It’s hard to sum up the impact of time spent at Küçükyalı Arkeopark, but for CAHA PhD student Jessica Varsallona; was a moment of reflection on her career as a Byzantinist, and the vital public role of archaeology.  

In the Asiatic suburbs of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, at Küçükyalı (district of Maltepe), stunning Byzantine ruins are the main character of the interesting project Küçükyalı ArkeoPark (40°56'36.65"N – 29° 6'55.71"E). Excavation works have been carried out there for several years and last summer I had the pleasure to take part on them. 

Plan of the Arkeopark

(Küçükyalı ArkeoPark 2016 – plan)

History of the site

In the late 1950s the remaining structures of the complex of Küçükyalı were identified as part of the palace of the emperor Theophilos (829-842), the so-called “palace of Bryas”. However, the work of Prof. Alessandra Ricci (Koç University of Istanbul) shows clearly how more plausible is the identification of the remaining structures as the monastery of Saint Michael at Satyros, built by the patriarch Ignatios of Constantinople (867-877), son of the emperor Michael I Rangabe (811-813) [A. Ricci, “The Road from Baghdad to Byzantium and the case of the Bryas Palace”, Byzantium in the Ninth Century: Dead or Alive? Papers from the 13th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Birmingham - March 1996, ed. L. Brubaker (Aldershot 1998), 131-149].

The main components of the site are a stunning cistern also used as foundations of the upper church, the perimeter walls and the remains of former towers on their corners.

Küçükyalı ArkeoPark project is carried out under the Direction of the Istanbul Archaeological Museums and within the framework of establishing Istanbul`s first public urban archaeological park. It is directed by Prof. Alessandra Ricci and includes the most important aspects of modern and public archaeology: scientific research and documentation and social impact [A. Ricci, A. Yilmaz, Urban Archaeology and Community Engagement. The Küçükyalı ArkeoPark in Istanbul, In: Heritage Tourism Destinations: Preservation, Communication and Development, M. Alvarez, A, Yuksel and F. Go eds. (Oxon 2016), 41-62].

Aerial photo plan of the Arkeopark

(Küçükyalı ArkeoPark, 2016)

Excavations works

The season 2017 has mainly involved the central area and the outer north-eastern side of the church. As in previous year, professional figures, students and volunteers from the universities of Istanbul and from different parts of the world composed the team. The Byzantinists involved were experts of architecture, pottery, glass, sculpture… while professionals able to teach rudiments to the youngest students composed the archaeologists’ team. Excavation works went at the same speed of restoration works, both of the wall structures and small finds. The relatively reduced size of the site and the fact that Küçükyalı ArkeoPark is not a rescue intervention allowed the team to operate in a very accurate way. Specific care is devoted to the documentation of the fieldwork and of the finds, tasks specifically entrusted to scholars and to specialized photographers. Every single aspect of the history of the site is taken into consideration, such as the archaeo-botanic investigation, which is trying to shed a new light on the history of the monastery. 

aerial photo of the Arkeopark team

(The team KY2017 –Ph. Domenico Ventura)

Involvement of the local community

Küçükyalı ArkeoPark is open every day to the public, also during the excavations season. People are always welcome, and at any moment of the day can receive free-guided tours (available in different languages) and brochures in English or Turkish, so they have the possibility to understand how excavation works progress.

Arkeopark book for kids

Laboratories for children of the primary school are organized on a regular schedule. Social media such as Facebook and Instagram  help to disseminate information and events in a way familiar for institutions such as museums or galleries, but not so frequent in an archaeological context. It offers children and their families the opportunity to learn and develop creativity but also to make them more familiar to a past, the Byzantine, often not considered as own, in contrast with the Ottoman one. In fact, the Byzantine Empire is generally perceived by Turkish kids and young adults just as the enemy destroyed by the sultan Mehmet II in 1453, rather than as a period of the history of the Anatolia and Istanbul. In every single souvenir shops of Istanbul it is possible to buy magnets or fancy notebooks with the images of the sultan (and of the other famous sultans), his guns, his soldiers or even board game based on the siege of Constantinople in 1453! None of these are markedly Byzantine (apart those with the Istanbul skyline with the dome and the minarets of Hagia Sophia). In this context, the project of Küçükyalı ArkeoPark clearly assumes not just a conservation research-based aspect but also it embodies the public opportunity for a new and more enriched consideration of the local past. 

Facebook has been also used in order to introduce us, part of the team, to the local followers, trying to discourage every sort of distance between the people inside and outside of the fence. 

The feedback seems very positive: the amount of people visiting and participating in events is always high and the monument continues to be woven into the neighbourhood (probably as the former monastery was in the past) and with the municipality of Küçükyalı (Maltepe). Countless times kind neighbours, always interested about the progress of the fieldwork, invited us to taste and share with them some of their fresh vegetables or fruits during the mornings at Küçükyalı ArkeoPark and came to know us all by name.

Aerial photograph of people standard in the ruin of a church

(A group of visitors in the Cistern of KY – Ph. Domenico Ventura)

What Küçükyalı ArkeoPark offers a Byzantinist

As a Byzantinist, a summer in Küçükyalı ArkeoPark helped me convert all my theoretical knowledge into practice. Even though the construction of the stunning structures of Küçükyalı ArkeoPark can be dated around the second half of the 9th century, the study of site requires knowledge of the entire Byzantine era. Later phases can be recognized and documented, whereas previous materials (spolia) were largely included in the middle-Byzantines building. Rarely in my academic career I have had the opportunity to study and learn in a similar broad way. The variety of the finds I was asked to document has shown me, on the one hand, which fields I have to explore more in greater depth in order to be able to understand all the branches of the Byzantine material culture. On the other hand, it made me feel very proud of my career when I noticed the clear familiarity already acquired for some of them. Apart from every consideration connected to my training, the most important thing I have learnt during my stay in Küçükyalı ArkeoPark is that Archaeology cannot remain just on the books, the prerogative of a few interested people. Such an archaeology would be confined to the past. Interacting with people gives Archaeology (and History, in a broader sense) the opportunity to be part of the present.

Jessica Varsallona is a second year Byzantine Studies PhD student. Her studies are supported by BRIHC funds.