[Getting to know İstanbul] Yedikule: the ‘forgotten’ fortress
The walls and fortress of Yedikule stand out against a general view of İstanbul. (Photo: Today’s Zaman)
Virtually anywhere else in the world, an historic fortification as impressive as Yedikule Hisarı, the “Fortress of the Seven Towers,” would be a highly prized, much-visited site. Yet in spite of its prodigious size, fascinatingly gruesome history stretching back to the fourth century A.D. and relatively easy access from the city center, İstanbul’s Yedikule Hisarı is sadly neglected both by its custodians (İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality) and foreign and domestic visitors. This is a shame, as in its own way Yedikule is every bit as interesting to explore as “honeypot” sites such as Topkapı Palace and the Aya Sofya — and arguably more enjoyable, given that fellow visitors are usually conspicuous only by their absence.
The best way to get to this prime example of military engineering is to take the regular suburban (banliyö) train from the former terminus of the famed Orient Express, Sirkeci, to the appropriately named Yedikule stop. The fortification, which gives its name to the atmospheric old district it quite literally towers above, lies just a few minutes’ walk to the east, through narrow streets lined with charming turn-of-the-20th-century houses. The entrance is suitably grand, with the ticket office (open Tuesday-Sunday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; TL 10) set in the shadows of the cavernous eastern gateway.
Up to the battlements
You emerge from the shadows of the gateway, blinking in the sunshine if you’re blessed with a bright day, into a vast, bare courtyard, devoid of buildings apart from the crumbling cylindrical minaret of a ruined Ottoman mosque. But any initial disappointment soon fades as you find yourself looking up in awe at the towers and curtain walls encircling the forlorn courtyard, eager to make your way (with care — the impressive flights of stone steps leading up to the parapets lack a safety rail, as do the walkways above) up onto the battlements to get the lay of the land.
Perhaps the best place to start, though, is by ascending the left-hand (southern) side of two square, marble towers flanking a now-bricked-up triple arched gateway set into the western wall of the fortification. A torch will come in handy here, as the steps twisting their way up the tower are timeworn and uneven, light at a premium. Once on top, you can clearly see the layout of the fortress and what will strike you immediately is that it is actually part of a much larger defensive system — the Land Walls of Theodosius. Completed in A.D. 413, these walls stretched from the shores of the Sea of Marmara north to the banks of the Golden Horn and cut off the peninsula on which the venerable city of Constantinople was built from the rolling hills of Thrace.
The line of the Theodosian Land Walls can still be clearly seen from your tower-top eyrie, running south for a few hundred meters before petering out at the traffic-snarled coastal highway of Kennedy Caddesi. Just beyond it the coruscating Sea of Marmara unfolds, liberally carpeted with anchored ships awaiting passage through the Bosporus. To the north, the Byzantine-era walls, peppered at regular intervals by defensive towers in various states of ruin, climb up the slopes of the old city’s sixth hill towards the Golden Horn. One of modern İstanbul’s last real vestiges of green, a swathe of Muslim and Christian cemeteries dominated by sentinel ranks of dark-green cypress trees, marches west into Thrace across the busy ring-road running parallel to the line of the walls, and a smaller oasis of cemetery green unfolds right at the feet of the twin towers flanking the gateway.
The Golden Gate
From the top of the tower you can look down at the outer face of the bricked-up, triple-arched gateway, faced with marble and embellished with late-Roman frieze work and decorative, acanthus-leaf carved stone capitals perched atop grooved pilasters. The story of Yedikule Hisarı, the “Fortress of the Seven Towers,” begins at this gateway. According to one theory, in A.D. 390, when Theodosius I was the reigning emperor, this was a triumphal arch typical of many found all over the Roman world. Then it stood in open countryside well outside the old walls of the city, astride the Via Egnatia, a crucial 1,120-kilometer-long road linking Constantinople, via Thessaloniki, with the Adriatic.
Another theory holds that the triumphal arch was built a little over two decades later, during the reign of Theodosius II. At that time, with the city growing (as it is today) at a rapid rate, a decision was made to move the line of the city’s land walls — which then stretched from today’s Atatürk/Unkapanı Bridge to somewhere not far southwest of Yenikapı) — further west and thus include more safe and secure Lebensraum for the burgeoning population of the Byzantine capital. According to this second theory, the triumphal gateway was built as an integral part of the new fortifications, the Land Walls of Theodosius.
But whatever the date of construction, it was the purpose of the gateway that was all important. When a new Byzantine emperor was appointed, he would pass through the central arch in a great ceremonial procession before making his way to the city center to be greeted by the populace and the city’s spiritual leader, the patriarch. Similarly, after a successful campaign, he would ride triumphantly through the arch into the city to be greeted by his adoring subjects. This grand entryway is known as the Golden Gate because its mighty metal gates were gilded with gold. Even more magnificent must have been the four large bronze elephants surmounting the gateway, flanked by two winged victories representing the city’s fortune.
Birth of an Ottoman fortress, death of a sultan
The rectangular twin towers (more properly known as pylons) flanking the Golden Gate formed an integral part of the Land Walls, as did two further towers. Yedikule only became the “Fortress of the Seven Towers” after the conquest of the city by the Ottoman sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, more than 1,000 years after the original construction of the Land Walls. Under his orders three massive new towers were built on the city side of the Land Walls, connected to each other and to the Land Walls by sections of curtain wall, thus making a five-sided “fortress.”
The work was completed by 1458, a pragmatic and expedient move that gave the new rulers of Constantinople a major fortification for relatively little trouble and expense. Interestingly enough, however, Yedikule Hisarı was never really used as a fortress, becoming instead a treasury, state archive and, most notoriously, a prison. The pylon to the north of the Golden Gate was a place of incarceration in the Ottoman-era and here, in 1622, Sultan Osman II was executed. Often known as Genç (Young) Osman, the well-educated and highly intelligent (he spoke several languages, including Arabic, Persian, Greek, Latin and Italian) sultan fell out of favor with the Janissaries, troops who formed his imperial guard.
Fearing a coup, the sultan ordered the closure of the coffee shops that formed their meeting places, following which the Janissaries overthrew Young Osman and carted him off from the comfort of Topkapı Palace to a dark and dismal tower in Yedikule Hisarı. According to the Ottoman Turkish traveler and writer Evliya Çelebi, the young sultan’s demise was painful as he was “put to death in the Fortress of the Seven Towers, by the compression of his testicles, a mode of execution reserved for the Ottoman emperors.” The 17-year-old ruler also suffered the indignity of having his right ear and ring-finger hacked off.
Incarcerated ambassadors and a guardian angel
Also executed in Yedikule was the last Byzantine ruler of Trebizond (Trabzon), David Megas Komnenos, and King Simon I of Georgia, as well as many out-of-favor Ottoman notables. The easternmost, Ottoman-era tower adjoining the entranceway to the fortification was known as the Tower of the Ambassadors, as foreign envoys, whose masters had upset the Ottoman sultans, were often imprisoned here. The agonized graffiti of some of these foreign prisoners is said to embellish the walls of the tower, but locating it is a difficult proposition. It is, though, possible to climb up steep spiral steps set in the walls of the tower to the parapet walkway — again a torch will come in useful. The last prisoner was incarcerated here in 1837. Later in the 19th century, the houses that accommodated Yedikule’s garrison were pulled down, accounting for the courtyard’s emptiness today — the minaret of the mosque that served what must have been a substantial community being the sole surviving trace of its existence.
Yedikule Hisarı may lack the grand location and architectural cohesiveness of a slightly earlier Ottoman fortification in İstanbul, Rumeli Hisarı, laced along a steep hillside above the Bosporus, but its history is far longer and more interesting. It’s also much easier to get to — and once here you can explore not only the fortress but also the Land of Walls of Theodosius and the quaint old district of Yedikule.
Before scrambling down from the battlements of this curious Byzantine-Ottoman hybrid, it’s worth pondering on a tall Greek tale about the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologos. Fighting to the death on May 29, 1453, as Ottoman troops breached the Land Walls a few kilometers to the north of Yedikule, he was saved by an angel, turned into marble and laid to rest in a cave near the Golden Gate. Here he awaits resurrection, following which he’ll lead the Byzantine Christian re-conquest of the city.
Unfortunately since the penning of this article Yedikule Hisarı has become closed to visitors until further notice. Please check with authorities before visiting.