Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Turkey: Stroll Along Istanbul’s Theodosian Walls

Visitors to Istanbul usually head straight for the city’s traditional landmarks – the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapı Palace or the enormous Kapalıçarşı bazaar. Typically, not much attention is paid to the medieval walls that still stand in various spots throughout the city. But – as contributor Bruce Macphail discovered during his recent tour of Istanbul’s Theodosian walls, they carry the historical imprint of the city’s rulers, conquerors and diverse inhabitants through the centuries. Now that they are no longer needed for the city’s defense, the walls have been integrated into its landscape in several slightly unusual but organic ways.

This article is part of a series of travelogues by Bruce Macphail as his makes his way from Istanbul to Durrës, Albania, along Via Egnatia, the Roman road that cut through the Balkans.

Text and photographs by Bruce Macphail

The Theodosian walls might be familiar to visitors coming into Istanbul by train from the West or by car from the airport, but not many tourists include them on their itinerary of sites. Having passed through them numerous times on my way to and from the airport, I decided to learn more and embark on a stroll along the length of the walls from the Marmara Sea to the Golden Horn.

The walls offer a fascinating insight into the city’s medieval history, starting from the Golden Gate, built in the fourth century AD soon after Istanbul (then Constantinople) became the capital of the Roman Empire, to Edirnekapi, the gate through which Mehmed II entered the city in 1453, defeating the Byzantine Empire and establishing the Ottoman capital which would last until 1923.

Similarly to Hagia Sophia, another main highlight of the city, the walls tell the story of the different inhabitants of the city as each of them added layers of their own histories, from the Romans to the Byzantines and Ottomans. Today, Istanbul does not need to be guarded from invading armies, but the wall remains an integral part of life to those living around it. It is used as the backdrop for coffee shops, a quiet place to take a nap, a source of livelihood for some with vegetable patches or a discreet place to meet for young lovers.

I embarked on my journey from the Marmara Sea. The coastal road that connects to the airport runs parallel to a long promenade which follows the shore. A number of cargo ships are always stationed on the sea close to the promenade queuing to use the Bosphorus. Outside the walls heading north is a manicured garden which runs between the Marmara road and the train tracks – the areas along the wall with the most traffic are always the most developed and renovated, while some parts are left very desolate.

The first main site is perhaps the most important one, the Golden Gate. It is one of Istanbul’s oldest Roman sites; it existed prior to the construction of the wall as an arch and was used as a measure to locate the wall. The arch was originally built by Theodosius I, father of Theodosius II, who gave his name to the walls, to welcome returning victorious heroes when the Roman Empire was torn apart between east and west.

The arch was built outside the original Roman walls that Constantine I had constructed when he made Byzantium his capital in 330. (The city was only named Constantinople after his death; Constantine had called it Nova Roma). The arch is said to be located at the end of Via Egnatia – the old Roman road crossing the Balkan Peninsula from Durrës, Albania, to Istanbul. When the walls were built, starting in 408-413AD, they incorporated the Arch into its walls, 1.5 kilometres to the west of Constantine’s walls.

The Golden Gate is surrounded by the Yedikule Fortress (yedi kule means ‘seven towers’ in Turkish), built by the Ottomans after conquering the city. The fortress was built to replace a Byzantium fortress which had been destroyed. Of the seven towers, four are part of the inner wall and three are standing inside the walls. The fortress is now an open air museum. From inside you can visit the Golden Gate (entry costs 2.50 euro).

Heading north, the next gate is Belgratkapi (‘Belgrade Gate’ in Turkish), pictured below. The original walls had a total of 10 gates over a 5.5-kilometre stretch. The wall took its name from the Serbian population that came to live outside the walls after the Ottoman conquest in the fifteenth century. It is well renovated and has stairs to access the different levels of the tower. This top of the tower gives a panoramic view of Yedikule Fortress and the Marmara Sea. It is also possible to stroll up and down the walls on a footpath, as pictured above.

From the Belgrade Tower you can get a good idea of the original shape of the walls. The original Theodosian walls consist of two walls and a ditch. The earliest map of Istanbul made in 1422, just before the Ottoman invasion shows the ditch was filled with water.

The ditch was about 20 metres wide and 10 metres deep. There is no more water in the ditch and the land is mostly used for vegetable patches as well as parks and gardens. The fruits and vegetables grown along and in between the walls are sold at the Gates’ entry points.

An aerial view of the city still shows how important the walls and gates were in the urban development of the city to the West.

There is a clear line around the city’s historic area, which the parks and vegetable patches run along and after which a more industrial area begins.

Moving on after the Belgrade Gate, the next notable stop is the Topkapi Gate (top kapi means ‘Cannon Gate’ in Turkish) which gave its name to the Ottoman palace in Sultanahmet. To get there from Belgratkapi, it is best to stroll down outside of the walls as the landscape is nicely developed. Some parts of the walls and towers, however, are in a somewhat disastrous state having suffered from the Mehmed II’s cannons in 1453 siege of the city. The cannons, which allowed the Ottoman armies to destroy the wall (and later gave its name to the Gate), were the world’s first super guns and played a crucial role in facilitating the Ottoman conquest of the city.

The walls were only breached twice in their 1,600-year history: by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 which managed to weaken the troops by interrupting the sea access and leaving the walls less protected and, for the second time, by the Ottomans in 1453. Except for these two successes, the fortress managed to defend the city in its resistance towards sieges from the Persians, the Avars, the Arabs, the Bulgars and the Rus.

Heading north is the Edirnekapi (‘Edirne Gate’ in Turkish), which is well renovated. It holds its name for the city of Edirne, a historic city west of Istanbul near the border with Greece and Bulgaria. This is one of the most symbolic gates as it is through it that Mehmed II made his entry into Constantinople on May 29, 1453, following the defeat of the Byzantine armies once the Ottoman forces had penetrated the city. The Ottomans made Istanbul their capital for the next 500 years.

The last sight along the Theodosian walls is the Tekfur Sarayi (means Emperor’s Palace). Only the walls remain of the castle built in the late thirteenth century. The castle was built as a palace for Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus. It was later converted by the Ottomans into a menagerie and a brothel. It is currently forbidden to enter inside the walls as there is renovation work being carried out; nonetheless the outer walls give a good idea of the palace. It is one of the few areas along the walls that is actually closed off and under renovation.

After the Tekfur Sarayi, the Theodosian walls connect to the Blocharnae walls which extend the few hundred meters to the Golden Horn. They were built after the Theodosian walls and do not have the same structure. Several layers of walls were built over time. It was actually through these walls that the Fourth Crusade managed to enter the city. So it could be said that the Theodosian walls were only actually taken once.

The entire walk should take three to four hours. There are a number of tasty eateries along the way offering traditional Turkish food in a more authentic setting then the restaurants crowding the other touristy sights of Istanbul. The diverse neighbourhood inside the walls is called Fatih.

The recommended way to tour the walls is to alternate walking inside and outside of them: on the one hand, to enjoy the history from the outside and on the other, to experience how the walls interact with life today from the inside.

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