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Unearthing a lost empire

Updated Apr 17, 2015 02:57pm

Children play while armed Turkish soldiers stand guard the Azapilor Gate in Timisoara. As the city prospers, it remains on the front lines of the ongoing struggle for territory between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

From a nearby mosque the muezzin calls for prayer, just as a caravan of Jewish traders enters the city bringing goods from eastern provinces. Local women, mainly Christians, are eager to sample the exotic wares as skilled storytellers enthrall them with tales of their journey through a vast empire.

This recreation of a scene from 16th century Timisoara underlines a key difference that sets the Ottomans apart from their rival empires at the time. As Dr Alexandru Szentmiklosi, Head of Archaeology at Banat Museum, explains: “The Turkish were more flexible because for them peace was important. They only wanted to maintain political and military domination of the region. Of course, economic aspects were also very important.”

Illustration of Timisoara during the medieval era by Ponori Thewrewk József (1793-1870)
Illustration of Timisoara during the medieval era by Ponori Thewrewk József (1793-1870)
Map of Timisoara in 1718 by the the most important German map maker of the 18th century, Matthias Seutter (1678-1757)
Map of Timisoara in 1718 by the the most important German map maker of the 18th century, Matthias Seutter (1678-1757)
A fine example of Turkish writing on a pottery artifact. © 2014, Dr Florin Drasovean
A fine example of Turkish writing on a pottery artifact. © 2014, Dr Florin Drasovean
Knives from the Turkish period. © 2014, Dr Florin Drasovean
Knives from the Turkish period. © 2014, Dr Florin Drasovean
Foundation of the Mosque of Suleiman can be seen during excavation at St. George Square. © 2014, Dr Florin Drasovean
Foundation of the Mosque of Suleiman can be seen during excavation at St. George Square. © 2014, Dr Florin Drasovean
Base of a medieval house in St. George Square. © 2014, Dr Florin Drasovean
Base of a medieval house in St. George Square. © 2014, Dr Florin Drasovean

Within miles from the Hungarian and Serbian borders, Timisoara is an important city in present-day Romania. Its Turkish past has become a distant memory tucked beneath three centuries of development. But that is about to change.

Archaeologists have started uncovering sites and artifacts that were known in the chronicles. What they are really uncovering is an important piece of identity of the city that had gone missing.

Timisoara was conquered by the Turks in 1552 by ousting the Hungarian Empire. Under the command of Albanian born Kara Ahmed Pasha an army of 16,000 men captured the city and transformed it to the capital of the Banat region. Over the next 160 years, Timisoara was controlled directly by the sultan and enjoyed a special status similar to Budapest and Belgrade.

Unlike their contemporaries, the Ottomans were not interested in converting their subjects to Islam or strip local communities off their ancestral identities.

They found it more advantageous to simply tax and maintain political control without interfering in their traditional ways. This allowed the empire to retain and attract some of the best scholars, traders, and travellers to its cities.

Timisoara, under Turkish rule, was diverse and represented people from all corners of Europe and parts of Asia.

Recent excavations are allowing archaeologists to retell the story of Timisoara that has been known through chronicles written by prominent writers during the Ottoman period.

Streets during the Turkish period were made with wooden planks as seen in this photo. © 2014, Dr Florin Drasovean
Streets during the Turkish period were made with wooden planks as seen in this photo. © 2014, Dr Florin Drasovean
An intact pipe discovered was a part of one of the first urban plumbing systems in Romania. © 2014, Dr Florin Drasovean
An intact pipe discovered was a part of one of the first urban plumbing systems in Romania. © 2014, Dr Florin Drasovean
Uncovered area of the Turkish bath discovered under Liberty Square. Photo by Urooj Qureshi
Uncovered area of the Turkish bath discovered under Liberty Square. Photo by Urooj Qureshi
Remains of a Turk buried in a large coffin in the cemetery ascribed to the Mosque of Suleiman. © 2014, Dr Florin Drasovean
Remains of a Turk buried in a large coffin in the cemetery ascribed to the Mosque of Suleiman. © 2014, Dr Florin Drasovean
Over 160 graves have been uncovered in Muslim cemetery from the Ottoman period in Timisoara.  © 2014, Dr Florin Drasovean
Over 160 graves have been uncovered in Muslim cemetery from the Ottoman period in Timisoara. © 2014, Dr Florin Drasovean

Evliya Celebi (1611-1682) was one such writer who documented 40 years of his travel through the Ottoman Empire.

He described the Mosque of Suleiman in Timisoara as a great sanctuary for prayer. A map drafted by Captain Francois Perrete provided the location of the mosque which was replaced by a church following the Austrian conquest.

After three centuries of silence, the project has finally uncovered what lead Archaeologist, Dr Florin Drasovean, has dubbed “The world of the gods, the world of the living and the dead world”.

The Mosque of Suleiman once drew worshippers in with its oriental grandeur in what is present-day St George Square. It requires effort to imagine this site looking at what remains today. However, the earthing of the ruins offers a window into the inner sanctum of the local Muslim community between the 16th and 18th centuries.

Within steps from the mosque, the Turks built a Grand Hammam.

Examining the remains and referencing historical accounts, the Turkish bath reveals to be more than a place for cleaning and relaxation. It played an important role in the social life of the Muslim community. It was a place to perform ablutions before prayer and prepare oneself to immerse themselves into a spiritual state.

Profile of a street from the Ottoman period in Timisoara. © 2014, Dr Alexandru Szentmiklosi
Profile of a street from the Ottoman period in Timisoara. © 2014, Dr Alexandru Szentmiklosi
Early stages of unearthing of the scarp of the north-eastern defensive wall of Timisoara from the Ottoman period. © 2014, Dr Alexandru Szentmiklosi
Early stages of unearthing of the scarp of the north-eastern defensive wall of Timisoara from the Ottoman period. © 2014, Dr Alexandru Szentmiklosi
Top view of the scarp of the defensive wall. - Photo by Urooj Qureshi
Top view of the scarp of the defensive wall. - Photo by Urooj Qureshi
Dr Szentmiklosi, Head of Archaeology, examines the various layers of the defensive wall that was uncovered.
Dr Szentmiklosi, Head of Archaeology, examines the various layers of the defensive wall that was uncovered.
Aerial view of the trench where the defensive wall was discovered. © 2014, Dr Alexandru Szentmiklosi.
Aerial view of the trench where the defensive wall was discovered. © 2014, Dr Alexandru Szentmiklosi.

The Grand Hammam contained 15 rooms arranged around a large central hall. Its floor was suspended on brick pilasters – square columns – to allow circulation of hot air. The air was produced in an oven chamber. Each room was equipped with air circulation passages and smoke chimneys.

Outside, the Hammam was surrounded by gardens and interior courts of nearby buildings with an atmosphere that was private, calming and ideal for exchanging ideas.

The Ottomans supplied water to the baths and other important buildings using a series of aqueducts networked to create one of Romania's first water management systems.

While uncovering the aqueducts, archaeologists also discovered wooden roads and foundations of houses near the mosque. Perhaps one of the most interesting finds was that of a cemetery that was ascribed to the Mosque of Suleiman. With over 160 graves excavated, so far, it is considered to be among the largest necropolis in the region.

Most of the graves in the cemetery belong to commoners who were buried in a single piece of cloth as per Islamic tradition.

Others clearly belonged to a privileged class of society for they were buried in large coffins and tombs made of stone and marble. This tells us that Timisoara may have been home to prominent citizens of the large empire.

Maybe the strategic location of the city was a reason for high-ranking officials to be based here.

After all, Timisoara is an important gateway to Western Europe and the Balkans even today.

Animal bones from the Ottoman period discovered in one of the defensive ditches. © 2014, Dr Alexandru Szentmiklosi
Animal bones from the Ottoman period discovered in one of the defensive ditches. © 2014, Dr Alexandru Szentmiklosi
Union Square in modern-day Timisoara. - Photo by Urooj Qureshi
Union Square in modern-day Timisoara. - Photo by Urooj Qureshi
Old inscription plaque marking the Turkish bath in Liberty Square. - Photo by Urooj Qureshi
Old inscription plaque marking the Turkish bath in Liberty Square. - Photo by Urooj Qureshi
Bega canal in modern-day Timisoara is one of the old waterways still functioning. - Photo by Urooj Qureshi
Bega canal in modern-day Timisoara is one of the old waterways still functioning. - Photo by Urooj Qureshi
Opera Square in modern-day Timisoara. - Photo by Urooj Qureshi
Opera Square in modern-day Timisoara. - Photo by Urooj Qureshi

While Europe is at peace today, back then there was a constant threat of invasions from one of the rival empires – especially the Austro-Hungarians in the region.

Timisoara had an ancient but effective defensive system. The city had the advantage of rivers Timis and Bega that were channelled to form moats around the fortress and the old city.

Behind the murky waters stood a towering wall which was built by trapping earth in a wooden frame. The scarp was made using the mighty oak trees that could be up to three metres wide. Reinforced and defended by the formidable Ottoman army the walls of Timisoara were impregnable.

When the Turks did surrender to the Hapsburg army in 1716 it was following a long siege and an usual bout of bad weather.

It seems almost alien to imagine a caravan of camels mounted by men wearing large turbans and women dressed in colourful attires making their way through a grey and alpine European background.

But that was once a common sight, at least in this territory of an empire that once united people across three continents.

The Museum of Banat in Timisoara has created a wonderful exhibit showcasing life and the living in Timisoara during the Ottoman period. Many of the artifacts, including aqueducts, weapons, coins, and other items are available for public viewing.

Orthodox Cathedral of Timisoara. - Photo by Urooj Qureshi
Orthodox Cathedral of Timisoara. - Photo by Urooj Qureshi
Aerial view of the excavation site where the Turkish bath stood. © 2014 Dorel Micle, West University of Timisoara
Aerial view of the excavation site where the Turkish bath stood. © 2014 Dorel Micle, West University of Timisoara
A room in the the bath that was equipped with air circulation passages and smoke chimneys. © 2014 Dorel Micle, West University of Timisoara
A room in the the bath that was equipped with air circulation passages and smoke chimneys. © 2014 Dorel Micle, West University of Timisoara