Two Hours On The City’s Land Walls

What would you say to exploring the northwest facade and environs of the Istanbul Land Walls, which ushered in a new age when they were stormed for the last time in 1453, a thousand years after they were first erected? Here’s a two-hour walk from Edirnekapı, where Mehmed the Conqueror entered the city, to Kariye.

Its land walls have a crucial place in Istanbul’s history. Built in the 5th century by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II, they awoke to a day of no return on the morning of May 29, 1453. These walls, which for a thousand years had stood up to so many sieges, fires and earthquakes, were poised on the brink of a new age at the hands of a new young ruler. Eastern Rome was history. The first person to perform the Islamic prayers in the Hagia Sophia, Mehmed was soon known as The Conqueror.  Silent witnesses of this glorious past, the walls follow the perimeter of Istanbul’s Historic Peninsula, a Unesco World Cultural Heritage. Eğrikapı, Edirnekapı, Sulukulekapı, Topkapı, Mevlanakapı, Silivrikapı, Belgradkapı and Yedikulekapı... Each one of these great gates in the land walls, which stretch for 5,632 meters from the shores of the Marmara to the Golden Horn, is like a direct conduit into the soul of the city. We enter the city at Edirnekapı, where Mehmed the Conqueror entered and set up his command headquarters. The area behind the walls awaits us with all its surprises.

A stream once flowed near Edirnekapı, which was known as Porta Harisius in the Byzantine era. Perhaps for that reason the land walls are at their lowest here. The road (today’s Fevzipaşa Caddesi) into the city center from this gate, through which goods and travelers arrived from Thrace, was a major market center in the past with blacksmiths, saddlers, coffeehouses and soup kitchens. Immediately inside the walls was one of the largest open-air water storage depots of the Byzantine period. Vefa Stadium stands today on the site of this giant cistern. You will encounter a building by the Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan on a square just inside the walls at Edirnekapı: the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque Complex, built for the daughter of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Conspicuous for its 35-meter-high dome and marble pulpit, it is one of Mimar Sinan’s loveliest monuments. The stencil work on the interior was done in the period of Abdülhamid I after the mosque was damaged in two earthquakes.

Heading back to the center, you’ll see signs directing you to the Kariye Museum. This building, a 5th century Byzantine monastery, was converted into a mosque in the 16th century by Atik Ali Paşa. Most of the mosaics and frescoes inside the Kariye, which was converted into a museum in 1947, date from the 14th century. In the surrounding area with its old wood-frame Istanbul houses with cantilevered balconies, you will find restaurants where you can taste outstanding examples of Turkish and Ottoman cuisine. If you head from Kariye up the hill to the left, you will see the intact sections of the Tekfur Saray (Palace of the Porphyrogenitus) abutting the land walls. Also known as the Palace of the Sovereign, this three-story structure has an important place in art history as the only Byzantine palace still standing today. The palace, which offers a magnificent view of the city, served variously as a tile factory a after the conquest. Rumor - admittedly unconfirmed - has it that the famous Kashoggi diamond on display at Topkapı Palace was found here among the ruins of the Tekfur. And why not? Is not Istanbul a city fairly bursting with cultural gems?  

The conquest of Istanbul is depicted in a special three-dimensional panorama to the strains of an Ottoman marching band and the Muslim call to prayer as well as the boom of cannons and neighing of horses at a venue called Panorama 1453 History Museum.  Upwards of 10,000 figures were used in the visual, which was drawn on a hemispherical dome 38 meters in diameter.  Located opposite the land walls at Topkapı and Edirnekapı, this the only panoramic domed museum of its kind in the world. For information:

Wrire: Melih Uslu Photos: Ahmet Bilal Arslan