James Crow on Istanbul’s amazing system of aqueducts
For great cities size matters, and for cities like Byzantine Constantinople, almost totally obscured beneath the Ottoman and modern city of Istanbul, the scale of the past glory is rarely glimpsed through the majesty of monumental buildings such as Justinian’s Ayasofya, and from the relics of the imperial hippodrome, the Land Walls and the recently excavated Theodosian harbour at Yeni Kapı. To appreciate the Byzantine city requires effort and imagination.
Astride one of the old city’s main boulevards, like a comb parting the constant lines of traffic, the multi-arched Aqueduct of Valens (Bozdoğan Kemeri) is among the longest Roman aqueduct bridges known, only 29 metres short of a full kilometre in length. Built in the 4th century to carry water from the fourth to the third hill of the city, it is the most obvious surviving element of the new water supply system constructed for the expanding metropolis. This was the vital link for water to flow towards the Forum of Theodosius, where there was a great fountain, and from where water channels led throughout the new city, terminating at the huge underground cistern of a Thousand and One Columns (Binbirdirek). The better-known Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayı) was built by Justinian but filled by the Hadrianic aqueduct. At least 170 cisterns are known from the Byzantine city. Many are far smaller, but others located towards the Theodosian Walls were vast open-air reservoirs later used as market gardens, playgrounds or football stadiums. Strange as it might seem, the remains of water systems far exceed any other category of surviving monument known from the Byzantine city.
Where did this water come from, and how was it channelled? For the past 20 years Turkish water engineers and British archaeologists have been investigating the sources and courses, with some amazing results. Constantinople was the largest city in the ancient world by the 5th century, and the network of channels and bridges in Thrace stood comparison with the 11 aqueducts of ancient Rome.
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