Arguably one of the greatest fortifications ever built, and without doubt the most successful, the land walls of Constantinople, today's İstanbul, repelled all foreign foes for more than 1,000 years.
Completed in 413, the walls stretched some six kilometers from the Sea of Marmara to the banks of the Golden Horn, a near impregnable barrier behind which the city could breathe relatively easily, whilst outside the besieging hordes of the likes of Attila the Hun, the Avars and Persians, the Arab armies of Islam, Bulgars and Russians raged in exasperation. Cutting off the city from the rolling hills of Thrace to the west, the land walls were linked at either end by some 16 kilometers of sea walls, which ran right around the peninsula on which Constantinople, capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire, was built.
By the time the Ottoman Turks rolled up at the gates in 1453, Constantinople was a shadow of its former self, its population down from a height of half a million to around 50,000, a struggling city-state rather than an imperial capital. Up against an empire that was very much in the ascendency, that of the Ottoman Turks, wielding an army of up to 200,000 led by the redoubtable Mehmet II, the fall of the city was inevitable -- not least because advances in technology enabled the Ottomans to batter the walls with gunpowder-powered cannon shot. Even so, it took Mehmet almost two months to break down the resistance of the 8,000 defenders, a victory which earned the young sultan the sobriquet “Fatih” or “Conqueror.”
Exploring the walls today
Remarkably, the land walls are still in impressively good shape today, a testament to the men who built and rebuilt them over the centuries, and a walk along them is one of the most satisfying outings in this great city, particularly if you are the kind of person who likes to get off the beaten track and keep moderately fit in the process. Whilst it's easy enough to walk the length of the walls in a day, or even a few hours, if you want to make the most of the sights along the way it's well worth considering spreading your explorations over a couple of days.
The most straightforward way to reach the southern end of the walls is to take the regular banliyö (suburban) train from Sirkeci station to the Yedikule stop. To get a flavor of the history and cosmopolitan nature of this neighborhood, head right (east) from the station and cut north up Halit Efendi Sokak to a building locals will know best as the İmrahor Camii.
Now sadly a mere shell, this was once one of the most important Byzantine monastic complexes in Constantinople, and the church at its heart, that of St. John Stoudios, is the oldest extant in the city (463). Entry is currently not possible, but you can admire it from the outside.
Just north is the 18th-century Greek Orthodox church of St. Constantine, said to contain a holy relic in the form of an arm of the Emperor Constantine himself. To the south, back near the railway line, a skeletal metal tower heralds a church built in the 19th century for Italian Catholics but now used by Syrian Orthodox Christians who migrated to İstanbul from the Mardin region in the 1980s and 1990s.
From here, take the underpass beneath the railway and descend some steps which are actually built into the line of the Byzantine sea walls. Here there is a fine octagonal tower complete with a Greek inscription and, next to it, some tumbled gravestones inscribed with a script that will be unfamiliar to many: Armenian. Tucked into the shadow of the sea walls here is a 19th-century Armenian Apostolic church, that of St. Hovhannes.
From the Marble Tower to the Seven Towers
From just east of the church, cross busy Kennedy Caddesi by the pedestrian bridge and stroll for a kilometer along the shores of the Sea of Marmara to the southern terminus of the land walls, the Marble Tower.
A kind of imperial pavilion as well as a defensive tower at the juncture of the sea and land walls, a peep inside the half-collapsed tower reveals cisterns that once provided the garrison with water. Today, one of the wall niches is home to a vagrant, so be careful not to disturb his slumbers. Now re-cross Kennedy Caddesi at the pedestrian lights and join the outside of the land walls proper, which tower impressively above you, just inside a pleasant park.
The first point of interest is a gateway, known as the Gate of Christ after the XP monogram carved in relief over the arched entrance. Exiting the park, continue along the main road just west of the wall, past a gas station, before cutting east again, passing a Muslim cemetery, to another gate in the wall, Yedikule Kapı. Before entering the portal you'll notice a wide trench stretching away both to the south and north. This was once a moat, some 20 meters wide by 10 deep, the first of a triple line of defense. After a major quake in 447 the wall had to be rebuilt in a hurry, and at the same time the moat and an outer wall, erected between the moat and the original wall, were constructed. Today the moat is home to lovingly tended market gardens whose produce, from spinach to squash, eggplants to potatoes, is for sale from small stalls along the line of the walls.
Enter the gateway and swing south to the Yedikule Müzesi (Seven Towers Museum) fortification (open daily except Mondays; 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; TL 10). This massive and fascinating structure has evolved over the centuries to take the form you see today. Originally it was just the so-called Golden Gate, a three-arched ceremonial gateway through which emperors approached the city after a successful military campaign. Erected as a free-standing structure in the reign of Theodosius I in 390, it was incorporated into the line of the land walls in 413. Then, following the capture of the city by Mehmet II in 1453, a fortress was made by adding three towers, linked by curtain walls, to the line of the land walls, which themselves included four towers, thus giving rise to its Turkish name.
Ascend the southern of the twin towers which once flanked the Golden Gate (watch your footing, it's dark and the steps uneven) for great views down to the Sea of Marmara and along the line of the walls. Unfortunately, the four bronze elephants pulling a chariot which adorned the triumphal gateway in the Byzantine period are long gone.
Gateways, cemeteries and holy waters
If you're in need of a drink, the Son Durak (Last Stop), a couple of hundred meters west of Yedikule Kapı, is one of those salt-of-the-earth çayhanes where you can still get a refreshing glass of tea for half a lira. Back outside the gateway, turn north and follow a well-preserved stretch of wall towards Belgrat Kapı (Belgrade Gate). Here you get a real impression of the strength of the fortification, especially if you scramble down into the market gardens filling the moat and stare up at the walls towering above you -- first the outer wall, which was some eight meters tall and two-and-a-half thick, and then, rearing impressively behind it, the inner wall, a more substantial 12 meters high by five meters thick.
Continuing north on the sidewalk beside the moat, the drone of traffic on the busy highway paralleling the line of the walls ever present, you reach Belgrat Kapı. The wall here is well preserved, and you can cross the bridge across the moat, walk through the gateways through both the outer and inner walls and inside ascend steps up to the parapet walkway and, further up, to the towers flanking the entryway. There were over 90 such towers on the line of the inner wall and the same again on the outer wall, many of which have survived.
The next gate along is the well-preserved Silivri Kapı, known as the Gate of the Spring in Byzantine times. Here it's worth deviating from the line of the walls and heading into the beautifully maintained and forested cemeteries west of the highway. Follow the signs for the Gasilhane (the washing place for Muslim burials) and turn right past an Ottoman-era çeşme (spring), then left between Muslim cemeteries to the shrine-church of Zoodochus Pege, set between Armenian and Greek Orthodox burial grounds.
There has been a shrine here since the early Byzantine period, built above an ayazma or holy spring, though the present church dates back only to 1833. It's a beautifully maintained Greek Orthodox structure, very much in the neoclassical style, with a lovely courtyard, the floor of which comprises old tombstones. The main point of interest, however, is the sacred spring, reached by steps from the courtyard. The fish that swim lazily in the subterranean waters are said to be descended from miraculous fish of legend. Apparently a Greek monk, told that Constantinople had just fallen to the Turks, retorted that that was just as likely as the fish he was frying up for lunch coming back to life. At his words, the fish apparently leapt from the pan and into the spring, where they swam around quite happily.
There is a cafe here, as the shrine receives a fair few pilgrims from Greece who stock up on the holy waters, but it's better to head back to the line of walls and continue north to Mevlana Kapı. This well-preserved gateway, named after a Mevlevi dervish lodge which once existed outside the walls here, leads into a traditional quarter of the old city and, a couple of hundred or so meters in, two cheap and cheerful lunch stops. On the right, Özer Kardeşler dishes up excellent steam tray (sulu yemek) food to local workers for around TL 4 a portion, whilst opposite Mevlana Kapı Merkezefendi Köftecisi offers tender grilled meatballs with white bean salad for not that much more.
Assuming you've visited all the places mentioned here you'll likely have walked around 10 kilometers, so by the time you reach the next stop, the Panorama 1453 Museum, just short of the famous Topkapı gateway, you might be ready to hop on the T1 tram at the handy Topkapı stop and head back to the city center. Next up I'll describe walking the walls from the 1453 museum, which pays homage to the Ottoman capture of the city on May 29 of that year, to the wall's end on the shores of the Golden Horn.