When visiting Istanbul, it is easy to believe that the only interesting things to experience are in Sultanahment or Istiklal as that is where practically all the tourists are hanging out. However, that is so very much not the case, especially if you have even a smidgen of an adventurous bone in your body. One place off the beaten path that is worth checking out is the old city walls. And to me, the time to see the walls is now – right now they are a mix of “ancient falling apart” and restored. The mix is an intriguing one, giving you a sense of history and a sense of what they looked like in their prime. One day, however, all the salvageable parts of the walls will be totally fixed and the rest probably destroyed for ‘safety’s sake’ and/or city expansion. And at that point, if you’re like me and are not much of a fan of complete restoration, they won’t be as interesting to see.
The city walls of Istanbul were built in the 4th and 5th centuries, but of course, over time they had been expanded from their original size. The walls were originally built by Constantine the Great and extended by other rulers such as Theodosius II. The limestone and brick walls range in height up to 12 meters tall. The walls were instrumental in the survival of the Byzantine Empire as over and over, the city was besieged by groups such as the Arabs and Bulgars. But they were not totally impenetrable as the city did eventually fall to the Ottoman army in 1453. Mother Nature also had a hand in messing with the walls – various earthquakes over the years were strong enough to shake apart sections and their towers.
Today, the remains of the walls of Istanbul run through various parts of the city, with chunks of it bisected by roads and buildings. A modern-day restoration project started up in the 1980s, funding coming from UNESCO. However, the project was a disaster as it was accused of focusing on the superficial fix and lack of care in preserving historical evidence. The fiasco was exposed by the 1999 earthquake which caused the so-called new and improved walls to collapse while the original sections remained perfectly fine. In 2008, the World Monuments Fund put the walls on its Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world.
One of the best places to see the old city walls is in Edirnekapi (kapi means gate), near Chora Church. At this portion of the wall, you can even see the Byzantine palace of Tekfur Saray (Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenetus). There isn’t much of it left but it is currently being restored – personally, of what I saw from the outside (it isn’t open yet, as of 2014, and it doesn’t look like it will be open any time soon), I didn’t like it. It looks too…perfect and too…smooth. I don’t like it when restorations take away the age of something. It almost feels like they’re erasing the history of a place. Anyway, this particular palace was the emperor’s palace from the late 12th to early 13th centuries, the last days of the Byzantine Empire. It was part of the Blachernae Palace complex. Once it was taken over by the Ottomans, its use was decidedly less imperial. It became the following: a menagerie belonging to the sultan, a brothel, a pottery workshop, a bottle factory, and a Jewish poorhouse. By the 1700s, it was abandoned. It was officially closed in 2006. Apparently, its future is to be an exhibition space and conference centre.
Wandering around the walls in this area is pretty cool. People live here under the shadows of the walls, blanketed by crumbling history. There are a couple spots from which you can climb the walls. Warning – this is not for the faint of heart. Climbing the walls isn’t exactly what I’d call safe and if you fall, there probably isn’t anyone you can sue. One part to climb is practically vertical and there are no handholds other than the steps themselves. If you thought going up was bad, just wait until you have to climb back down… One good thing about this area being off the tourist trail is the lack of tourists – you can take your sweet time climbing those stairs and no pressure to go quickly. So you’ll probably survive those stairs if you’re careful and take your time. The views are worth it, though. The city is literally spread out at your feet with the Golden Horn glimmering in the distance. It is a fantastic way to get an idea of why the walls were necessary and how they have been part of everyday life of Istanbul for the past 1600 years.
- The walls can attract the unsavory types and the homeless probably because they provide out-of-the-way shelter with its various nooks, crannies, and alcoves. During the day, you may get someone asking you if you want a shoeshine or if you can give him money for his kids back home in Ankara. I do not suggest visiting this area at night. During the day, if you’re alone, just make sure you pay attention to your surroundings.
- After climbing the walls, there are two cafes nearby to have a snack/drink. A nice way to relax with a cold drink, in the shade of both an umbrella and history.
- Combine your visit with Chora Church and the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque and you’ll have an excellent day of exploration touching up on history, art, and culture.
How do you feel about restoration projects that make a historical site look new again?