This week: Water in Istanbul

(C) Caplio GX User Aqueduct of Valens, Istanbul

Today, Istanbul – formerly Constantinople – is Europe’s largest metropolis, having grown dramatically in size since the 1970s to reach a population in excess of 17 million.

But despite the gleaming modern towers, busy expressways and seemingly endless urban sprawl, the city’s long history as an imperial capital – first for the East Romans or Byzantines and, after 1453, for the Ottomans – remains evident at every turn.

For most of the past two thousand years, however, the city has had a problem. Dramatically situated astride the Bosporus waterway that divides Europe from Asia, its historic centre is surrounded by sea on three sides – making it a constant challenge down the centuries to provide enough fresh water to meet the needs of an expanding population, especially during times of threat.

From the reign of Hadrian onwards, the city’s Roman rulers devised a succession of increasingly elaborate construction projects to alleviate the issue. This resulted in the building of the most extensive water supply system in the ancient world – stretching eventually 267km into the forested hills to the west, and providing drinking water to the heart of the city via a complex network of aqueducts, bridges, tunnels and reservoirs.

As visitors to the city will be aware, some parts of this unique legacy are already well-known – including such world famous sites as the landmark 4th-century Aqueduct of Valens, which carried water to the area around the Great Palace, Hippodrome, and Church of Hagia Sofia. But as we learn this week on The Past, other parts are only now being uncovered.

In the latest issue of Current World Archaeology magazine, James Crow analyses the city’s complex relationship with water, and reveals some of the extraordinary discoveries made in recent years.

Elsewhere this week, we have also been delving into the archives for more about water supply systems around the world: we visited the West Country to examine Exeter’s medieval aqueducts; we learned how 18th-century gardeners such as Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown turned ornamental lakes into starring attractions; we travelled to the ancient city of Shivta to understand how irrigation brought life to Israel’s Negev desert; and we ventured to Pasargadae to wonder at the water-filled garden palace built by the Persian king Cyrus the Great.

And finally, if all that leaves you hungry for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around water features. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

The Past is powered by Current Publishing’s unique stable of accessible specialist magazines, each of which is a leader in its field, and by our global network of writers and editors.

Our aim is simple: to create a new essential destination for anyone interested in any aspect of the past – authoritative, easy to read and navigate, beautifully designed and illustrated, and with no annoying adverts, pop-ups and clickbait.

Whether you are an armchair historian, a budding archaeologist or a heritage enthusiast, we hope that you like what you find on The Past – and if you do, we hope very much that you might also consider taking out a subscription. Subscriptions cost £7.99 per month, or £79.99 for the whole year. But early visitors to the website can save £30 – subscribe by the end of January 2023 and pay just £49.99 by entering the code January23 at the checkout.