Summer 2017

Against Gravity

A vertical history of places and things

Avinoam Shalem

If we live in a “horizontal” world that suppresses the vertical, it is nonetheless a world that is susceptible to verticality … it is a world into which the vertical erupts.[1]
—Anthony J. Steinbock, Phenomenology and Mysticism (2007)

The 31 August 2015 issue of the New Yorker included a long article by Elif Batuman titled “The Big Dig.”[2] In it, the American writer discusses the politics of power in Turkey in relation to access to knowledge of the past. The focus of the article is the debate about the large archaeological area at Yenikapi, the very site on the European shore of the Bosporus where the main station of the Marmaray (the Marmara Rail) was constructed. The huge infrastructural project involved building the first tunnel to connect Asia and Europe, which established a long-needed railway link for the roughly two million people who cross the Bosporus daily. Modern solutions for addressing the rapid metamorphosis of Istanbul into a megacity seem to clash with our intellectual desire to survey and document the past. Archaeology delays progress. From 2005 to 2013, the construction of the aboveground rail and metro stations was halted and an archaeological “Big Dig” began. And, as it turned out, remains of a Neolithic settlement dating from around 6000 BC were discovered, in addition to a fourth-century marble Apollo, a carved ivory panel with the image of the Virgin Mary, a ninth-century wooden box with a tablet for storing weights for a portable assay balance, and dozens of Byzantine shipwrecks. Batuman describes the two faces, so to speak, of this site in 2013, at a time when modern construction and archaeological excavation were running in parallel:

When I first visited the Yenikapi excavation site, in July, 2013, the Marmaray station was already nearly completed—a concrete colossus topped by a flat, glass-enclosed rotunda—but the metro station was still an archeological dig. The total site was fifty-eight thousand square metres, about the size of eleven football fields. Workers on the Marmaray side wore fluorescent hard hats with matching vests. On the metro side, they wore faded caps or white shirts tied around their heads, against the blazing sun. They were constructing an edifice of their own, as striking, in its way, as the station: a fortress of plastic milk crates, ten crates high, stretching farther than the eye could see, packed with broken amphorae, horse bones, anchors, ceramic lamps, hewn limestone, mining refuse—anything that had been left there, accidentally or on purpose, by human hands. It was as if you were watching, in real time, the ancient harbor being replaced by a modern station.[3]

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