Thursday, September 24, 2015

A city's buried secrets

Ufuk Kocabaş spent his summers swimming, snorkeling and eventually diving around nearby Marmara Island, where his grandfather and other forebears plied the sea as sailors. At age 14, he stumbled upon his first shipwreck, littered with pieces of amphora — an ancient type of storage and transport container — and got an early lesson in proper archaeological practice.

“I took some amphora fragments [from the ship] to my sister who was studying at university,” recalls Kocabaş, now head of the Istanbul University Conservation Department. “She told me I shouldn’t have taken them from the site, that I should have left them where they were. At the time, I thought this was stupid. It’s my amphora!”

After chiding him, Kocabaş’s sister helped him identify the type of amphora he found. It dated to the seventh century, and they passed the information they’d ascertained about the shipwreck to a museum. “It was an amazing experience,” Kocabaş says. “I started to read about shipwrecks then, and haven’t stopped since.” ...

Last summer, I had the privilege to peek into Istanbul's far-distant past with Kocabaş, who helped lead the archaeological excavation that uncovered perhaps the world’s largest collection of Byzantine shipwrecks, and evidence that the city's history dates back nearly 6,000 years farther than previously believed.

My story about the work of Kocabaş' Yenikapı Shipwrecks Project, and other fascinating urban archaeological digs from Rio to Rome, was published as the September 2015 cover story of Discover, my first piece for the renowned science magazine.

Read my article, "Underground Transit Projects Reveal Secrets Buried Beneath Cities," in Discover.

My story featured on Discover's Facebook page

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

(Olive) oil vs. coal

For seven weeks in the fall of 2014, the villagers of Yirca kept watch over their olive groves day and night, warming themselves around a fire and taking turns sleeping in a small shelter. Sentinels with binoculars were stationed under the pines on a nearby hill with a sweeping view across the broad, flat valley. They were scanning for any sign of movement by the Kolin Group, the company that was seeking to expropriate this land to build and operate a 510-megawatt, coal-fired power plant.

"If the scouts saw anything, they'd get on their phones and call down, 'The bulldozers are coming!' and the people would rush to block the road leading to the groves," says Mustafa Akin. The avuncular former teacher now serves as muhtar—the elected village head—of Yirca, a tiny settlement of 400 in western Turkey, 50 miles inland from the Aegean Sea.

For a time, despite several confrontations with Kolin Group workers, the villagers' vigil was largely successful. But one night in early November, the bulldozers came back, this time accompanied by two busloads of private security guards and a "rapid expropriation" order from the government. Arguments broke out, and then scuffles. Four people were hauled off in handcuffs; others say they were beaten by the guards. Before the sun rose, 6,000 olive trees had been ripped out of the ground....

What happened that night in Yırca shocked people around Turkey, especially coming as it did just a few months after an appalling industrial disaster killed 301 coal miners in nearby Soma. But it is hardly the only place in the country where corporate interests -- particularly those related to the energy and construction sectors -- are running roughshod over nature and rural communities. Earlier this year, I traveled to Yırca to see how the villagers were faring following the loss of their olive trees, and to try and put their story into the context of the larger battles playing out across Turkey.

This reporting appeared as a feature piece in the September/October 2015 issue of Sierra magazine. For a visual snapshot of life in Yırca, visit my personal blog, where I've posted some photos from my trip.

Read my article, "The Olive and the Power Plant," online, or see it as it appeared in Sierra's September/October 2015 issue (pdf).