Turkey's Hidden Walls

By Young, Penny | History Today, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Turkey's Hidden Walls


Young, Penny, History Today


Built around 1500 years ago to keep the barbarian hordes away, but out of bounds or forgotten for centuries, Turkey's Long Walls are emerging from the thickets and brambles of eastern Thrace.

The survey is being carried out by a team from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. James Crow, a lecturer in Roman archaeology, who heads the team, said: `It is the most monumental linear fortification dating from antiquity in continental Europe, comparable only with Hadrian's Wall in its complexity and preservation'.

The Long Walls of Thrace are forty miles west of Istanbul. The structure is also known as the Anastasian Wall because it is generally believed to have been built by Anastasius I in the late fifth century. The wall has been described as an almost unknown example of late Roman linear defence. It was built complete with towers, gates, forts, ditches and a military way to protect Constantinople, capital of the eastern Roman Empire, from invasions from the west by Huns, Slavs and Bulgarians.

Faced with limestone, the Anastasian Wall stretches thirty miles from the cliffs of the Black Sea coast down to the Sea of Marmara through the empty hills and rolling plains of Thrace. Historians believe the sentries of Byzantium would have paced the length for at least 200 years, squinting westwards into the setting sun. It could not have been entirely successful as a line of defence because later emperors repaired the wall surrounding Istanbul to try to keep out the barbarian hordes. But it would certainly have lost its strategic significance by the time of the Ottoman Empire, centuries later, when the Turks pushed as far as the gates of Vienna.

Over the centuries, the wall provided farmers and local builders with a convenient supply of readycut limestone. Chunks disappeared under new roads and into the building of new mosques.

Before the end of the Cold War, the whole region - close to Bulgaria - was out of bounds to foreigners. Western archaeologists knew about the existence of the fortifications from reports which had been written in the early part of the century when the area was more accessible. But they could not easily explore for themselves.

James Crow remembers as an archaeology student in the 1970s catching a bus heading west out of Istanbul, hopping off in the middle of nowhere to do a quick wall search - and promptly being arrested. …

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