A Subway Bores Into the Ottoman and Byzantine Eras

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It does not take an archaeologist's training to see the risks of digging a railway tunnel under one of the world's most ancient cities - a center of both Islam and Christendom - where remnants of civilizations and empires are piled on top of one another like a stack of history books.

Istanbul, however, is pressing ahead with the construction of the 47-mile rail system, which will connect the city's European and Asian halves through a tunnel that runs beneath the Bosporus.

City officials say the $2.6 billion project, the Marmaray, is desperately needed to ease congestion in a metropolis of 10 million. The two bridges that cross the Bosporus are jammed with traffic, and the existing subway system, with one line and six stations, is comically inadequate.

The trouble is, the project's engineers have concluded that the best route for the tunnel on the European side is beneath the old city - home to the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace, where sultans ruled the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries. The workers are likely to hit something of historical value every time they put shovel to earth.

"It's extremely challenging because no other city has so many layers of cultural history," said Ismail Karamut, director of the Archaeological Museums of Istanbul, which is helping to excavate four sites that lie in the path of the subway to assess their historic significance.

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