(by Simone Perotti)
Where could I possible meet with the Director of Excavations of Yenikapı, the greatest discovery of ancient ships of all time, on the south coast of Sultanahmet, if not at the Rahmi Koç Museum, on the shores of the Golden Horn? It is a large building, donated by a great industrial tycoon, whose name it bears, who was an avid collector of objects and vehicles, from ships to cars, from doll houses to trains.
A vaguely enchanted place, halfway between “The Chocolate Factory” and “Wonderland”, halfway between a serious naval museum and dreamland. Ufuk Kocabas is the Director of a part of the archaeological excavations, together with his team at the University of Istanbul. Therefore he plays a leading role in an unprecedented work. The best archaeologists in the world have worked throughout their careers on an ancient ship, and they are lucky to do so, and he and his colleagues are working on an excavation of approximately 37 galleys which cover a span of about 600 years, from the era of Theodosius I (IVth century) to the year One Thousand. “An unprecedented discovery, which will tell us a great deal about ancient ships, and much more, given the impressive number of items and goods that we have found on board the ships.” He is an authentic enthusiast, as well as an expert and a professional.
“We are in the Golden Horn. It is a great natural harbour, where there has been human activity since ancient times, and has been a shelter for ships for who knows how long. It is lovely to talk about it here, considering that Rahmi Koç was a keen sailor as well as a collector.”
I start to ask him something about Istanbul and the Turkish culture of the sea: “The Roman Empire and the Byzantine kingdom were empires of the sea”Well.. I have been saying that forever, at least in relation to ancient Rome, in defiance of what I read in my textbooks as a child, that described the Romans as a people who did not have the skills to sail the seas, and who had done so reluctantly, for necessity, without excelling, not like the Phoenicians and Carthaginians! “Not at all. They were a people who, with the technology they had, achieved extraordinary feats, and sailed the Black Sea for centuries, for example, despite what they say. Merchants from half the world passed through here. All the goods of antiquity passed through here, all the trading between East and West. But there is more: there was a continuous trading route between Alexandria and Constantinople, from grain to precious metals. Just imagine that to go up the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, which with their currents were not easy to sail, they invented a change system similar to that used for horses and coaches. On an island in the Aegean they transferred goods to more slender and lighter ships, that were able to sail against the currents. A Herculean effort, but that gives you an idea of what they were able to do.” Very interesting.
We digress a little, above all because I have certain ancient curiosities to satisfy. For example about the Bermudian rigging and triangular sails. I ask him if it is true that in ancient times they did not exist, something that I have always doubted. “Of course they did. The idea that triangular sails are a non-Mediterranean or worse an oceanic invention, is nonsense. They always had them in the Red Sea, I think, at least as early as the first and second centuries. In VIIIth century certainly there were many and in the IXth century, rigging with mixed sails, Latin and square, were very common.” Exactly.
I ask him why in ancient times, when certainly the concept of standards, UNI, segmentation for industrial models, shared and certified design did not exist, the galley, was substantially the same, even though it was built by different people, for almost one thousand six hundred years. “It is true. The galley originates in ancient times and reaches almost the modern era as a single and very popular battle ship, which was sometimes even used for transport. Obviously the models differed in many small things, improvements, and evolved slightly in time, but the rigging was substantially identical. ” I ask him, for example, if they had three masts, as they say: “We are not sure. Two certainly. But we have never found sure proof of the three-mast galley. But I think so. ” In any case, it is surprising: the galleys, which were about 30 meters long and 4-5 meters wide, with eighty men on board, and sometimes even more, were the Ship for centuries. Then the world changed at about the same time as the invention of ships with a round keel, like caravels and galleons, thanks to which it was possible to cross Ocean and gave opened the way to the most important routes to the New World.
Indeed there are many quotations, in literary history, from Platone and Strabone and even Chinese historians, of possible Atlantic crossings made in much earlier eras, but it would be a long and uncertain subject to start. The fact is that with their galleys the Romans reached the Canary Islands. Who knows if perhaps they didn’t go even further. I must admit that I lose myself a little, in these thoughts.
In short, the sea united people, and created standards when the era of projects and standardised products was more than fifteen hundred years away. A single language that everyone understood, shared and identical ships… Kocabas does not seem to take up the suggestion. “We are trying to understand the differences between the ships both vertically, over the centuries, and horizontally, among people. Certainly, looking out from Topkapi, or even before, from a Byzantine palace, here you would see anchored ships with flags and banners and men from all over the known world.” It must have been magnificent to see …
The findings will give life to the most imposing ancient naval museum in the world. The tender was published, because the mayor of Istanbul is an architect, who cares a great deal about this idea.
I come back to the question about the role of the sea and the Mediterranean for the Turks. “Look, I am the son of two great sea enthusiasts. In my village, when I was a child, everyone had their own boat and we always went out to sea. It was magnificent. Today it appears that the culture of the sea has dropped off somewhat. It is still there, but it could and should be implemented. “ This reminds me of Italy, even if we are worse, since very few know an admiral like Andrea Doria and his colleagues from past centuries, while here everyone knows not only their own heroes (from Thurgut Rais to Khair ad Din and Piri Reis) but even ours. “Of course I know them! For us, they are heroes. “