A Mystery of Istanbul: Maiden's Tower

How many buildings are still standing that represent Istanbul? Hagia Sophia? The Blue Mosque? Topkapı Palace?


Close your eyes for a moment and think: You are a sailor, or a pirate; hundreds of years, even thousands of years ago. You are on your way to Istanbul. You passed Dardanelles; you crossed the Marmara, and got close to the Bosphorus. You are welcomed by a silhouette first. The dome of Hagia Sophia is in front of you with all its glory. On another side is the Galata Tower of the Genoese. You sail through the Bosphorus, and see what? There is a defender in the middle of the sea, inviting if you are a friend, and threatening if you are an enemy. It’s the Maiden’s Tower. When you return to your country, isn’t the Maiden’s Tower going to be the first thing to tell of who ask you where you have been and what you have seen? It is, especially if you have been told about its legends...

Pain of the admiral

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 the King of Macedonia, Philip. When Hares’ beloved wife Damalys did, he had her buried in a grave that was carved on his order within the rocks here.

Leandra’s love

According to another legend, a young man named Leandra fell in love with a girl here. While he swims all the way from the other side to meet his darling every night, the girl lit a fire over the rocks to show him the way. On a stormy night, the fire that the girl lights for Leandra fades. Leandra cannot find the rocks on which the Maiden’s Tower stands and loses his way. He is drowned in the cold and dark water. His lover cannot bear his loss and takes her own life.


The snake and death

The legend about the Byzantine era ends sadly too. Fortune tellers inform the King that “the death of his beloved daughter will be caused by a snake”. Because the King does not want his daughter to be poisoned by a snake, he has a house built on the rocks where the Maiden’s Tower stands, and locks up the princess in there. However, a young officer falls in love with the King’s daughter. One day he prepares a bunch of flowers to offer to the princess. But a snake hides within the flowers, and bites the princess, who soon dies.

And others

In a Battal Gazi legend associated with the Seljuk era, we have a ‘happy ending’. When Battal Gazi falls in love with the daughter of the Governor of Üsküdar, the Governor imprisons his daughter in a tower here. Battal Gazi hears of this, attacks the tower, and runs away with the Governor’s daughter. Evliya Çelebi’s story takes place in the Ottoman era. Çelebi writes that there was a holy man living in the Maiden’s Tower in Sultan Bayezid’s time, and he would pull the skirts of his cloak together, sit on the sea, and go to Sarayburnu every day to tutor the Sultan.

An ‘old’ friend

When we put the legends aside and look at the hard evidence, we see that the first clear information about the presence of a ‘man-made’ building on the rocks ashore Üsküdar belongs to 12th century. The records reveal that Byzantine Emperor Manuel Komnenos I had two defensive towers built on the Marmara side of the Bosphorus. One of them was where the Maiden’s Tower now stands, and the other one was on the shore of Sarayburnu. We also know today that there was even a chain extended between these towers to prevent smuggling by the sea. Byzantine chroniclers also noted that Ottoman Sultan Orhan came to Uskudar, and that Orhan’s father-in-law Kantakuzenos came to the Maiden’s Tower from the opposite side to send delegates to Sultan Orhan. There is information on a Venetian naval squad having used this place as a base at the time of the conquest of Constantinople. After the conquest, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror had a castle built on the rocks where the Maiden’s Tower is now placed.

The biggest repair work on the castle in the Ottoman era was undertaken in the time of Mahmud II (1808–1839). This restoration, which was documented in Calligrapher Rakim’s inscription and finished in 1832–1833, gave the Maiden’s Tower the shape that it has today. The tower was then surrounded with reinforced concrete in 1943. It was handed over to the Military in 1959 and kept as a radar station for some time. The Maiden’s Tower was devolved to the Maritime Enterprises of Turkey in 1982, and was even used as a cyanide depot for a while.


The ‘new’ tower

The Maiden’s Tower remained ruinous and neglected for a long time. It spent long hours alone with its guardsman. In the 80s, a holding restored the Maiden’s Tower and rented it for a long term. After a long time, people had the chance to step on the Maiden’s Tower, to see it from a close distance, to touch it...the team that realized the restoration used all the accessible data they could find, especially in university archives and libraries, and assessed all those written resources, archival records, engravings, old photographs, oral and written communications one by one. After the restoration work started, some historical discoveries that were not foreseen came to the foreground.

Long Live the Maiden’s Tower!

If you have something to eat at the lower floor of the Maiden’s Tower, which functions as a restaurant, what would you think? In the place on which you are sitting, what may have happened a thousand years ago? Are the stories true or mere legends? As there are so many legends, is there a seed of truth? Did the Maiden’s Tower see both love and war? I don’t know if you think of these things when you are having your meal in the Maiden’s Tower, but even if you don’t have a meal, what about drinking a cup of tea and watching the glorious city from the top of the tower, only to fall in love with it once again? There are motorboats from Salacak, Kabataş and Ortaköy to the ‘new’ tower. You can stop by and visit this ancient friend, so that you can witness all the legends yourself.

What do you think ?

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