A very close friend of mine and the man who came closest to being my father figure once told me: “you are notoriously crazy.” I took that as a great compliment. I have always enjoyed what others might consider as bizarre behavior. One of my notoriously crazy habits was a running regime where I ran five miles per day. This was not any great feat by athletic standards except that I did it for fifteen consecutive years no matter how bad the weather or wherever I was in the world. This was wearying in the extreme. My goal was to see just how long I could continue a test of personal endurance. Dodging everything from lightning bolts to buffalos, hailstorms and hell frozen over in -30 degree temperatures, I kept this habit going until one day I started walking rather running. I have never stopped.
Passing through – Aqueduct of Valen in Istanbul (Credit: Mondo79)
Setting The Pace – Running Into Trouble
My self-imposed running regime meant that every time I visited Eastern Europe it was on the agenda. Each morning I darted out the door of a hotel, hostel or house and took off down unknown avenues, across random fields, and through city centers to ensure I met my daily quota. This was downright grueling at times due to jet lag. On other occasions it was ridiculously dangerous. Just try going for a jog down a sidewalk in Istanbul at eight a.m. when everyone in the city has somewhere they have to be. Crossing a heavily trafficked street was an exhilarating experience that had me wondering whether I was finally about to meet my maker in the form of a Turkish commuter. One who was driven damn near mad by some foolish foreigner. I was the type who refused to obey local pedestrian traffic rules such as get the hell out of my way.
As spectacularly stupid as trying to pick my way through Istanbul’s notoriously nightmarish traffic in the city center sounds, the thought of failure was much worse to me. Running was a risk worth taking. Even in Istanbul there were jaw dropping moments that had nothing to do with near death experiences. There are worse things than seeing the sites at a brisk pace. Running beside the Sea of Marmara, along the Theodosian Walls, and following the Golden Horn were worth every bit of dodging I had to do. The most memorable of these experiences came on my first run in the city. I started off hyperaware of the surroundings. My goal was to avoid a catastrophe that seemed to lurk along every sidewalk and street corner. This made it hard to focus on anything other than what was right in front of my face. That was until a strikingly large segment of ancient infrastructure caught my eye.
Narrow passageway – Heading towards the Aqueduct of Valens (Credit: R Prezeres)
Ancient Infrastructure – Extravagant Engineering
Before me I saw a series of stone arches stacked beside and atop one another. This was the Aqueduct of Valens, a multi-storied segment of ancient infrastructure still standing in the Fatih District. A multi-lane, traffic packed boulevard ran beneath it. I was astonished more by the aqueduct’s placement, than its considerable size. The remnants of this segment of the aqueduct survived while the city grew up all around it. I could only imagine what the fully intact aqueduct must have looked like when completed during the late 4th century. The emperor whose name graces it is a bit of a misnomer. Valens (364 – 378 AD) was not the one who started the project. Instead, the aqueduct’s construction began under his predecessor Constantius II (337 – 361). Valens got his name attached to it for being emperor when the aqueduct was completed.
Passing beneath the aqueduct on foot was a thrill. Especially while watching vehicles along Ataturk Boulevard race beneath the stone arches. This specific part of the aqueduct is known as Bozdogan Kemeri which means Aqueduct of the Gray Falcon. The Bozdogan Kemeri soars to 921 meters in height as it bridges a valley between two hills in Istanbul. One of those hills is home to Istanbul University, while on the other one stands Fatih Mosque. The mosque’s name is the same as the district I was running through and where the ancient aqueduct bridge can be found. I was shocked to find such a huge relic of Roman times amid the city. I should not have been since what I saw was only a very small part of an extravagant system fed by natural springs that brought Istanbul a consistent fresh water supply. At its zenith, the entire system stretched for 451 kilometers (280 miles) into areas far outside of the city.
I could not help but wonder why the Bozdogan Kemeri had survived while so much of ancient Constantinople was either destroyed or buried beneath the modern city. Later I did some research which revealed that the aqueduct did not die along with the Roman Empire. And the death of the Roman Empire in the east was much different from that of the west. The Roman Empire I learned about in school ceased to exist in 476 AD. That was only the case for its western half. The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) continued until the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453. The aqueduct was in use during much of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. As a matter of fact, ten of the arches that make up the Bozdogan Kemeri, were constructed during the Ottoman era. Much of the Roman infrastructure would not be surpassed until the modern age. While modern engineering works may be more efficient and state of the art, it is doubtful that any will last as long as the Aqueduct of Valens.
Rate of Mortality – A Lesson In Time
The aqueduct was not only a reminder for me of the Roman world’s legacy, but also of my own mortality. The aqueduct was over sixteen hundred years old. I broke my neck in a bicycle accident just before I turned sixteen. At the time, I ran beneath the aqueduct, I was thirty-six years old. Half my life or more might have already been over. The world goes on without us, the works of humanity last longer than humans. Many of us are fond of saying that all empires fall, but they have still lasted much longer than we ever will. The Aqueduct of Valens taught me a lesson in time. That while time is the best teacher, unfortunately it kills all its students.
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