Turkey's history encapsulated in Istanbul's Maiden's Tower

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While the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque often get top billing in the tourism circuit, the Maiden's Tower, or “Kız Kulesi” in Turkish, is a popular spot that has a much deeper history than is widely known. The use of the site of the current tower began in roughly the 5th century BCE. Its history spans both empire and republic, and the tower – on a small islet in the Marmara Sea – has a storied past that runs the gamut from lighthouse to love nest. It was even featured in two James Bond films. While the myths that inspired its name typically get the most attention, the tower’s historical record is a microcosm of the city itself.

Stuff of Legends

According to one legend, the tower takes its name from the daughter of Emperor Constantine, who was made to live on the island after an oracle foretold of her death by snakebite at the age of 18. After many lonely years in the tower, the princess was visited by her father on her 18th birthday, to celebrate having outwitted the fates. However, hidden inside his gift – a basket of fruit or bouquet of flowers, depending on whom you ask – was a snake, which bit and killed the girl, just as the oracle had predicted.

Love on the Rocks

Over the course of its lifetime, the tower has also been referred to as Leander's Tower, erroneously named after the Greek myth of Hero and Leander. A Romeo and Juliet story of sorts, Hero – another emperor's daughter and a priestess of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty – fell in love with Leander, a commoner. Disapproving of the match, Hero's father imprisoned her on the island to keep them apart. Yet, with an athletic fortitude fuelled by true love, Leander would swim to the tower each night, guided by Hero's lantern. However, one night a storm raged so fiercely that Heros' flame was extinguished and Leander, unable to find his way, drowned. Upon finding her beloved's remains, Hero plunged herself into the sea, never to be seen again.

Empire Strikes Back

 While these legends add an air of mystery and romance to the tower, its historical record is no less intriguing. A structure of some kind was constructed on the island around 410 or 408 BCE by the Athenian general Alcibiades, likely serving as a survey station and Customs checkpoint for ships entering the Bosporous straight. Given the location’s unobstructed view of the Marmara Sea, the small island was ideally positioned in terms of defence.

It was to this end that in 1110 AD Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus constructed a small fortress on the islet. Accounts even detail the use of chains slung through the waters to the shoreline to prevent traffic from freely sailing through the straight. This structure would eventually serve as a prison for exiles before being used as a Byzantine garrison during the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453.

Turk Work

Under the Ottomans the tower continued to serve as a lookout and garrison, and was used by the Janissary forces for patriotic demonstrations and war games until it was damaged by an earthquake that struck the city in 1509. After being rebuilt, the structure was repurposed as a lighthouse and outfitted with a tower, castle and cistern. However, tragedy struck again in 1719, when the lighthouse caught fire. Repairs were made by the head architect of Istanbul on orders from Sultan Ahmet III, this time in a more baroque fashion. Adorned with a glass chalet, the tower stood for another century before being repurposed in the 1830s to stem a cholera epidemic in the city, sufferers were quarantined on the island and the tower was turned into a makeshift hospital. It continued to serve this purpose in 1836-37, when an outbreak of plague was reported to have killed tens of thousands in the city.

Istanbul, Not Constantinople

Over the years, the Maiden's Tower has tracked the development of the city itself – from a beacon of trade, to a garrison of empires, to tourism destination. Its place in the Turkish zeitgeist even saw it featured on the 10-lira bill until the 1980s. In 1995 the tower was privatised and converted into a restaurant, offering an unparalleled view of the city. Today, in a twist on its tragic and fabled history, the islet has become a popular wedding venue.

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The Report: Turkey 2015

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