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BLOG The Legendary Maiden’s Tower of Istanbul

15 August 2016 / Culture

Maiden Tower

One of the most iconic images of Istanbul has to be the Kız Kulesi Üsküdar, otherwise known as Maiden’s Tower or Leander’s Tower depending on which legendary story you choose to believe. Situated as a landmark between Europe and Asia, the tower sits on a small rocky islet in the middle of the mighty Bosphorus river. It is a tower which has witnessed many ages, many civilisations and many cultures, but most importantly, many romances. A small and humble monument among the dominating architecture of Istanbul, it is the intrigue, the legends and its strategic importance which bring people from all over the world to Istanbul to appreciate its story. The tower is one of the most romantic settings in the world with its heartbreaking mythical history and exciting modern tales. It is a place that continues to tell a story with every visitor that makes the intrepid boat ride across the strait. Visit the stunning Maiden’s Tower of Istanbul and create your own romantic tale.

The History

The tower has existed in many forms since general Alcibiades’ naval victory at Cyzicus in 410 AD. He built a custom station for ships coming from the Black Sea on a small rock in front of Chrysopolis, today’s Üsküdar on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, where the Maiden’s Tower is located, mostly used as a toll station. In 1110 AD, Byzantine Emperor Manuel Komnenus built two defensive towers in the Bosphorus, one where the Maiden’s Tower now stands and the other on the European shore of Sarayburnu. From the wooden tower of Üsküdar, an iron chain was stretched across to the Sarayburnu tower with the intention of preventing smugglers from causing trouble. The islet of the Maiden’s Tower was connected to the Asiatic shore by a defense wall, the remains of which are still visible.

During the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the tower was home to a Byzantine garrison and subsequently was used as a watchtower by the Ottoman Turks during the reign of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. The tower was sadly destroyed during the earthquake of 1509 and later burned down in 1721. The surrounding walls were repaired in 1731 and 1734 and in 1763 the mighty tower was rebuilt in stone and used as a lighthouse to guide ships on the Bosphorus in from the Black Sea and away from the rocky crag that it sat on. From 1829, the tower was used as a quarantine station and in 1832 was restored by Sultan Mahmud II. Restored again by the harbour authority in 1945, the military owned the islet for a while and the tower was kept as a radar station for some time. In 1982, the Maiden’s Tower was devolved to the Maritime Enterprises of Turkey and was even used as a cyanide depot for a while. Finally it was restored again in 1998 in preparation for its starring role in the James Bond movie ‘The World is Not Enough’. Steel supports were later added around the ancient tower as a precaution after the 17th of August 1999 earthquake.

The Legends

One of the oldest stories about the Maiden’s Tower dates back to the period when Istanbul, or Byzantium as it was called at that time, was under the sovereignty of Athens. According to this story, the Kingdom of Athens sent 40 ships under the command of Admiral Hares to protect Byzantium against the possibility of an attack by King Philip of Macedonia. The Admiral’s beautiful wife, Damalys accompanied him but tragically took ill and died. Hares had her buried in a grave that was carved on his order within the rocks here, an altar constructed on the rocky islet, upon which the Maiden’s Tower was built.

Battal Gazi, a mythical and saintly Muslim figure, a warrior from Anatolia and a spirited in Turkey’s modern day urban culture, has his own romantic connections to the Maiden’s Tower. Gazi once fell in love with a beautiful maiden, the daughter of the Governor of Üsküdar. The Governor was extremely unhappy with the idea of his daughter being whisked away by this incredulous carrier and chose to imprison her in a tower in an attempt to put a stop to the love affair between them. When Battal Gazi heard of the unfair imprisonment of his loved one, he and his men attacked the tower and rescued the maiden. In a moment of victory, Gazi mounted his horse hauling his lover behind him and rode off into the sunset. The famous Turkish expression, “he who takes the horse got by Üsküdar”, is taken from this infamous legend.

Evilya Çelebi, the Ottoman traveller and author of travelogue ‘Seyahatname’ or ‘Book of Travel’ has his own story about the Maiden’s Tower which takes place in the Ottoman era. Çelebi wrote that there was once a holy man living in the Maiden’s Tower, during Sultan Bayezid’s rule. While he resided in the tower, each day he would pull the skirts of his cloak together, take position in a small boat and travel over to Sarayburnu on the European shores every day to tutor the Sultan.

One of the most infamous and most likely incorrect legends of the tower stem from Greek mythology, the story of Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite who dwelt in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (today’s Dardanelles), and Leander, a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the strait. It was this legend that gave the Maiden’s Tower its second name, Leander’s Tower. Leander completely fell in love with Hero and to prove his love, he would swim across the Hellespont every night, just to be with her. To aid him, Hero would light a lamp at the top of her tower to guide his way. An innocent love at first, eventually Hero Succumbed to Leander’s advances and to his argument that Aphrodite, as the goddess of love, would scorn the worship of a virgin. Hero allowed him to make love to her and a long hot summer of romantic trysts began. But one stormy winter night, Leander struggled against the vicious waves of the waters and the storm cruel blew out Hero’s light. Leander tragically lost his way and was drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she realised that life without her true love Leander would be unbearable. She threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him.

The legend of Hero and Leander is a famous story, recited again and again in music, literature and culture. As though the story’s connection with the Maiden’s Tower wasn’t enough, this tragic love story has become the subject of many well known cultural works across the ages. Shakespeare, no stranger to tragic love stories, paid homage to the lovers in his plays ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ and ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. Poet and Shakespeare’s rival, Christopher Marlowe began an expansive version of the narrative which was later completed by George Chapman. Composer Schumann is said to have perceived his “In der Nacht” from ‘Phantasiestucke’ as depicting the story of Hero and Schiller wrote the ballad ‘Hero und Leander’ based on the tale. Handel’s 1707 solo cantata in Italian, ‘Ero e Leandro’, is written about the two lovers and Rudyard Kipling chose to start his poem “A Song of Travel” with words: “Where’s the lamp that Hero lit/Once to call Leander home?” Sadly, this legend cannot be true, or at least the details have got confused over the ages. The Dardenelles where this story is said to have occurred, connects the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean Sea. The Bosphorus, home to the Maiden’s Tower, connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea.

The most popular legend of the Maiden’s Tower is about an emperor and a fortune teller. The Byzantine emperor had a much loved daughter who was eternally precious to him. One day, an oracle professed that she would be killed by a venomous snake on her 18th birthday. The emperor took it upon himself to do whatever he could to overcome the oracles predictions and vowed to protect his daughter from death. The emperor had a tower built in the middle of the Bosphorus, believing that if she was away from the mainland, no snake could come close to her. He surmised that his daughter would remain in this tower until her 18th birthday when they had defied her promised death. The only visitor that she would be allowed would be her loving father.

As a gift on her 18th birthday, the emperor brought her a basket of exotic and sumptuous fruits. Delighted that they had been able to prevent the prophecy, his daughter reached into the basket, salivating and desperate to eat the delicious fruit. Just as she placed her hand in the basket, an asp that had been hiding among the fruit bit the young princess and she died in her father’s arms, just as the oracle had predicted. There have since been no sightings of snakes on the islet, but the Maiden’s Tower keeps a basket of fruit on a table by the entrance as a stark reminder of the fateful legend that bestows the place. 

The Tower Today

Today, the Maiden’s Tower is home to an upmarket restaurant which serves traditional Turkish foods alongside some international favourites. Visitors can enjoy breakfast before noon, lunch or drinks during the day or an exquisite dinner by night. The price tag may be a little steep in comparison with mainland restaurants, but you are paying for the special location, the spine-tingling history and the incredible view. The islet also has a museum which is free to visit and worth investigating before or after your meal.

The infamous tower has also become something of a star internationally, with many film and television roles in recent decades. The tower was most famously featured in the 1999 Bond film, ‘The World is Not Enough’ starring Pierce Brosnan, a role that was surely bestowed upon the iconic tower after its successful appearance in the 1963 Bond movie ‘From Russia With Love’. It’s appearance in the 60s was as a mere backdrop, but clearly its beauty and talent as a location was just a starring role waiting to happen. 2007 brought yet another film appearance for the tower in the action thriller ‘Hitman’. She was also heavily featured in the Turkish drama programme Kurtlar Vadisi and was a star location in the video game ‘Assassin’s Creed: Revelations” where it is the location of one Masyaf key that the playable character must collect to complete the game.

Much loved by the Turks, the tower was depicted on the reverse of the Turkish 10 lira banknotes of 1966-1981, a reminder of a piece of romance among the bustling city of Istanbul. Should you wish to make your own slice of romantic history while in Istanbul, the tower is accessible by boats from Salacak on the Asian side or from Kabataş on the European Side, on the Bosphorus waterfront at the end of the funicular line from Taksim Square. The journey takes approximately 10 minutes from Kabataş and less than a minute from Üsküdar. Thought today to be a lucky charm of love, if romance is what you are searching for, the Maiden’s Tower could be your perfect aid. If the tower fails to bring you what you are looking for, it can certainly guarantee that you will fall in love with Istanbul as you gaze upon the city’s grand skyline from its watch tower.


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