29th May 2007 in São Paulo, Brazil. I’m listening to Radio Cultura when the daily “On This Day” feature is broadcast. Although the state sponsored radio station is completely secular, this announcer seems to have a strong Catholic background. His voice sounds mournful: “On this day in 1453 Constantinople, the greatest city in the world of the time, was lost for Christianity, never to be regained…”. Just over a month later I come to Istanbul to investigate exactly where this happened and to walk along the land walls, the Theodosian Walls, constructed during the reign of Theodosius II, in the first half of the fifth century, and which go right from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, thus sealing off Istanbul completely. Along much of their length they have been reconstructed using modern building materials, thus arousing the wrath of many conservationists, but they do give you an idea of what they originally looked like, and, along many parts they have been cleaned up, no longer serving as shelter to vagrants and the homeless. Indeed, I failed to find too much detritus along the walls: beer cans – there are not too many pubs and bars in the conservative Islamic areas through which the wall passes; but no johnnies, and certainly no used syringes. And the dead horse that had been dumped in the moat when I last passed some five years ago seemed to have been taken away.
John Freely, in Strolling through Istanbul describes the walls: The main element in the defense system was the inner wall, which was about five metres thick at the base and rose to a height of 12 metres above the city. This wall was guarded by 96 towers, 18 to 20 metres high, at an average interval of 55 metres; these were mostly square but some were polygonal. Each tower is generally divided into two floors which do not communicate with each other. The lower stories were used for storage or for guardhouses; the upper rooms were entered from the parapet walk, which communicated by staircases with the ground and with the tops of the towers, where were placed engines for hurling missiles and Greek fire at the enemy. Between the inner and outer walls there was a terrace called the peribolos, which varied from 15 to 20 metres breadth, and whose level was about five metres above that of the inner city. The outer wall, which was about two metres thick and 8.5 metres in height, also had 96 towers, alternating in position with those of the inner wall; in general these were either square or crescent-shaped in turn. Beyond this there was an outer terrace called the parateichion, bounded on the outside by the counter-scarp of the moat which was a battlement nearly two metres high. The moat itself was originally about 10 metres deep and 20 metres wide, and may have been flooded whenever the city was threatened (p.368). Seemingly impregnable…
I start at the Yedikule, the Seven Tower Castle, partly Byzantine and partly Turkish, a kind of Tower of London without the tourist glitz and Beefeaters, and indeed, on this hot summer’s day I am the only tourist here, and the tower is being dismantled from a recent rock gig. But it was used for much the same purposes as was the Tower of London. The towers were used as storage rooms for the state treasures or as dungeons. Many were executed here, including Sultan Osman, on 22 May 1622, aged 17. Evliya Çelebi gives this account of his execution: “They carried him in a cart to Yedikule where he was barbarously treated and at last most cruelly put to death by Pehlivan (the Wrestler). Whilst his body was exposed upon a mat, Kafir Aga cut off his right ear and a Janissary one of his fingers for the sake of a ring on it” (in Freely p.373).
Between the two main towers is the Golden Gate, used as a ceremonial entrance after Byzantine victories, especially after Constantinople was recaptured from the Latins in 1261.
I walk through some of the working-class Istanbul districts, quiet in the hot sun. A few stares and “What is your name?”s. Municipal service depots, mechanics, a few metalwork bucket shops and whole sections of the moat now growing vegetables. I stop for water near the Ibrahim Pasha Mosque, a small mosque designed by the most famous of all the architects, Sinan, responsible for the Blue, Fatih and Süleyman Mosques, which give Istanbul its characteristic skyline. The caretaker shows me around the octagonal mosque and the room where pre-school children have been colouring pictures. He gives me one. I tip him of course.
At Edirnekapi, or Edirne Gate, in the section of the walls formerly known as the Mesoteichion, I see the where the walls were finally breached by the Turks on 29 May 1453. This was always the most vulnerable part of the walls, as the attackers on the outside were higher than the defenders, thus having a considerable natural advantage. The charge was led by a giant Janissary called Hasan, who fought his way up onto one of the towers of the outer wall. He was slain but his companions forced their way into the city, and within hours Constantinople was lost, and Sultan Mehmet II, Mehmet the Conqueror, made his triumphal entry into the city. Evliya Çelebi, one of whose ancestors was present, describes this moment: “The Sultan then having the pontificial turban on his head and sky-blue boots on his feet, mounted on a mule and bearing the sword of Mohammed in his hand, marched in at the head of seventy or eighty thousand Moslem heroes, crying out ‘Halt not conquerors! God be praised! Ye are the conquerors of Constantinople!’”