Greek Fire and Turkish cannon
Having “bigged-up” the land walls in the first line of this feature, it may seem paradoxical to begin our sightseeing jaunt at a museum that pays homage to the one occasion in over 1,000 years of history that the walls failed to repel an external foe of the Byzantine inhabitants of the city, but Panorama 1453 (daily 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., TL 10, www.panoramikmuze.com) really is a must-see. Why? Because it brings alive the landmark 1453 siege of the city of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks, led by Sultan Mehmet II, in a way that no amount of reading about the events leading up to the capture of the city on May 29, 1453, can do. The centerpiece of the museum is a large dome, skillfully painted in an eye-catching 360 degree panorama, of the walls under attack by young Mehmet.
There are over 10,000 painted figures in the stunning scene, both besiegers and the besieged, not to mention horses, cannon, great flaming balls of Greek Fire and, of course, the main event, the walls themselves -- cracking and crumbling under the strain of constant cannon fire and the work of mole-like sappers. Just in front of the viewing platform, from which visitors (mostly Turks rather than foreign visitors) gaze in awe at the entrancing panorama, a life-like tableau of the besieging Ottoman forces adds depth to the display -- and provides a great backdrop for visitors to have their photos taken against. My only gripe about this fine addition to İstanbul's attractions (it opened in 2009) is that the informative display boards preceding the main event in the domed room are in Turkish only, and the audio-guides in English, available for TL 5, pretty useless.
A wooden mosque and the Gate of the Cannon Ball
Before rejoining the lines of walls at Topkapı, it's well worth cutting diagonally across the heavily landscaped grounds of the open area in which the museum is situated, the Topkapı Kültür Parkı, to an absolute peach of a mosque, that of Takkeci İbrahim Çavuş. Although now hemmed in by modern urban clutter, stepping inside this mosque, built in 1492, transports you back to a more pastoral era, when the mosque stood well outside one of the main gates through the land walls, Topkapı. Then it would have been surrounded by the pleasant green fields of the city's Thracian hinterland, and its rural roots are reflected in a gorgeous wooden dome and galleries, all intricately carved and gilded. It provides a real contrast to the better known stone-built mosques of the city, and a real bonus is the panels of finest period İznik tiles adorning the prayer wall. The founder of the mosque, İbrahim, was a takkeci, or maker of the conical felt hats worn by dervishes who, according to legend, built it with a bag of gold he miraculously found on the site.
Returning to the line of walls just north of busy Millet Caddesi, traffic roaring either side of the T1 tramline in its center, the first point of interest is Topkapı itself. The famous Gate of the Cannon Ball pierces the wall close to one of the highest points of the land walls, on the edge of a steep valley, that of the ancient Lycus River, now buried beneath another major thoroughfare cutting through the line of the walls, Adnan Menderes Caddesi. Looking north from this spot one can see how the walls dip down into the valley before rising up the far side of the valley to another hill. With the top of the land walls actually below that of the besiegers, it's easy to see why Mehmet II chose to mass his artillery in the siege of 1453 here. It was also here, on the morning of May 29, 1453, that the Ottomans finally forced their way into the city, a fact commemorated by a plaque on the outer wall of the gate. More prosaically, between Millet Caddesi and the gate is the excellent Fatih Belediyesi Topkapı Sosyal Tesisleri, a perfect place to grab a glass of tea or bite to eat before dropping into the Lycus Valley.
Into the valley
The walls are badly damaged in the valley because of the hammering they received in the spring of 1453, and you have to negotiate busy Adnan Menderes Caddesi by using the underpass that leads to the M1 Metro line, but it is still enjoyable to stroll along the outside of the walls here. One minor point of interest north of this major thoroughfare is what looks like a bridge crossing the moat and disappearing into the line of walls. This was once an aqueduct bringing water from Thrace, water that in the Byzantine and much of the Ottoman periods would have found its way into the great cisterns dotted across the old city, the best known of which is, of course, the Yerebatan Sarnıcı (Basilica Cistern). The posh new villas visible on the right, tucked behind the wall as you rise up the far side of the valley, have replaced -- amidst great controversy -- the wooden houses until very recently inhabited by the city's oldest Romany community, Sulukule.
Keep going until you reach well-preserved Edirnekapı, known as the Gate of Charisisus in the Byzantine period. This was the main gate of Christian Constantinople, as here the Mese, the great “middle way” running right through the city all the way to the cathedral of Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya), cut through the walls. For today's predominantly Muslim Turkish population, it is better known as the gate by which the youthful Sultan Mehmet II made his triumphal entry into the city -- as at Topkapı an event commemorated by a modern plaque on the exterior of the gate.
Just inside the gate, and dominating the city from the highest of the old city's seven hills (the sixth, 77 meters above seal level) is the beautiful Mihrimah Camii. This mid-16th century delight, commissioned by Süleyman the Magnificent's favorite daughter, Mihrimah (who was married to his grand vizier, Rüstem Paşa), has been recently restored to its former glory. The mosque, by that doyen of Ottoman architects, Sinan, is delightfully simple in composition. The high central dome presides over a square prayer hall, formed from four arches, each filled with stone wallwork (tympana). Each tympanum is pierced with triple rows of arched windows, flooding the interior with light, giving an almost unparalleled feeling of space.
Palaces, martyrs and icons
From Mihrimah Camii it's only about a half hour straight walk north to the wall's end on the Golden Horn. Avoiding the temptation to visit the wonderful Kariye Museum, which I described in some detail in a previous feature, instead ascend, with care, up steps leading to the parapet for fine panoramic views across the old city, before continuing north to the Tekfur Saray. In the late Byzantine period this was probably an annex of the Blachernae Palace, an imperial residence built into the line of the walls just to the south and now almost totally lost. The Tekfur Sarayı (Palace of the Sovereign), after the Ottoman conquest variously a zoo, a tile factory, a brothel and a poorhouse, is currently under restoration, but its fine facade, with alternating bands of pale stone and red brick, can still be seen. It also looks over a welcome working men's çayhane and an open area which becomes, every Saturday, a pigeon fanciers' market. The birds are put through their paces for prospective buyers, tumbling and “clapping” their wings, and often change hands for hundreds of dollars.
From the Tekfur Sarayı onwards, the walls become rather confused, and the triple line of moat, outer and inner wall that you've been following from the shores of the Sea of Marmara becomes a single wall, bulging out to the west. Following the inside of the walls here, you'll reach Eğri Kapı, the Crooked Gate, just outside of which is a tomb said to belong to one Hazret Hafiz, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, martyred in the first Arab siege of the city back in the late seventh century. Continuing on the inside of the walls, you'll walk through a fascinating area of little gardens and tumble-down houses (though the area is about to receive a massive makeover and will inevitably lose much of its character and charm), with the main points of interest being a small Sinan mosque, the İvazefendi Camii, and the (closed for restoration) Anemas Zindanları, the substructure of the once-magnificent Blachernae Palace.
The last sight before the Golden Horn is the church of Panaya Blachernae. Set in a large, walled compound, what you see today is fairly recent. This was, however, once one of the holiest churches in Byzantine Constantinople, as it was said to contain the robe and mantle of the Virgin Mary and was built over a holy spring (ayazma). Much of its importance stemmed from the fact it held an unusual icon of the Virgin, where she stands with both hands turned up in supplication. This icon was paraded along the land walls in A.D. 626 when the city was under siege by the Avars. The attackers miraculously dispersed on seeing the icon, thus imbuing the church that contained it with a newfound importance and attracting funding from powerful Byzantine notables, including Emperor Justinian himself. The church burnt to the ground in 1434 and was rebuilt in its present form in 1867. It still attracts Orthodox Christian pilgrims to its sacred spring, visible just off the nave of the church, and is one of the few Greek Orthodox churches left in the city reliably open to visitors.
From the church it's just a few minutes to the wall's end, where it's worth walking around to the view the outer face of the fortifications, where Greek inscriptions are clearly visible in the walls. Across the busy highway is the Ayvansaray ferry terminal, from where you can catch a boat down the Golden Horn (Haliç) to Eminönü, Karaköy or even Üsküdar for TL 3 (see www.sehırghatları.com.tr for ferry times -- roughly hourly).