the ground floor of St. Polyeuctus. Additionally, they have uncovered a tunnel believed to be connected to a nearby palace of Anicia Juliana, a Byzantine princess who commissioned the construction of the church.

“This discovery prompted us to excavate immediately north of the church, now a park adjacent to the street, and uncovered the remains of the palace,” explained Ali Asker, an archaeologist with the municipality’s cultural heritage department, to Xinhua.

According to Asker, such a discovery would have a global archaeological significance when completed, with the possibility of encountering other Byzantine-era structures.

“If only we are allowed to excavate beneath the street, we could know what we might uncover,” said Asker, expecting more to turn up in future excavations. However, excavations have currently been limited as per permissions.

Experts have also initiated archaeological studies to restore the Monastery of Stoudios, which was founded by and named after a nobleman around the mid-5th century, according to Ovur.

The monastery once served as the center of Byzantine religious poetry, with its hymns resonating through the ages within the Orthodox Church. Regrettably, it has languished in neglect and decay over the years amidst the encroaching concrete structures of modernity.

“The history of this monastery fascinates me greatly, and I hope that a proper restoration will help share its value with humanity,” Ovur added.

Meanwhile, the writer believed that the next focus for archaeologists should be uncovering the remains of the Great Palace of the Byzantine emperors, located near the iconic Hagia Sophia on Sultanahmet Square.

“This site holds great significance as it was not only the residence of emperors but also housed vital institutions like a school and library with links to the Renaissance,” Ovur explained.

However, she believed that initiating an excavation on Sultanahmet Square, which receives tens of thousands of tourists daily, would be highly unlikely.

Famagusta Gazette