On a Saturday evening in 1997 a man rushed into the offices of Alpay Pasinli- the director of Istanbul’s Museum of Archeology- and breathlessly announced that he had made a discovery. He had been charged with excavating an old Ottoman prison that stood between the Hagia Sophia and the gates to the Topkapi Palace, but had found instead an entrance into Byzantium’s fabled Great Palace. The core of the imperial building- or more precisely the complex of buildings- was erected by Constantine the Great in the fourth century and had gradually expanded until by the ninth century it covered more than four and a half acres. Embellished by some of the most powerful emperors at a time when the empire was quite literally dripping in gold, it had widely been seen as a wonder of the medieval world- a fitting residence for those who claimed to be the supreme rulers of the known world.
But as the centuries wore on and the fortunes of the empire declined, the buildings fell into disrepair. By the twelfth century even the emperors had abandoned them, preferring to live in the newer, more fashionable palaces on the opposite side of the city. When Constantinople finally fell in 1453 the Great Palace was a series of shambling ruins. Attempting to place their own stamp on their new capital the Ottomans pulled them down, constructing (among other things) the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi palace on the wreckage. With the exception of a few floor mosaics from the time of Justinian, the Great Palace vanished without a trace.
In 1997, however, it seemed to have dramatically reappeared. Pasinli found two stone steps leading down to the basements of the Palace, clogged with five centuries of debris. They were cleared to reveal a total of seventeen stairs leading to a tunnel and a network of corridors and passageways. Frescoes- mostly dating from the eighth century- adorned the brick walls, mostly cross motifs in yellow, red, and green. Collapsed water conduits blocked some of the passages, but intriguingly Pasinli could see a large lower chamber of vaulted brick arches and domes supported by 16-foot-tall stone columns. A hasty examination revealed it to be part of an archive housing manuscripts and icons. A geological survey conducted soon after showed hundreds of possible buried structures. Pasinli had found the lost Palace of the Caesars.
Such a major discovery should have made headlines worldwide, but Pasinli’s work remains largely unknown to this day and the site has never been re-entered. So what happened? There was something fittingly ‘byzantine’ in the way the entire operation collapsed. The old Ottoman prison- where the excavation had originally started- was part of a Four Seasons Hotel. Alpay Pasinli had connections with the hotel and the Turkish press accused him of conspiring with them to turn the discovery into a tourist bazaar- throwing in charges of artifact smuggling for good measure. With tensions rising on both sides the excavation was cancelled and a bitter Pasinli stopped talking to the press.
What happened to the artifacts is still unknown.
The Great Palace of Byzantium, it seems, likes to keep its secrets.