The Maiden’s Tower Speaks

If you want to know Istanbul well you have to listen, for it has things to tell you. Evolving in the languages of the region over the centuries, stories, fairy tales and legends have come to anchor off our shores, as if to wait for other times.

What sort of image does the name Istanbul conjure up in your mind? You might say that everyone sees different images - different snapshots - depending on the time in which they live. This city, which has produced several languages, religions and civilizations in its 2700 years, naturally expects many different pictures to be drawn of it. What’s more, there is no one, single Istanbul. In order to see the reality - even more, to feel it deep down inside - you have to take long walks in its old streets, in the neighborhoods and districts where people live and breathe who view the city with different eyes. But despite this inevitable reality, one image seems to stand out. It is a picture of the Historic Peninsula. It may even strike you as the city’s most potent symbol. History talks, and the Historic Peninsula talks too. Its Seven Hills, Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet and Süleymaniye Mosques, Topkapı Palace, all with their lights that change color with the season and time of day. And perhaps, even now, that is where the real Istanbul exists. Not only in its monuments that have stood the test of time, but also in the history it harbors within it.

To see the city better, you need to expand your angle of vision slightly, starting from here so you can see the Galata Tower. Then another, smaller tower, perched on a rock at the point where the Bosphorus meets the Sea of Marmara, will wink at you from the depths of history. You will have spotted it by now, the Maiden’s Tower. But if you want to get to know the city better, you have to listen to it as well, for it has things to tell you. Stories, fairy tales, legends have all evolved in the languages of this region over the centuries and come to anchor off our shores, as if to wait for other times.

Like many old cities, Istanbul, too, loves to tell and preserve legends. Nor is there any questioning their truth or falsity. That’s what makes them legends, isn’t it? From Argus navigating the shores of the Bosphorus with the Golden Fleece in tow and the mysteries concealed in the Hagia Sophia to the city’s as yet unplumbed subterranean passages and the treasures lurking at the bottom of the Golden Horn, myriad stories have emerged from the pens of writers with lively imaginations.

The stories told by the Maiden’s Tower are painfully sad, they touch a person’s heart, for all involve a tragic love story. To what extent the stories told actually took place is unknown. No matter. Each one is real, and sufficiently profound and meaningful as to be worth believing. If the languages of this region came together in impossible love stories, it seems they might provide some important clues to the city’s identity.
One legend, which has also found its way into mythology, survives only in the traces of a struggle waged in the name of love. A priestess in the Temple of Aphrodite, Hero is forbidden to fall in love. But she meets young Leander at a dinner, and at that moment begins to challenge fate. It is a moment when to challenge becomes her destiny. Nights of passion and love follow.  To reach Hero, Leander plunges into the cold nocturnal waters and swims to the tower, where Hero has lit a fire to illumine the sea. They continue to meet illicitly for several nights, the fire illuminating not only their love but the path on which they have embarked for its sake. But one night while Leander is swimming to Hero a wind comes up and extinguishes the flame. The sea is suddenly engulfed in darkness. Unable to reach the tower where his sweetheart awaits him, Leander loses his way, dragged into the dark by the current. His body is found the next morning at daybreak. When she sees it, Hero is unable to bear the pain and throws herself into the water, ending her life. Is it Aphrodite’s curse?  Love and death have been written now on the waters of this city.

Such is one of the legends. There is another story, another legend, that found its way into Turkish Literature and was traditionally told in the city’s coffeehouses. According to this legend, a fortune teller one day tells the sultan that his daughter is going to die of a snake bite. Upon which, the potentate has a tower erected in the middle of the Bosphorus and locks his daughter up inside it in the belief that no snake can cross the water alive. But fate is ineluctable, and one day a snake concealed in a basket of grapes sent to the tower from the mainland fulfills the fortune teller’s prediction, and despite all efforts to save her the young girl dies.

We learn about a third legend from the 17th century Ottoman traveler, Evliya Çelebi. In this story, the daughter of a local Byzantine ruler, the Tekfur of Scutari, has been incarcerated in a tower, possibly for her own protection. Along comes Battal Gazi, who, with the help of his seven henchmen, kidnaps the girl and makes off with his treasure. The expression, ‘The horse thief has passed through Üsküdar’, meaning “It’s too late now”, is said to have originated from this legend. As you see, these stories always involve a waiting maiden doomed to her fate and a man who comes from outside and challenges that fate. Such were the values of the age.

If we look at other events in history, we see that this tower of love and fate has served now as defense tower, now as customs house, now as monumental tomb. Sometimes the records corroborate the story that is told; at other times, the events that transpired have survived only by being passed from language to language. The tower is also said to have been heavily damaged, even leveled, by earthquakes a few times in its history, even to have burned to the ground, but always to have been rebuilt with great urgency. This is, after all, a history going back some five hundred years B.C.

Sunay Akın once declared it a ‘republic of poetry’. And what could be more appropriate for the island where this little tower rises, a tower that has undergone so many transformations, a tower that has come down to us steeped in so many stories and legends, that has always gazed at us from the sea, from perhaps the city’s most beautiful vantage point? Who knows, maybe there are still some who believe in that dream. As for what I’ve written here, I learned most of it from Çelik Gülersoy.

If you happen to be passing that way, have a look at this small island and try to remember some of the stories I’ve told here. Viewed from Salacak, the sunset is lovely behind the tower. When you see it, you will be feel more deeply the poetry of living in this city.