School of History, Classics & Archaeology

Engineering the Byzantine water supply: procurement, construction and operation

A new project funded by the Leverhulme Trust will build on archaeological research completed nearly a decade ago by Prof James Crow, on the Water Supply System of Byzantine Constantinople

The archaeological site
Cistern under Eminonu Belidiyesi under restoration

Astride one of Istanbul’s main boulevards, like a comb parting the constant lines of traffic, the multi-arched aqueduct of Valens or Bozdoğan Kemer is amongst the longest Roman aqueduct bridges known from antiquity, only 29 m short of a full kilometre in length. This bridge was the vital link enabling water to flow throughout the new city of Constantinople and terminated at the huge underground cistern of a Thousand and One-columns (Binbirdirek); one of at least 160 cisterns known from the Byzantine city.

Previous research

Our research on the Water Supply System of Byzantine Constantinople, completed nearly a decade ago and supported by the Leverhulme Trust and the British Institute at Ankara, was able to estimate that the trunk network of water channels constructed to sustain the new city was over 450 km in length, sourced from springs in the hills west of the city, and constructed over less than century; comparable in scale to the 11 aqueducts supplying ancient Rome.

The project

The new project funded by the Leverhulme Trust will build on the archaeological research led by Prof James Crow, but drawing on the expertise of Drs Martin Crapper and Simon Smith at the School of Engineering at the University of Edinburgh. It provides an exciting opportunity to focus a new interdisciplinary approach for the study of this exceptional system.

Building on previous studies we aim to focus on two interrelated themes:

  1. Using network modelling software we aim to model gravity flow water systems within area of the old city and conduct a series of simulations representing the water system through its various evolutions through history. Application of these models will then enable a significant step-change in understanding the functioning of this significant ancient hydraulic system and present a range of scenarios which can present new insights and questions into the urban topography and the life of the Byzantine and Ottoman city.
  2. Modelling the Infrastructure will examine the construction and project management issues of the ancient water system, including the procurement of materials, manpower and skills, as well as transport to site, organization and funding. For this we will apply a number of approaches designed for contemporary mega projects such as discrete-event simulation regression modelling and artificial neural networks to help determine the set of possible approaches that were required to undertake the exceptional scale of organized work necessary to deliver the water systems of Constantinople.

Project aims

The two themes will inform wider questions concerning the topography, infrastructure and organisation of the late antique and Byzantine city itself and how this evolved over nearly a millennium. Additionally we hope that this evidence can serve as a proxy to estimate the overall ‘cost’ of the massive building programme and its maintenance for the late Roman and Byzantine state.

The project team

Professor Jim Crow, Archaeology, School of History, Classics and Archaeology

Dr Riley Snyder, Research Associate, School of History, Classics and Archaeology

Dr Martin Crapper and Dr Simon Smith, Institute of Infrastructure and Environment, School of Engineering

Kate Ward and Francesca Ruggeri, PHD students, Engineering