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The intriguing history of the Maiden’s Tower in Istanbul

5 min read

For hundreds of years, lighthouses have offered protection and hope to anyone lost out in sea.
These iconic monuments have withstood weather and war, offering a glimpse into a more or less distant past.
The majestic Maiden’s tower (Kız Kulesi in Turkish), also known as Leander’s Tower (Tower of Leandros), is one of the best lighthouses in Europe to visit at least once in your life.
Situated on a small islet at the southern entrance of the Bosphorus strait 200 m from the coast of Üsküdar in Istanbul, it has existed since the medieval Byzantine period.
An iconic landmark on the city’s skyline, it has a rich history dating back to the fourth century, as well as a few legends adding to its fame, and an intriguing background worth exploring.
The Maiden’s Tower served many different purposes throughout the centuries, including a merchantman tax collection center, a defense tower, and a lighthouse. During the 1830 cholera epidemic, it was even transformed into a quarantine hospital and radio station while, in 1964, the building was given over to the Ministry of Defence and then to the Maritime Enterprises 18 years later.

Historically, after the naval victory at Cyzicus, the ancient Athenian general Alcibiades possibly built a custom station for ships coming from the Black Sea on a small rock in front of Chrysopolis, today’s Üsküdar.
In 1110 Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus built a wooden tower protected by a stone wall. From the tower an iron chain stretched across to another tower erected on the European shore, at the quarter of Mangana in Constantinople.
The islet was then connected to the Asiatic shore through a defense wall, whose underwater remains are visible still today.
During the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, our modern Istanbul, in 1453, the tower held a Byzantine garrison commanded by the Venetian Gabriele Trevisanom and then the structure was used as a watchtower by the Ottoman Turks during the reign of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror.
The tower was destroyed during the earthquake of 1509, and then burned down in 1721.
Following that it was used as a lighthouse, and the surrounding walls were repaired in 1731 and 1734, until in 1763 it was reconstructed using stone by Istanbul’s head architect Nevşehirli Damat İbrahim Paşa, and a glass kiosk and lead-covered dome were later added. Sultan Mahmut II’s signature was inscribed on marble by famous calligrapher Rakım Efendi and, by 1857, a lantern had been installed, although this was converted into an automatic lighting system by 1920.
The most recent restoration began in 1998 for the James Bond movie “The World Is Not Enough”, and steel supports were added around the ancient tower as a precaution after the 17 August 1999 earthquake.
The interior of the tower has been converted into a café and restaurant, with views of the former Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman capital, with private boats that make trips to the tower several times a day.

There are many legends about the construction of the tower and its location.
According to probably the most popular one, an emperor had a much beloved daughter and one day, an oracle prophesied that she would be killed by a venomous snake on her 18th birthday.
The emperor, in an effort to thwart his daughter’s early demise by placing her away from land so as to keep her away from any snakes, had the tower built in the middle of the Bosphorus to protect his daughter until her 18th birthday. The princess was placed in the tower, where she was frequently visited only by her father.
On the 18th birthday of the princess, the emperor brought her a basket of exotic sumptuous fruits as a birthday gift, delighted that he was able to prevent the prophecy. Upon reaching into the basket, however, an asp that had been hiding among the fruit bit the young princess and she died in her father’s arms, just as the oracle had predicted, hence the name Maiden’s Tower.

The older name Leander’s Tower, come from another legend, the one of Hero and Leander (which is set in the Dardanelles strait, also known in antiquity as the Hellespont), the Greek myth relating the story of Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite (Venus in Roman mythology) who dwelt in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont, and Leander, a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and would swim every night across the Hellespont to spend time with her, and Hero would light a lamp at the top of her tower to guide his way.
Succumbing to Leander’s soft words and to his argument that Aphrodite, as the goddess of love and sex, would scorn the worship of a virgin, Hero succumbed to his charms and they made love.
Their secret love affair lasted through a warm summer.
They had agreed to part during winter and resume in the spring due to the nature of the waters.
However, one stormy winter night, Leander saw the torch at the top of Hero’s tower, but the strong winter wind blew out Hero’s light and Leander lost his way and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him.
Their bodies washed up on shore together in an embrace and they were buried in a grave on the same shore.
Due to the vicinity and similarity between the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, Leander’s story was mistakenly attributed to the tower.

Last but not least, the Battalgazi legend follows the tale of a man by that name, who was said to fall for the daughter of the tekfur, the Christian ruler.
The tekfur forbade their union and isolated his daughter at the tower, after which Battalgazi stormed the islet and abducted his love, riding away with her into the sunset. The saying, “He who takes the horse, crosses Üsküdar,” is said to derive from this story and means those who act without deliberating too long will reach their goals faster.

Do you agree? 😊

Images from web – Google Research