Where are the Seven Hills?

Istanbul's proverbial seven hills fall inside the ancient land walls in the area known today as the 'Historic Peninsula'.

Istanbul naturally springs to mind at the mention of the 'city of seven hills', even though it is not only Istanbul but Rome too that claims this epithet. And the connection between Istanbul, strung out opposite Asia along the confluence of the Bosporus, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, and Rome on the banks of the Tiber in the heart of Europe is stronger and more vital than is often thought.

Istanbul has been surrounded by walls ever since the original settlement which was located in the area containing the Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace and Seraglio Point. Less than a hundred years after the construction of the 'new' land walls traced in person by the Roman emperor Constantine with the tip of his mace, Emperor Theodosius II had the land walls that we can still see today built starting from Ayvansaray on the Golden Horn and stretching as far as the settlement of Kazlıçeşme on the Sea of Marmara, thereby outlining the city's boundaries for the last time. But where on the Historic Peninsula that we call 'the original Istanbul' are those seven hills? 

Sought in the geography of the Historic Peninsula, the hills lie more or less within the three corners of this triangular shaped city. The city's three highest hills are separated by the Bayrampaşa River (the Lycius), two of them lying parallel with the Golden Horn, the other further south. Including the first and second hills, the central ridge that rises starting from Seraglio Point extends westwards parallel to the shores of the Golden Horn and is divided near Unkapanı into a valley perpendicular to the estuary. In this sense the city's geography can be said to consist more of high ridges separated by valleys than into discrete hills with slopes and summits. What needs to be asked however is where the remaining four hills are, or, more precisely, where we should seek them. Are these seven hills really in the city's geography? And if they are not, then what is the source of this image of a 'city of seven hills' that resides in our collective memory?

Ever since the Babylonians, the number seven has been ascribed a sacred place - in mythology, in paganism, and in all the  monotheistic religions as well as other faiths. This mystical number, which crops up in various forms in all these belief systems, was also a determining factor in the legend surrounding the city of Rome, which was built on seven hills owing to the sacred significance attributed to this number. In emulation of the Old Rome, the New Rome too had to be built on seven hills so as to be at least as sacred as its ancient counterpart. Hence both cities were defined as cities of 'seven hills', the number seven thereby creating seven focal points in each one.

Just as Romulus founded Rome in 753 B.C. by boring a 'mundus' through the Palatine Hill in 753 B.C., so did Constantine in 330 A.D. found the New Rome by boring a mundus through the city's second hill. The 'mundus' was a hole that went straight to the heart of the city of Rome. The Romans built their cities in keeping with a basic plan. The planners would examine the sky and, taking the movement of the sun as the east-west axis and the movement of the stars perpendicular to this as the north-south axis, represent the two on the earth. As the intersecting point of the Decumanus maximus or east-west axis with the Cardus maximus or north-south axis, the 'Cardo' was regarded as the city center,  or 'umbilicus'. It was easy to determine the sacred boundaries of the city once its main axes and their point of intersection had been established in this way.

Known as the 'Mese', Istanbul's east-west axis starts from Auguesteion Square in front of the Hagia Sophia and extends westward along the central ridge which boasts six of the city's  seven focal points. Near the Şehzade Mosque it divides in two, meeting with the land walls at two points, which also mark two of the city's main gates: Edirne Kapı or Gate (Charisius) and the Yaldızlı Kapı or Golden Gate. The north-south 'Kardo' axis, meanwhile, forms port city Istanbul's relationship with the Golden Horn to the north and the Sea of Marmara to the south. The Mese and the Kardo are thus the city's two main thoroughfares, and the stopping points along them its squares and forums as defined by the buildings that surround them. Within 100-150 years of its founding, seven forums would be constructed in the New Rome: Augusteion, Constantine, Theodosius (Tauri), Philadelphion, Amastrianon, Bovis and Arcadius. Apart from the Forum Bovis, which lies in the valley of the Lycius, all these fora are at least forty meters above sea level and situated approximately equidistant from each other. Over time these fundamental elements of New Rome's structure suffered serious depredations due to civil wars, natural disasters and economic crises, and most notably in the 13th century when they were burned to the ground.  Although a restoration was undertaken following the destruction caused during the Latin Empire of the Fourth Crusade (1204-1261), the economic collapse of the Byzantine Empire meant that the city never recovered its former splendor until the Ottoman conquest in 1453, at which time it came under the rule of a dynasty in the ascendant and was once again revived as a city of seven hills.

In the Roman era, a column dedicated to the emperor was erected at the center of each forum. Forming a line that joined sky, earth and the underground, this vertical axis possessed a mystical significance. In the Ottoman period, domes and minarets replaced these columns as the basic elements in the city's skyline.

The six hills on the Golden Horn side of the city were crowned with imperial mosques that gave the city its Ottoman stamp. Marking the city's focal points, these imperial mosques confront us today as the fundamental components of the city's image in the Ottoman period. Its vital thoroughfare was the Golden Horn, and in the Ottoman period monumental structures were therefore erected in such as way as to dominate the skyline as seen from the estuary. Despite the extraordinary situation of the Süleymaniye Mosque in the city's skyline among the monumental buildings on the third hill, the unsuitability of the terrain here for construction must be taken as evidence that this choice of location was no accident.

On the first hill, the Hagia Sophia or Church of the Holy Wisdom was converted into the city's great mosque and the Topkapı Palace constructed adjacent to it. The Sultan Ahmed or 'Blue' Mosque took its place directly opposite the Hagia Sophia at the beginning of the 17th century. The Nuru Osmaniye Mosque on the second hill immediately next to the Çemberlitaş, or Column  of Constantine; the Şehzade, Beyazıt and Süleymaniye Mosques on the third hill, where the first palace in the Ottoman city was built; the Fatih Mosque on the fourth hill; the Mosque of Selim I on the fifth hill and the Mosque of Mihrimah Sultan at Edirnekapı on the sixth are all monumental structures bearing the Ottoman signature. These complexes, each with its mosque, soup kitchen, religious college and hospital, defined not only the religious but also the political, social and culture centers of the city as the mosques' central domes and semi-domes rising in tiers formed virtual manmade hills of their own. Perfected in the Ottoman period by the architect known simply as Mimar Sinan, the mosque dome represents the finest feature of the city's seven hill structure.

The Ottomans created the city's image anew in monumental works of architecture that reflected their own unique culture. But this re-creation posed no obstacle to the continuation of the existing urban structure in a dialogue with the past. The Ottoman Divan Yolu, for example, followed the course of the Roman Mese. And games of jereed replaced the chariot races that had not been held on the Hippodrome for centuries. The palaces were relocated to the second and third hills. Thanks to the mosques, urban focal points were created and their environs revitalized, as, for example, in the case of the Forum Tauri, which has survived to our day as Beyazıt Square. The historical strata of Istanbul can therefore be read in its skyline, in which both the geography and the world of meaning that formed the basis of the city's founding have a share. The seven hills must therefore be sought as much in our memory and in the city's history as in the geography itself.

This article is based on two books, 'Istanbul, Cradle of Civilizations: Urban Memory/Spatial Continuities' (2007) and 'The City's Maps of Meaning: Istanbul in Engravings' (2008).