7 Aralık 2013 Cumartesi

İstanbul’s Theodosian Wall

The vast majority of visitors to İstanbul pay little heed to the city's most extensive Byzantine remains -- the land walls. These formidable fortifications were built in the fifth century A.D. to protect Constantinople, the booming capital of the mighty Byzantine Empire, from attack by armies approaching from the west.  
The walls did their job -- and were only breached twice: once by the Crusaders in the 13th century and then by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453. Today's invaders, tourists, pass through at will. Most may idly glance at the walls as they make their way into the city from Atatürk Airport by metro, tram, bus or taxi. But very few, besotted as they are by the wonders of Sultanahmet or the fleshpots of Beyoğlu, see the walls again until they are whisked through them on their way back to the airport. This is a great shame. Stretching for around six kilometers from the Sea of Marmara in the south to the Golden Horn in the north, 13 meters high and five meters thick, pierced by 10 major gateways and surmounted by numerous watchtowers, they are a superb example of Byzantine defensive architecture. 

The best way to appreciate the walls is on foot. Those of you who are good at math will have already worked out that at an average walking speed of three kilometers per hour it will only take a couple of hours to walk their six-kilometer length. Think again! To get the most out of the experience, it's best to allow a whole day. There is much to be seen en route -- and a great lunch stop. The easiest way to get to the start point is by suburban train from Sirkeci or Cankurtan stations to Yedikule. From the station, cross the busy coast road to the Marble Tower, situated right on the Sea of Marmara. This 30-meter high structure, its base clad with marble, is thought to have been a seaside retreat for Byzantine emperors. Now head north and inland, passing the Gate of Jesus, so-called because the letters "XP," inscribed in the stonework above the entrance, form the first two letters of Christ's name. Then re-cross the coastal highway and railway line and continue north towards Yedikule. 

Yedikule’s fortıtude

Yedikule (Castle of the Seven Towers) is a substantial fortress. Its western defenses were formed from the original Byzantine land wall, which was pierced by the Golden Gate. Flanked by two marble towers, this triple gate was a triumphal arch, used solely by newly appointed rulers and emperors returning from a successful military campaign. Not long after the capture of the city by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror added two towers to this section of land wall. He then built three more towers inside the wall, connecting them to the Byzantine city wall and each other with a curtain wall, thus forming the fort you see today -- now a museum. Wander inside and have a look at the two towers used as prisons. One, known as the "tower of inscriptions" after the scribbling left by the unfortunate wretches incarcerated in its gloomy interior, has the following words scratched on the wall by a French prisoner: "Prisoners, who in your misery groan in this sad place, offer your sorrows with a good heart in God and you will find them lightened." The other tower was used for executions and contains the "well of blood" down which the bloody heads were disposed -- including that of Ottoman Sultan Osman II. For light relief, clamber up to the walkways and look out over sections of (now dry) moat used by local market gardeners and the sea glittering away to the south. 

    The next section of wall, a one-kilometer stretch between Yedikule and the Silivri Gate, is largely intact and you can stride (with care!) along the battlements. Exit the Silivri Gate and walk west for a little under half a kilometer to visit the Shrine of Zoodochus Pege (Greek for "Life-giving Spring" and known in Turkish as the Balıklı Kilise or "Church of the Fish"). The Byzantine Emperor Justinian is said to have ordered a church to be erected near the spring in the sixth century A.D. as local women informed him that the Virgin Mary had given the spring healing powers. Justinian's church was later destroyed and the present building dates only from 1833. Bishops and patriarchs of the Greek Orthodox Church are buried in the courtyard and "sacred" fish still swim in the pool. If you have the energy, check out the İbrahim Paşa Camii just inside the Silivri Gate. This fair-sized mosque was built in 1551 by the famous Sinan, the architect responsible for most of the best mosques in the Ottoman world. 

    Follow the line of the wall north again until you reach the Mevlevihane Gate. A Latin inscription here records that "By the command of Theodosius, Constantine erected these strong fortifications in less than two months." This inscription serves to remind you that these mighty walls were built during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius, who reigned from A.D. 408-450. The next section is easy walking, with a sidewalk following the line of the old moat. It's hard to picture the sedate Byzantine era, when a horse was the fastest and noisiest form of transport, as you approach the bedlam of the dual carriageway/tram line at Turgut Özal Caddesi. Cross with care and head for the Topkapı (Canon) Gate. It is called this because, in 1453, the besieging Ottoman forces wielded their most potent weapon against it -- the famous Urban -- the largest canon in the Ottoman arsenal. Some eight meters long, it could fire a 1,200-pound cannonball nearly two kilometers. Head inside the gate to visit another beautiful Sinan mosque, the Kara Ahmet Paşa Camii. 

Grabbing a bite to eat 

For those of you who are getting hungry, there are plenty of places to eat around Topkapı. If you can resist the hunger pangs, however, press on north along the line of the wall, which dips into a valley. The walls in this dip are very badly damaged because they were at their least defensible here and thus bore the brunt of the Ottoman assault in 1453. It's worth making the short diversion to the Mihrimah Camii just inside the next entryway -- the Edirne Gate. The great Sinan built this mosque, situated on a hill commanding fine views of the city, for the daughter of the Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. The narrow streets and houses that make up the neighborhood around the gate have been the home of a sizeable gypsy community for centuries. This colorful community is currently under threat, with the municipal authorities determined to redevelop what they call a slum area. 

    A little way inside the walls beyond the Edirne Gate is what is widely regarded as the second most important (after the Aya Sofya) Byzantine monument in İstanbul -- the Church of the Savior in Chora (now the Kariye Müzesi). But forget Byzantine churches for the moment. Take a much-needed (almost certainly late!) lunch-stop at the Asithane, a top-draw restaurant housed in a lovely 19th century house right next door to the museum. The views from the shady terrace are superb, as is the food, which pays homage to the great cuisine of the Ottoman court. The rich meat stews served up here are given an extra piquancy by the liberal use of fruit. Restored to your usual vim and vigor, it's time to explore the Kariye museum. Although much smaller than the massive Aya Sofya in Sultanahmet, the frescoes and mosaics inside this former church are of the highest quality. The Kariye Müzesi is worth a travel feature in its own right, so allow at least an hour to wander around and admire some of the finest religious art in the world. 

You are now approaching the end of the walk and your goal, the Golden Horn. Head downhill, to the Palace of the Porphyrogenitos (Tekfursarayı in Turkish). Dating back to the 13th or 14th century, it was probably built as an annex to the larger Blachernae Palace, situated a little way further down the hill. Access to the Tekfursarayı is difficult but it's well worth admiring the pretty contrasting brick and marble façade of the building from the other side of the fence. There is little left of the Blachernae Palace beyond it's substructure, but it still gives an idea of the wealth, magnificence and cruelty (part of the substructure formed the dungeons) of successive Byzantine rulers. 

The Golden Horn now beckons. Head down to the waterfront and make your way across Haliç Park to the Ayvansaray pier and catch a ferry down the Horn to the Galata Bridge. Having just walked the entire length of the land walls you may be worn out -- but you will now be able to fully appreciate just what a wonder they were -- and the vital role they played in protecting the capital of two of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. 

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